A Clown Since Birth: The Early Stage Career of Charlie Chaplin

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Born into unimaginable poverty and obscurity, by his mid-twenties Charlie Chaplin was one of the richest and most famous men in the world. One of capitalism’s great success stories, he was ejected from the United States (forty years after his arrival) for being a communist sympathizer. This was gross myopia on the part of the government, for, as his old colleague Stan Laurel liked to point out (a little too shrilly sometimes) Charlie was never anything more than a clown.

He was born to be in music hall. Both of his parents were performers, and there is evidence to support the theory that both were at least part Gypsy. His father, Charles Chaplin, Sr., had the most success, having reached the status of headliner and even touring the U.S. in 1890. His mother, performing under the name Lily Harley, had almost no success at all. Unfortunately for Charlie and his half brother Sydney, Charles Chaplin, Sr. was a drunkard and philanderer and he ran out on Lily when the boys were quite young. Lily gradually went insane, leaving the two boys to fend for themselves.

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Fortunately, Charlie was a prodigy. He could jig, sing and do impressions almost as soon as he was out of diapers. He claimed to have made his debut in an amateur night, singing “Jack Jones’ and being showered with coins. With Charles Senior’s help, he was hired by William Jackson for an act called 8 Lancashire Lads that had him doing clog dancing and mimicry in exchange for room and board and a tiny pittance. He was with this act for 2 ½ half years, until his mother pulled him out (for “health reasons”), evidence of her growing insanity. She had no other plan for feeding him.

Eight-Lancashire-Lads-clog-dancing-troupe

As his mother was placed in and out of institutions, and his brother went abroad for several months, Charlie learned to fend for himself on the streets. (In 1903 Mrs. Chaplin was permanently committed; she never regained even the brief periods of lucidity she had displayed in her declining years.) Between the ages of twelve and fourteen, Charlie worked full time in factories. When Sydney returned and discovered this pitiful state of affairs, he set to work managing Charlie, securing work for him in a play called Giddy Ostend at the London Hippodrome in 1900. Other boy parts followed. He played the lead in Horatio Alger’s From Rags to Riches. For three years he toured with a major production of  Sherlock Holmes.

Charlie in "Sherlock Holmes"

Charlie in “Sherlock Holmes”

Following a show with the promising title A Romance of Cockayne, Charlie began to be too old to play the childs’ roles. Out of necessity, he began to work burlesque, which was a bit of a comedown from the West End productions he had been in throughout his late childhood. Here he did his first sketch and solo comedy. With a group called The Ten Loonies, he played an inept plumber’s assistant in a sketch called “Repairs”. With a combination of naiveté and ingrained anti-Semitism, he amassed fake whiskers, “Jewish” clothes and jokes from Madison’s Budget and presented himself as “Sam Cohen, the Jewish Comedian”. Having no idea that the act was offensive, he proceeded to debut the act in a Jewish neighborhood, where he rapidly learned. With a group called Casey’s Court Circus, he performed an impersonation of famous electrical charlatan Dr. Walford Bodie.

Chaplin as Dr. Bodie

Chaplin as Dr. Bodie

At age 17, Sidney got a job with Fred Karno doing slapstick, mime, tumbling, juggling, singing, and dancing. He immediately set about trying to get Charlie hired as well, being aware of his rare gifts. Karno didn’t want to hire Charlie at first. He seemed to be too shy and “worthless for comedy”. When he was finally hired, no one in the troop liked him. He kept to himself most of the time, never socializing with the other performers. In his off hours, he preferred to endlessly practice the violin. But his gifts rapidly elevated him to the status of the company’s star, a state of affairs his fellow performers no doubt resented. As Stan Laurel once characterized him  “He was a shy, timid man who kept getting up the courage to do the most wonderful, adventurous things.”

Roy Export Ltd.

Roy Export Ltd.

By 1910 they had achieved such success that Karno essayed a tour of the U.S. “Mumming Birds” was renamed “A Night in an English Music Hall” for the benefit of American audiences. By the Karno troupe’s 2nd U.S. tour in 1912, Chaplin had become something of a sensation. Groucho Marx, for one recalls seeing him at this time and identifying him as the funniest comedian he had ever seen. In 1913, a scout for silent comedy film producer Mack Sennett, caught the act and an offer was made to Chaplin to join the Keystone company. The film industry was so young at this stage that Chaplin regarded the move as risky and deliberated for quite some time before finally giving his ascent. He joined Keystone in December 1913. For more on the next phase of Chaplin’s career go here. 

