Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977)
With a film career spanning over fifty years, Charles Chaplin was a brilliant and innovative artist and one of the brightest and most powerful stars in Hollywood history. Famous for his slapstick comedy, his ingenuity, and his "Little Tramp" character, Chaplin made nearly 90 films and became a firmly established film icon.
Acting to Survive
Charles Spencer Chaplin was born in 1889 in London, England. Like his future business partners Mary Pickford and Douglas fairbanks, Chaplin, orphaned at 10, turned to acting for survival. He joined a children's performance group, "The Eight Lancashire Lads," and was soon recognized for his exceptional tap dancing ability.
Chaplin's early successes on stage as a comedian in vaudeville led to U.S. tours beginning in 1912. His growing popularity landed him a film contract in 1913 with Mack Sennett, director of Keystone Studios. Chaplin found popularity with American audiences and commanded a salary of $150 a week -- over $2000 in today's dollars.
The Little Tramp
In 1914 Chaplin made his first film, Making a Living, and it launched him into a career that would include acting, directing, composing, and writing. His next film, Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), marked the debut of the Little Tramp, a tragicomic character who remained dignified despite a life of bad luck and hardship. It would become Chaplin's signature role. The Little Tramp was Chaplin, with his tiny mustache, bowler hat, and bamboo cane. He played the role masterfully, mixing hilarious ingenuity, sophisticated slapstick, and tender pathos to win the hearts of his audience.
One year and 35 films later, Chaplin left Keystone. A contract with Essanay Film Manufacturing Company followed in 1915, with a salary of $1000 a week. The Trampwas among 15 films Chaplin made while at Essanay before signing with Mutual Film Corporation for $10,000 a week plus a $150,000 signing bonus.
At Mutual, Chaplin starred in 12 comedies, including Easy Street and The Immigrant, both in 1916. These films would become regarded as some of his most brilliant work. When he completed his contract with Mutual, Chaplin set out to open his own studio, to have more control over his films. In 1918 he released A Dog's Life in a distribution agreement with First National. That same year, Chaplin helped the government sell Liberty Bonds for World War I. He toured the country with Mary Pickford and his closest friend, Douglas Fairbanks, selling the bonds and raising public support for U.S. involvement in the war.
Chaplin proved to be quite a competitor for Pickford, both professionally and personally. Each created a character that audiences loved and clamored to see. They commanded astronomical salaries. But Chaplin's popularity seemed to endure; possibly, the Little Tramp aged more easily than Little Mary. Off screen, Chaplin and Pickford vied for the attention of Douglas Fairbanks. Chaplin and Fairbanks were the best of friends, pairing their comedic styles at parties and clowning at every opportunity. Pickford was not amused by Chaplin stealing her husband's attention, and grew tired of their endless pranks and physical gags.
The Birth of United Artists
Nonetheless, Pickford joined her rival when the biggest stars in Hollywood combined forces to form United Artists. In 1919, Chaplin, Pickford, Fairbanks, and producer D.W. Griffith joined together to produce, distribute, and exhibit their own films. The most influential names in Hollywood challenged the way the industry did business, claiming more of the profits for themselves.
Chaplin's U.A. Films
Chaplin could not immediately begin producing for United Artists because of ongoing commitments to First National. In 1921 he acted in eight reels for the company, including The Kid and The Idle Class. At the end of his contract, and after a long trek through Europe, Chaplin returned to California to begin making films for United Artists. Some of Chaplin's most widely acclaimed features were made in this period, including Gold Rush (1925), Modern Times (1936), and The Great Dictator (1940).
Barred from the U.S.
Throughout his many years in the United States, Chaplin retained his British citizenship. He was known for left-wing political views. Returning from London after the premiere of his film Limelight in 1952, Chaplin was barred from re-entry to the U.S. because of his politics and his refusal to take U.S. citizenship.
In 1953 Chaplin moved to Switzerland with his fourth wife, Oona O'Neill. He made two more movies and wrote several books, including two autobiographies. He did not return to the U.S. until 1972, when the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences honored Chaplin with a special Oscar for his career achievements. In 1975, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. He died December 25, 1977 at the age of 88.
World's Greatest Actor
Chaplin was a man of many talents, but he is most reknowned for his contributions to the art of film. He was one of the first comedians to finance and produce all of his pictures (with the one exception being A Countess from Hong Kong (1966)) - and to write, cast, act, direct, edit, and compose for them as well. In a 1995 survey of film critics worldwide, Chaplin was voted the greatest actor in film history. He was and will always be an extraordinary cinema legend.