Charlie Chaplin’s life story

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The many faces of Charles Chaplin during his Keystone film days

Editor’s note from 1915: Charlie Chaplin’s life story was written by Harry C. Carr, who recently achieved fame as a war correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. No contribution to “movie” literature has created so much interest among film “fans” as this simple, straightforward account of the life history of the world’s most famous comedian.

Charlie Chaplin’s life story, Part I

As narrated by Mr Chaplin himself to Harry C. Carr – Photoplay Magazine, July 1915

I am going to reconstruct, as far as possible, Charlie Chaplin’s story just as he told it to me, in various little lulls and calms between pictures, or baths, or dinner engagements, or whatever seemed to be coming interferingly between us. I found him a quiet, simple, rather lovable little chap, with no especial ambition except to be of entertaining service to the world.

He balked at the idea of writing his own autobiography or having it written “to sign;” said he’d read fifty autobiographies of more or less well-known people which were just full of words which they’d never heard in their lives, so what was the use? But as I said, I will endeavor to tell his story as nearly in his own words as I can:

Actors trying to write autobiographies are like girls trying to make fudge. They use up a lot of good material — such as sugar and ink — and don’t accomplish much.

Charlie Chaplin as a young man in Hollywood

Like fudge, the story of a fellow’s life ought really to be reserved for his immediate relatives. If I were Lord Kitchener, doing things and saying things that made history, I could understand why the story of my life ought to be written; but I am just a little chap trying to make people laugh. They are all so anxious to be happy that they eagerly help me make the laughs — the audiences, I mean. But they give me all the credit — not taking any themselves for being so willing to laugh.

So I feel, in a way, that in telling this story, I am just talking it over with my business partners — the end of the firm that really makes the laughs.

Some day, when I have made money enough out of my share, I am going to buy a little farm and a good old horse and buggy — automobile agents can read this part twice — and retire; sometimes I will ride into town and go to a moving picture show and see some other fellow making them laugh. In the circumstances, I guess you can just put this story down to this: that Charlie Chaplin gives an account of himself to the firm.

Chaplin with Ince Sennett and Griffith in 1916

Chaplin on his career goals as a boy

When I was a little boy, the last thing I dreamed of was being a comedian. My idea was to be a member of Parliament or a great musician. I wasn’t quite clear which. The only thing I really dreamed about was being rich. We were so poor that wealth seemed to me the summit of all ambition and the end of the rainbow.

Both my father and mother were actors. My father was Charles Chaplin, a well-known singer of descriptive ballads. He had a fine baritone voice and is still remembered in England.

My mother was also a well-known vaudeville singer. On the stage, she was known as Lillie Harley. She, too, had a fine voice and was well known as a singer of the “character songs” which are so popular in England.

She and my father usually traveled with the same vaudeville company, but never, as far as I know, worked in the same act. In spite of their professional reputations and their two salaries, my earliest recollections are of poverty. I guess the salaries couldn’t have amounted to much in those days.

My brother Syd was four years old when I was born. That interesting event happened at Fontainebleau, France. My father and mother were touring the continent at that time with a vaudeville company. I was born at a hotel on April 16, 1889. As soon as my mother was able to travel, we returned to London, and that was my home, more or less, until I came to America.

Charles Chaplin in 1918

Singing on stage in a vaudeville act

The very first thing I can remember is of being shoved out on the stage to sing a song. I could not have been over five or six years old at the time. My mother was taken suddenly sick and I was sent on to take her place in the vaudeville bill. I sang an old Coster song called “Jack Jones.”

It must have been about this time that my father died. My mother was never very strong, and, what with the shock of my father’s death and all, she was unable to work for a time. My brother Syd and I were sent to the poorhouse.

English people have a great horror of the poorhouse; but I don’t remember it as a very dreadful place. To tell you the truth, I don’t remember much about it. 1 have just a vague idea of what it was like. The strongest recollection I have of this period of my life is of creeping off by myself at the poorhouse and pretending I was a very rich and grand person.

My brother Syd was always a wide-awake, lively, vigorous young person. But I was always delicate and rather sickly as a child. I was of a dreamy, imaginative disposition. I was always pretending I was somebody else, and the worst I ever gave myself in these daydreams and games of “pretend” was a seat in Parliament for life and an income of a million pounds.

Sometimes I used to pretend that I was a great musician, or the director of a great orchestra; but the director was always a rich man. Music, even in my poorhouse days, was always a passion with me. I never was able to take lessons of any kind, but I loved to hear music and could play any kind of instrument I could lay hands on. Even now, I can play the piano, ‘cello or violin by ear.

Charlie Chaplin quote: “What do you want a meaning for?…”

Syd had a lofty contempt for these dreams of mine. What Syd wanted was to be a sailor. He was always pretending he was walking the bridge of a great battleship, ordering broadsides walloped into the enemy’s ships of war.

We didn’t stay long at the poorhouse. I am not sure just how long, but my impression is of a short stay. My mother recovered her health to some extent and took us back home.

Syd went away from home immediately after we left the poorhouse. He was really very anxious to be a sailor, and my mother sent him to the Hanwell school, in Surrey, where boys are trained for the sea. Many boys from the poorhouse went to this school. I dare say that is where Syd got the idea.

In school in London

My mother sent me to school in London, I don’t remember a great deal about it. The strongest recollection I have of school is of being rapped over the knuckles by the teacher because I wrote left-handed. I was fairly hammered black and blue on the knuckles before I finally learned how to write with my right hand. As a result, I can now write just as well with one hand as the other.

On account of the random way we lived, I didn’t go to a regular school very much. Whatever. I learned of books came from my mother.

Mother “the most splendid woman”

It seems to me that my mother was the most splendid woman I ever knew. I can remember how charming and well mannered she was. She spoke four languages fluently and had a good education. I have met a lot of people knocking around the world since; but I have never met a more thoroughly refined woman than my mother.

If I have amounted to anything, or ever do amount to anything, it will be due to her. I can remember very plainly how, even as a very small child, she tried to teach me. I would have been a fine young roughneck, slamming around the world as I did, if it not had been for my mother.

I don’t remember ever’ having had any definite ambition to go on the stage or of being attracted to the life. I just naturally drifted onto the stage, just as the son of a storekeeper begins tending to the counter.

Classic Charlie Chaplin movie from 1925 - The Gold Rush Middle-aged Charles Spencer Chaplin Charlie Chaplin and his brother Syd Chaplin Charlie Chaplin directing movie from 1925 - The Gold Rush Charlie Chaplin movie from 1925 - The Gold Rush - Promo materials


With both my mother and father, however, it was a definite intention to put me on the stage. I can’t remember when the talk of this began. It always seemed to be a fact generally understood in the family that I should be an actor. I can remember how carefully my mother trained me in stagecraft. I learned acting as I learned to read and write.

I don’t remember when I began regularly as a professional, but I remember that I was already working on the stage when I had a narrow escape from drowning.

