Publicity portrait, circa 1920
Born Charles Spencer Chaplin
16 April 1889
London, England (unverified)
Died 25 December 1977 (aged 88)
Corsier-sur-Vevey, Vaud, Switzerland
Actor director composer screenwriter producer editor
Years active 1899–1976
(m. 1918; div. 1920)
(m. 1924; div. 1927)
(m. 1936; div. 1942)
(1943–77; his death)
Relatives See Chaplin family
Sir Charles Spencer "Charlie" Chaplin, KBE (16 April 1889 – 25 December 1977) was an English comic actor, filmmaker, and composer who rose to fame in the silent era. Chaplin became a worldwide icon through his screen persona "the Tramp" and is considered one of the most important figures in the history of the film industry. His career spanned more than 75 years, from childhood in the Victorian era until a year before his death in 1977, and encompassed both adulation and controversy.
Chaplin's childhood in London was defined by poverty and hardship. As his father was absent and his mother struggled financially, he was sent to a workhouse twice before the age of nine. When he was 14, his mother was committed to a mental asylum. Chaplin began performing at an early age, touring music halls and later working as a stage actor and comedian. At 19 he was signed to the prestigious Fred Karno company, which took him to America. Chaplin was scouted for the film industry, and began appearing in 1914 for Keystone Studios. He soon developed the Tramp persona and formed a large fan base. Chaplin directed his own films from an early stage, and continued to hone his craft as he moved to the Essanay, Mutual, and First National corporations. By 1918, he was one of the best known figures in the world.
In 1919, Chaplin co-founded the distribution company United Artists, which gave him complete control over his films. His first feature-length was The Kid (1921), followed by A Woman of Paris (1923), The Gold Rush (1925), and The Circus (1928). He refused to move to sound films in the 1930s, instead producing City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936) without dialogue. Chaplin became increasingly political, and his next film, The Great Dictator (1940), satirised Adolf Hitler. The 1940s were a decade marked with controversy for Chaplin, and his popularity declined rapidly. He was accused of communist sympathies, while his involvement in a paternity suit and marriages to much younger women caused scandal. An FBI investigation was opened, and Chaplin was forced to leave the United States and settle in Switzerland. He abandoned the Tramp in his later films, which include Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Limelight (1952), A King in New York (1957), and A Countess from Hong Kong (1967).
Chaplin wrote, directed, produced, edited, starred in, and composed the music for most of his films. He was a perfectionist, and his financial independence enabled him to spend years on the development and production of a picture. His films are characterised by slapstick combined with pathos, typified in the Tramp's struggles against adversity. Many contain social and political themes, as well as autobiographical elements. In 1972, as part of a renewed appreciation for his work, Chaplin received an Honorary Academy Award for "the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century". He continues to be held in high regard, with The Gold Rush, City Lights, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator often ranked on industry lists of the greatest films of all time.
Early years (1889–1913)
Background and childhood hardship
Charles Spencer Chaplin was born on 16 April 1889 to Hannah Chaplin (born Hannah Harriet Pedlingham Hill) and Charles Chaplin, Sr. There is no official record of his birth, although Chaplin believed he was born at East Street, Walworth, in South London.[note 1] His mother and father had married four years previously, at which time Charles Sr. became the legal carer of Hannah's illegitimate son, Sydney John Hill.[note 2] At the time of his birth, Chaplin's parents were both music hall entertainers. Hannah, the daughter of a shoemaker, had a brief and unsuccessful career under the stage name Lily Harley, while Charles Sr., a butcher's son, was a popular singer. Although they never divorced, Chaplin's parents were estranged by around 1891. The following year, Hannah gave birth to a third son – George Wheeler Dryden – fathered by the music hall entertainer Leo Dryden. The child was taken by Dryden at six months old, and did not re-enter Chaplin's life for 30 years.
Seven-year-old Chaplin (centre) at the Central London District School for paupers, 1897.
Chaplin's childhood was fraught with poverty and hardship, making his eventual trajectory "the most dramatic of all the rags to riches stories ever told" according to his authorised biographer David Robinson. Chaplin's early years were spent with his mother and brother Sydney in the London district of Kennington; Hannah had no means of income, other than occasional nursing and dressmaking, and Chaplin Sr. provided no financial support. As the situation deteriorated, Chaplin was sent to a workhouse when he was seven years old.[note 3] The council housed him at the Central London District School for paupers, which Chaplin remembered as "a forlorn existence". He was briefly reunited with his mother 18 months later, before Hannah was forced to readmit her family to the workhouse in July 1898. The boys were promptly sent to Norwood Schools, another institution for destitute children.
