Sir Charles Spencer "Charlie" Chaplin, KBE
(16 April 1889 â€“ 25 December 1977)
was an English comic actor, film director and composer best known for his work in the United States during the silent film era. He became the most famous film star in the world before the end of World War I. Chaplin used mime, slapstick and other visual comedy routines, and continued well into the era of the talkies, though his films decreased in frequency from the end of the 1920s. His most famous role was that of The Tramp, which he first played in the Keystone comedy Kid Auto Races at Venice in 1914. From the April 1914 one-reeler Twenty Minutes of Love onwards he was writing and directing most of his films, by 1916 he was also producing them, and from 1918 he was even composing the music for them. With Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D. W. Griffith, he co-founded United Artists in 1919.
Chaplin was one of the most creative and influential personalities of the silent-film era. He was influenced by his predecessor, the French silent film comedian Max Linder, to whom he dedicated one of his films. His working life in entertainment spanned over 75 years, from the Victorian stage and the music hall in the United Kingdom as a child performer, until close to his death at the age of 88. His high-profile public and private life encompassed both adulation and controversy. Chaplin was identified with left-wing politics during the McCarthy era and he was ultimately forced to resettle in Europe from 1952.
In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked Chaplin the 10th-greatest American male screen legend of all time. In 2008, Martin Sieff, in a review of the book Chaplin: A Life, wrote, "Chaplin was not just 'big', he was gigantic. In 1915, he burst onto a war-torn world bringing it the gift of comedy, laughter and relief while it was tearing itself apart through World War I. Over the next 25 years, through the Great Depression and the rise of Adolf Hitler, he stayed on the job. ... It is doubtful any individual has ever given more entertainment, pleasure and relief to so many human beings when they needed it the most." George Bernard Shaw called Chaplin "the only genius to come out of the movie industry".
Charles Spencer Chaplin was born on 16 April 1889 to Hannah Chaplin (nÃ©e Hill, 1865â€“1928) and Charles Chaplin, Sr. (1863â€“1901). There is no official record of his birth, although Chaplin believed he was born at East Street, Walworth, in South London. His mother and father had married four years previously, at which time Chaplin, Sr. became the legal carer of Hannah's illegitimate son, Sydney John (1885â€“1965). At the time of his birth, Chaplin's parents were both entertainers in the music hall tradition; 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, worked as a popular singer. The Chaplins became estranged around 1891; a year later, Hannah gave birth to a third sonâ€”George Wheeler Drydenâ€”fathered by 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.
Chaplin's childhood was fraught with poverty and hardship, prompting biographer David Robinson to describe his eventual trajectory as "the most dramatic of all the rags to riches stories ever told." His early years were spent with his mother and brother in the London district of Kennington; Hannah had no means of income, other than occasional nursing and dressmaking, and Chaplin Sr. provided no support for his sons. Because of this poverty, Chaplin was sent to a workhouse at seven years old. 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 at nine years old, before Hannah was forced to readmit her family to the workhouse in July 1898. The boys were promptly sent to Norwood Schools, another charity institution.
"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."
â€”Chaplin on his childhood
In September 1898, Hannah Chaplin was committed to Cane Hill mental asylumâ€”she had developed a psychosis seemingly brought on by malnutrition and an infection of syphilis. Chaplin recalled his anguish at the news, "Why had she done this? Mother, so light-hearted and gay, how could she go insane?" For the two months she was there, Chaplin and his brother were sent to live with their father, whom the young boy scarcely knew. Charles Chaplin Sr. was by then a severe alcoholic, and life with the man was bad enough to provoke a visit from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. He died two years later, at 37 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. He lived alone for several days, searching for food and occasionally sleeping rough, until his brother Sydney returned from the navy. Hannah was released from the asylum eight months later, but in March 1905 her madness 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.