I remember that I was on tour with a show called “The Yorkshire Lads.” It seems to me that I could not have been much over five or six years old; but I suppose I must have been a year or two older. Two or three of the boys of the company were throwing sticks into the River Thames, and I slipped into the stream.

I can remember how I felt as I was swept down the river on the current. I knew that I was drowning, when I felt a big, shaggy body in the water near me: I had just consciousness and strength left to grab hold of the fur and hang on, and was dragged ashore by a big black woolly dog which” belonged to a policeman on duty along the river. If it hadn’t been for that dog, there wouldn’t have been any Charlie Chaplin on the screen.

I don’t remember anything about the show I was acting in at that time. I suppose I must have been acting or singing at intervals during those years, but the first show I have any very definite recollection of was a piece called “Jim, the Romance of Cocaine,” by H. A. Saintsbury, who is a very famous playwright on the other side.

This was my first real hit on the stage. I had a part called “Sammy, the Newsboy,” and I will have to admit that between the part and myself we made a terrific hit. I got some line notices from the big London newspapers, and from that time I began to go ahead.

I liked playing a regular part much better than I did the vaudeville work. It seems to me that I had made up my mind at this time to become a legitimate actor. I don’t remember that comedy appealed very much to me, either.

I think my parents both had the same ambition for me that I had for myself. My vaudeville work with them was only incidental. Both parents being in vaudeville, it was very natural that I should occasionally be used in one capacity or another in the show. This is the almost invariable fate of children of the vaudeville. But as I remember my mother’s training, it was all looking toward a career for me as a legitimate actor.

The next important part I remember, after appearing as Sammy the newsboy, was in “Sherlock Holmes,” in which I had the part of Billy. I toured all over England in this part and did well.

After this, I began to encounter what Americans call “hard sledding.” The worst period in the life of an actor who starts as I did is the period between boyhood and maturity. I had a hard time getting along then. I was too big to make boys’ parts convincing, and too small and immature to take men’s parts.

I will reserve for another chapter my real start as a grown up actor.

Boyhood sweethearts

It seems that the story of nobody’s boyhood is complete without the account of his boyhood sweethearts. I am afraid I have nothing thrilling to tell in this regard. I was not the type of boy who was very strongly attracted to girls in real life. I was too busy with the people of my games of “pretend.”

Charlie Chaplin quote: “We think too much and feel too…”

Most of my boyhood sweethearts were wonderful creatures of my daydream. I have a vague recollection of certain wonderful charmers of my own age; but it is not quite clear in my own mind which were the real little girls and which were the dream children. The little boy-girl flirtations never appealed to me. The young ladies available did not live up to the standard of grandeur set by the young ladies that I imagined.

If, in some way, I have relegated to the mist of unreality some little girl whom I really adored and whose name I have forgotten to her I present my profound apologies. I will fall back on slang and say that she was a dream anyhow, which ought to square it.

Charlie Chaplin’s life story, Part II – His stage career and movie beginning

By Harry C. Carr – Photoplay Magazine, August 1915

AFTER he became old enough to be a “regular actor,” Charlie Chaplin didn’t find the going very easy.

The irony of his fate was that, after all his training by his mother for the career of a legitimate actor, the only direction in which he really scored was in rather rough comedy. His success, however, was in the quaint touch that he brought to what had formerly been pointless horseplay.

Chaplin tells his friends that he knocked around from pillar to post on the stage in England — sometimes in one job, sometimes in another. He says that he was glad to eke out a bare living. Most of the time he was working in burlesque and pantomime. He ascribes his success in the pictures to the early training that he got under the great English pantomimists.

Classic Charlie Chaplin movie from 1915 - The Champion

About 1910, Fred Karno put on a variety act called “A Night in a London Music Hall.” It concerned the adventures of a very badly spifflicated young swell in a box at a music hall.

The stage was set for a miniature music hall with the boxes at one side of the stage. The tipsy young swell sat in one of these boxes. He tried to “queen” all the beautiful ladies on the music hall vaudeville bill.

Several times he climbed over the edge of the box onto the miniature stage. Most of the time, he was either falling into or out of the box. The swell had to do about a million comic “falls” during the progress of the sketch. It was very funny and ended in a riot of boisterous mirth.

In England, the part of the tipsy young person was taken by Billy Reeves, a well-known comedian who is now with the Universal Film Co. The sketch made such a hit that Karno finally decided to send it over to the United States. Reeves proved to be a riot here and Karno organized and sent over a No. 2 company to tour the Western States. Charlie Chaplin was employed to head the No. 2 company. His salary was $50 a week.

Chaplin often tells his friends of his adventures when he first arrived in the United States. It is enough to say when he first looked upon us as a nation, he decided that he would not do. He didn’t think anything of us that we would enjoy remembering.

Chaplin says that shortly after arriving in New York, he went to a show in a vaudeville theatre. It happened that some vaudeville actor was giving an imitation of an English swell — or at least what he thought was an English swell… a regular Bah Jove one… one of those remarkable creations, the like of which really never lived on the earth. Chaplin, who is a very serious young person, was deeply offended.

To say he was peeved at this reflection upon his countrymen is patting it mildly. As the sketch went on, Charlie got so indignant he couldn’t stand it any longer. He rose in his seat and started a public protest. He never got any further than “Oh I say there,” when some of his loving friends grabbed him and removed him from the place before the janitor got a chance to cave in his now celebrated countenance.

Charlie likes America now. He confesses that he finally returned to England at the head of his No. 2 “Night in a Music Hall” company and found that he had outgrown England. Also, England had outgrown him.

He cheerfully admits that England couldn’t see him at all. The English are peculiar as theatre audiences. They cling to the old favorites and resent newcomers taking their places.

So Charlie, after vainly tumbling around on the stages of his native land, exclaimed to his companions, “For God’s sake, let’s get back to the United States where they know about us.”

Vintage Charlie Chaplin silent movies (2)

Chaplin’s western tour was a huge success. He played the Sullivan and Considine Circuit on the Pacific Coast. To tell the truth, he was simply a riot. In Los Angeles especially, he made an immense hit.

The word flew around the “wise alleys” to “go over to the Empress and see that drunk. He’ll kill you sure.” Chaplin made a special hit with other theatre people. His rough comedy had in it a touch of real thought and superiority and earnestness that was recognized as something different. Every drunken fall showed the planning of a fine brain.

Owing to the manner in which the word was passed around among theatre people, Chaplin was well known to actors and to moving picture people around the studios of Los Angeles for sometime before he went into the business.

The year after he played his “Night in a London Music Hall,” he came back to the Western States in another sketch called “The Wow Wows.” In this he again took the part of a swell drunk. In fact, all Chaplin’s early successes were drunken “dress suit comedies.”

Old silent Charlie Chaplin film from 1914 - Making a Living

The “Wow Wows” was only fairly well received and the following years he came out again in the “London Music Hall.”