"I was hardly aware of a crisis because we lived in a continual crisis; and, being a boy, I dismissed our troubles with gracious forgetfulness."
– Chaplin on his childhood
In September 1898, Hannah was committed to Cane Hill mental asylum – she had developed a psychosis seemingly brought on by an infection of syphilis and malnutrition. For the two months she was there, Chaplin and his brother Sydney were sent to live with their father, whom the young boys scarcely knew. Charles Sr. was by then a severe alcoholic, and life there was bad enough to provoke a visit from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Chaplin's father died two years later, at 38 years old, from cirrhosis of the liver.
Hannah entered a period of remission, but in May 1903 became ill again. Chaplin, then 14, had the task of taking his mother to the infirmary, from where she was sent back to Cane Hill. He lived alone for several days, searching for food and occasionally sleeping rough, until Sydney – who had enrolled in the Navy two years earlier – returned. Hannah was released from the asylum eight months later, but in March 1905 her illness returned, this time permanently. "There was nothing we could do but accept poor mother's fate", Chaplin later wrote, and she remained in care until her death in 1928.
A teenage Chaplin in the play Sherlock Holmes, which he appeared in between 1903 and 1906
Between his time in the poor schools and his mother succumbing to mental illness, Chaplin began to perform on stage. He later recalled making his first amateur appearance at five years old, when he took over from Hannah one night in Aldershot.[note 4] This was an isolated occurrence, but by the time he was nine Chaplin had, with his mother's encouragement, grown interested in performing. He later wrote: "[she] imbued me with the feeling that I had some sort of talent". Through his father's connections, Chaplin became a member of the Eight Lancashire Lads clog-dancing troupe, with whom he toured English music halls throughout 1899 and 1900.[note 5] Chaplin worked hard, and the act was popular with audiences, but he was not satisfied with dancing and wished to form a comedy act.
In the years Chaplin was touring with the Eight Lancashire Lads, his mother ensured that he still attended school, but by age 13 he had abandoned education. He supported himself with a range of jobs, while nursing his ambition to become an actor. At 14, shortly after his mother's relapse, he registered with a theatrical agency in London's West End. The manager sensed potential in Chaplin, who was promptly given his first role as a newsboy in H. A. Saintsbury's Jim, a Romance of Cockayne. It opened in July 1903, but the show was unsuccessful and closed after two weeks. Chaplin's comic performance, however, was singled out for praise in many of the reviews.
Saintsbury secured a role for Chaplin in Charles Frohman's production of Sherlock Holmes, where he played Billy the pageboy in three nationwide tours. His performance was so well received that he was called to London to play the role alongside William Gillette, the original Holmes.[note 6] "It was like tidings from heaven", Chaplin recalled. At 16 years old, Chaplin starred in the play's West End production at the Duke of York's Theatre from October to December 1905. He completed one final tour of Sherlock Holmes in early 1906, before leaving the play after more than two-and-a-half years.
Stage comedy and vaudeville
Chaplin soon found work with a new company, and went on tour with his brother – who was also pursuing an acting career – in a comedy sketch called Repairs. In May 1906, Chaplin joined the juvenile act Casey's Circus, where he developed popular burlesque pieces and was soon the star of the show. By the time the act finished touring in July 1907, the 18-year-old had become an accomplished comedic performer. He struggled to find more work, however, and a brief attempt at a solo act was a failure.[note 7]
Advertisement from Chaplin's American tour with the Fred Karno comedy company, 1913
Meanwhile, Sydney Chaplin had joined Fred Karno's prestigious comedy company in 1906, and by 1908 he was one of their key performers. In February, he managed to secure a two-week trial for his younger brother. Karno was initially wary, and considered Chaplin a "pale, puny, sullen-looking youngster" who "looked much too shy to do any good in the theatre." But the teenager made an impact on his first night at the London Coliseum and he was quickly signed to a contract. Chaplin began by playing a series of minor parts, eventually progressing to starring roles in 1909. In April 1910, he was given the lead in a new sketch, Jimmy the Fearless. It was a big success, and Chaplin received considerable press attention.
Karno selected his new star to join the section of the company that toured North America's vaudeville circuit. The young comedian headed the show and impressed reviewers, being described as "one of the best pantomime artists ever seen here". His most successful role was a drunk called the "Inebriate Swell", which drew him significant recognition. The tour lasted 21 months, and the troupe returned to England in June 1912. Chaplin recalled that he "had a disquieting feeling of sinking back into a depressing commonplaceness", and was therefore delighted when a new tour began in October.
