Charlie Chaplin: The life story of a legend, in interviews, articles, video & photos

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Charlie-Charles Chaplin life story

Obituary: Charlie Chaplin, 88, the ‘Little Tramp,’ dies in sleep (1977)

By Penelope McMillan, The Los Angeles Times (California) December 26, 1977

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.”

Charles Chaplin in 1940

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.

The last years of Charles Chaplin - Looking back in obituary from 1977

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.”

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.

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.”

Charles Chaplin FBI document from 1959

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.'”

Charles Chaplin with wife Lita Grey Chaplin 1920s

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.

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.

Charlie Chaplins sons - 1927

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

The Chaplins’ granddaughter, actress Oona Chaplin in 2015

See some of the younger Oona Chaplin’s work here

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Oona Chaplin at “The Longest Ride” Los Angeles Premiere, TCL Chinese Theater, Hollywood, CA 04-06-15. Photo by David Edwards ivia Deposit Photos.
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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