By this time, his sketch had become one of the most famous in ten-twent-thirt vaudeville. During this third year, some one of the Baumann and Kessel people who own the New York Motion company conceived the idea of getting Chaplin to come into moving pictures. Mack Sennett, who heads the Keystone Comedy Company was consulted and approved of the idea. He was delegated to sign up Chaplin.

Chaplin was then getting $75. Sennett called on him at the Empress Theatre and offered him a prodigal raise; he offered Chaplin a year’s contract at $175 a week. Chaplin was nearly scared to death.

A Los Angeles friend tells about it: “One night, Charlie stopped me on the street and told me about the offer. He was excited and didn’t know what to do. He said he was afraid to try as he didn’t think he would make good. The money, though, was a terrible temptation. He filled and backed for a while, but finally decided to sign.

He was largely influenced to do this by the contract. I remember that he kept saying, “Well, you know they can’t fire me for a year anyhow. No matter what a flivver I make of it, they will have to pay me my salary for a year anyhow.”

Charlie played out his vaudeville engagement and went out to the Keystone. He felt about as sure of himself as a man going up in a flying machine.

To make this story right, our young hero should have gone out to the Keystone and scored a triumph — but, alas, the facts are against him.

Old silent Charlie Chaplin film from 1914 - The New Janitor

His first days at the Keystone were anything but happy ones. They didn’t understand him, and he didn’t understand them. Chaplin had been carefully trained along the lines of English pantomime.

He found the silent drama a la American to be utterly different in every particular. They didn’t get effects the same way. American comedy was, in those days, a whirlwind of action without any particular technique. Charlie was more shocked than he had been at the vaudeville actor who mocked his countryman.

From all accounts, he and the lovely Mabel Normand, now the best of friends and the warmest admirers of one another, got along about as well as a dog and cat with one soup bone to arbitrate. He told Mabel what he thought of her methods and Mabel told him a lot of things. In those days, Charlie used to come wandering back of the scenes at the theatres as lonesome as a lost soul. He was ready to chuck the whole business.

“They won’t let me do what I want; they won’t let me work in the way I am used to,” he complained.

Vintage silent Charlie Chaplin movie from 1914 - Dough and Dynamite

His first pictures for the Keystone were not much of a success. In one of them he appeared in the part of a woman. Chaplin was a misfit in the organization. The directors couldn’t understand his particular style of comedy and things were going very badly. Chaplin did not fit into the Keystone comedies. A play has to be especially built up to Chaplin’s style.

Chaplin was a very likeable chap, however, and was very popular with the other actors. He was modest to a fault; they liked him because he didn’t try to hog either the film or the scene. Also in a shy way, he taught them a lot.

In those early days, the art of the comic fall was not well understood. The Keystone policemen were half the time in the hospital. Actors suffered more casualties than the German army. Chaplin had had a thorough training in “falls” from the trained English pantomimists. He knew exactly how to do it. He very generously passed on this knowledge to the sore and suffering Keystone police force. The hospitals were the poorer thereby.

Also, the Keystone people began to see there was something in Chaplin’s methods worth studying. Chaplin, on the other hand, began to adopt the American film methods.

He never made a real success however, until Mack Sennett let him direct his own comedies.

Sennett is a very keen judge of character and he saw that if anything was to be had out of Chaplin, it must be had in Chaplin’s own way. He reconstructed the organization to enable Chaplin to direct his own comedies.

Sennett’s decision brought into being the quaint character with the little stubby mustache, the big shoes and the cane that is known wherever motion pictures are known.

Chaplin’s first picture with the Keystone company was a little comedy sketch called, “A Film Johnny.” It was taken at the first cycle car races given in southern California. Chaplin had the part of a picture fan who was always wandering out in front of the cameras that were trained on the race. His part was merely intended to “carry” the motion pictures of a race.

A good many of Chaplin’s earliest pictures with the Keystone were of this character: he was used to put in incidental business in big news events. In one news picture taken at San Pedro Harbor, for instance, he was assigned the part of a roughneck woman who was very severe with her husband.

The first picture that he directed himself was called “Caught in the Rain.”

As a director, Chaplin introduced a new note into moving pictures. Theretofore most of the comedy effects had been riotous boisterousness. Chaplin, like many foreign pantomimists got his effects in a more subtle way and with less action. Also he worked alone to a greater extent than any other picture comedian.

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By making the most of the little subtle effects, Chaplin enlarged the field of all motion picture comedies. It goes without saying that the simpler effects a man needs for his fun-making the more effects he has to draw on. One of the very funniest situations, for instance, in any of the Chaplin comedies was in “His Trysting Place,” where Chaplin used the whiskers of a guest in a cafe for a napkin.

Charlie Chaplin’s life story, Part III: Through disappointment to world fame

By Harry C. Carr – Photoplay Magazine, September 1915

THE question that nearly everyone asks about Charlie Chaplin’s early career is “Where did he get that make-up? Those shoes and that hat?”

The general impression is that Chaplin worked with this same outfit from the beginning of his picture work, but this is not true. In his first pictures for the Keystone, Chaplin wore a long drooping mustache and a top hat. He wore ordinary shoes. In almost his first pictures, however, he began wearing the amazing “pants” that still disadorn him.

His first costume didn’t suit him at all. The Keystone people say he was always poking around the property room trying to hit upon some sort of clothes that would “register.”

One day he came out grinning, with a funny old pair of shoes in his hands. They were long and curled up at the toes. They reached right out and shook hands with Chaplin as soon as he saw them. They had been Ford Sterling’s and had been left behind when Sterling quit the company.

Chaplin has worn those identical shoes ever since. Then he began trimming off his long drooping mustache. Every day it grew shorter until it was finally the little toothbrush that is now so famous. He then substituted a round derby for his top hat and his costume was complete as it now appears in his pictures.

His costume was not the only difficulty he found in getting adjusted to the movies. To tell the truth, he was miserably unhappy at first, and hated the work in every way. Ford Sterling had just left the company and it was hoped that Chaplin would take his place. They naturally looked to see Chaplin work on the same lines as the comedian they had lost.

Chaplin, however, worked on entirely different methods. Sterling worked very rapidly, dashing hither and thither at top speed. Chaplin’s comedy was slow and deliberate and he made a great deal out of little things — little subtleties. They tried to force him to take up the Ford Sterling style and Chaplin refused. That is to say, he wouldn’t. He just listened to what they had to say; then did it in his own way.

The net result was a very sultry time, Chaplin’s first director was Pathe Lehrmann. They quarreled all the time during the first of Chaplin’s work. Mabel Normand and Chaplin fought like a black dog and a monkey. Lehrmann finally appealed to Mack Sennett: he said he couldn’t do anything with Chaplin. Sennett called Chaplin to time. The Keystone people say that the hardest “calldown” anybody ever got at the Keystone was that handed to Charlie Chaplin by Sennett because he refused to obey the director.

