Charles Spencer Chaplin (1889 - 1977) MP

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Birthplace: Walworth, South London, East Street, United Kingdom
Death: Died in Vevey, Vaud, Switzerland
Occupation: Comic actor and film director of the silent film era
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About Charles Spencer Chaplin

One of the most creative and influential personalities of the silent-film era and one of the great icons of 20th-century film, Charlie Chaplin used mime, slapstick and other visual comedy routines, and continued well into the era of the talkies, though his films decreased in frequency from the end of the 1920s. His most famous role was that of The Tramp, which he first played in the Keystone comedy Kid Auto Races at Venice in 1914. From the April 1914 one-reeler Twenty Minutes of Love onwards he was writing and directing most of his films, by 1916 he was also producing, and from 1918 composing the music. With Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D. W. Griffith, he co-founded United Artists in 1919.

Charles Spencer Chaplin was born on 16 April 1889, in East Street, Walworth, London, England. His parents were both entertainers in the music hall tradition; his father, Charles Spencer Chaplin Sr, was a vocalist and an actor and his mother, Hannah Chaplin, a singer and an actress who went by the stage name Lilly Harley. They separated before Charlie was three. He learned singing from his parents. The 1891 census shows that his mother lived with Charlie and his older half-brother Sydney on Barlow Street, Walworth.

As a small child, Chaplin also lived with his mother in various addresses in and around Kennington Road in Lambeth, including 3 Pownall Terrace, Chester Street and 39 Methley Street. His paternal grandmother's mother was from the Smith family of Romanichals, a fact of which he was extremely proud, though he described it in his autobiography as "the skeleton in our family cupboard". Chaplin's father, Charles Chaplin Sr., was an alcoholic and had little contact with his son, though Chaplin and his half-brother briefly lived with their father and his mistress, Louise, at 287 Kennington Road. The half-brothers lived there while their mentally ill mother lived at Cane Hill Asylum at Coulsdon. Chaplin's father's mistress sent the boy to Archbishop Temples Boys School. His father died of cirrhosis when Charlie was twelve in 1901. As of the 1901 Census, Chaplin resided at 94 Ferndale Road, Lambeth, as part of a troupe of young male dancers, The Eight Lancashire Lads, managed by a William Jackson.

A larynx condition ended the singing career of Chaplin's mother. After Chaplin's mother was again admitted to the Cane Hill Asylum, her son was left in the workhouse at Lambeth in south London, moving after several weeks to the Central London District School for paupers in Hanwell.

In 1903 Chaplin secured the role of Billy the pageboy in Sherlock Holmes, written by William Gillette and starring British actor H. A. Saintsbury. Saintsbury took Chaplin under his wing and taught him to marshal his talents. In 1905 Gillette came to England with Marie Doro to debut his new play, Clarice, but the play did not go over well. When Gillette staged his one-act curtain-raider, The Painful Predicament of Sherlock Holmesas a joke on the British press, Chaplin was brought in from the provinces to play Billy. When Sherlock Holmes was substituted for Clarice, Chaplin remained as Billy until the production ended on December 2. During the run, Gillette coached Chaplin in his restrained acting style.

In 1910 Chaplin went to the United States to tour in A Night in an English Music Hall and was chosen by film maker Mack Sennett to appear in the silent Keystone comedy series. In these early movies (Making a Living, Tillie's Punctured Romance), Chaplin made the transition from a comedian of overdrawn theatrics to one of cinematic delicacy and choreographic precision. He created the role of the tramp, a masterful comic conception, notable, as George Bernard Shaw remarked, for its combination of "noble melancholy and impish humour."

Appearing in over 30 short films, Chaplin realized that the breakneck speed of Sennett's productions was hindering his personal talents. He left to work at the Essanay Studios. Outstanding during this period were His New Job, The Tramp, and The Champion, notable for their comic pathos and leisurely exploration of character. More realistic and satiric were his 1917 films for the Mutual Company: One A.M., The Pilgrim, The Cure, Easy Street, and The Immigrant. In 1918 Chaplin built his own studio and signed a $1,000,000 contract with National Films, producing such silent-screen classics as A Dog's Life, comparing the life of a dog with that of a tramp, Shoulder Arms, a satire on World War I, and The Kid a touching vignette of slum life.

In 1923 Chaplin, D. W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford formed United Artists to produce feature-length movies of high quality. A Woman of Paris (1923), a psychological drama, was followed by two of Chaplin's funniest films, The Gold Rush (1925) and The Circus (1928). Chaplin directed City Lights (1931), a beautifully lyrical, Depression tale about the tramp's friendship with a drunken millionaire and a blind flower girl, considered by many critics his finest work. His only concession to the new sound medium occurred in the hilarious scene in which the tramp hiccoughs with a tin whistle in his windpipe while trying to listen politely to a concert. The pathos of the closing scene, in which the flower girl, who has just regained her sight (thanks to the tramp) sees him for the first time, is described by James Agee (1958): "She has imagined and anticipated him as princely, to say the least; and it has never seriously occurred to him that he is inadequate. She recognizes who he must be by his shy, confident, shining joy as he comes silent toward her. And he recognizes himself for the first time, through the terrible changes in her face. The camera just exchanges a few quiet close-ups of the emotions which shift and intensify in each face. It is enough to shrivel the heart to see, and it is the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in the movies."

