Often imitated yet never equaled, Charles Spencer Chaplin remains the most recognized of all the silent movie stars, thanks to the iconic character he created — “The Tramp.” A key factor in his films is their poignant blend of laughter and sorrow; reflections, perhaps, of the joys and hardships of this unique filmmaker’s own life.
Uncertainty, poverty, and madness were the perils of Chaplin’s childhood. Born in London on April 16, 1889, Chaplin was the second of three sons by three different fathers born to music hall singer Hannah Hill Chaplin. His father, Charles Chaplin Sr., also a music hall performer, left the family for a tour of America the following year. The separation ended the marriage. Hannah’s youngest son, Wheeler Dryden (whose father Leo was also a singer), was born in 1892. Six months later the infant was whisked away by his father, a separation that would last until Charlie was an adult.
The family struggled to survive. After Hannah’s singing voice gave out in 1894, she worked as a seamstress until she was hospitalized with severe headaches. Charlie and his older brother Sydney were farmed out to relatives and to a series of workhouses and schools for the poor. Mother and sons were reunited in 1898, but Hannah’s condition worsened and she had a complete mental breakdown.
The boys lived for two months with Charlie’s father, and, at the end of 1898, Charlie left school to tour in a clog-dancing troupe, The Eight Lancashire Lads, a job arranged by his father. Charlie rehearsed his clog dance for six weeks before being allowed to perform and, on the day of his first performance, he was nearly paralyzed by fright. The son of the troupe’s manager recalled: “He was a very quiet boy at first, and, considering that he didn’t come from Lancashire, he wasn’t a bad dancer. My first job was to take him to have his hair cut, which was hanging in matted curls about his shoulders …. He was a great mimic, but his heart was set on tragedy. For weeks he would imitate character actor Bransby Williams in The Old Curiosity Shop, wearing an old grey wig and tottering with a stick, until we others were sick of him.”
Chaplin’s formal education continued intermittently during the two seasons he worked with the company. When they performed in London, he lived with his mother who remained in poor health. During much of this time Sydney was a steward working at sea, sending money home when he could. Finally, Charlie, aged 14, had to commit their mother to the hospital, telling authorities, “she keeps on mentioning a lot of people who are dead and fancies she can see them looking out of the window and talking to imaginary people.” By this time Charlie’s father was dead, ravaged by alcohol abuse.
Burdened by hard reality, both boys sought a way out and set out to break into show business. Charlie succeeded first, in a 1903 touring company of Sherlock Holmes. Sydney found a job with Fred Karno’s comedy company in 1906 and brought Charlie to the troupe in 1908. It was a turning point.
Charlie’s first impromptu bits of business in a sketch called “The Football Match” earned him a year’s contract. Two years later, still with Karno, he came to America, starring in “A Night in an English Music Hall.” The tour went west, opening in San Francisco on June 4, 1911, at the Empress Theater on Market Street. The company returned to the Bay Area four times over the next two years, and each time Chaplin’s billing in newspaper ads became more prominent, until it was on a par with the company name.
But Chaplin’s stage success paled in comparison to his movie career. He began in films at the Keystone Company in January 1914 for $150 a week, ten times his Karno salary. A year later he signed with the Essanay Film Company for $1,250 a week, plus a $10,000 signing bonus. In 1916, he went to Mutual for $10,000 per week and a $150,000 bonus. And in 1917, he agreed to produce eight two-reelers at First National for $1,000,000 with a $75,000 bonus, The next logical step came in 1919 when he formed United Artists with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith, a move that gave them complete control over the production, releasing, and distribution of their films.
Chaplin was at the height of his fame when his fifth feature film, The Circus, opened in New York on January 6, 1928. Some reviewers thought it was Chaplin’s funniest film to date. Chaplin received a special Academy Award in the first year of their presentation for “versatility and genius in writing, acting, directing, and producing The Circus.” But since then, The Circus had become one of Chaplin’s least-seen movies. In large part, this neglect is because of the films he made immediately before and after it, The Gold Rush (1925) and City Lights (1931), two powerhouse movies that inevitably place The Circus in third position as examples of Chaplin in his prime.
Chaplin himself gave The Circus its publicity tag line — “a low-brow comedy for high-brows” — a modest claim for this inventively funny movie. Perhaps it was all he could muster given the many problems involved in its making.
The Circus (originally titled The Clown) was scheduled for completion six months after production began in January 1926. It took two years. The first month’s work had to be reshot after scratches, made in the laboratory, were discovered on the negative. Chaplin’s performance on the tightrope (which he taught himself for the film, practicing for weeks before stepping in front of the camera) took a month to film and consisted of more than 700 takes. Seven months into production, a fire destroyed the main set, which then had to be rebuilt. Then Chaplin’s personal life interfered.
Lita Grey, Chaplin’s second wife, filed for divorce on January 10, 1927, stopping production of The Circus for eight months while another circus — the divorce suit — raged on. The negative of the film was hidden to avoid its attachment by her attorneys. Lita was finally awarded $600,000 plus a trust fund for each of their two children, Charles Jr. and Sydney Earle (born on March 30, 1926, three months into production of The Circus). Chaplin’s attorney fees amounted to nearly $1 million. And another million dollars went to the government that year in a settlement for back taxes.
Chaplin’s autobiography only mentions The Circus once, recalling the death of his mother during its making, although she actually died eight months after its release. Her death, in fact, brought closure to the previous two years’ traumatic events, perhaps the worst time of his life since childhood.
But there were many ups and downs to follow. Douglas Fairbanks, whom Chaplin called “my only real friend” in Hollywood, died in 1939. A third marriage, to actress Paulette Goddard, failed in 1942. In 1943, Chaplin married Oona O’Neill, daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill, and Geraldine, the first of their eight children, was born in 1944. While he was on a vacation to Europe in 1952, Chaplin’s re-entry permit was revoked by the United States Attorney General, who believed Chaplin’s liberal politics made him “an unsavory character.” After his last American-made film, Limelight (1952), Chaplin sold his share of United Artists but produced two more films in England, A King in New York (1957) and A Countess from Hong Kong (1967). In 1972, he made a triumphant return to America to receive a second, special Academy Award, on the occasion of his 83rd birthday. He died at his home in Vevey, Switzerland, surrounded by his family, on Christmas morning in 1977.
Presented at SFSFF 2004 with original recording of the orchestral score composed and conducted by Charles Chaplin.