Chaplin took the boss’s breezy remarks as toasts to the President are drunk — standing and in silence. But he went right on acting in his own way. Finally, Lerhmann passed him on to another director, who had an equally bad time with him.

The Keystone people came to the conclusion that they had picked up a fine lemon in Chaplin. Personally, he was very popular, but it was generally agreed that he would never make good as a picture actor.

Finally, Mack Sennett took a hand at directing Chaplin himself. They were then putting on a piece called “Mabel’s Strange Predicament.” Chaplin had a small part where he did some funny business in the lobby of a hotel. Mack Sennett decided to see just what this Englishman would do if they let him have his own way. He turned the misfit loose and let him be as funny as he liked.

Then and there Charlie Chaplin suddenly “happened.”

Mack Sennett saw in a flash that some big stuff was going over, and from that minute, Chaplin became a real star.

Sennett, during the next few pictures, put in Chaplin to do little comedy bits that called for the same kind of stuff he showed in the lobby of the hotel. Chaplin was always funny in these bits, but Sennett saw that, to be entirely successful he must have a company of his own. The other actors’ work was out of tune with the Chaplin method.

Sennett was quick to see that almost immeasurable things could be gotten out of Chaplin, but he also saw that the Chaplin pictures must, in the future, be built with Chaplin as the foundation. The whole comedy must be adjusted to his tempo, and even the scenario would have to be different from the kind of scenario ordinarily used bv the Keystone people. It must be slower and more subtle.

The end of it was that Chaplin was finally allowed to direct his own scenarios. No American picture director understood his peculiar style of comedy well enough to work out the stuff. In another chapter I will tell about Chaplin’s work and his methods as a director.

Chaplin’s first big hit as a director of his own work was “Dough and Dynamite.” This was started as a part of the scenario afterward known as the “Pangs of Love.”

In his rather aimless way of directing without any scenario, Chaplin and Mr. Conklin began working up a play in which both he and Conklin were in love with the landlady of a boarding house and stuck hatpins into each other through a curtain to interrupt one another’s courtship. They decided that they both ought to be workmen of some kind and decided upon being bakers. As part of the play they worked up a scene in a bake shop. This turned out to be so funny that they finally changed the whole idea and made two different scenarios.

As a director-actor at the Keystone, Chaplin had the reputation of being the most generous star in the movie business. Every comedian was allowed to grab all the laughs he could get. Chaplin always insisted on having them do the comedy stuff in his way, but he always built up their parts for them without regard for the fact that his own might suffer.

His work began making a tremendous impression. Everyone began talking about the new funny man. People who never went to the movies before were drawn bv the accounts of the new comedian.

Naturally, the other movie companies took notice, and Chaplin got several big offers. One from the Essanay was so big that he did not feel justified in refusing. When his contract expired with the Keystone, he changed companies. He went with the understanding that he was to have full swing in his work: direct all his own scenarios and do pretty much as he pleased.

Essanay work was done in Chicago. His first Essanay film was after that he put on “His Night Out.”

Chaplin then insisted on moving back to California. The picture conditions didn’t suit him in the Middle West. On returning to the Coast, he went to the Essanay studio at Niles.

In a separate chapter, there will be an account of his adventures at this rural studio. He produced “The Tramp” at Niles. This is regarded in some ways as the most remarkable step forward that has ever been made in moving picture comedy.

Returning from Niles, Chaplin went to the Essanay studio in an old mansion near the business district of Los Angeles. Here he has been working ever since. At least this is his base of operations. From this house, he works out to the beaches and various “locations” near Los Angeles.

By this time a perfect storm of fame had struck Chaplin. To tell the truth, it seemed to scare more than anything else. He used to say to his intimate friends, “I can’t understand all this stuff. I am just a little nickel comedian trying to make people laugh. They act as though I were the King of England.” Chaplin even to this day is much alarmed over being so famous. He says his reputation can’t last.

But he began to suffer the penalties of the great. He was asked to speak at banquets, to lead parades, to referee prizefights. When the baseball season opened. it was announced that Chaplin would throw the first ball.

All of this stuff worried Chaplin a good deal at first. He said he picked up the paper every morning with apprehension to see what foolish thing he was due for that day.

‘He found that it didn’t worry the promoters of these various events at all, however. They announced that he would referee at prize fights, and when he did not appear, they simply dressed up a boy in Chaplin’s style in clothes and he appeared, serene in the belief that nobody would know the difference. There is a boy in Los Angeles who makes a good living by dressing up like Charlie Chaplin and parading up and down in front of the theaters where the Chaplin films are being shown.

The many faces of Charles Chaplin during his Keystone film days

Charlie was pursued like a wounded hare by all kinds of people with all kinds of business propositions. If half the life insurance agents who were on his trail could be gathered into an army, there wouldn’t be any danger of a war with Germany. Real estate agents wanted him to buy houses. Inventors wanted him to take stock in their discoveries.

About a million people wrote him letters. Many of them were mash letters. One young lady in Chicago undertook the job of censoring all his work. Every day of her life she wrote Chaplin a letter, commenting critically on some of his latest films. Sometimes she complimented them; sometimes she roasted them un-tenderly.

Charles Chaplin’s business sense

Chaplin about as much a business system as a chicken. When his friends came to see him at his hotel, they found him sitting helplessly behind a pile of letters. Finally some of his friends prevailed on him to hire a secretary. Wherefore a severe young man with glasses now opens Charlie’s mash letters.

One sort of pest scared Chaplin to death. This was the auto agent. They wanted him to buy their cars: to be photographed in their cars and to write endorsements of their cars. But Charlie was adamant. He wouldn’t listen to any of them. He told them he had an aversion to cars on principle, and when he retired he was going to have an old white horse and buggy and a ranch.

The truth is, Charlie had once been bitten by the automobile bug. While he was with the Keystone, Chaplin fell for the blandishments of an auto agent, and came out one day nervously driving a runabout. He had some weird experiences with that car. He never could learn how the thing worked. He knew how it started but he never could remember — at least in times of emergency — what you did when you wanted the thing to stop.

One day while he was parading the boulevards with his vehicle, Chaplin came to the intersection of two crowded streets. The traffic cop majestically gave the signal for the car to stop. Charlie reached for the thingamajig and pulled the wrong lever. The car bounded blithely forward. The cop waved his club and that was all he did before the auto struck him amidships and mopped up the floor with him.

They picked up the fragments of the officer of the law. They also picked up Chaplin and took him to the police station, where they advised him to learn how to manage his car and charged him $75 for the advice.

Another time, Charlie was driving in through the big front gate at the Keystone and got too near one of the posts. He had been used to sailing small boats. When a small boat gets too near the wharf the thing to do is to drop the tiller and fend off by pushing against the wharf. Charlie thought this ought to apply equally well to a car. So when he saw he was going to bump the gate, he dropped the steering wheel and tried to push off from the post. The results were sensational and startling.