Entering films (1914–1917)
Six months into the second American tour, Chaplin was invited to join the New York Motion Picture Company. A representative who had seen his performances thought he could replace Fred Mace, a star of their Keystone Studios who intended to leave. Chaplin thought the Keystone comedies "a crude mélange of rough and rumble", but liked the idea of working in films and rationalised: "Besides, it would mean a new life." He met with the company, and signed a $150-per-week contract in September 1913.
Chaplin (left) in his first film appearance, Making a Living (1914)
The Tramp debuts in Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), Chaplin's second released film
Chaplin arrived in Los Angeles, home of the Keystone studio, in early December 1913. His boss was Mack Sennett, who initially expressed concern that the 24-year-old looked too young. He was not used in a picture until late January, during which time Chaplin attempted to learn the processes of filmmaking. The one-reeler Making a Living marked his film acting debut, and was released on 2 February 1914. Chaplin strongly disliked the picture, but one review picked him out as "a comedian of the first water". For his second appearance in front of the camera, Chaplin selected the costume with which he became identified. He described the process in his autobiography:
"I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large ... I added a small moustache, which, I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression. I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on stage he was fully born."[note 8]
The film was Mabel's Strange Predicament, but "the Tramp" character, as it became known, debuted to audiences in Kid Auto Races at Venice – shot later than Mabel's Strange Predicament but released two days earlier. Chaplin adopted the character as his screen persona, and attempted to make suggestions for the films he appeared in. These ideas were dismissed by his directors. During the filming of his eleventh picture, Mabel at the Wheel, he clashed with director Mabel Normand and was almost released from his contract. Sennett kept him on, however, when he received orders from exhibitors for more Chaplin films. Sennett also allowed Chaplin to direct his next film himself, after Chaplin promised to pay $1,500 if the film was unsuccessful.
Caught in the Rain, issued 4 May 1914, was Chaplin's directorial debut and was highly successful. Thereafter he directed almost every short film in which he appeared for Keystone, at the rate of approximately one per week, a period which he later remembered as the most exciting time of his career. Chaplin's films introduced a slower form of comedy than the typical Keystone farce, and he developed a large fan base. In November 1914, he had a supporting role in the first feature length comedy film, Tillie's Punctured Romance, directed by Sennett and starring Marie Dressler, which was a commercial success and increased his popularity. When Chaplin's contract came up for renewal at the end of the year, he asked for $1,000 a week – an amount Sennett refused as too large.
Chaplin and Edna Purviance, his regular leading lady, in Work (1915)
The Essanay Film Manufacturing Company sent Chaplin an offer of $1,250 a week with a signing bonus of $10,000. He joined the studio in late December 1914, where he began forming a stock company of regular players, including Leo White, Bud Jamison, Paddy McGuire and Billy Armstrong. He soon recruited a leading lady – Edna Purviance, whom Chaplin met in a cafe and hired on account of her beauty. She went on to appear in 35 films with Chaplin over eight years; the pair also formed a romantic relationship that lasted into 1917.
Chaplin asserted a high level of control over his pictures, and started to put more time and care into each film. There was a month-long interval between the release of his second production, A Night Out, and his third, The Champion. The final seven of Chaplin's 14 Essanay films were all produced at this slower pace. Chaplin also began to alter his screen persona, which had attracted some criticism at Keystone for its "mean, crude, and brutish" nature. The character became more gentle and romantic; The Tramp (April 1915) was considered a particular turning point in his development. The use of pathos was developed further with The Bank, in which Chaplin created a sad ending. Robinson notes that this was an innovation in comedy films, and marked the time when serious critics began to appreciate Chaplin's work. At Essanay, writes film scholar Simon Louvish, Chaplin "found the themes and the settings that would define the Tramp's world."
During 1915, Chaplin became a cultural phenomenon. Shops were stocked with Chaplin merchandise, he was featured in cartoons and comic strips, and several songs were written about him. In July, a journalist for Motion Picture Magazine wrote that "Chaplinitis" had spread across America. As his fame grew worldwide, he became the film industry's first international star. When the Essanay contract ended in December 1915,[note 9] Chaplin – fully aware of his popularity – requested a $150,000 signing bonus from his next studio. He received several offers, including Universal, Fox, and Vitagraph, the best of which came from the Mutual Film Corporation at $10,000 a week.
By 1916, Chaplin was a global phenomenon. Here he shows off some of his merchandise, c. 1918.
A contract was negotiated with Mutual that amounted to $670,000 a year, which Robinson says made Chaplin – at 26 years old – one of the highest paid people in the world. The high salary shocked the public and was widely reported in the press. John R. Freuler, the studio president, explained: "We can afford to pay Mr. Chaplin this large sum annually because the public wants Chaplin and will pay for him."