To find out more about Charlie Chaplin and vaudeville past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.  For Chaplin’s screen career don’t miss  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,

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31 Responses to “A Clown Since Birth: The Early Stage Career of Charlie Chaplin”

  1. […] successful, up there with Billy West, the silent film comedian who looked, dressed and acted like Charlie Chaplin or the Great Boudini, one of scores of Houdini rip-offs. As someone once said, “Sometimes what […]

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  2. […] most distinguished alumni included both the man who revolutionized the art of silent comedy (Charlie Chaplin) and the man who brought its techniques farthest into the sound era (Stan […]

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  3. […] are probably already a hundred books on this juicy subject You can read my own biographical essay here.). Yet still the author has managed to carve out a niche for himself, mostly by presenting the most […]

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  4. […] impression that he was one of those performers who coast on their physical attributes, no less than Charlie Chaplin called him “the worlds greatest […]

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  5. […] did a film version starring Dressler called Tillie’s Punctured Romance which also included Charlie Chaplin. Any illusions that Sennett had suddenly acquired class by bringing this Broadway play to the screen […]

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  6. […] Gummo and Zeppo). They were as good therefore as four acts in one, combining the appeal of Charlie Chaplin, Weber & Fields, Milton Berle and, well, Zeppo, all in one act. W.C. Fields called them “the […]

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  7. […] Zone, as well as numerous commercials. Films beckoned one again, too. High profile cameos in Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight (1952) and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) brought him back to cinemas, although […]

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  8. […] personality in the service of her country in a vigorous USO tour during the Second World War. Charlie Chaplin gave her the best screen role of her career in his 1947 Monseiur Verdoux, but barely anyone in […]

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  9. […] in the violent, ribald pages of Voltaire, Swift, Fielding, Pope, Rabelais, Jarry, Moliere and even Charlie Chaplin (who by the 1940s was making comedies about Hitler and the Holocaust). Technically speaking, Willy […]

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  10. […] 1915, he got his first performing experience (in the same way Berle had gotten his) in one of the Charlie Chaplin contests that were so popular at that […]

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  11. […] the early 30s, he was the 3rd richest man in Hollywood after Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. But just as quickly as it rose, his star rapidly fell. His 1934 picture […]

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  12. […] Smith of Smith and Dale knew Jessel quite well during this era – he used to buy him ice cream. Charlie Chaplin, who also caught the act at this time, was more impressed with […]

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  13. […] vaudeville was dying, and jobs were scarce. He finally got a job in an act concocted for Charlie Chaplin’s first ex-wife Mildred Harris. Silvers and another young man Herbie Faye, were great in the sketch. […]

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  14. Really chaplin is great

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  15. […] 1922, she had an affair with Charlie Chaplin, who, while much her intellectual superior, was certainly her moral equal. She proved to be too […]

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  16. […] play in films like A Night Out or One A.M, only a much younger character. Tilley even worked with Chaplin (and Stan Laurel) in the Karno sketch “Mumming Birds”. Mime was not her forte, however; it was […]

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  17. […] Beats the Devil (although I inevitably will now, though — too late the hero!) And, of all Chaplin’s post-Essanay films, Sunnyside is, without a doubt, the one I know least well, having seen it but […]

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  18. […] go to his head, fired Capra and began to direct on his own. But while he might have been a rival to Chaplin in front of the camera, behind it he was no competition. His career rapidly went into the toilet. […]

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  19. […] is many ways the anti-Chaplin. There is much speculation as to why, given their common background in the Fred Karno troup, there […]

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  20. […] in 1908. Berle started his show business career out strong by winning one of the ubiquitous Charlie Chaplin contests in the mid-teens. A little-known fact is that he soon had a silent film career himself, […]

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  21. […] of vaudevillians to see who would join the war effort. Every hand shot up.Vaudeville vets like Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks did their part by crisscrossing the nation selling millions in war bonds. And […]

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  22. […] Festival, which will be running through August 5. For those who feel they have “done” Chaplin, may I suggest some of his anomalies, such as his excellent melodrama A Woman of Paris (July 26), […]

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  23. […] and even some five-a-days. By 1925, Cagney was working regularly on Broadway as a leading man. Charlie Chaplin loved his breakthrough play, 1925′s Outside Looking In, that he went to see it three times, […]

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  24. […] stand-up, radio, movies, television — nailed them ALL. In some respects, he was like Chaplin, Lou Jacobs, Bob Hope, Fred Allen, and Milton Berle all rolled into one. Except…well, he was […]

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  25. […] The major highlight was of course the unveiling of the long-lost Chaplin film from 1914. In reality it’s a Ford Sterling film; Chaplin has a small part in it […]

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  26. […] evidently drawn from life, and a hilarious, sad example of shabby nobility, reminiscent of Chaplin’s Tramp, Falstaff, Micawber, and a dozen others I could name. The character is so vivid and well wrought […]

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  27. […] day in Montreal in 1901) got his start just like Milton Berle and Bob Hope — by winning a Charlie Chaplin impersonation contest. He was a drummer in comedy dance bands, and an eccentric dancer and […]

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  28. […] where he continued to work until 1915. Then it was back to Essanay. You can see him co-star with Charlie Chaplin and Wallace Beery in several films from that period. The twenties were his peak as a comedy star. […]

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  29. If you look in the book A PICTORIAL HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN THEATRE,by Daniel Blum 1950.You will find two brothers, Willie Howard and Eugene Howard. Willie is dressed up like a little tramp the same as Chaplin.Hat shoes coat pants hair & mustache. The year is from 1915-1948.When I first looked at this and knowing that Chaplin had a brother,it kind of threw me. On page 273 (1948), there is a close up of Willie Howard proving that he was only a Charles Chaplin impersonator. I love this book it has photos of great actors. Oh yeah, my grandfather was one of Dockstaders Minstral Singers in 1899.
    God Bless

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