Another time, Charlie’s car was on the side of a hill. It started to roll down and Chaplin tried to stop it by grabbing the hind wheels. Results equally startling and sensational.

When Chaplin discovered that new tires for his motor cost $75 each, his soul called “Enough,” and he returned to street cars. Since then he has been a mighty poor prospect for an auto agent.

Some of the attention that came to Chaplin with his fame was enjoyable. Thousands of people speak to Chaplin on the street without knowing him. They are always answered courteously.

Not long ago, I saw two old people stop and stare and begin to nudge each other in great excitement. Charlie Chaplin was coming down the street. When he came near, the old man gathered his courage and said, “Hello, Charlie Chaplin.” Chaplin lifted his hat in the odd way that he does on the screen and said, “Howdydo” and passed on. The old people were tickled to death.

The one thing that got the comedian’s goat was speaking at banquets. Just once it is recorded that he was prevailed upon and human agony can have no fuller expression than this quivering actor waiting to speak his piece.

The culmination of his fame came probably with the offer of a New York theatrical man to give him $25,000 for an engagement of two weeks — an offer which the Essanay company is supposed to have met to induce him to stay away from the stage.

Charlie Chaplin’s Story, part IV: The funnyman as a serious, systematic director

By Harry C. Carr – Photoplay Magazine, October 1915

You often hear wise moving picture fans tell how Charlie Chaplin produces a picture by just dashing out anything that comes into his head. Yes indeed! Chaplin dashes through a scenario just about the way a watchmaker dashes through the work of repairing a repeater. All these uproariously funny Chaplin farces have been made slowly and painfully.

Chaplin never works from a regularly “written out” scenario. He gets a general idea, then slowly patches it together after getting the actors in front of the camera. Most of the scenarios are his own stuff. He says he thinks of them as he walks along the street, or in cafes, or any old where. Most of the time. Chaplin seems abstracted and as far away as in a dream. This is because he is usually manufacturing some moving picture story.

He says he got one of the best hunches he ever had while eating lunch. It struck him so suddenly that he almost went out without paying the check.

The scenario for “His Trysting Place” came from an old comic song that Chaplin’s father sang in vaudeville years ago.

Charles Chaplin behind the camera

Once he has possession of the hunch, Chaplin begins directing the piece. His methods in this are as eccentric as are all his other ways.

Chaplin plants himself in a chair just out of range of the camera. As he always acts in the piece he is directing, he always wears his stage costume. He pulls the dinky little derby down over his eyes, spraddles his big shoes out in front of him and the actors begin.

Chaplin lets them do their comedy just as they please as long as they please him — which is about five seconds, usually. He sits and watches them with an expression which seems to say, “Good Lord, and these guys are getting money for doing this!” Then when he can’t stand it any longer he jumps up and shows them how to do it.

He very rarely tells them what to do; he shows them. The result is that every part in every Charlie Chaplin piece is acted by Charlie Chaplin himself. As he goes along, he makes almost innumerable changes and corrections. As he practically writes his scenarios after the acting has begun, it is intensely nervous work. It is as hard to get a chance to see him at work as it is to get into a lodge meeting.

But to show you the instinctive kindness of the man, the other day two little street boys were found peeking in under the fence. One of the supers was going to drive them away, but Charlie called them in.

There happened to be a lull in the proceedings, so he pretended to direct them in a comedy. To their delight, he put them through a little impromptu scenario. And it was noted that he was just as careful in directing their stuff as his own. The general public, he refused to admit to the studio, thereby differing from some directors, who seem happiest when a crowd is looking on.


A very important and rather arduous part of picture work is selecting the “locations.” In most companies, this is the job of the assistant directors. Chaplin, however, does all his own searching for locations. However, it must be said that most of his locations are simple and easy to find.

In moving picture work, a great deal of time is wasted while the cameramen are fixing the light shields, and other necessary contrivances. During this time, the actors are left to their own devices. Chaplin fools around during these periods and unconsciously pulls some of his funniest comedy.

While he was still with Keystone, they went down to the Ince ranch to produce that prehistoric film in which a great snake pulled “Ambrose” up a cliff. They had a whole basket of snakes down on the beach. While they were waiting to begin, Chaplin started to juggling with the snakes in imitation of a circus snake charmer. It was so funny that it nearly broke up the business of the numerous Ince companies for the day.

Chaplin, like many of the big directors, is a great waster of film. He never leaves a situation until he is thoroughly satisfied with it, and he is hard to satisfy. He is very much given to retakes, which is the most expensive habit in the movies.

It is plain to the careful observer that Chaplin is working toward something entirely new in pictures. In a general way, his idea is that comedy should be more subtle and have more real story, although the horseplay antics he indulges in make that idea hardly credible.

He made the greatest advance in this direction in “The Tramp.” In this, there was not only a real story, but a touch of real pathos which gave Chaplin a chance for the greatest “finish” that has ever been shown in any movie comedy. I think everyone who saw it will agree with me on that point.

Chaplin’s idea is that one of the old-style rough comedies gives absolutely no chance for real effects. When the paperhanger has spilled paste down the back of the dude and somebody has been pushed off into the lake, the comedy has been exhausted. Plays like “The Tramp” open up all kinds of chances for contrasts, — lights and shade. He does many things now because he believes “the public wants them so” — and for no other reason.

Chaplin also believes that scenarios will be longer. He is a great admirer of “The Birth of a Nation.” He saw that play nearly every week during its long run in Los Angeles. His idea is that comedies will also come to the point where one funny film provides a whole evening’s entertainment. “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” he believes an example of this tendency.

He has two reasons for wanting to put on longer plays. One is that it will give more time in which to carefully work out his effects. The greatest reason is that he can produce the same financial returns without appearing so often.

Chaplin is of the opinion that it is taking an awful chance with his popularity to be shown in a new comedy every week or so. We see Maude Adams at long intervals — once a year, perhaps, and we are eager to see her. But would we be so keen if we could see her in four or five different plays the same night in the same town?

As Chaplin says, this is a terrific test of popularity.

Vintage Charlie Chaplin silent movies (1)

In the meantime, however, his popularity continues to increase to a veritable craze. When Charlie Chaplin goes to a summer resort near Los Angeles, it is like the triumphant visit of a king.

It is an open secret that Chaplin doesn’t expect to be in the pictures long. “I want to make all the money I can,” he says. “Then, in a few years, I am going to quit. I will pass along and let some other fellow have the center of the stage. I have made a bigger hit than I ever thought possible in my wildest dreams. And I am much obliged to everyone for laughing. For the public is the entertainer’s court of last appeal.”

That Charlie Chaplin is a born actor, entertainer, clown and buffoon, not only while posing before the camera, but from the time he rises in the morning till he goes to sleep at night — generally late at night — is the sum of the opinions of his colleagues at Niles, with whom he worked for months.