Mutual gave Chaplin his own Los Angeles studio to work in, which opened in March 1916. He added two key members to his stock company, Albert Austin and Eric Campbell, and produced a series of elaborate two-reelers: The Floorwalker, The Fireman, The Vagabond, One A.M. and The Count. For The Pawnshop he recruited the actor Henry Bergman, who was to work with Chaplin for 30 years. Behind the Screen and The Rink completed Chaplin's releases for 1916. The Mutual contract stipulated that he release a two-reel film every four weeks, which he had managed to achieve. With the new year, however, Chaplin began to demand more time. He made only four more films for Mutual over the first ten months of 1917: Easy Street, The Cure, The Immigrant and The Adventurer. With their careful construction, these films are considered by Chaplin scholars to be among his finest work. Later in life, Chaplin referred to his Mutual years as the happiest period of his career.
Chaplin was attacked in the British media for not fighting in the First World War. He defended himself, revealing that he would fight for Britain if called and had registered for the American draft, but he was not summoned by either country.[note 10] Despite this criticism Chaplin was a favourite with the troops, and his popularity continued to grow worldwide. Harper's Weekly reported that the name of Charlie Chaplin was "a part of the common language of almost every country", and that the Tramp image was "universally familiar". In 1917, professional Chaplin imitators were so widespread that he took legal action, and it was reported that nine out of ten men who attended costume parties dressed as the Tramp. The same year, a study by the Boston Society for Psychical Research concluded that Chaplin was "an American obsession". The actress Minnie Maddern Fiske wrote that "a constantly increasing body of cultured, artistic people are beginning to regard the young English buffoon, Charles Chaplin, as an extraordinary artist, as well as a comic genius".
First National (1918–1922)
A Dog's Life (1918). It was around this time that Chaplin began to conceive the Tramp as "a sort of Pierrot", or sad clown.
Mutual were patient with Chaplin's decreased rate of output, and the contract ended amicably. His primary concern in finding a new distributor was independence; Sydney Chaplin, then his business manager, told the press, "Charlie [must] be allowed all the time he needs and all the money for producing [films] the way he wants ... It is quality, not quantity, we are after." In June 1917, Chaplin signed to complete eight films for First National Exhibitors' Circuit in return for $1 million. He chose to build his own studio, situated on five acres of land off Sunset Boulevard, with production facilities of the highest order. It was completed in January 1918, and Chaplin was given freedom over the making of his pictures.
A Dog's Life, released April 1918, was the first film under the new contract. In it, Chaplin demonstrated his increasing concern with story construction, and his treatment of the Tramp as "a sort of Pierrot". The film was described by Louis Delluc as "cinema's first total work of art". Chaplin then embarked on the Third Liberty Bond campaign, touring the United States for one month to raise money for the Allies of the First World War. He also produced a short propaganda film, donated to the government for fund-raising, called The Bond. Chaplin's next release was war-based, placing the Tramp in the trenches for Shoulder Arms. Associates warned him against making a comedy about the war but, as he later recalled: "Dangerous or not, the idea excited me." He spent four months filming the 45-minute-long picture, which was released in October 1918 with great success.
United Artists, Mildred Harris, and The Kid
After the release of Shoulder Arms, Chaplin requested more money from First National, which was refused. Frustrated with their lack of concern for quality, and worried about rumours of a possible merger between the company and Famous Players-Lasky, Chaplin joined forces with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D. W. Griffith to form a new distribution company – United Artists, established in January 1919. The arrangement was revolutionary in the film industry, as it enabled the four partners – all creative artists – to personally fund their pictures and have complete control. Chaplin was eager to start with the new company, and offered to buy out his contract with First National. They declined this, and insisted that he complete the final six films he owed them.
The Kid (1921), with Jackie Coogan, combined comedy with drama and was Chaplin's first film to exceed an hour.
Before the creation of United Artists, Chaplin married for the first time. The 17-year-old actress Mildred Harris had revealed that she was pregnant with his child, and in September 1918 he married her quietly in Los Angeles to avoid controversy. Soon after, the pregnancy was found to be a false alarm. Chaplin was unhappy with the union and, feeling that marriage stunted his creativity, struggled over the production of his film Sunnyside. Harris was by then legitimately pregnant, and on 7 July 1919, gave birth to a son. Norman Spencer Chaplin was born malformed, and died three days later. The marriage eventually ended in April 1920, with Chaplin explaining in his autobiography that they were "irreconcilably mismated".
