Charlie Chaplin, clutching a flower to his mouth, smiling
At the height of his popularity, Charlie Chaplin traveled to Europe and was met by thousands of people at each train station, so many that police had to help with crowd control. The Little Tramp was beloved around the globe for his movies, but his seemingly meteoric rise to fame only encapsulated one aspect of his story. Just like his famous character, Chaplin experienced tragedy and hardship, as well as laughter.
Growing up poor, he and his brother, Sydney, were raised by a single mother (their father having abandoned them). At one time, their mother had been a music hall singer, but by the time the brothers were young, she was wrestling with insanity and, for a time, was committed to an asylum. The brothers also spent some time in a workhouse, the last refuge of the poor in late 1800s England.
The brothers, having learned to sing from their mother, sought an escape through performing. It soon became obvious that Charlie was the more talented of the two, and Sydney took on a management role. He would continue to offer business advice to his brother throughout their lives.
As a young man, after touring with a music hall act, Chaplin was hired by Mack Sennett's studio, the Keystone Film Company. Within a relatively short period of time, he rose to prominence, distinguishing himself from the many character actors on the payroll. Soon, he was starring in a series of short silent films, which established the character of the Little Tramp. Legend has it that he cobbled together his costume one day by rummaging through the wardrobe department, deliberately choosing a coat that was too tight, paired with pants and shoes that were too large.
In the early days, the Little Tramp's antics could occasionally be cruel. He was a prankster who would pop around a door and kick someone in the backside, like in this scene from "The Adventurer."
In those early films were also moments of grace, like his extraordinary performance in "The Rink," where he pretended to be a novice skater, falling all over himself, and at the same time, managed some of the funniest and most graceful moves ever seen on the screen (start at about 3:01).
By the time he made his first feature film, The Kid (1921), Chaplin had begun to deepen the character of the Little Tramp. By delving into his own childhood, he imbued the character with pathos. As the man who had grown up among the struggling poor, he knew that laughter could mask incredible sadness.
In this film, he starred alongside Jackie Coogan, who would later become Uncle Fester on The Addams Family but in his boyhood was adorable. Chaplin portrays the Little Tramp as a poor single father, struggling to provide for his child. This movie features such luminous moments as the father and son working as a team, with the boy breaking windows and the Little Tramp being paid to fix them.
The movie also contains a heartbreaking moment where the authorities take his son away, who cries bitterly, pleading for his father, as the Little Tramp scuffles with police and runs after the truck to try and save him.
From this point on, every one of Chaplin's feature films balanced sadness and hardship with joy and triumph. The Gold Rush (1925), which is still considered one of his best films, illustrates this counterpoint. In one scene, he sits down to a simple dinner and, yet, manages to entertain his guests by making the buns do a dance.
That scene stands in stark contrast with another dinner scene from that movie, where the Little Tramp and a fellow prospector dine on a shoe. As the Little Tramp first "carves" the shoe and then nibbles delicately on the sole, twirling the shoelaces like spaghetti, he makes the meager meal seem simply delicious.
The movie Modern Times (1936) was released under the United Artists label, which he'd founded with friends Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Mary Pickford. Unlike with previous films, where a score was distributed a movie, but it was up to local musicians to perform it, this film was released with Chaplin's own score as well as sound effects.
In this movie, the Little Tramp wrestles with the hardships of being a factory worker and falling in love with a young woman who sees her own share of hardships. Troubled love is one of the themes of his movies, and the Little Tramp rarely ends up with his beloved at the end, but in this movie, he walks into the sunset with his beloved, to the strains of his most famous song, "Smile."
At about this stage in his career, Chaplin's international reputation began to be tarnished First, in 1927, he endured a bitter divorce from Lita Grey, whom he'd married when she was 16 and he 35. They had two sons together, Charles Chaplin Jr. and Sydney Earle Chaplin.
Much more damaging, however, was his brief relationship with Joan Barry, who filed a paternity suit against him in 1943. Even though blood tests proved the child was not his, her lawyer managed to convince the court to rule the tests inadmissible as evidence, and Chaplin was ordered to pay child support. As a result of the high-publicity trial, federal prosecutors also filed Mann Act charges against Chaplin, for which he was acquitted. The trials took a heavy toll on his public persona, especially when compounded with his many divorces (three at that point, if you include his relationship with Paulette Goddard, where the two lived together and later claimed to have been secretly married).
The most trying time of his professional career came after Chaplin directed and starred in The Great Dictator (1940), a sound film, in which he plays two characters: a Jewish barber who resembles the Little Tramp, and a dictator clearly based no Adolf Hitler. From this movie comes the famous globe dance, where the dictator plays gracefully with an inflatable version of the world he hopes to control.
Through his parody of the fascist forces gathering in Europe, contrasted with the impact on ordinary folks like the barber, Chaplin made a case for the United States to enter the conflict. But while we with our memories of the Greatest Generation, stories passed down from our grandfathers and great-grandfathers, might think entering the war was a patriotic duty, many in the U.S. did not feel so at the time. Chaplin's critics called him a rabble-rouser, pointing to the speech the Jewish barber gives to a crowd of the dictator's followers, having been mistaken for the dictator. In this speech, he pleads for worldwide compassion and understanding.
Such sentiments made Chaplin a target of the Red Scare in the 1950s. Fearing being called as a witness in these kangaroo-court McCarthy hearings, in 1952 Chaplin and his fourth wife, Oona Chaplin (daughter of Eugene O'Neill and the mother of eight more of his children), made plans for a vacation to Europe. The family never returned, choosing to live, instead, in Switzerland until Chaplin's death in 1977.
As Chaplin lived in self-imposed exile, his films continued to speak for him, including two new ones produced in London. In his absence, his body of work won him new fans. McCarthyism was replaced with the tumultuous '60s, characterized by progressive activism. As attitudes changed, Chaplin found acceptance once more. In 1972, only five years before his death, he came out of exile to receive an honorary award from the Academy Awards, for his impact on the motion picture industry. He received the longest standing ovation in Academy Award history, lasting a full five minutes.
When most people think about Charlie Chaplin, they don't think or even know about the hardships he faced. They think about him making buns dance a ballet, or romancing a blind flower seller. They think about hilarious slapstick and graceful, dancelike movements. Yet, although Chaplin's life was often filled with hardship, he found a way to smile and to make millions of people, both in his time and in future generations, smile with him.
Charlie Chaplin scenes cut to Michael Jackson's cover of "Smile"
tho' your heart is aching,
Even though it's breaking,
When there are clouds in the sky - You'll get by,
Smile through your fear and sorrow,
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You'll see the sun come shining through - For you.
Light up your face with gladness,
Hide ev'ry trace of sadness,
Altho' a tear may be ever so near,
That's the time you must keep on trying,
Smile - What's the use of crying,
You'll find that life is still worthwhile,
If you just smile.
Further information on Chaplin:
Charles Chaplin: My Autobiography. Simon & Schuster, 1964
Chaplin: His Life and Art, David Robinson. McGraw-Hill, second edition 2001.
"Unknown Chaplin" (1983) - documentary TV series examining the film making methods and techniques of Charles Chaplin.
Chaplin (1992) - Richard Attenborough's film about the troubled and controversial life of the master comedy filmmaker, starring Robert Downey Jr.
Most of this was written from memory, as I've been a Chaplin fan since childhood, but I did confirm my memory of dates and significant moments with this very complete (and seemingly accurate) Wikipedia article.
When there are clouds in the sky, you'll get by.