Biography of Filmmakers and Moviemakers: Charlie Chaplin

About the famous English filmmaker and comedian Charlie Chaplin, history and biography of the moviemaker.

Charlie Chaplin (1889- ). From a London childhood straight out of a Dickens novel, Charlie Chaplin rose to the top of the film-world ladder and won universal popular acclaim by portraying the beloved "Little Tramp." When he left the U.S. to live in Switzerland in 1952, Chaplin had suffered the humiliation of a paternity suit and an indictment under the Mann Act, public ostracism for his political beliefs, and vitriolic attacks in the press because of his nonconformity. Earlier, however, Chaplin had been an extraordinarily popular star. People imitated the famous Chaplin walk, bought Chaplin dolls and toys, and swarmed around him when he traveled or appeared in public. Moviegoers sympathized with Chaplin's little guy whose sad but comical mannerisms were his only defense against a threatening world. By the early twenties, Chaplin's working-class audience had expanded to include intellectuals and fellow artists. Many of them--including Gertrude Stein, Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, and Albert Einstein--asked to meet him. Chaplin had become known as the movie's greatest virtuoso, a reputation which has rarely been challenged.

Chaplin's inspiration for the character of the Little Tramp was a stroke of luck plus genius. In 1913 he went to work for Mack Sennett's Keystone Co. On his 2nd film, Sennett told Chaplin to find himself a costume. After rummaging in a dressing room, he appeared in baggy pants, a tight coat, a too-small hat, and too-large shoes, an outfit that came to be his trademark. As Chaplin began to improvise, the clothes made the tramp's character. He tripped over a cuspidor, turned, and tipped his hat to it. The cameramen, stagehands, and even Sennett himself began to laugh. Fortunately, movie audiences laughed too.

Chaplin's subtle style of humor soon clashed with Sennett's idea that "comedy is an excuse for the chase," and the comedian joined Essanay Co. in 1915. While there, his style matured and he began to create the refined comedies for which he is famous. In 1917 he signed a contract to do 8 films for First National for $1 million. The best of those films was The Kid (1920), in which Jackie Coogan played a foundling whom the tramp rescues from a garbage can.

The great classics of Chaplin's career were created for United Artists, the company formed by Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, D. W. Griffith, and Chaplin in 1919. In The Gold Rush (1925) the tramp is so hungry he cooks his shoe and eats the laces like spaghetti. In City Lights (1931) he avoids a traffic jam by walking in one door of a limousine and out the other, thus confusing a flower girl who thinks that he must be a millionaire. Such was Chaplin's genius that jokes grew out of the situation rather than being added "just for laughs." Even the music for City Lights was composed by Chaplin so that it would highlight rather than overpower the action on the screen.

Chaplin came under increasing attack for the "anarchistic" attitudes expressed in films such as Modern Times (1936), The Great Dictator (1940), Monsieur Verdoux (1947), and Limelight (1953). During the McCarthy period he was accused of being a fellow traveler and attacked for never becoming an American citizen. Although his films have enjoyed a recent revival in the U.S., Chaplin and his wife, Oona O'Neill, continue to live in Switzerland.

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