Losing a child is thought to have influenced Chaplin's work, as he planned a film which turned the Tramp into the caretaker of a young boy. For this new venture, Chaplin also wished to do more than comedy and, according to Louvish, "make his mark on a changed world." Filming on The Kid began in August 1919, with four-year-old Jackie Coogan his co-star. It occurred to Chaplin that it was turning into a large project, so to placate First National, he halted production and quickly filmed A Day's Pleasure. The Kid was in production for nine months, until May 1920, and at 68 minutes it was Chaplin's longest picture to date. Dealing with issues of poverty and parent–child separation, The Kid is thought to have been influenced by Chaplin's own childhood and was one of the earliest films to combine comedy and drama. It was released in January 1921 with instant success, and by 1924 had been screened in over 50 countries.
Chaplin spent five months on his next film, the two-reeler The Idle Class. Following its September 1921 release, he chose to return to England for the first time in almost a decade. He then worked to fulfil his First National contract, releasing Pay Day in February 1922. The Pilgrim – his final short film – was delayed by distribution disagreements with the studio, and released a year later.
Silent features (1923–1938)
A Woman of Paris and The Gold Rush
Having fulfilled his First National contract, Chaplin was free to make his first picture as an independent producer. In November 1922 he began filming A Woman of Paris, a romantic drama about ill-fated lovers. Chaplin intended it to be a star-making vehicle for Edna Purviance, and did not appear in the picture himself other than in a brief, uncredited cameo. He wished for the film to have a realistic feel, and directed his cast to give restrained performances. In real life, he explained, "men and women try to hide their emotions rather than seek to express them". A Woman of Paris premiered in September 1923 and was acclaimed for its subtle approach, then an innovation. The public, however, seemed to have little interest in a Chaplin film without his presence, and it was a box-office disappointment. The filmmaker was hurt by this failure – he had long wanted to produce a dramatic film and was proud of the result – and withdrew A Woman of Paris from circulation as soon as he could.
The Tramp resorts to eating his boot in a famous scene from The Gold Rush (1925)
Chaplin returned to comedy for his next project. Setting his standards high, he told himself: "This next film must be an epic! The Greatest!" Inspired by a photograph of the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush, and later the story of the Donner Party of 1846–47, he made what Geoffrey Macnab calls "an epic comedy out of grim subject matter." In The Gold Rush, the Tramp is a lonely prospector fighting adversity and looking for love. With Georgia Hale as his new leading lady, Chaplin began filming the picture in February 1924. Its elaborate production, costing almost $1 million, included location shooting in the Truckee mountains with 600 extras, extravagant sets, and special effects. The last scene was not shot until May 1925, after 15 months of filming.
Chaplin felt The Gold Rush was the best film he had made to that point. It opened in August 1925 and became one of the highest-grossing films of the silent era with a profit of $5 million. The comedy contains some of Chaplin's most famous sequences, such as the Tramp eating his shoe and the "Dance of the Rolls". Macnab has called it "the quintessential Chaplin film". Chaplin stated, "This is the picture that I want to be remembered by" at the time of the film's release.
Lita Grey and The Circus
Lita Grey, Chaplin's second wife, two years after their bitter divorce
While making The Gold Rush, Chaplin married for the second time. Mirroring the circumstances of his first union, Lita Grey was a teenage actress, originally set to star in the film, whose surprise announcement of pregnancy forced Chaplin into marriage. She was 16 and he was 35, meaning Chaplin could have been charged with statutory rape under California law. He therefore arranged a discreet marriage in Mexico on 25 November 1924. Their first son, Charles Spencer Chaplin, Jr., was born on 5 May 1925, followed by Sydney Earl Chaplin on 30 March 1926.
It was an unhappy marriage, and Chaplin spent long hours at the studio to avoid seeing his wife. In November 1926, Grey took the children and left the family home. A bitter divorce followed, in which Grey's application – accusing Chaplin of infidelity, abuse, and of harbouring "perverted sexual desires" – was leaked to the press.[note 11] Chaplin was reported to be in the state of a nervous breakdown, as the story became headline news and groups formed across America calling for his films to be banned. Eager to end the case without further scandal, Chaplin's lawyers agreed to a cash settlement of $600,000 – the largest awarded by American courts at that time. His fanbase was strong enough to survive the incident, and it was soon forgotten, but Chaplin was deeply affected by it.
Before the divorce suit was filed, Chaplin had begun work on a new film, The Circus. He built a story around the idea of walking a tightrope while besieged by monkeys, and turned the Tramp into the accidental star of a circus. Filming was suspended for 10 months while he dealt with the divorce scandal, and it was generally a trouble-ridden production. Finally completed in October 1927, The Circus was released in January 1928 to a positive reception. At the 1st Academy Awards, Chaplin was given a special trophy "For versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing The Circus. Despite its success, he permanently associated the film with the stress of its production; Chaplin omitted The Circus from his autobiography, and struggled to work on it when he recorded the score in his later years.
