Charlie Chaplin: Rags to Riches

Rising to fame in the silent film era, Charlie Chaplin became a worldwide icon for his performances in many films. Throughout his 75 year career, Chaplin also wrote, directed, produced, and composed the music for his productions. Best known for starring as the Tramp, Chaplin remains a firm favourite among many generations. Even those who have not seen his films know of Charlie Chaplin and recognise his trademark bowler hat.

Charles Spencer Chaplin was born in London on 16th April 1889. His mother, Hannah (1865-1928), was an actress and singer who went by the stage name Lily Harley. His father, Charles (1863-1901), was also a music hall entertainer. Unfortunately, his parents separated in 1891 and Chaplin, who stayed with his mother, grew up in poverty. At seven years old, circumstances forced the family into the Lambeth Workhouse, where he was separated from his mother and sent to the Central London District School for paupers.

After briefly reuniting with Hannah in 1898, Chaplin and his older brother Sydney were sent to temporarily live with their father. Meanwhile, Hannah was admitted to Cane Hill mental asylum after developing psychosis. Unfortunately, Charles Chaplin Senior was an alcoholic and abused the children, prompting a visit from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).

In 1901, Chaplin Senior died from liver cirrhosis, and the boys reunited with their mother. Sydney decided to join the army, leaving 14-year-old Charles to look after Hannah when her illness returned in 1903. With his mother back in the hospital, Chaplin lived alone, sometimes sleeping on the streets. Hannah was briefly released in 1905 but soon returned to the asylum, where she remained until she died in 1928.

Chaplin had his first experience of acting at the age of 5 when he stood in for his mother at a musical hall performance. By the age of 9, his mother was actively encouraging his growing interest in the entertainment sector, so he joined the Eight Lancashire Lads clog-dancing troupe and toured English music halls between 1899 and 1900.

While his mother was in the asylum, 14-year-old Chaplin registered with a theatrical agency in London’s West End and starred in an unsuccessful performance of Jim, a Romance of Cockayne by H. A. Saintsbury (1869-1939). Following this, Chaplin earned the role of pageboy in a production of Sherlock Holmes, which he starred in for two and a half years.

When Sydney returned from the army, he also expressed an interest in the acting world. The brothers went on tour together, and Chaplin found a position with Casey’s Circus, which earned him his first star role. By the age of 18, Chaplin was an accomplished comic actor but struggled to find more work after leaving the circus in 1907. Eventually, both Sydney and Charles joined a prestigious comedy company run by Fred Karno (1866-1941). Although Karno initially had reservations about Chaplin’s abilities, he eventually selected Chaplin to tour America’s vaudeville circuit with the likes of Stan Laurel (1890-1965). Reviewers described Chaplin as “one of the best pantomime artists ever seen here” and particularly liked his performance as the permanently drunk “Inebriate Swell”.

While on tour, Chaplin caught the attention of the New York Motion Picture Company, who invited him to join their Keystone Studios. Chaplin did not think much of the films produced by Keystone but welcomed the opportunity to develop his acting career. In his first film, Making a Living (1914), Chaplin portrayed a swindler who found himself in trouble with the local press. Chaplin disliked the outcome, but a slapstick fight scene inspired Chaplin’s future acting style.

For Chaplin’s second film, he selected an outfit that quickly became his signature look. Chaplin paired a baggy pair of trousers with a tight coat, a small hat and large shoes. A small moustache completed the look. Chaplin debuted the outfit in Kid Auto Races at Venice in February 1914, swiftly followed by Mabel’s Strange Predicament. In both films, he played the role of the Tramp or “Little Tramp”, a good-hearted vagrant with the manners of a gentleman. Chaplin continued to portray the character in many of his subsequent films.

In May 1914, Chaplin directed his first film, Caught in the Rain, which featured Chaplin as a tipsy hotel guest, although still dressed as his signature Tramp character. Following the film’s success, Chaplin continued directing and starring in short productions at a rate of one per week. At the end of 2014, Chaplin’s contract with Keystone came up for renewal, but the company refused his suggested salary of $1,000 a week, so Chaplin looked elsewhere for work.