Some of these actors and actresses, as is the way with stage folk, do not speak very highly of Chaplin’s “art,” yet all of them recognize that there is some sort of mad genius in the little chap who has made the whole country laugh at his antics. As for Chaplin himself, he stoutly contends that it takes as much conscientious preparation for a comedy as for the so-called higher art.

Now for a few instances to prove the above verdict of his colleagues:

Five or six months ago, the Essanay company decided that Chaplin ought to have a madcap partner of the opposite sex to hurl through his dizzy series of utterly illogical exploits. Chaplin and his managers had the whole field of musical comedy, comic opera, comic drama, and burlesque. Charles Chaplin FBI document from 1959The golden megaphone of the Essanay company could summon any one of a thousand or two of sprightly young women with lots of stage experience. praised and petted in public — and funny!

“Let’s just put an ad in the paper,” suggested Chaplin, scratching his curly poll. “Let’s get some new blood in the game.”

The following morning there was a small personal advertisement in one of the San Francisco papers, offering a position in the “movies” to a young girl without previous stage experience. During the next week or two, Chaplin looked over more than a thousand fair applicants. The cat was out of the bag. The stage-struck young women of San Francisco knew that Chaplin was looking for a girl to play against him, and the competition became hysterical.

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Chaplin, unaided, selected one. Miss Edna Purviance, who did not know even the alphabet of the stage business. She has made good. She has appeared in a number of reels with Chaplin, offering an excellent foil for him.

Charlie Chaplin luxuriating on the cushions, with Edna Purviance 1915
Charlie Chaplin luxuriating on the cushions, with Edna Purviance, his new leading lady at the wheel.

There were some heartaches at Niles, but the work of the new film actress convinced both actors and Chaplin’s employees that he knew something about the show business, which they had never suspected in one so guileless.

“How the Dickens did he manage to do it?” asked one of the veteran comedians at Niles. “That job of picking a new woman is one of the tricks of the trade which ancient and honorable managers have spent scores of years in mastering.”

The selection of Miss Purviance might, of course, be explained as a lucky accident, a lottery chance. But then there is Dick Turpin, whom Chaplin selected for important parts in his reels.

Turpin is almost as funny as Chaplin himself and divided honors with him in several film comedies. Here was another instance of Chaplin’s astuteness.

His ability to pick winners was further shown recently in the selection of Bud Jamieson, with whom the comedian recently became acquainted in San Francisco. Jamieson is big, fat, genial, jolly, and an excellent musician, but he had never been on the stage till Chaplin and his associates invited him to Niles, not for the purpose of entering the “movies.” But just to amuse the player sort of court-jester to folk out there!

“This guy is good,” remarked Chaplin to the boss of the Niles film ranch. “He’s handed me a bunch of laughs. I’ll bet he can make other people laugh.”

Bud Jamieson was pulled from his piano and given small roles in the Chaplin comedies. He made an instant hit, and he is doing well at present.

Charlie Chaplin on set

At Niles, they say that Chaplin’s thrift in money matters is excelled by none, and equaled only by that well known Scotch coin preserver, Harry Lauder.

“Chaplin has got some of the oldest money in California,” said one of his colleagues at Niles. “He never had a bank account till he joined the Essanay, and in a few years, he’ll be selling at a premium the coin he received as his first week’s salary.

“He didn’t know how to make out a bank account till a few months ago, and he didn’t know how to draw a check. One of the boys offered to show him how to make out a check. Chaplin watched him a few moments, and then shut his eyes tight, and turned away.

“I don’t want to learn. I don’t want to learn.”

“But he is learning how to write a check,” said another movie actor. “I saw him write a check once.”

“You did?” yelled a chorus of doubting actors and actresses.

“I did. It was on April 21, or was it March 21? Well, anyhow, it was on the twenty-first of some month. I remember because Chaplin wrote the date 21th!”

Most of the film actors at Niles live in cottages. Chaplin occupied a cottage with one of the actors, and at first bade fair to become a popular member of the colony, but that was before he brought his “Tabby” to Niles.

One day he returned from San Francisco in great glee carrying under his arm a battered violin case. The same night he began to make nightlife in Niles hideous with the mournful strains which he tortured out of an ancient and disreputable violin. The film folk promptly likened Chaplin’s playing to the wailing of an old tabby-cat on a back fence at midnight, mourning over a misspent life.

The musically-inclined actors aver that Chaplin has assassinated more tunes on his violin than a score of German street bands. There was some talk of dipping the film star and his “Tabby” into the bay, but nothing came of it. The plotters evidently remembered that Tabbies have nine lives.

The actors recovered their sense of humor, and when the wailing, discordant notes of Chaplin’s fiddle broke the rustic evening stillness, they joined in a lugubrious chorus, each voice a semi-tone out of tune.

Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks 1917

Chaplin’s habits are mostly those of a bat. Those who know him best say he would never go to bed if he could have his own way about it. He is by nature “a sun dodger,” according to his companions. He has never been known to yawn after sunset, but none of the other characteristics of a nighthawk are his. He does not drink. In fact, his dissipation is confined to turning day into night and smoking.

But sleep or no sleep, Charlie Chaplin has never been known to show the lack of slumber the next day. When the Australian Boys’ Club, which has been visiting the Exposition and the Pacific coast and Canada, came to Niles, Chaplin presented himself unannounced. He was immediately recognized by one of the lads who had seen him in pictures in the Antipodes.

“There is Charlie Chaplin!” shouted the boy, and Chaplin found himself surrounded by the youngsters. The comedian went through all his favorite poses, relieved the bandmaster of his baton, and led the band, going through his whole repertoire of antics.

It was an awful concert, for the boys could not play their instruments and laugh at Chaplin at the same time. The boys gave him three Kangaroo cheers when the concert was finished, and Chaplin returned the compliment by presenting each of the lads with his autographed photograph.

The Hotel Oakland was made the scene of one of Chaplin’s comedies. Out of a side entrance staggered Chaplin one sunny morning in a terribly disheveled condition, chased by another actor. Evidently, there had been an annihilating fight in the preceding scene. Both men were supposed to be filled to the tonsils with some compound of rum.

They ran and tumbled and rolled around a corner, out of the camera’s range, and into its range stepped other actors and actresses, supposed to be in the same party, and when they had finished their turn, the cameraman stopped turning the crank, waiting for Chaplin and his companion to return. The company and the cameraman waited in vain.

Edna Purviance and Charles Chaplin

Finally one of the actors noticed a number of people running from all directions toward Fourteenth street where Chaplin and his partner had disappeared. He walked toward the corner of Fourteenth street just in time to see a patrol wagon dash up to a large crowd of people. A minute or so later three or four fat policemen struggled from the center of the jam toward the patrol wagon dragging Chaplin and his companion. The pair had tumbled into the arms of a conscientious officer who thought Chaplin and his friends were intoxicated. Explanations availed nothing.