"I was determined to continue making silent films ... I was a pantomimist and in that medium I was unique and, without false modesty, a master."
—Chaplin explaining his defiance against sound in the 1930s
By the time The Circus was released, Hollywood had witnessed the introduction of sound films. Chaplin was cynical about this new medium and the technical shortcomings it presented, believing that "talkies" lacked the artistry of silent films. He was also hesitant to change the formula that had brought him such success, and feared that giving the Tramp a voice would limit his international appeal. He therefore rejected the new Hollywood craze and began work on a new silent film. Chaplin was nonetheless anxious about this decision, and remained so throughout the film's production.
City Lights (1931), regarded as one of Chaplin's finest works
When filming began at the end of 1928, Chaplin had been working on the story for almost a year. City Lights followed the Tramp's love for a blind flower girl (played by Virginia Cherrill) and his efforts to raise money for her sight-saving operation. It was a challenging production that lasted 21 months, with Chaplin later confessing that he "had worked himself into a neurotic state of wanting perfection". One advantage Chaplin found in sound technology was the opportunity to record a musical score for the film, which he partly composed himself.
Chaplin finished editing City Lights in December 1930, by which time silent films were an anachronism. A preview before an unsuspecting public audience was not a success, but a showing for the press produced positive reviews. One journalist wrote, "Nobody in the world but Charlie Chaplin could have done it. He is the only person that has that peculiar something called 'audience appeal' in sufficient quality to defy the popular penchant for movies that talk." Given its general release in January 1931, City Lights proved to be a popular and financial success – eventually grossing over $3 million. The British Film Institute cites it as Chaplin's finest accomplishment, and the critic James Agee hails the closing scene as "the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies". City Lights became Chaplin’s personal favorite of all his films and remained his favorite for the rest of his life.
Travels, Paulette Goddard, and Modern Times
City Lights had been a success, but Chaplin was unsure if he could make another picture without dialogue. He remained convinced that sound would not work in his films, but was also "obsessed by a depressing fear of being old-fashioned." In this state of uncertainty, early in 1931 the comedian decided to take a holiday and ended up travelling for 16 months.[note 12] In his autobiography, Chaplin recalled that on his return to Los Angeles, "I was confused and without plan, restless and conscious of an extreme loneliness". He briefly considered the option of retiring and moving to China.
Modern Times (1936), described by Jérôme Larcher as a "grim contemplation on the automatization of the individual"
Chaplin's loneliness was relieved when he met 21-year-old actress Paulette Goddard in July 1932, and the pair began a successful relationship. He was not ready to commit to a film, however, and focussed on writing a serial about his travels (published in Woman's Home Companion). The trip had been a stimulating experience for Chaplin, including meetings with several prominent thinkers, and he became increasingly interested in world affairs. The state of labour in America troubled him, and he feared that capitalism and machinery in the workplace would increase unemployment levels. It was these concerns that stimulated Chaplin to develop his new film.
Modern Times was announced by Chaplin as "a satire on certain phases of our industrial life." Featuring the Tramp and Goddard as they endure the Great Depression, it took ten and a half months to film. Chaplin intended to use spoken dialogue, but changed his mind during rehearsals. Like its predecessor, Modern Times employed sound effects, but almost no speaking. Chaplin's performance of a gibberish song did, however, give the Tramp a voice for the only time on film. After recording the music, Chaplin released Modern Times in February 1936. It was his first feature in 15 years to adopt political references and social realism, a factor that attracted considerable press coverage despite Chaplin's attempts to downplay the issue. The film earned less at the box-office than his previous features and received mixed reviews, as some viewers disliked the politicising. Today, Modern Times is seen by the British Film Institute as one of Chaplin's "great features," while David Robinson says it shows the filmmaker at "his unrivalled peak as a creator of visual comedy."
Following the release of Modern Times, Chaplin left with Goddard for a trip to the Far East. The couple had refused to comment on the nature of their relationship, and it was not known whether they were married or not. Some time later, Chaplin revealed that they married in Canton during this trip. By 1938 the couple had drifted apart, as both focused heavily on their work, although Goddard was again his leading lady in his next feature film, The Great Dictator. She eventually divorced Chaplin in Mexico in 1942, citing incompatibility and separation for more than a year.
Controversies and fading popularity (1939–1952)
The Great Dictator
Chaplin satirising Adolf Hitler in The Great Dictator (1940)
The 1940s saw Chaplin face a series of controversies, both in his work and in his personal life, which changed his fortunes and severely affected his popularity in the United States. The first of these was a new boldness in expressing his political beliefs. Deeply disturbed by the surge of militaristic nationalism in 1930s world politics, Chaplin found that he could not keep these issues out of his work. Parallels between himself and Adolf Hitler had been widely noted: the pair were born four days apart, both had risen from poverty to world prominence, and the German dictator wore the same toothbrush moustache as the Tramp. It was this physical resemblance that supplied the plot for Chaplin's next film, The Great Dictator, which directly satirised Hitler and attacked fascism.