In December 1914, Chaplin found work with the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company of Chicago, which agreed to a salary of $1,250 a week and a bonus of $10,000 upon signing the contract. Chaplin put time and effort into each production, releasing them monthly rather than weekly. He also recruited leading lady Edna Purviance (1895-1958), who went on to star in 35 films with Chaplin. They also had a brief romantic liaison.

Notable films Chaplin worked on with Essanay include A Night Out, The Champion and The Tramp. For the latter, Chaplin softened his signature character into a gentle and romantic type, although it still contained elements of slapstick. Unlike previous films, it had a sad ending, proving the Tramp cared for others, not just himself. It is this version of the Tramp that is fondly remembered today.

By late 1915, Charlie Chaplin merchandise filled shops across America, and fans wrote songs and comic strips about the actor and his characters. The Motion Picture Magazine nicknamed the phenomena “Chaplinitis”, which gradually spread across the ocean, making Chaplin the film industry’s first international star. As his contract with Essanay drew to an end, several companies sent him offers, including Universal and Fox. From the many proposals, Chaplin chose the Mutual Film Corporation, which signed the 26-year-old actor for $670,000 a year.

“We can afford to pay Mr Chaplin this large sum annually because the public wants Chaplin and will pay for him,” explained the president of Mutual, who set Chaplin up with a studio in Los Angeles. Chaplin produced The Floorwalker, his first film with the company, in May 1916. It contained the film industry’s first instance of a “running staircase”, which involved a frantic chase down an upward escalator.

Throughout 1916, Mutual demanded a new full-length film every four weeks, which Chaplin found challenging but managed to achieve. Working on stories around his signature character, Chaplin produced many memorable titles, including The Vagabond, where Chaplin’s character played the violin; The PawnshopThe Rink, which demonstrated Chaplin’s rollerskating skills; and One A.M., in which Chaplin was the sole actor.

In 1917, Chaplin insisted on more time to work on each film and produced only four in ten months. Nonetheless, these films are listed among Chaplin’s finest works. The Tramp-style character appeared in all four: Easy StreetThe CureThe Immigrant, and The Adventurer, which proved popular amongst Chaplin’s fans. Yet, Chaplin was dissatisfied with his output, feeling he was constantly repeating himself. He also received criticism from the British media for not returning home to fight in the First World War. Chaplin explained he registered for the American draft but never received a summons. Meanwhile, his films buoyed troops across the globe, and men began to impersonate the Tramp, causing Chaplin to take legal action. At the time, an estimated nine out of ten men attended costume parties dressed as the Tramp.

Whilst Mutual respected Chaplin’s need for extra time to produce films, the company agreed to release Chaplin from his contract when they realised he felt unhappy about his work. Unsure what to do next, Chaplin’s brother Sydney took over as his business manager and explained to the press, “Charlie [must] be allowed all the time he needs and all the money for producing [films] the way he wants … It is quality, not quantity, we are after.” Eventually, Chaplin signed on with the First National Exhibitors’ Circuit in June 1917 for $1 million.

In April 1918, Chaplin released his first film with his new contract. A Dog’s Life depicted the Tramp as a sad clown-like character, similar to Pierrot in European pantomime. The French critic Louis Delluc (1890-1924) described it as “cinema’s first total work of art”. Following its success, Chaplin joined the Third Liberty Bond campaign, which toured the United States to raise money for the Allied countries in the war. Chaplin contributed by donating all the money made from his short propaganda film The Bond. He also showed his support for the troops in Europe by writing and producing the film Shoulder Arms, set in the trenches.

The First National Exhibitors’ Circuit turned down Chaplin’s request for more money to produce his next film, so Chaplin joined forces with other dissatisfied film producers to form a new company in January 1919. Together, Chaplin, D. W. Griffith (1875-1948), Mary Pickford (1892-1979), and Douglas Fairbanks (1883-1939) founded United Artists, which allowed them to focus on their interests rather than conforming to the desires of commercial studios. Unfortunately, First National refused to release Chaplin from his contract, so he had to complete a further six films before working on his own material.

