The legendary actor Charlie Chaplin had a career spanning more than 75 years. After starting out as a music hall performer in his teens, he rose to fame in the early-20th-century silent movies.
The London-born star escaped from a life of poverty. From living in the workhouse as a child, he went on to become one of Hollywood’s greatest legends and one of the most important figures in the history of motion pictures. His life story has been described by his biographer, David Robinson, as the most “dramatic rags to riches story” ever told.
Born on 16 April 1889, in Victorian England, Chaplin was the son of music hall performers Charles and Hannah Chaplin. Hannah’s brief and largely unsuccessful career, under the stage name Lily Harley, came to an end. Charles senior’s career as a singer was more successful. However, the couple had separated by 1891.
Hannah brought up Charlie and his older half-brother Sydney alone. Sadly, she had a mental illness and was institutionalised in Cane Hill mental asylum in 1898. Charlie spent time in Lambeth Workhouse and he also lived with his father, until severe alcoholism killed him at 38 years old.
During his time in the poorhouse and while trying to care for his mother between her stays in psychiatric institutions, young Charlie began to make a living by performing on stage. He was no stranger to the theatre, having appeared in his mother’s show when he was only five years old. He toured English music halls with a clog-dancing troupe called Eight Lancashire Lads in 1899 and 1900.
First silent film
At the time, silent films were still in their infancy. The world’s oldest surviving moving picture is a brief clip entitled Roundhay Garden Scene. It shows men and women walking around a garden in Roundhay, Leeds, at the home of Joseph and Sarah Whitley.
Inventor Louis Le Prince filmed the scene on 14th October 1888. It runs for 2.11 seconds and was recorded at 12 frames per second using a single-lens combination camera-projector.
According to Le Prince’s son, Adolphe, his father created his film several years before fellow inventors Louis Lumière and Thomas Edison made a moving picture. However, Le Prince never gave the public demonstration he planned, as he mysteriously vanished.
The era of silent films is recognised as being from 1894 until 1929. At the time, when young Charlie Chaplin was making a name for himself on the stage in England, silent movies were already being made in Hollywood, France and Germany. Sadly, most of the early films have been lost.
The dialogue was conveyed by the actors using exaggerated gestures and mime, with the words appearing on static title cards, including written descriptions of the plot and key dialogue.
The film would be accompanied in the cinema by a pianist, an organist, or even a small orchestra in large city cinemas. They would play from sheet music or improvise to ensure the music matched the action.
In 1908, Charlie joined the famous Fred Karno’s comedy company, and following his successful debut at the London Coliseum, he was given a contract. The following year, he was playing leading roles with the company on its tour of North America’s vaudeville circuit.
After being on tour for 21 months, Charlie reportedly said that on his return to England, everything had a sense of being “depressingly commonplace”, so he was thrilled when a new American tour began in October 1912.
After six months of his second US tour, Charlie was spotted by a talent scout from the New York Motion Picture Company. He was signed up for the Keystone Studios’ comedies. In September 1913, his contract earned him $150 per week – the equivalent of $3,714 in today’s money.
Suddenly, he was no longer impoverished and his new life began. He was able to bring his sick mother to the US and give her a more comfortable life in a care home until her death in 1928.
By the age of 24, Charlie was in Los Angeles learning the process of film-making. His debut movie was Making a Living, written by Henry Lehrman, in February 1914. He played Edgar English, a charming swindler who fell foul of the Keystone Kops.
He disliked the film and for his second movie, Mabel’s Strange Predicament, later in 1914, he insisted on choosing his own costume.
This was the first time his famous character, The Tramp, was seen on screen. He described it as being a “contradiction” – with very baggy trousers but a tight coat, and a small hat with huge shoes.
He added the small moustache because he wanted to look older, after the studio had initially expressed concerns that he looked too young. The moment he put on the costume, he began to know the character and the type of person he was.
This was the start of Chaplin’s legendary career, when he appeared in at least 30 silent films – possibly more. He became a master at creating visual humour, with his artful actions and expressions conveying the mood of the film against the background music, making him one of the most sought-after actors of the silent era.
In 1919, he founded his own production company, United Artists, giving him complete control over his films. His multiple silent films included The Gold Rush in 1925, in which he played his Tramp persona during the Klondike Gold Rush.
In 1928, he starred in The Circus, again playing the famous Tramp character who this time was hired as a clown by a struggling circus-owner.
Birth of the “talkies”
He preferred silent films to the new “talkies” that began to emerge in the late 1920s, with Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer in 1927 being the first big budget film where the soundtrack was synchronised with the action. Charlie continued to produce silent films throughout the 1930s, enjoying success with City Lights in 1931 and Modern Times in 1936.
Sadly, after he made The Great Dictator (satirising Adolf Hitler) in 1940, audiences turned against him and accused him of being a Communist. He left the US after the FBI launched an investigation and settled in Switzerland.
He continued to make films, although he abandoned the Tramp character. He was extremely talented and a perfectionist, writing, directing, producing and starring in most of his films. He also composed the majority of the soundtracks. His final film was A Countess from Hong Kong in 1967, when he was 78 years old.
The legendary actor, who spent his final years in Corsier-sur-Vevey in Vaud, Switzerland, died on 25th December 1977, at the age of 88. In his private life, he was married four times and fathered 11 children, including eight with his fourth wife, Oona O’Neill, who died in 1991.
Their daughter, Geraldine Lee Chaplin, now aged 73, is a BAFTA-nominated actress who played her own grandmother, Hannah Chaplin, in the 1992 biopic, Chaplin.
Young people today may find it hard to imagine a world of silent films and their massive popularity for three decades. However, in today’s bustling world, many of us crave silence!
Providing acoustic solutions that are purpose-designed to suit various applications, Sound Planning has more than 35 years’ experience. If noise is polluting your life, please contact us for details of our range of products and services.