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Charlie Chaplin

Chaplin in his typical costume
Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin (April 16, 1889 - December 25, 1977) was the most famous actor in early Hollywood cinema, and later also a notable director. His principal character was "The Tramp": a lower class character with considerable personal dignity who wears a tight coat, oversized pants and shoes, a derby hat, a bamboo cane, and his signature square mustache. Chaplin was one of the most creative personalities in the silent film era; he directed, acted, wrote his stories, and was even known to write his movie scores.

Born in Walworth, London, England into poor circumstances, in 1906 he started his artistic career as a music hall performer (a clown in Fred Karno[?]'s Mumming Birds company). With Karno, he visited the US in 1913 and his act was seen by film producer Mack Sennett who hired Chaplin for his film studio, Keystone[?].

While Chaplin initially had difficulty adjusting to the demands of film acting, he soon adopted and flourished in the medium. This was made possible in part by Chaplin developing his signature Tramp persona and eventually earning directorship and creative control over his films which enabled him to become Keystone's top star and talent.

His salary history suggests how rapidly he became world famous.

  • 1914: Keystone, worked for $150 a week
  • 1914-1915: Essanay, $1250 a week, plus $10,000 signing bonus
  • 1916-1917: Mutual, $10,000 a week, plus $150,000 signing bonus
  • 1917: First National, a million dollar deal -- the first actor ever with such a high price tag.

In 1919 he founded the United Artists studio with with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and David Wark Griffith.

Although "talkies" (movies with sound) became the dominant mode of moviemaking soon after they were introduced in 1927, Chaplin resisted making a talkie all through the 1930s. It is a tribute to Chaplin's versatility that he also has one film credit for choreography for the 1952 film Limelight[?], and one credit as a singer for the title music of the 1928 film The Circus. The best-known of several songs he composed is "Smile", famously covered by Nat King Cole among others.

His first sound picture, The Great Dictator (1940) was an act of defiance against Adolf Hitler and fascism, filmed and released in the United States years before it abandoned its policy of isolationism to enter World War II. Chaplin played a fascist dictator, clearly modeled on Hitler (also with a certain physical likeness), as well as a Jewish barber cruelly persecuted by the Nazis. Hitler, who was a great fan of movies, is known to have seen the film twice (records were kept of movies ordered for his personal theater). After the war and the uncovering of the Holocaust, Chaplin stated that he would not have been able to make such jokes about the Nazi regime had he known about the actual extent of the pogrom.

Chaplin's political sympathies always lay with the left. Several of his movies depict the dismal situation of workers and the poor, with Modern Times (1936) being a prime example.

Although Chaplin had his major successes in the United States, he refused to accept U.S. citizenship; he was born in Britain and proudly retained his British nationality. During the era of McCarthyism, Chaplin was accused of "un-American activities", and his lifelong enemy J. Edgar Hoover, who had instructed the FBI to keep extensive files on him, tried to remove his residency rights.

Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in The Kid (1921)

In 1952, Chaplin left the United States for a trip to England; Hoover learned about it and negotiated with the INS that his reentry permit would not be honored. Chaplin decided then to stay in Europe and made his home in Switzerland. He returned briefly for an award ceremony in 1972.

Chaplin won the honorary Oscar twice. When the first Oscars were awarded on May 16, 1929, the voting audit procedures that now exist had not yet been invented, and the categories were still very fluid. When it became apparent that Chaplin, who had been nominated for Best Actor and Best Comedy Direction, would fail to win either award for his movie The Circus, the Academy decided to give him a special award "for versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing The Circus". The other film to receive a special award that year was The Jazz Singer.

Chaplin's second honorary award came 44 years later in 1972 and was "For the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century". He came out of his exile and collected his award less than a month before the death of J. Edgar Hoover. Chaplin was also nominated without success for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Original Screenplay for The Great Dictator (1940), and again for Best Original Screenplay for Monsieur Verdoux[?] (1947).

In 1973, he received an Oscar for the Best Music in an Original Dramatic Score for the 1952 film Limelight[?]. Because of Chaplin's difficulties with McCarthyism, the film did not open in Los Angeles when it was first produced. This criterion for nomination was not fulfilled until 1972.

His final films were A King in New York (1957) and A Countess from Hong Kong (1966), starring Sophia Loren and Marlon Brando.

Chaplin's professional successes were repeatedly overshadowed by reports from his private life. In 1918, 28 years old, he married the 16 year old Mildred Harris, followed by a divorce two years later. They had one child together, which died as an infant. In 1924 he fell in love with the 16 year old Lita Grey during the preparations for his movie Gold Rush[?]. They married when she became pregnant, and had two sons together. They divorced in 1927. The publication of the divorce court records with many intimate details led to a campaign against Chaplin. In 1936, Chaplin secretly married the actor Paulette Goddard. After a number of happy years, this marriage too ended in divorce in 1942. Shortly thereafter, he met Oona O'Neill, daughter of the dramatist Eugene O'Neill, and married her in 1943. This marriage was a long and happy one, with eight children.

On March 4, 1975, after many years of self-imposed exile from his native country, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.

Charlie Chaplin died in Vevey, Switzerland and was interred in the Corsier-Sur-Vevey Cemetery in Corsier-Sur-Vevey[?], Vaud[?], Switzerland. Two months later, on March 3, 1978, his body was stolen from the cemetery, in an attempt to extract money from his relatives. The plot failed, the robbers were captured and the body was recovered 11 weeks later near Lake Geneva.

A film was made in 1992 about his life entitled Chaplin, directed by Academy Award winner Sir Richard Attenborough, and starring Robert Downey Jr., Dan Akyroyd[?], Geraldine Chaplin[?] (Charlie's daughter), Anthony Hopkins, Milla Jovovich, Moira Kelly[?], Kevin Kline, Diane Lane[?], Penelope Ann Miller[?], Paul Rhys[?], Marisa Tomei, Nancy Travis[?], and James Woods.


For the Jamaican musician named Charlie Chaplin, see Charlie Chaplin (singer).

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