Before working with United Artists, Chaplin married Mildred Harris, a 16-year-old film star who claimed to be pregnant with his child. The pregnancy turned out to be a false alarm, but Harris soon fell pregnant shortly after their marriage in September 1918. She gave birth to a boy, Norman Spencer, on 7th July 1919, who sadly passed away three days later. Losing their child put an irreparable rift between Chaplin and Harris, so they divorced in April 1920.

The death of his son greatly affected Chaplin and may have inspired his next film, The Kid. With four-year-old Jackie Coogan (1914-84) as his co-star, the Tramp discovered an abandoned baby in an alleyway and raised it as his child. Lasting 68-minutes, The Kid was Chaplin’s first film to last more than an hour. It took nine months to produce and became an instant hit after its release in 1921.

Chaplin’s contract with First National finally came to an end in November 1922, leaving him free to work on his first independent film. Titled A Woman of Paris, the film starred Edna Purviance with only a brief cameo appearance from Chaplin. Unfortunately, the film flopped because fans had no desire to watch a Charlie Chaplin production that did not star Chaplin. Fortunately, he redeemed himself with The Gold Rush (1925), in which he starred as the Tramp. It quickly became one of the highest-grossing films of the silent era.

In 1924, Chaplin married 16-year-old actress Lita Grey (1908-95) after she revealed she was pregnant with his child. Due to their age difference, the marriage was a discreet affair, and she gave birth to their son, Charles Spencer Chaplin III (1925-68), six months later. In the same year, Chaplin became the first film star to appear on the cover of Time magazine.

In March 1926, Lita gave birth to their second son, Sydney Earl (1926-2009), but their marriage was falling apart. Chaplin spent most of his time in the film studio to avoid his wife, who eventually took the boys and left. A bitter divorce followed, leaving Chaplin on the edge of a nervous breakdown, especially when the proceedings became headline news stories across America. To avoid an ongoing scandal, Chaplin’s lawyers paid a cash settlement of $600,000, the equivalent of $8,940,000 today.

Before Chaplin’s split from Lita, he started working on The Circus, a film in which the Tramp becomes the accidental star of a circus show. Due to the divorce, Chaplin took ten months off before returning to complete the production. The Circus was eventually released in January 1928, and Chaplin received a special trophy at the 1st Academy Awards “for versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing The Circus.” Despite this, Chaplin associated the film with his divorce and refused to acknowledge The Circus for the rest of his life.

Toward the end of the 1920s, Hollywood introduced films with sound, also known as “talkies”. Chaplin was determined to continue making silent films, believing that “talkies” would detract from his pantomime-style acting. Nonetheless, Chaplin took the opportunity to write a musical score for his next film, City Lights. By the time City Lights was released in 1930, silent films were a thing of the past. Yet, City Lights was a financial success, and one critic exclaimed, “Nobody in the world but Charlie Chaplin could have done it. He is the only person that has that peculiar something called ‘audience appeal’ in sufficient quality to defy the popular penchant for movies that talk.”

Fearing audiences would think him old fashioned but not yet ready to produce a film with dialogue, Chaplin took a 16-month break, during which time he travelled across Europe and Japan. The day after he arrived in Japan, ultra-nationalists assassinated Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi (1855-1932), with whom Chaplin was staying as a guest. The original plan was to assassinate Chaplin to provoke a war with America, but Chaplin had gone out to watch a sumo wrestling match when the assassins arrived.

Chaplin returned to Los Angeles but still felt confused about his future film career. Instead, Chaplin started writing about his travels, which he published in the magazine Woman’s Home Companion. During this time, Chaplin developed a relationship with 21-year-old Paulette Goddard (1910-90), who had recently moved to Hollywood. Finally, he felt ready to return to the world of film and cast Goddard in Modern Times, released in February 1936. Rather than embrace spoken dialogue, Chaplin wrote the script without words but used sound effects and background music. At the last moment, Chaplin decided to include a gibberish song, which gave the Tramp a voice for the first time.

