Charlie Chaplin: biography of a silent film icon

An essential comic actor in silent cinema thanks to his character of Charlot, Charlie Chaplin is also a director, screenwriter, producer and composer. 

After studying pantomime, he obtained his first theater contracts and met Stan Laurel (Laurel and Hardy) there. During a tour in the United States, the Keystone studio offered him a job. The films are shot very quickly and in panic. He is asked to improvise a disguise and this is how Charlie Chaplin creates the character of Tramp the vagabond. From 1914, he made his own films, which met with immense success. Its stamps are tenfold and the studios all want to release their Charlot. While all actors and filmmakers feel exploited by the industry, Charlie Chaplin founds the United Artists .

The Kid: an echo of his childhood

The Kid highlights poverty and separation, like an echo of his extremely difficult childhood in poor neighborhoods, where he encounters misery, deprivation, work in a workhouse.  On the side of his family, he lives between a mother with psychiatric disorders and an alcoholic father who dies of cirrhosis. He also suffered a personal tragedy in 1919: his first child, Norman Spencer Chaplin, born of his union with Mildred Harris, died after three days. Chaplin uses all this for the creation of the Kid.

The Kid is Chaplin’s first feature film, lasting 68 minutes, and is one of the first films to combine comedy and drama. Filming lasted nine months and Charlie Chaplin was accompanied by actor Jackie Coogan, barely four years old, who became famous as a result of this film. Distributed over three years in more than 50 countries, The Kid became the biggest commercial success of 1921. 

Modern times

First made of simple sketches, the comic universe of Chaplin is tinged with the social problems of the time as can be seen in The Gold Rush (1925). Modern Times (1936) remains his most famous work. It is the last silent film in history except for one scene: the song he sings in the restaurant where he is employed. The film denounces under the comedy of situation a reality, that of the workers obliged to support frantic cadences on the assembly lines of the factories of the mass production. Poor Tramp even loses his head, chasing a woman down the street armed with a wrench because she has buttons that look like nuts.

Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times

After the Kid, Modern Times is the first film to integrate political and social references, which leads to its media coverage. Despite this, it did not have the same success as his earlier films and received mixed reviews from critics. However, over time, Les Temps Modernes has become a classic in Charlie Chaplin’s filmography.

The Dictator: his first talking film

For a long time, Charlie Chaplin did not believe in talking pictures and it was not until The Dictator in 1940 that he took the plunge. The film is a satire of the German invasion in Europe and a caricature of the Führer. Chaplin is overwhelmed by the rise of nationalism and decides to talk about it in his films. Many find that Adolf Hitler and Charlie Chaplin have common traits. Indeed he was born four days before the Führer, they also both achieved worldwide notoriety despite coming from a poor background and they wear the same mustache, which was fashionable at that time. Thus, this physical resemblance is perfect for making fun of the dictator in his film. For this feature film, he renounces the mute, believing that the process is old-fashioned and that the political message would pass better through speech. Highly anticipated, the film was released in October 1940 and, although the outcome was controversial, achieved considerable success. However, the film was banned in Europe and would not be released in France until 1945.

The Dictator by Charlie Chaplin

Chaplin and music

He discovered a passion for music from an early age and learned to play the cello, violin and piano on his own. From the film Les Lumières de la ville, he composed the music for all his productions, then from the end of the 1950s until his death, he (re)sounded his old silent short films. But, not knowing how to read or write music, he surrounds himself with professional composers in order to transcribe his ideas. Some of his songs became popular such as Smile from the film Modern Times, which was then put into lyrics by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons and performed by Nat King Cole in 1954. Then Terry’s Theme for Limelight and This is My Songinterpreted by Petula Clark for the film The Countess from Hong-Kong. The only Oscar Chaplin won was for best film score in 1973 for the reissue of the film The Limelights. He also received two honorary Oscars during his lifetime. 

Last projects and death of Charlie Chaplin

He still directed Monsieur Verdoux from a script by Orson Welles inspired by the Landru affair in 1946, then his last film for Charlot, Les Feux de la Rampe in 1952, where he and Buster Keaton illustrated the end of an era, that of silent and black & white. A victim of McCarthyism, harassed by the FBI, he settled in Switzerland. In 1964, he published his memoirs which were entitled Histoire de ma vie . He made one last film, in color, in 1967: The Countess of Hong Kong with Sophia Loren and Marlon Brando, which ended in commercial failure. 

