Stars of Slapstick #90: Charlie Chaplin
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
At Keystone, at first he faced a number of the same hurdles he had encountered with Karno. His colleagues regarded him as an outsider, “not a team player”. His comedy style was regarded as “too slow”. But, as at Karno, his methods were rapidly validated (and his personality quickly tolerated) when the audience fell for him in a big way. Within weeks of his starting, there was a national craze for Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character, with his too-tight clothes, oversized shoes, little moustache, and derby hat and cane. There were songs about Charlie Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin dolls, and Charlie Chaplin “contests” with prizes for the best Charlie Chaplin imitation (which is how both Milton Berle and Bob Hope both got their start). Everyone else at Keystone (even stars like Mabel Normand and Fatty Arbuckle) quickly became a supporting player for Charlie.
After 35 shorts with the Keystone company, Chaplin was made an offer at the Essanay company, at a substantially higher salary than Sennet was willing to pay. Chaplin’s artistry continued to develop during his year at Essanay, turning out fifteen shorts, with a sixteenth patched together from studio out-takes after he had left, a sure sign of his box-office wizardry.
Charlie’s material and artistic progress were rapid. In 1916, he inked a deal with the Mutual Company at the unprecedented salary of $10,000 a week. (consider: at the time, this sum would have been a good middle-class salary for an entire year’s work). The year 1916-17 was to be his most creative period, with the greatest output. Over the course of this contract, Charlie executed twelve perfect comedy shorts, as remarkable to watch today as they were revolutionary then. These films (The Floorwalker, The Rink, The Pawnshop, The Cure, One a.m., The Fireman, The Vagabond, The Adventurer, Easy Street, The Immigrant, Behind the Screen) remain unsurpassed classics of the silent short comedy form.
His ambition and his price tag grew apace. With each new contract, he set a new record. His 1917 deal was for 8 pictures over 18 months for a total of $1 million. A lesser artist would have taken the money and ran, pumping out the product on schedule and moved on to the next juicy deal. As it turns out, such a policy would have been penny-wise but pound foolish. Chaplin took five years to finish this contract, and while some of them were flops, some were hits on an unprecedented scale, becoming cinematic classics which are no doubt continuing to enrich his estate. The First National films tended to be longer than the previous ones, but the better stories justified the length. With A Dog’s Life (1917) he established the template for most of his features—the Little Tramp meets a buddy (in this case a pooch) with whom he shares a series of life’s ups and downs. The next film Shoulder Arms (1917) was groundbreaking for being the first war comedy. Daring for its time, it was an instant hit, and a popular favorite for the soldiers overseas.
1919 was characterized by growing pains for Chaplin, each of his releases flopping for different reasons, although both of the films are charming in retrospect. In Sunnyside his artistic ambition erred on the side of self-consciousness. The film found the Little Tramp cavorting with fauns and fairies in a fantasy sequence closer in spirit to an amateur ballet company’s conception of “art” than the output of a master comedian. In A Day’s Pleasure, the pendulum swung the other way, casting Charlie in a highly conventional situation comedy of the sort Harold Lloyd was much better at. He hit his stride again with his next picture by revisiting the formula he had worked so successfully in A Dog’s Life. The Kid is in many ways his best movie – revolutionary for its successful use of high pathos in contrast to his comedy, and broke all sorts of box office records when it was released in 1921. It was also his first “feature length” film, although somewhat short by today’s standards.
By now, he was years late to finish his First National contract and was eager to start making films for United Artists, which he had founded in 1919 with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith. In rapid order, he released The Idle Class, Pay Day and The Pilgrim , a series of straightforward comedy shorts,to finish out the contract.
Chaplin astonished audiences yet again with his first United Artists feature. A Woman of Paris (1923) broke new ground in three ways: it was a drama; Chaplin was not the star (in fact he only made a cameo appearance); and it employed a much more realistic style of acting than any previous Hollywood dramatic film. In its day it was considered a great screen achievement—one of the greatest films up until that point. Its melodramatic story was a sort of cross between the real life story of gold-digging party girl Peggy Hopkins Joyce and Our Lady of the Camillias. Charlie’s return to the screen as the tramp (after a four year absence) was equally innovative.
In The Gold Rush (1925), he created an “epic” comedy set against the backdrop of the Alaska gold rush, and suggested by the real life story of the ill-fated Donner Party, who, snowed in the Sierra Nevada mountains in 1847, resorted to cannibalism. The grim subject matter, unprecedented in a comedy, made for a rich movie-going experience, and it is among Chaplin’s best films.
The Circus (1928) is sort of a “lame duck” film, released in the last year silence was to dominate cinemas. It broke little new ground. By the following year, talkies were king, and suddenly cinemas were full of…well, nearly every other vaudevillians in this book. Silents didn’t have much use for the Marx Brothers, Jolson, Clark & McCulough, Eddie Cantor, Bill Robinson, Paul Whiteman, Mae West, W.C. Fields, Joe E. Brown, etc etc etc, but the talkies sure did. Suddenly, after 15 years on top, Chaplin was at a disadvantage. Keaton, Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy all made the plunge into talkies, with varying degrees of success. Chaplin didn’t take his artistry as a pantomime so lightly. He believed in the craft he had learned at the hand of Fred Karno, the age-old art of English pantomime. It was his special field of endeavor, in which he was king, in the same way that Houdini was king of escapes, and Bill Robinson the king of tap, and Will Rogers the lariat king. He therefore stuck to his guns.
