(born April 16, 1889, London, England—died December 25, 1977, Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland) British comedian, producer, writer, director, and composer who is widely regarded as the greatest comic artist of the screen and one of the most important figures in motion-picture history.
Named after his father, a British music hall entertainer, Chaplin spent his early childhood with his mother, the singer Hannah Hall. He made his own stage debut at age five, filling in when his mother lost her voice in mid-song. The mentally unstable Hall was later confined to an asylum, whereupon Charlie and his half-brother Sydney were sent to a series of bleak workhouses and residential schools. Using his mother’s show-business contacts, Charlie became a professional entertainer in 1897 when he joined the Eight Lancashire Lads, a clog-dancing act. His subsequent stage credits included a small role in William Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes and a stint with the vaudeville act Casey’s Court Circus. In 1908 he joined the Fred Karno pantomime troupe, quickly rising to star status as The Drunk in the ensemble sketch A Night in an English Music Hall.
While touring America with the Karno company in 1913, Chaplin was signed to appear in Mack Sennett’s Keystone comedy films. Though his first Keystone one-reeler, Making a Living (1914), was not the failure that historians have claimed, Chaplin’s initial screen character, a mercenary dandy, did not show him to best advantage. Ordered by Sennett to come up with a more workable screen image, Chaplin improvised an outfit consisting of a too-small coat, too-large pants, floppy shoes, and a battered derby. As a finishing touch, he pasted on a postage-stamp mustache and adopted a cane as an all-purpose prop. It was in his second Keystone film, Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), that Chaplin’s immortal screen alter ego, “the Little Tramp,” was born.
In truth, Chaplin did not always portray a tramp; in many of his films his character was employed as a waiter, store clerk, stagehand, fireman, and the like. His character might be better described as the quintessential misfit: shunned by polite society, unlucky in love, jack-of-all-trades but master of none. He was also a survivor, forever leaving past sorrows behind, jauntily shuffling off to new adventures. The Tramp’s appeal was universal: audiences loved his cheekiness, his deflation of pomposity, his casual savagery, his unexpected gallantry, and his resilience in the face of adversity. Some historians have traced the Tramp’s origins to Chaplin’s Dickensian childhood, while others have suggested that the character had its roots in the motto of Chaplin’s mentor, Fred Karno: “Keep it wistful, gentlemen, keep it wistful.” Whatever the case, within months after his movie debut, Chaplin was the screen’s biggest star.
His 35 Keystone comedies can be regarded as the Tramp’s gestation period, during which a caricature became a character. The films improved steadily once Chaplin became his own director. In 1915 he left Sennett to accept a $1,250-weekly contract at Essanay Studios. It was there that he began to inject elements of pathos in his comedy, notably in such shorts as The Tramp (1915) and Burlesque on Carmen (1916). He moved on to an even more lucrative job ($670,000 per year) at the Mutual Company Film Corporation. There, during an 18-month period, he made the 12 two-reelers that many regard as his finest films, among them such gems as One A.M. (1916), The Rink (1916), The Vagabond (1916), and Easy Street (1917).
While working for First National Pictures (1918–19), Chaplin made the three-reel Shoulder Arms (1918), the four-reel The Pilgrim (1923), and his first starring feature, The Kid (1921). Some have suggested that the increased dramatic content of these films is symptomatic of Chaplin’s efforts to justify the praise lavished upon him by the critical intelligentsia. A painstaking perfectionist, he began spending more and more time on the preparation and production of each film. From 1923 through 1929 he issued only three features: A Woman of Paris (1923), which he directed but did not star in; The Gold Rush (1925), widely regarded as his masterpiece; and The Circus (1928), an underrated film that may rank as his funniest. All three were released by United Artists, the company cofounded in 1919 by Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith.
As the Little Tramp, Chaplin had mastered the subtle art of pantomime, and the advent of sound gave him cause for alarm. After much hesitation, he released his 1931 feature City Lights as a silent, despite the ubiquity of talkies after 1928; his gamble paid off, and the film was a success. His next film, Modern Times (1936), was a hybrid, essentially a silent with music, sound effects, and brief passages of dialogue. In this film Chaplin gave his Little Tramp a voice, as he performed a gibberish song; perhaps significantly, it was the character’s farewell to the screen. Chaplin’s first full talkie was The Great Dictator (1940), a devastating lampoon of Adolf Hitler that proved to be the comedian’s most profitable film.
Throughout his career, Chaplin’s offscreen activities had stirred up controversy. In 1918 he married 16-year-old Mildred Harris, and in 1924 he wed another teenager, Lita Grey; both marriages ended in divorce. His third marriage, to actress Paulette Goddard, was clouded by rumours that their union, which lasted until 1942, had never been legalized; and in 1943 he was the target of a paternity suit. When he began lobbying for a Second Front in Russia during World War II, his detractors alleged that he was a communist sympathizer. His 1947 film Monsieur Verdoux, which argued that an individual murderer was an “amateur” compared with the warmongers of the world, further provoked his enemies.
En route to the London premiere of his last American film, Limelight (1952), Chaplin learned that he would be denied a reentry visa to the United States. The embittered filmmaker moved to Switzerland with his fourth wife, Oona (daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill), and their children; his next film, made in England, was A King in New York (1957), in which an exiled monarch watches helplessly as his world crumbles. In 1964 Chaplin published My Autobiography, and two years later he directed his last film, the much-maligned A Countess from Hong Kong. Eventually the animosity between Chaplin and the U.S. government subsided, and in 1972 he returned to Hollywood to accept a special Academy Award. It was a bittersweet homecoming. Chaplin had come to deplore the United States, but he was visibly and deeply moved by the 12-minute standing ovation he received at the Oscar ceremonies. As Alistair Cooke described the events,
He was very old and trembly and groping through the thickening fog of memory for a few simple sentences. A senile, harmless doll, he was now—as the song says—“easy to love,” absolutely safe to admire.
Chaplin made one of his final public appearances in 1975, when he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth. Several months after his death, his body was briefly kidnapped from a Swiss cemetery by a pair of bungling thieves—a macabre coda that Chaplin might have concocted for one of his own two-reelers.