Chaplin spent two years developing the script, and began filming in September 1939 – six days after Britain declared war on Germany. He had submitted to using spoken dialogue, partly out of acceptance that he had no other choice, but also because he recognised it as a better method for delivering a political message. Making a comedy about Hitler was seen as highly controversial, but Chaplin's financial independence allowed him to take the risk. "I was determined to go ahead," he later wrote, "for Hitler must be laughed at."[note 13] Chaplin replaced the Tramp (while wearing similar attire) with "A Jewish Barber", a reference to the Nazi party's belief that he was a Jew.[note 14] In a dual performance he also played the dictator "Adenoid Hynkel", who parodied Hitler.
The Great Dictator spent a year in production, and was released in October 1940. There was a vast amount of publicity around the film, with a critic for The New York Times calling it "the most eagerly awaited picture of the year", and it was one of the biggest money-makers of the era. The ending was unpopular, however, and generated controversy. Chaplin concluded the film with a five-minute speech in which he abandoned his barber character, looked directly into the camera, and pleaded against war and fascism. Charles J. Maland has identified this overt preaching as triggering a decline in Chaplin's popularity, and writes, "Henceforth, no movie fan would ever be able to separate the dimension of politics from [his] star image".[note 15] The Great Dictator received five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor.
Legal troubles and Oona O'Neill
In the mid-1940s, Chaplin was involved in a series of trials that occupied most of his time and significantly affected his public image. The troubles stemmed from his affair with an aspirant actress named Joan Barry, with whom he was involved intermittently between June 1941 and the autumn of 1942. Barry, who displayed obsessive behaviour and was twice arrested after they separated,[note 16] reappeared the following year and announced that she was pregnant with Chaplin's child. As Chaplin denied the claim, Barry filed a paternity suit against him.
The director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), J. Edgar Hoover, who had long been suspicious of Chaplin's political leanings, used the opportunity to generate negative publicity around him. As part of a smear campaign to damage Chaplin's image, the FBI named him in four indictments related to the Barry case. Most serious of these was an alleged violation of the Mann Act, which prohibits the transportation of women across state boundaries for sexual purposes.[note 17] The historian Otto Friedrich has called this an "absurd prosecution" of an "ancient statute", yet if Chaplin was found guilty, he faced 23 years in jail. Three charges lacked sufficient evidence to proceed to court, but the Mann Act trial began in March 1944. Chaplin was acquitted two weeks later. The case was frequently headline news, with Newsweek calling it the "biggest public relations scandal since the Fatty Arbuckle murder trial in 1921."
Chaplin's fourth wife Oona O'Neill, to whom he was married from 1943 until his death. The couple had eight children.
Barry's child, Carole Ann, was born in October 1944, and the paternity suit went to court in February 1945. After two arduous trials, in which the prosecuting lawyer accused him of "moral turpitude", Chaplin was declared to be the father. Evidence from blood tests which indicated otherwise were not admissible, and the judge ordered Chaplin to pay child support until Carole Ann turned 21.[note 18] Media coverage of the paternity suit was influenced by the FBI, as information was fed to the prominent gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, and Chaplin was portrayed in an overwhelmingly critical light.
The controversy surrounding Chaplin increased when, two weeks after the paternity suit was filed, it was announced that he had married his newest protégée, 18-year-old Oona O'Neill – daughter of the American playwright Eugene O'Neill. Chaplin, then 54, had been introduced to her by a film agent seven months earlier.[note 19] In his autobiography, Chaplin described meeting O'Neill as "the happiest event of my life", and claimed to have found "perfect love". Chaplin's son, Charles Jr., reported that Oona "worshipped" his father. The couple remained married until Chaplin's death, and had eight children over 18 years: Geraldine Leigh (b. July 1944), Michael John (b. March 1946), Josephine Hannah (b. March 1949), Victoria (b. May 1951), Eugene Anthony (b. August 1953), Jane Cecil (b. May 1957), Annette Emily (b. December 1959), and Christopher James (b. July 1962).
Monsieur Verdoux and communist accusations
Monsieur Verdoux (1947), a dark comedy about a serial killer, marked a significant departure for Chaplin. He was so unpopular at the time of release that it flopped in the United States.
