Can you imagine trying to become a famous actor without your words? What about going from workhouse rags to the most recognizable face in the world? Charlie Chaplin captivated audiences worldwide over an 82-film, 75-year-career that single handedly elevated the medium for which motion pictures were judged.
Chaplin was a do-it-all artist with the most illustrative facial expressions the world had ever seen. He pioneered slapstick antics with emotional depth and created films rooted in social commentary.
He did this mostly through the everyman persona of his one true character—The Tramp. In roles spanning janitors, (ex-)convicts, factory workers, drunks, apprentice assistants and many others—Chaplin portrayed poverty through an uplifting, comedic lens — a style that would resonate with audiences for decades, even as cultural and film styles rapidly changed.
Charlie Chaplin’s legacy is ubiquitous enough for many to have seen his trademark mustache and know he was a silent film comedic actor, but let’s take a closer look at the life and work of cinema’s first true artist.
1. Too Talented, Determined to Let Early Hardship Stop Him
Chaplin’s upbringing was anything but smooth. His parents’ relationship was unraveling around the time he was born, and they’d become estranged two years into his life. After the split, Charlie’s father was completely out of his life; no financial support or emotional relationship.
Without any assistance, Charlie’s mother supported Charlie and his half brother by making dresses at home and occasional nurse work, but they struggled to make consistent ends meet, which led Charlie to two stays at workhouses before age nine.
To make matters worse, Charlie’s mother, increasingly suffering from what was later thought to be syphilis, was committed to a mental asylum. This landed Charlie and his half brother with their father for the first time ever. Unfortunately for the two young boys, Chaplin Sr. was deep in the throes of alcoholism by that point, and as one would imagine, didn’t treat his sons very well. He would die from cirrhosis two years later at age 37.
Charlie was briefly homeless afterward, until his half-brother returned from the British Navy and took care of him. The tormented emotional cycle continued when his mother was released from the asylum after eight months, only to be institutionalized again in 1905—this time for life (though after making it big, Charlie brought her to California in 1921 to live with him). All the hardship wasn’t enough to stop a young, talented and determined Chaplin from succeeding; just a year later in 1906 he would join Fred Karno’s renowned comedy circuit, quickly becoming a standout performer.
2. Passion Through a Vision
Chaplin wanted perfection. But instead of it hindering his artistic production, it only seemed to accelerate his output—and to several different roles in the film process: composer, director, screenwriter, producer and editor. This in large part was because of his confidence and vision; Chaplin couldn’t have achieved what he achieved without it.
For example, when Chaplin wanted to start directing films, he got his foot in the door by promising to pay Keystone Studio boss Mack Sennett $1,500 (Chaplin’s entire savings) if the films could not be released. Chaplin’s bravado resulted in him directing many of the Keystone films he appeared in (along with a $25 bonus).
Later in his directorial career, while filming 1931’s “City Lights,” Chaplin reportedly made actress Virginia Cherrill do 342 takes for one sequence. He also publicly berated Marlon Brando for keeping him waiting on set of 1967’s “A Countess in Hong Kong” to which Brando would later reference in his autobiography — describing the 77-year-old Chaplin as “probably the most sadistic man I’d ever met” and a “fearsomely cruel man.”
Chaplin may have been a fierce septuagenarian (or just in general), but that’s hardly surprising given his dedication and focus to his crafts throughout his life. Even after sound films emerged in the late ‘20s, Chaplin rebelled, stating his case in the New York Times in 1931:
“BECAUSE the silent or non-dialogue picture has been temporarily pushed aside in the hysteria attending the introduction of speech by no means indicates that it is extinct or that the motion picture screen has seen the last of it. “City Lights” is evidence of this.”
“City Lights” certainly achieved acclaim, but Chaplin couldn’t veil his own denial for long, later admitting, “although City Lights was a great triumph, I was obsessed by a depressing fear of being old-fashioned.”
Chaplin would eventually succumb to his contemporaries with his first talkie: 1940’s “The Great Dictator” — a political comedy-drama satirizing Adolf Hitler which ended up as one of Chaplin’s most commercially successful films. Today it’s preserved in the National Film Registry for its cultural and historical significance.
3. Charlie’s Recipes
Food was a theme and interest throughout Chaplin’s career and personal life. Among many, the cafeteria scene in “Modern Times” comes to mind where he eats a ton of food without paying in a second attempt to be arrested and save the orphan girl.
Chaplin was asked to submit recipes to cookbooks throughout his life (mostly for charitable proceeds). Some of his favorites include:
- Apple roll
- Steak and kidney pie
- Sour cream hot cakes
- “The Gold Rush Shoestring Spaghetti Dinner” (spaghetti with clam sauce, filets de sole w/ grapes, asparagus salad, boiled new potatoes, creme brulee, and Parker House rolls)
Get the full recipes here.
4. Uniquely Recognized
Being the unprecedented performer and individual he was, Chaplin garnered many triumphs throughout his career.
In 1925, he became the first actor to appear on the cover of Time Magazine, which probably would have been more exciting for him had he not released “The Gold Rush” a month earlier; a film that was a smashing success, grossing over $4.2 million (the fifth-highest-grossing silent film ever).
Chaplin was vocal in saying it was the film he wanted to be remembered by.
Here’s the opening scene to the 1925 film:
But that’s small potatoes compared to Chaplin’s three Oscars. While the only competitive win came for his composition work in “Limelight,” widely thought to be his last great motion picture and a project inspired by his novella entitled “Footlights” — his other two Oscars are as unique as they get.
Chaplin was recognized at the very first Academy Awards for his versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing 1929’s “The Circus.”
Chaplin’s second honorary Oscar came in an even bigger way: in 1972, 20 years after being exiled from the U.S. for being labeled a communist sympathizer (a whole other article in itself) Chaplin was back on U.S. soil, receiving a 12-minute standing ovation for the “incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century.” This is still the longest standing ovation in Oscar history!
Watch his acceptance speech below:
Chaplin gave the world never-before-seen entertainment but did so through a social commentary that resonated beyond laughs. Chaplin was about the whole process; the music, the laughs, the message, the story and the shot all stood on equal ground. Chaplin — like many of the people we feature at VK Nagrani — lived his life with purpose and tenacity, something we can all use a bit more of from time to time.
5. Other interesting tidbits
- It was no secret that Chaplin liked younger women, but in 1943 it backfired into an ugly paternity suit. Read how Chaplin’s case helped redefine paternity laws in the U.S.
- Chaplin received widespread criticism for not fighting in WWI as a British soldier, but played a role anyway when cutouts of his Tramp character were propped up in British trenches “so the Germans would die laughing.” His films were also projected on the ceilings of military hospitals.
- His look was so famous and recognized that he couldn’t even win a Charlie Chaplin lookalike contest, instead placing third. Actually, just kidding.
- His first Oscar, valued at over $1 million, was stolen from Paris offices in 2015, but it’s the memories that count, right?
- Graverobbers excavated Chaplin’s dead body in hopes for a $600,000 ransom. Instead, they were caught, wrote apology letters to Charlie’s wife and were given minimal sentences.