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By Ken Lashway
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In the long history of movie-making, there has been a whole galaxy of great actors and actresses, but among them all - who should be considered greatest? In 1995, film critics around the entire world were surveyed and voted the honor to one of filmdom’s earliest stars, the immortal and beloved ‘Little Tramp’, Charlie Chaplin.

Charlie Chaplin was born in London on April 16, 1889 into extremely inauspicious circumstances. His mother, Hannah was a failed actress who loved her son dearly, but developed severe mental problems and was in and out of an asylum until later in Charlie‘s life, when he brought her to America. His father Charles Chaplin, was a small time singer who deserted his family before Charlie reached his teens, and died of alcoholism in 1901. Predictably, this resulted in an impoverished childhood, devoid of stability and continuity, and after his mother’s confinement, also of parental affection. These early years became a bewildering succession of state poorhouses and orphanages, and unfortunately little education (which deficiency he later rectified). When Charlie reached the age of ten, he dropped out of school and joined a British vaudevillian troupe, working alongside his brother Sydney and another young comedian named Stanley Laurel. Young Charlie became passionate about his work, and consistently won excellent reviews for his performances with Fred Karno‘s Speechless Comedians. The troupe toured America in both 1910 and 1912, and on the second tour, Chaplin decided to stay in America and abandon the stage for movies. By this time, he had developed into an extraordinary athlete, a dedicated worker, and a budding creative genius. He was ready to take America by storm.

In 1913, he was signed to a contract with Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios, and a year later appeared in his very first film ’Making A Living’, which drew critical praise. He made over thirty short films with Keystone in 1914, but it was a milestone year for Charlie in more ways than just exposure. It was during this period that he invented the inspired ‘Little Tramp’ character, and when he did, his popularity exploded almost overnight, taking him from the status of bit player to director at dizzying speed. And so it happened that at the tender age of 25, Charlie Chaplin directed his first movie, ‘Twenty Minutes of Love’. Still, by November of 1914, he felt confined by the non-stop slapstick format of the Sennett movies, and decided to move on to the newly formed Essanay Film Company.

At Essanay, he met the charming Edna Purviance, who became the star of many of his films and the frequent star of his affections, in an on-again, off-again romance that carried on for years. Importantly, he also exercised greater creative control over his films at Essanay, and produced some of his greatest early 1921-22 Charlie Chaplin Picturegoer Premiumworks, among them ‘The Tramp’ and ‘The Immigrant’. His style of movie-making was taking shape too - he was a tireless worker who demanded much from his co-stars, and frequently over-ran budgets by shooting and re-shooting scenes until it came out just right. He was trying to achieve a finished result that was much more subtle than the headlong slapstick of Keystone Studios. Instead of adhering to a polished script and pre-determined plot, Charlie preferred to arrange for an acting environment with only loosely defined parameters, and improvise with naturally occurring ideas.

Despite gaining more and more control over his productions, Chaplin continued to seek something greater, and in the next two years, signed with two different film companies in quick succession, Mutual Films and then First National. He did excellent work with both, creating shorts considered to be among his best, including ‘The Floorwalker’, ‘A Dog’s Life’, and ‘Shoulder Arms’. But it was 1920's-30's Mexican Needle Book featuring Charlie Chaplinin 1919 that he formed United Artists, along with his great friend Douglas Fairbanks and Fairbanks’ wife, the legendary screen sweetheart, Mary Pickford. Together they sought to prevent film-makers from monopolizing and controlling all aspects of movie production, and ultimately, they were successful. This set the stage for Charlie’s greatest triumph to date - his first full-length feature film, called ‘The Kid’.

‘The Kid’ took over a year to make, and was a staggering success at the box office, also winning enormous critical praise for Charlie. This was the crowning achievement he had been relentlessly pursuing since he became involved with film-making, and he finally felt satisfied enough to take a vacation back in England and refresh himself. Upon his return, he immersed himself again in making movies, and produced ‘The Idle Class’ and ‘Payday’ before hitting on another tremendously successful venture.

‘The Gold Rush’, released in 1925, is thought by many to be Chaplin’s greatest comedy, and has some of the best-remembered comic routines of anything he ever filmed, including the famous scene where he appeared as a fat chicken to his starving co-miner, the marvelously inventive ’dance of the dinner rolls’, and the hilarious ‘cooked boots’ scene. It was a tremendous success at the box office, and cemented his status as the world’s most beloved comedian, and its most recognizable on-screen persona, the ‘Little Tramp’ character. In 1928, ’The Circus’ continued the string of successes, but the 1931 film ’City Lights’ marked a major milestone for Chaplin and the movie-going public - it was the last time that the ’Little Tramp’ character was used in his films.

1917 Charles Chaplin Kromo Gravure Trading Card (round borders)City Lights’ is not regarded as a true comedy, although it contains many hilarious comic moments, but it showcases the many aspects of Chaplin, the film-maker perhaps better than anything else he ever did. His athleticism, his sense of tragedy, his feel for clowning, his unerring ability to evoke pathos from his audience is demonstrated in scene after scene. By the time of its release, most other movies were being produced as ’talkies’, with actors speaking their parts, and had been since 1927. Chaplin‘s enormous popularity allowed him to resist this trend, and although it was a gamble, he stuck with non-speaking roles for his actors, but did include sounds such as street noises and a musical score. The very engaging plot revolved around a poor tramp meeting a blind flower-girl, and spending much of the movie trying to raise money for an operation which would allow her to see again. The blind young woman understands her benefactor to be a wealthy man, and 1931 Jasmatzi Charles Chaplin Tobacco Cardonly at the very end discovers that it is the poor tramp, and this sets the stage for the final scene, which is one of the most poignant scenes ever filmed, and is marveled at to this day. A whole body of movie aficionados, including the great Orson Welles, consider this their favorite movie of all time.

Chaplin followed this tremendous success up with the 1936 classic ‘Modern Times’, and then in 1940, he produced his first talking movie, ‘The Great Dictator’, in which he lampooned Adolf Hitler. Ironically, Hitler is said to have grown his trademark mustache in sincere imitation of the internationally renowned Chaplin. In these later years of his career, Chaplin produced few films, but 1951’s ‘Limelight’ has been universally regarded as a classic. It did not do well at the box office though, probably due to questions about Charlie’s political loyalties and activism, and thus many movie-goers missed seeing a wonderful teaming of Chaplin with Buster Keaton, which was the only time this ever happened on film.

At this stage of his public life, Chaplin’s popularity waned in the U.S., in part because he had used his celebrity to lobby for greater co-operation with Russia during World War II. In Cold-War America, this smacked of Communism, and he was thoroughly investigated by the FBI. Despite being exonerated, the stigma of unpopular political associations left him shunned by many of the same fans who had previously adored him.

After decades of self-imposed exile to his native England, in 1972 Charlie Chaplin returned to America to accept a long-overdue award from Hollywood - the Lifetime Achievement Award, and the period of misunderstanding and mistrust between himself and his hordes of American admirers finally ended. Thankfully, at the time of his death on December 25, 1977, he was once again beloved by all America for being what he always said was the only thing he ever wanted to be - a simple clown.
Ken Lashway is a freelance writer from New York. Charlie Chaplin is Ken's first feature for us.

Other Charlie Chaplin Pages:
A Tribute To Charlie Chaplin He was the first movie star millionaire, the biggest star of the silent film era, and an astute businessman who made sure that he would not be forgotten. He hasn't been.