“You do your explaining to the judge,” was the policeman’s only reply, and it took the combined efforts of the whole movie company to release Chaplin and his fellow actor.

Chaplin’s first appearance in Oakland caused nearly a riot. With several movie actors, he was about to enter a restaurant when he was recognized, and the cry of “Here’s Charlie Chaplin!” summoned every rubberneck in the vicinity. Chaplin escaped into the restaurant, and the crowd followed.

Chaplin did not want to disappoint his admirers, so he took a ketchup bottle and emptied it into the pocket of a waiter. Somebody grabbed the waiter’s strong right arm just before the bottle descended on Charlie’s head. The restaurant was in an uproar. When the table was laid and the order served, Chaplin disposed of his frugal meal just as he sometimes does in the film comedies. It was not refined fun, but the crowd laughed because it had seen a living demonstration of the comedy king.

Mention has been made of the fact that Chaplin talks to himself when he is alone. As a matter of fact, he talks to himself whether alone or in a crowd when he is not talking to someone else. The moment he ceases talking with anyone else, Charlie takes up the conversation with Mr. Chaplin.

Charlie Chaplin in the 1920s

Charles Chaplin in 1921



Charles Chaplin in 1940

Charlie Chaplin, 88, the ‘Little Tramp,’ Dies in Sleep

BY PENELOPE McMILLAN ‘rims Staff Writer

Charlie Chaplin, the mustachioed, shuffling “Little Tramp” in baggy trousers and derby hat, died Christmas morning at his home in Switzerland. He was 88.

“My husband died peacefully in his sleep during the night,” Oona Chaplin said tearfully. “All the presents were under the tree. Charlie gave so much happiness and although he had been ill for a long time, it is so sad that he should have passed away on Christmas day.”

The Chaplins’ family doctor, Henri Perrier, said the actor had died at his 37-acre estate near Vevey, above Lake Geneva, Switzerland, of “old age.” Chaplin had been ailing for many years. During the last two, he was unable to walk and his hearing, speech and sight were failing.

Lady Chaplin, 52, daughter of the late playwright Eugene O’Neill, and most of the actor’s 10 children were at his mansion, called Le Manoir de Ban, when he died. His daughter Geraldine, an actress, was reported en route from Madrid, Spain. • A family spokesman said the funeral will be held Tuesday in Vevey. It will be “private and restricted to the immediate family,” Mrs. Chaplin said. Two years ago, Chaplin told an interviewer: “Life is a marvelous, a wonderful thing, but as you get on you always think of moments past, and you always think of death.”

A pioneer of 20th century movie-making, Chaplin became part of the world’s comic folklore in a film career that spanned 52 years. From the humblest of beginnings, he rose to become the toast of Hollywood, if not the world, a millionaire and a legend in his own time. His life also was one of hills and valleys, and constant drama.

Three marriages failed and a lurid paternity suit was filed against him before his fourth and last marriage brought him personal peace. His political opinions brought him constant controversy, before the United States revoked the British citizen’s entry visa in 1952.

After 20 years in “exile” from the country where he won most of his money and fame, he returned to receive a special Academy Award, and some vindication, from Hollywood in 1972. In 1975, seated in a wheelchair, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth H. Chaplin died a rich man — one estimate of his worth was $20 million — but his beginnings read like a Charles Dickens novel.

Charles Spencer Chaplin was born in Lambeth, a poor section of London, on April 16, 1889. His parents, Charles and Hannah Chaplin, were music hall performers. His father, an alcoholic, deserted his mother when Chaplin was about 2. His mother tried to support him and his half-brother, Sydney, with her singing — Chaplin made his stage debut as an infant when she carried him onstage.

Continued from First Page But illness ruined his mother’s voice: Charlie and Sydney went to live in the Lambeth workhouse, and sometimes in an orphanage. The constant struggle for food and shelter, he later said, made both boys determined that financial security, above all, would be their main goal in life.

“As a youth, I was very unhappy, soulfully unhappy,” Chaplin said. “It is the humiliation of poverty which is so depressing. I had to go through the streets with my mother, who was insane, and so weak, staggering from one side to the other as though she were drunk.”

When Chaplin was 9, his father returned and set the boys up in a group of young dancers called “Eight Lancashire Lads.” But then his father died, his mother completely broke down, and his brother went off to sea. Chaplin was left to roam the streets of London, supporting himself with odd jobs when he found them.

Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in The Kid

The experience is thought to have influenced many of the later films, such as “The Kid,” in which the Little Tramp befriends a homeless waif, played by a young Jackie Coogan.

When Chaplin was 19, his brother returned and got him a job on the stage as a noncomedic juvenile lead in a play called “Jim” at two pounds (then $10) a week. His first visit to America came in 1910, when he was 21, as part of “Fred Karno’s Comedians,” a music hall act that toured the country unsuccessfully.

Chaplin, however, billed as the “Funniest man in England,” got good reviews, and was noticed by the then-unknown producer Mack Sennett. Chaplin came to California under contract to Sennett’s Keystone Film Co. He made his film debut in 1914 in a one-reeler, “Making a Living,” and also during that year, appeared in no less than 35 one- and two-reel shorts.

It was during his time with Sennett that he created the “Little Tramp.” One day, Sennett, struck for ideas, turned to Chaplin and said simply: “We need some gags. Put on a comedy makeup. Anything will do.”

Charlie Chaplin standing and smiling

“I had no idea what makeup to put on,” Chaplin later recalled. “However, on the way to the wardrobe, I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. I wanted everything a contradiction… 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.” The Tramp was not an immediate success, but he gradually caught on.

Chaplin later left Keystone and worked for several companies, each for more money than before. A Chaplin craze began to sweep the United States. Songs such as “Those Charlie Chaplin Feet” were written about him, and amateur-night audiences flocked to Chaplin contests. In Chicago, a newspaper headlined simply, “He’s here.”

Classic Charlie Chaplin movie from 1916 - The Vagabond

Classic Charlie Chaplin movie from 1917 - Easy Street

Old silent Charlie Chaplin film from 1917 - The Cure

In 1918, he founded his own film company, and in the following year joined Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and D. W. Griffith in forming the United Artists Corporation.

From his earliest days, he always had stipulated in his contracts that after an agreed rental period, sole ownership of his films would revert to him. It was a stroke of foresight that made him a millionaire in his old age, while some of his contemporaries — such as Buster Keaton, who made no such provision — died in poverty.

Chaplin made 75 films, most of them shorts, between 1914 and 1931, when his first acknowledged masterpiece, “City Lights,” was made.

Although some films before 1930 stand out, “Shoulders” (1918), “The Kid” (1920) and “The Gold Rush” (1925), the period after 1930 when other stars of the silent screen went into decline, is considered by critics his “great period,” which saw “Modern Times,” (1936), “The Great Dictator,” (1940) and “Monsieur Verdoux” (1947) produced.