Chaplin claimed that the Barry trials had "crippled [his] creativeness", and it was some time before he began working again. In April 1946, he finally began filming a project that had been in development since 1942. Monsieur Verdoux was a black comedy, the story of a French bank clerk, Verdoux (Chaplin), who loses his job and begins marrying and murdering wealthy widows to support his family. Chaplin's inspiration for the project came from Orson Welles, who wanted him to star in a film about the French serial killer Henri Désiré Landru. Chaplin decided that the concept would "make a wonderful comedy", and paid Welles $5,000 for the idea.
Chaplin again vocalised his political views in Monsieur Verdoux, criticising capitalism and arguing that the world encourages mass killing through wars and weapons of mass destruction. Because of this, the film met with controversy when it was released in April 1947; Chaplin was booed at the premiere, and there were calls for a boycott. Monsieur Verdoux was the first Chaplin release that failed both critically and commercially in the United States. It was more successful abroad, and Chaplin's screenplay was nominated at the Academy Awards. He was proud of the film, writing in his autobiography, "Monsieur Verdoux is the cleverest and most brilliant film I have yet made."
The negative reaction to Monsieur Verdoux was largely the result of changes in Chaplin's public image. Along with damage of the Joan Barry scandal, he was publicly accused of being a communist. His political activity had heightened during World War II, when he campaigned for the opening of a Second Front to help the Soviet Union and supported various Soviet–American friendship groups. He was also friendly with several suspected communists, and attended functions given by Soviet diplomats in Los Angeles. In the political climate of 1940s America, such activities meant Chaplin was considered, as Larcher writes, "dangerously progressive and amoral." The FBI wanted him out of the country, and early in 1947 they launched an official investigation.[note 20]
Chaplin denied being a communist, instead calling himself a "peacemonger", but felt the government's effort to suppress the ideology was an unacceptable infringement of civil liberties. Unwilling to be quiet about the issue, he openly protested the trials of Communist Party members and the activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Chaplin received a subpoena to appear before HUAC, but was not called to testify. As his activities were widely reported in the press, and Cold War fears grew, questions were raised over his failure to take American citizenship. Calls were made for him to be deported; in one extreme and widely published example, Representative John E. Rankin, who helped establish HUAC, told Congress in June 1947: "[Chaplin's] very life in Hollywood is detrimental to the moral fabric of America. [If he is deported] ... his loathsome pictures can be kept from before the eyes of the American youth. He should be deported and gotten rid of at once."
Limelight and banning from the United States
Limelight (1952) was a serious and autobiographical film for Chaplin: his character, Calvero, is an ex music hall star (described in this image as a "Tramp Comedian") forced to deal with his loss of popularity.
Although Chaplin remained politically active in the years following the failure of Monsieur Verdoux,[note 21] his next film, about a forgotten vaudeville comedian and a young ballerina in Edwardian London, was devoid of political themes. Limelight was heavily autobiographical, alluding not only to Chaplin's childhood and the lives of his parents, but also to his loss of popularity in the United States. The cast included various members of his family, including his five oldest children and his half-brother, Wheeler Dryden.
Filming began in November 1951, by which time Chaplin had spent three years working on the story.[note 22] He aimed for a more serious tone than any of his previous films, regularly using the word "melancholy" when explaining his plans to his co-star Claire Bloom. Limelight is also notable for a cameo appearance from Buster Keaton, whom Chaplin cast as his stage partner in a pantomime scene. This marked the only time the comedians worked together.
Chaplin decided to hold the world premiere of Limelight in London, since it was the setting of the film. As he left Los Angeles, he expressed a premonition that he would not be returning. At New York, he boarded the RMS Queen Elizabeth with his family on 18 September 1952. The next day, attorney general James P. McGranery revoked Chaplin's re-entry permit and stated that he would have to submit to an interview concerning his political views and moral behaviour in order to re-enter the US. Although McGranery told the press that he had "a pretty good case against Chaplin", Maland has concluded, on the basis of the FBI files that were released in the 1980s, that the US government had no real evidence to prevent Chaplin's re-entry. It is likely that he would have gained entry if he had applied for it. However, when Chaplin received a cablegram informing him of the news, he privately decided to cut his ties with the United States:
"Whether I re-entered that unhappy country or not was of little consequence to me. I would like to have told them that the sooner I was rid of that hate-beleaguered atmosphere the better, that I was fed up of America's insults and moral pomposity"
Because all of his property remained in America, Chaplin refrained from saying anything negative about the incident to the press. The scandal attracted vast attention, but Chaplin and his film were warmly received in Europe. In America the hostility towards him continued, and, although it received some positive reviews, Limelight was subjected to a wide-scale boycott. Reflecting on this, Maland writes that Chaplin's fall, from an "unprecedented" level of popularity, "may be the most dramatic in the history of stardom in America".