His health declined from the late 1950s with several minor strokes. Over time, his speech was affected and he had to use a wheelchair around the 1970s. Charlie Chaplin died on the morning of December 25, 1977 following a stroke in his sleep. He is buried in the cemetery of Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland.

His wives and family

During his lifetime, Charlie Chaplin was married to four wives. He marries for the first time with Mildred Harris, who is 17 years old and who announces to him that she is pregnant with him. They have a low key wedding then it is revealed that the pregnancy is fake. Despite an unhappy marriage, Mildred Harris gave birth to her child in 1919, who died after three days. They divorced the following year. The actor married a second time, by obligation, in 1924, to a young 16-year-old actress named Lita Gray when he was 35, Lita Gray announcing to him that she was pregnant with him. On May 5, 1925, she gave birth to her first son, Charles Chaplin Jr, and a second, on March 30, 1926, named Sydney Earle Chaplin. The divorce is stormy, Lita Gray accusing Chaplin of perversity, violence and infidelity.

His third wife is none other than Paulette Goddard, a 21-year-old actress, with whom he forms a happy couple. But little by little, they move away, giving priority to their work and divorce in 1942. He then has a history with the actress Joan Barry but seeing that she is not sane, they separate. But Barry announces to her the following year that she is pregnant with him, which Chaplin denies. She therefore began a procedure for recognition of paternity. In 1944, she gave birth to the child, a daughter named Carol Ann, and a few months later in 1945 the paternity trial began. Charlie Chaplin is declared as the father of the child, despite the evidence, and thus had to pay his daughter until she was 21 years old a pension. 

His last wife was Oona O’Neill, daughter of American playwright Eugene O’Neill. She is 18 and he is 54. With her, he had eight children and she accompanied him until his death in 1977. He also had 16 grandchildren including James Thierrée, also an actor, who played in the film Chocolat alongside Omar Sy.

Charlie Chaplin: key dates

April 16, 1889: Birth of Charlie Chaplin
Born in London on April 16, 1889, Charlie Chaplin combines the functions of actor, director, screenwriter and composer. A complete artist, he made himself famous in Hollywood, thanks to his mimes and clowning. Inspired by the burlesque style of the French Max Linder, he is a major actor in silent cinema for which he plays an illustrious character, Charlot. His career spanned more than sixty-five years, until his death in Switzerland on December 25, 1977.
November 30, 1913: First appearance of Charlie Chaplin
Leaving England for the United States, Charlie Spencer Chaplin began his acting career in the cinema and played in his first film: “Making a living” by Mack Sennet. Chaplin signs his first contract here and will shoot around thirty films with Sennet. In 1914, he will create the character of Charlot in: “Charlot vagabond.
June 26, 1925: Chaplin’s Gold Rush
The Gold Rush, a silent comedy set in Alaska, met with immediate critical and popular success. Its director and actor, Charlie Chaplin, transformed into a gold digger, confronts misery, bears and human greed. In 1958, an international jury crowned the work as the second greatest film of all time, after Eisenstein’s “The Battleship Potemkin” shot the same year.
January 30, 1931: Chaplin presents “City Lights”
In Hollywood, Charlie Chaplin receives a triumphant welcome during the presentation of his latest film “City lights”, les Lumières de la ville. It is Chaplin’s first film released after the advent of talkies. “The lights of the city” will however remain entirely silent, except for a few sound effects.
January 15, 1948: Chaplin plays Landru
Released in April 1947 in the United States, “Monsieur Verdoux”, Charlie Chaplin’s 77th film, appeared on French screens. It was Orson Welles who gave Chaplin the idea of ​​adapting the real story of the murderer Landru to the cinema. Very poorly received in the United States, “Monsieur Verdoux” will be a great success in Europe.
March 4, 1975: Charlie Chaplin decorated by the Queen of England
The English actor and director is made Commander of the British Order by Queen Elizabeth II. The music of his film “Limelight” (The Lights of the city) released in 1952, is played during the ceremony at Buckingham Palace.
December 25, 1977: Charlie Chaplin dies of a stroke
His health declined from the late 1950s with several minor strokes. Charlie Chaplin died on the morning of December 25, 1977 following a stroke in his sleep. He is buried in Switzerland.
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