Modern Times (1936), a savagely hilarious farce on the cruelty, hypocrisy, and greed of modern industrialism, contains some of the funniest sight gags and comic sequences in film history, the most famous being the tramp's battle with an eating machine gone berserk. Chaplin's burlesque of Hitler (as the character Hynkel) in The Great Dictator (1940), although a devastating satire, loses impact in retrospect. The last film using the tramp, it contains an epilogue in which Chaplin pleads for love and freedom.

It was with these more complex productions of the 1930s and 1940s that Chaplin achieved true greatness as film director and satirist. Monsieur Verdoux, brilliantly directed by Chaplin in 1947 (and subsequently condemned by the American Legion of Decency), is one of the subtlest and most compelling moral statements ever put on the screen. Long before European film makers taught audiences to appreciate the role of the writer-director, Chaplin revealed the astonishing breadth of his talents by functioning as such in his productions.

The love showered upon Chaplin in the early years of his career was more than equaled by the vilification directed toward him during the 1940s and early 1950s. The American public was outraged by the outspoken quality of his political views, the turbulence of his personal life, and the sarcastic, often bitter, element expressed in his art. An avowed socialist and atheist, Chaplin expressed a hatred for right-wing dictatorship which made him politically suspect during the early days of the cold war. This hostility was compounded when he released his version of the Bluebeard theme, Monsieur Verdoux. With its brilliantly sustained parallels between mass murder and capitalistic exploitation, the film is, as Agee said, "the greatest of talking comedies though so cold and savage that it had to find its audience in grimly experienced Europe."

During the next 5 years Chaplin devoted himself to Limelight (1952), a strongly autobiographical work with a gentle lyricism and sad dignity, in sharp contrast to the mordant pessimism of Monsieur Verdoux. "I was optimistic and still not convinced," he wrote, "that I had completely lost the affection of the American people, that they could be so politically conscious or so humorless as to boycott anyone that could amuse them." Further tarnishing Chaplin's image was a much-publicized paternity suit brought against him. Although Chaplin proved he was not the child's father, the reaction to the charges was overwhelmingly negative.

On vacation in Europe in 1952, Chaplin was notified by the U.S. attorney general that his reentry into the United States would be challenged. The charge was moral turpitude and political unreliability. Chaplin, who had never become a United States citizen, sold all his American possessions and settled in Geneva, Switzerland, with his fourth wife, Oona O'Neill, daughter of the American playwright Eugene O'Neill, and their children.

In 1957 Chaplin visited England to direct The King in New York a satire on American institutions, which was never shown in the United States. My Autobiography, published in 1964, is a long, detailed account that descends from a vivid, Dickensian mode to endless self apologies and name-dropping. Such an error, wrote John Mason Brown, "is only a proof of his modesty. He forgets that one of the biggest names he has to drop is Charlie Chaplin." Chaplin's 1967 film, A Countess from Hong Kong, was considered disastrous by most critics.

By the 1970s times had changed, and Chaplin was again recognized for his rich contribution to film making. He returned to the United States in 1972, where he was honored by major tributes in New York City and Hollywood, including receiving an honorary Academy Award. In 1975, he became Sir Charles Chaplin after being knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. Two years later, on December 25, 1977, Chaplin died in his sleep in Switzerland.

In all his work Chaplin consistently displayed emotional expressiveness, physical grace, and intellectual vision characteristic of the finest actors. The classical austerity and deceptive simplicity of his directorial style (emulated by Ingmar Bergman and others) has not been surpassed. A film about Chaplin's life, titled Chaplin was released in 1992.

Chaplin's most conspicuous deficiencies as an artist were attributable more to personal limitations than to aesthetic insensitivity. His occasional sentimentality represented an attempt to conceal deep bitterness; his frequently irritating tendency to idealize the female sex betrayed, as critic Andrew Sarris noted, the mark of the confirmed misogynist. Chaplin was a lovable but unloving figure - a fascinating, elusive, and difficult human being.

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He was a member of the Loyal Order of the Moose, Los Angeles, CA Lodge 134.

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Charlie Chaplin's Timeline

1889
April 16, 1889
Walworth, South London, East Street, United Kingdom
1918
October 23, 1918
Age 29
1919
July 7, 1919
Age 30
1920
1920
Age 30
1925
May 5, 1925
Age 36
Beverly Hills, CA, USA
1926
March 31, 1926
Age 36
Los Angeles, CA, USA