Vintage Charlie Chaplin movie from 1936 - Modern Times

Social themes played an important part in Chaplin’s films. “Modern Times” was a barb at the increasing domination of men by machines. “The Great Dictator” was an attempt to make a laughingstock of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.

“My means of contriving comedy plot was simple,” he wrote in his autobiography. “It was the process of getting people in and out of trouble. My own concept of humor … was the subtle discrepancy we discern in what appears to be normal behavior.

“In other words, through humor we see in what seems rational, the irrational; in what seems important, the unimportant. It also heightens our sense of survival and preserves our sanity. Because of humor, we are less overwhelmed with the vicissitudes of life.”

In his private life, however, he very definitely lived the lifestyle of the top Hollywood star, with a valet and a seven-passenger Locomobile. He was popular and famous for wild parties. Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Elinor Glyn and Upton Sinclair were among hundreds of friends. Behind the partying Chaplin, the man from the past remained.


Somerset Maugham, in his “Writers Notebook,” wrote, “You have a feeling that in back of it all is a profound melancholy. I have a notion that he suffers from a nostalgia of the slums.

“One night I walked with him in Los Angeles. Presently, our steps took us into the poorest quarter of the city. There were sordid tenement houses and the shabby, gaudy shops in which are sold the various goods that the poor buy from day to. day. His face lit up and a buoyant tone came into his voice as he exclaimed: ‘Say, this is the real life, isn’t it? All the rest is just a sham.'”

Chaplin married four times, first to Mildred Harris, who was 16 when they were wed in 1918. A son was born, but died a few days later. Chaplin said after the divorce in 1920, “It was a mistake from the very beginning.”

His second wife was another 16-year-old, Lita Grey, whom he wed in 1924. They had two sons before they divorced after three years.

Charles Chaplin with wife Lita Grey Chaplin 1920s

Charlie Chaplins sons - 1927

Lurid stories were printed about both divorces. When the Chaplin-Grey case reached the courts, copies of Lita’s petition sold by the thousands for 25 cents apiece. In 1936, he married his protege, Paulette Goddard, but divorced her in 1941.

In June 1943, a 24-year-old redhead, Joan Berry, filed a paternity suit against Chaplin, and he was indicted for Mann Act violations for allegedly transporting her from Los Angeles to New York and back for immoral purposes.

He was acquitted of the Mann Act charge after a two-week trial, but lost the paternity suit after two trials filled with candid testimony. Chaplin was ordered to pay $75 a week to help support Miss Berry’s daughter until she reached 21.

The stigma and sensationalism of the court case obscured the fact that, in the same year, Chaplin married Oona O’Neill. Despite her playwright father’s bitter opposition, and the fact that Oona was 18 and Chaplin 54, the marriage proved to be a lasting and happy one. They had eight children.

“I wish I could write more of this,” Chaplin said in his autobiography. “But it involves love, and perfect love is the most beautiful of all frustrations, because it is more than one can express.”

Charles Chaplin and fourth wife Oona Chaplin

Politics and frustrating questions of loyalty

One of the most difficult chapters of the actor’s life stemmed from what people of the time called his left-leaning politics. Because of that, especially on top of his notorious private life, he was forced from the United States, his adopted home for 42 years, in 1952.

As early as 1919, he had been branded pro-Communist and was accused of backing a Bolshevik magazine. Criticism of his views gradually grew, and then bloomed full force in the post-World War II McCarthy era.

Chaplin later said his troubles really began during World War II at a point when the Russians were holding off Hitler’s armies outside Moscow. The American Committee for Russian War Relief asked him to speak at a meeting in place of the absent Joseph Davies, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow. Chaplin accepted and urged the opening of a second front, as the hard-pressed Russians had been demanding.

London England crowds greeting Charlie Chapin in 1931

Soon after, at a press conference, a reporter asked, “Are you a Communist?” and Chaplin said no. “Why haven’t you become an American citizen?” another reporter asked Chaplin, who never relinquished his British citizenship.

“I consider myself a citizen of the world,” Chaplin replied, a remark which brought still more criticism. The U.S. Congress House Committee on Un-American Activities suggested in 1947 that he was associated with communism. Chaplin denied that, and telegraphed the committee: “I am a peacemonger.”

Things came to a head in 1952 when Chaplin and his family sailed to England for a premiere. The U.S. Justice Department announced that the star would not be permitted to return to the United States without a hearing on charges of moral turpitude and Communist sympathies.

He refused the hearing. His response instead was to sell all his American possessions, including his 25% interest in United Artists.

Chaplin’s life in Switzerland

He settled in the 18-room mansion near Vevey, Switzerland, overlooking Lake Geneva, where he lived in splendor and wrote his autobiography in 1964.

He made two more films. The last, which he directed and in which he made a brief appearance, was the 1966 movie “A Countess from Hong Kong,” starring Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren.

Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin
Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin

“In an atmosphere of powerful cliques and invisible governments,” Chaplin said, “I engendered a nation’s antagonism, and unfortunately lost the affection of the American public.” Embittered, he vowed never to return.

But he did. By 1971, he had told a reporter he had “a great affection for the United States. The unpleasant things have faded. They don’t mean much anymore.”

In April, 1972, Hollywood asked him to come back. With his wife, Oona, he returned to receive a special Academy Award for “the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century.”

It was the second time he received a special Oscar. In 1929, he won a similar honor at the first Academy Awards presentation for “versatility and genius in writing, acting, directing and producing the film of ‘The Circus.'”

After 20 years’ absence, Chaplin, with tears streaming down his face, said: “Words are so futile, so feeble. I can only say thank you for the honor of inviting me here. You’re wonderful, sweet people. Thank you.”

His films were shown again and he made appearances. He seemed a frail, pink-faced old man obviously enjoying his vindication but not, some said, prepared to change his life again because others had changed their minds.

In March 1975, he was honored again, this time by Queen Elizabeth II, who touched his shoulders with the tip of her ceremonial sword and proclaimed the former street waif “Sir Charles Chaplin.”

“She told me my pictures had helped her a great deal,” he said later. “I was dumbfounded.”

His last years, as he got progressively weaker, were mostly spent confined to his wheelchair at Le Manoir de Ban. His wife would dress him in the mornings, and they would go into Vevey in their silver-blue Rolls Royce to buy all the English newspapers and magazines she could find, and then she would read them to him.

His last known public appearance came last fall when he attended a circus performance in Vevey. He wore a soft hat pulled over his forehead and thick-lensed glasses that hid most of his face.

To generations of filmgoers, he would always be the “Little Tramp,” the tiny man who is beaten, confused by the system, but who, in the end, finally walks into the sunset with the girl.

“This fellow is many-sided,” Chaplin once wrote about The Tramp. “A tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure.” And in one of his last interviews, he added: “He was myself.”

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