Incontestably the king of silent screen comedies, Charlie Chaplin achieved international stardom with his utterly captivating portrayal of “The Little Tramp” in such classic films as The Kid (1920), The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931), and Modern Times (1936).
The Tramp’s shambling, yet winsome, characteristics weren’t such a stretch for Chaplin to affect–growing up impoverished and often lonely in the London slums, he and his brother Sydney spent the majority of their childhood in orphanages and workhouses, after their father expired from alcoholism and their mother was confined to an insane asylum. During his adolescence, Chaplin made his own way by working variously as a lather boy in a barbershop, as a janitor in music halls, and as a bit vaudeville player.
While traveling in the United States with the Fred Karno Company, a British troupe, in 1913, Chaplin was discovered onstage by producer Mack Sennett, who signed him to Keystone Films to star in one-reelers for a whopping $150 a week. Chaplin’s fame as a great screen comedian spread like a plague, and by the end of 1920, he had appeared in sixty-nine films, and was commanding an unheard-of salary of $10,000 a week. His production output thereafter tapered off, as Chaplin, a gifted director, producer, scriptwriter, and composer, began to take full creative control of his projects.
Something of a workaholic and most definitely a perfectionist, Chaplin became famous for shooting as much as fifty times the amount of footage necessary in order to satisfy his artistic vision. Taking his obsessive love of artistic control a step further, Chaplin co-founded United Artists, the first modern film production and distribution company, with screen legends Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith, and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.
Trouble first beset Chaplin when he was accused in the press of being a Leftist, following the release of his anti-Hitler satire, The Great Dictator (1940)–the film’s passionate plea for the launching of a second front in Europe to aid the Russians caused politicians and journalists to seriously doubt his nationalism.
Again in 1947, censors and conservatives berated Chaplin over his black comedy Monsieur Verdoux (1947), which related an uncomfortably “contemporary” view of society; the film was picketed, banned in Memphis, and withdrawn from numerous theaters because of its controversial themes. Further plagued by a pesky paternity suit brought against him by actress Joan Barry that earned him–fairly or unfairly–the reputation of a debauching Svengali, Chaplin declared himself a “citizen of the world” in 1952, and took up permanent residence in Switzerland with his fourth and last wife, Oona.
He returned to the U.S. only once, in 1972, to receive an honorary Academy Award. Chaplin won another Oscar, in 1973, for his 1952 score of Limelight (a morass of legal difficulties had postponed the release of the movie for two decades). In 1975, Chaplin received the ultimate honor of being knighted for his many legendary achievements in the entertainment field.
“The single most important artist produced by the cinema, certainly its most extraordinary performer, and probably still its most univeral icon.” – Andrew Sarris, critic