The early life of Charlie Chaplin (1915)

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Charlie Chaplin’s Story

Charlie Chaplin’s Story, as narrated by Mr Chaplin himself to Photoplay Magazine’s Special Representative Harry C. Carr  / Drawings by E. W. Gale

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:

Charlie Chaplin story of childhood - Photoplay 1915 (5)

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.

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 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.

>> Charlie Chaplin never wanted to be a comedian (1917)

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.

Charlie Chaplin story of childhood - Photoplay 1915 (1)

Singing onstage 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.

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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 ‘yas 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 bring 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 ‘book: 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.

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.

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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.

Charlie Chaplin story of childhood - Photoplay 1915 (2)


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.

Charlie Chaplin story of childhood - Photoplay 1915 (3)

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.

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