City Lights (1931) may be regarded as the first “neo-classical” silent film. It is a silent film (with music and sound effects by Chaplin) released three years after the death of silence. Audiences were enchanted by his story of the blind flower girl and the tramp who loves her. Chaplin had triumphed by maintaining his integrity in the face of radical change. Even more astoundingly, he achieved the same feat again with the release of Modern Times (1936), nearly a decade after the advent of sound. With this film, he demonstrated a higher degree of social engagement, clearly critiquing certain aspects of life in America at the height of the depression – poverty, soul deadening work on an assembly line, repressive police, etc. This film, too, was a hit, as was the song that came from it, appropriate for the times, though characteristically Victorian in its sentimentalism.
Smile though your heart is aching,
Smile, even though it’s breaking.
When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by.
If you smile through your far and sorrow
Smile and then maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shining through for you.
For years, Chaplin had toyed with the idea of doing a film on Napoleon, but the French director Abel Gance had beat him to it with the definitive film in 1928. Fortunately for Chaplin (and unfortunately for the world) there was a contemporary tyrant running amuck in the 1930s who conveniently sported a Charlie Chaplin moustache. In the naïve world of the 1930s, laughter seemed an effective weapon against Hitler. What was he but a big dope, a boor with idiotic theories and preposterous plans to take over the world? This was what much of the civilized world thought of him in the 30s, but by 1941, when The Great Dictator was released, Hitler had taken over almost all of Europe (including Abel Gance’s France) and was daily raining bombs and terror on the last remaining unconquered European territory: England. In retrospect, Chaplin’s Hitler satire seems too mild in the face of the Nazis’ unimaginable atrocities. But, when it was released, the great fear was that it would be too controversial — a substantial portion of the country had no qualms with Nazism. Nevertheless, The Great Dictator ended up being Chaplin’s biggest grossing film up until that point. A lot of the box office may have been driven by curiosity; it was Chaplin’s first talkie. Ironically, the most eloquent portion of the film, and the most characteristic of Chaplin was completely silent. Chaplin, as Adenoid Hinkel, the demented dictator, does a beautiful, romantic dance with a globe, which was ingeniously painted on a balloon so that it could sail high into the air, and then float slowly back to his waiting arms. Based on this sequence it is impossible not to come to the conclusion that if Chaplin had wanted to, he could have continued to make silent films.
Unfortunately, the tide began to turn against Chaplin shortly thereafter. His anti-Nazism was unfortunately tied to a pro-Soviet tendency. Just prior to the war he spoke at many rallies, urging American involvement to relieve the Russians who were heroically fighting Germany at that point. Throughout the war, he vociferously defended them as our allies, and, after the war, when the Soviets drew their iron curtain across Europe, he was unable to see the writing on the wall.
In 1947 he broke new ground for the last time. Having realized too late his naiveté in The Great Dictator he appeared to attempt to make up for it in Monsieur Verdoux, the first black comedy ever to be produced in Hollywood. The tale is a sort of modern retelling of the Bluebeard legend, which Charlie adapted at the suggestion of Orson Welles. The allusions to Nazi atrocities in the film (in particular, the depiction of a crematorium) are unmistakable. American audiences hated the film. Charlie’s lovable tramp is nowhere in evidence in the film; instead “Charles Chaplin” plays a serial killer – one who very eloquently defends his bloodthirsty crimes. This was not the sort of thing moms could take their children to. Adding fuel to the flame was Charlie’s dismal record as a husband. Over the years he had deflowered, married and divorced a seemingly endless parade of teenage girls (and been involved with god knows how many others). A blind eye could be turned toward this tendency so long as he kept America laughing in an old-fashioned, wholesome way. Now, however, it seemed to occur America all at once that Charlie was a pervert, a red, and a sicko. His star fell very fast indeed.
He had one more American film, the 1952 Limelight which revisited his music hall origins, and co-starred Buster Keaton, but unfortunately dwelt again on the issues of death and suicide. Having recently married the 18-old Oona O’Neill (against her father Eugene O’Neill’s wishes), Charlie was a true anathema in the U.S. After a trip abroad in 1952, he was informed to gain re-entry into the country he would have to undergo an interrogation by the Immigration Department to “answer charges of a political nature and of moral turpitude.” Charlie refused on principle and selected instead a life in exile. He was to live the remainder of his life with Oona and his large brood of children in Switzerland. Cut off from the audience that had formerly sustained him, he made only two more movies, both fairly atrocious: A King in New York (1957) and A Countess from Hong Kong (1967). Charlie passed away in 1977. Like something out one of his own black comedies, grave robbers stole his remains shortly thereafter,though they were later caught.
Addendum: for my review of the recent book Charlie Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey, go here.
For more on silent screen comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
To find out about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.