Charles Chaplin

Born in 1889 to English music-hall performers, Charles Spencer Chaplin grew up mostly in workhouses after his father died and his mother went insane. He turned to the theater to escape his poverty and, after landing a spot in a touring revue that took him to the United States, he was spotted by Mack Sennett and signed to his Keystone Company in 1914.

Chaplin soon began developing his own unique brand of comedy based on character, emotion and pathos as a member of Sennett's slapstick troupe and he began directing his own films after less than a year. His character, the Little Tramp, became a sensation with the public and in 1916 he signed the first million-dollar contract in Hollywood. The twelve two-reel Mutual comedies are slapstick ballets of distilled Chaplin comic genius spun from little more than a character, a setting and a situation: a drunk playboy navigating a hostile home (ONE A.M.), a scamp in a department store (THE FLOORWALKER), the tramp in a high class spa (THE CURE). But Chaplin is more than simply a physical clown. Behind the camera Charlie became Charles, a comic poet whose farces began to reflect a social conscience in classics such as EASY STREET (1917) and THE IMMIGRANT (1917).

The care with which Chaplin created his shorts set a standard of excellence that was not approached by other filmmakers until the 1920s, but by that time he had moved on to features, beginning with THE KID in 1921 and continuing through masterpieces THE GOLD RUSH (1925), THE CIRCUS (1928) and CITY LIGHTS (1931). As with his shorts, Chaplin lavished time and money on his features, and like his shorts they were smash hits (with the notable exception of his drama A WOMAN OF PARIS (1923). Having proved that his Little Tramp could not only carry a feature but also develop as a character, he turned even more toward pathos and sentimentality and even bucked the changeover to sound by continuing to create essentially silent films through the 1930s, culminating with MODERN TIMES (1936).

His first talking picture, THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940), was his first without the Tramp persona and represented a marked change of genre, a political satire. It was his last popular success, though by no means his last work of art. [His next feature, MONSIEUR VERDOUX (1947), is perfect evidence of undiminished talents.] He never became a U.S. citizen and when he left for Europe to promote LIMELIGHT (1952), during the height of the blacklist, he was denied permission to return to the country because of his political leanings. He made two films while in exile from the United States, A KING IN NEW YORK (1957) and A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG (1967), and did not return until he was awarded an honorary Oscar 1972. He was knighted in 1975 and died in Switzerland in 1977.
- Sean Axmaker


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