Remembering Charlie Chaplin: Silent Screen's Greatest Actor

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April 16, 2011 – Today the world celebrates Charlie Chaplin’s 122nd birthday. A watershed figure in the film industry, Chaplin is one of Hollywood’s earliest superstars, alongside Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Chaplin’s career was one of the most colorful and most successful in Hollywood during his time, himself becoming a film director, producer, and composer. His contribution to the history of filmmaking was so profound that today he is considered one of the screen’s most indelible icons.

Birth and Childhood

Born to a relatively comfortable household, Chaplin’s family however lost most of their fortune during his childhood. Her mother and father were both music hall entertainers and his father, who abandoned them, died in 1901 due to alcoholism. His mother continued working as an entertainer and Chaplin himself made his nascent debut at the age of 5. Unluckily, mental illness soon placed her mother under institutional care and Charlie, together with older half-brother Sydney, were forced to live between public charity homes and on the streets.

Career Rise

Chaplin’s career took off in 1898 after as a member of the Eight Lancashire Lads, though he was not a local of Lancashire. By 1905, he was already cast in featured roles in such West End productions like Sherlock Holmes. With the help of his brother, he landed a role in Fred Karno’s music hall revue, prompting his rise to stardom.

In 1910, Chaplin toured the US with Fred Karno Company. During his second tour in 1913, Mac Sennett discovered and signed him to the Keystone Company. However, Chaplin encountered considerable difficulty to adjusting with the methods under Sennett’s company and his performance suffered from it.

His first film for Sennett, Making a Living was released in 1914, to mediocre reviews. However, his next film, Kid Auto Races in Venice, propelled him to popularity.  Borrowing a bowler hat, tinny cane and loose-fitting pants from Fatty Arbuckle to match with the floppy shoes Fred Sterling lent him, he introduced The Tramp to the screen.

The Tramp

The Tramp was a vagabond with refined manners, clothes, and characteristics of an upper crust gentleman. With this character, Charlie quickly rose to becoming Sennett’s most popular actor, gaining a following of fans that propelled him to becoming one of silent films most adored stars.

Chaplin’s The Tramp was the most enduring symbol of the silent film and with the onset of talking picture in the late 1920s, Chaplin repeatedly balked at the notion to let The Tramp speak. When City Lights was released in 1931, The Tramp remained silent, and when Chaplin made his last film Modern Times (1936), The Tramp appropriately ended his screen appearance walking towards endless high way.

Chaplin is the Pioneer International Celebrity

Chaplin’s artistic control over the films he appeared and produced were at its height from the mid-1910’s onward. In 1916, Mutual Film Corporation paid him a then-unheard of $670,000 to produce 24 two-reel comedies. In eight months, he produced 12 films, all considered as the most critically and commercially successful comedy films of that era. Among these films were Easy Street, One A.M., The Pawnshop, and The Adventurer.

When his contract with Mutual Films ended, he signed an eight, two-reel film contract with First National, which financed and distributed his pictures. During this era, he began producing longer, full-length features, like Shoulder Arms (1918), The Pilgrim (1923), and the classic silent, The Kid (1921).

United Artists

In 1919, Chaplin formed United Artists, together with fellow silent screen stars and celebrity couple Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford and film director D.W. Griffith. United Artists was a product of the growing distaste towards the monopolization of film distributors and financiers, which was later known as the Hollywood Studio System.

Chaplin’s films in the United Artists were full-length features, with the atypical A Woman of Paris (1923), as UA’s first production. The film was also a swansong for Edna Purviance, who Chaplin’s leading lady since his early days of stardom. The film was followed by silent classics The Gold Rush (1925) and The Circus (1928).

Chaplin During the Talking Era

With the arrival of talking pictures, Chaplin continued to concentrate on silent films, albeit adding music score and sound effects on it. The Circus, City Lights (1931), and Modern Times (1936) were among these silent films released at the onset of the talking era.

Of why Chaplin resisted producing and appearing on talkies, he believed that the cinema is pantomimic in essence. “Action is more generally understood than words. Like Chinese symbolism, it will mean different things according to its scenic connotation. Listen to a description of some unfamiliar object—an African warthog, for example; then look at a picture of the animal and see how surprised you are,” he said in an interview with Time Magazine.

Chaplin finally appeared in talking pictures in The Great Dictator (1940), an act of defiance against Nazism, filmed and released in the US a year before it joined World War II; the film itself was a showcase of slapstick comedy, satire, and social commentary, with Chaplin’s role, Adenoid Hynkel, dictator of Tomania, modeled after Adolf Hitler. The film also starred Paulette Goddard, who was cast as a woman in the ghetto, and Jack Oakie as Benzino Napaloni, dictator of Bacteria, modeled after Italy’s Mussolini.

McCarthy Era

Chaplin’s position in the United States and his image in the American audience were shaken during the McCarthy Era. Being a non-US citizen and maintaining a neutral but nationalistic stand, Chaplin was accused of communism and conducting un-American activities.

In 1952, Chaplin went to London to attend the European premier of Limelight but the FBI upon knowing this negotiated with the Immigration and Naturalization Services to revoke his residency and prevent him from reentering the US. He eventually settled in Vevey, Switzerland.

For this incident, Chaplin wrote to Time: “Since the end of the last world war, I have been the object of lies and propaganda by powerful reactionary groups who, by their influence and by the aid of America’s yellow press, have created an unhealthy atmosphere in which liberal-minded individuals can be singled out and persecuted. Under these conditions I find it virtually impossible to continue my motion-picture work, and I have therefore given up my residence in the United States.”

Final Works

Chaplin’s final works were made in London: A King in New York (1957), which he produced, directed, wrote, and starred; and A Countess in Hong Kong (1967), starring Sophia Loren and Marlon Brando, with himself in a small role as the seasick steward.

Final Years

Chaplin’s health had since declined after filming a Countess in Hong Kong. In 1972, he reentered the United States to receive the Honorary Academy Award before a crowd that also honored him with the loudest and longest standing ovation in the history of the Academy.

In 1973, he was awarded with a competitive Oscar for Original Score for Limelight, which was released in the US in 1972.

In 1975, Queen Elizabeth II made Chaplin a Knight Commander of the British Empire (KBE), an honor that has been vetoed in 1952, at the height of his unpopularity for his purported “communist” views and moral behaviors.

In 1999, more than two decades after his death, the American Film Insitute honored Chaplin as one of the Greatest Screen Legends of All Time, ranking 10th in its list of Greatest Male Screen Legends. 

Death

Chaplin died while sleeping on December 25, 1977 at his home in Vevey, Switzerland. He was interred at Corsiuer-Sur-Vevey  Cemetery. In 1978, a group of mechanics stole his corpse in an attempt to extort money from his family. They eventually captured but his corpse was not recovered until 11 weeks after. His remains were reburied 6 feet under concrete to prevent future attempts. 

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