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 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
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
in 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.
‘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
only 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
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.