Following the release of Modern Times, Chaplin married Goddard while holidaying in China. Unfortunately, the marriage did not last, and they began to drift apart in 1938. Nonetheless, Goddard starred in Chaplin’s next film, The Great Dictator, which attacked fascism and satirised Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), who wore a similar moustache to the Tramp. Making a film about Hitler was controversial, especially as filming began only six days after Britain declared war on Germany.

The Great Dictator became Chaplin’s first film to feature dialogue. Chaplin did not feel completely comfortable creating a “talkie” but knew it would help get his political messages across. The film ended with a five-minute speech from Chaplin, who abandoned his character to plead against war and fascism. Despite the controversial subject, The Great Dictator was “the most eagerly awaited picture of the year,” and Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt expressed their enjoyment of the film. President Roosevelt also asked Chaplin to deliver the final speech over the radio during his inauguration in 1941.

Chaplin and Goddard divorced in 1940, and Chaplin began a relationship with the actress Joan Barry (1920-2007). When Chaplin ended the relationship in 1942, Barry became obsessed with him and was arrested twice. She then claimed to be pregnant with Chaplin’s child, which he denied, causing Barry to file a paternity suit against him. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which had been suspicious of Chaplin’s political motives, used the case as an opportunity to discredit his reputation. The FBI invented four charges, including the transportation of women across state boundaries for sexual purposes, all of which lacked evidence. Nonetheless, the court proceedings became headline news, although Chaplin was soon acquitted.

Barry’s paternity suit resurfaced after the birth of her daughter, Carol Ann, in October 1943. The courts declared Chaplin the father, despite blood test results that suggested otherwise. The judge ordered Chaplin to pay child support until Carol Ann reached the age of 21. The FBI made sure the media coverage painted Chaplin in a negative light. Admittedly, Chaplin did not help matters by marrying 18-year-old actress Oona O’Neill (1925-91) in June 1943.

Chaplin met O’Neill, the daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953), seven months before their marriage. Despite their 36-year age gap, Chaplin described their meeting as the happiest day of his life. After three unsuccessful marriages, Chaplin had finally found “perfect” love, and the couple remained married until Chaplin’s death. They had eight children, Geraldine Leigh (b.1944), Michael John (b. 1946), Josephine Hannah (b. 1949), Victoria (b. 1951), Eugene Anthony (b. 1953), Jane Cecil (b. 1957), Annette Emily (b. 1959), and Christopher James (b. 1962), the majority of whom became actors.

Despite finding happiness with O’Neill, Chaplin remained scarred from his dealings with Joan Barry. He claimed she had “crippled his creativeness”, and Chaplin felt unable to work until 1946. Not only did Chaplin struggle to get back into the filmmaking business, but his style of acting also changed dramatically. Monsieur Verdoux, released in 1947, was inspired by serial killer Henri Désiré Landru (1869-1922). Chaplin starred as a former bank clerk who married and murdered wealthy widows to support his family. He also vocalised his criticism of capitalism and his fears about nuclear weapons.

When Monsieur Verdoux premiered, the audience booed Chaplin and called for a boycott on the film. Nevertheless, the film was a success abroad and Chaplin believed it was “the cleverest and most brilliant film I have yet made.” Unfortunately, the media, led by the FBI, accused Chaplin of being a communist, which worsened his already damaged reputation. Chaplin denied the accusations, calling himself a “peacemonger”, yet he campaigned against the trials of the Communist Party members and the activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

With his fan base dwindling rapidly, Chaplin focused his attention on producing another film. Limelight, about a forgotten music hall comedian and a young ballerina in Edwardian London, was largely based on Chaplin’s life. The main character, Calvero, alluded to his poor childhood and his loss of popularity in the United States.

Reunited with his eldest sons, Charles and Sydney, Chaplin cast them in Limelight along with his wife and three of their children. Another family member in the cast was Wheeler Dryden (1892-1957), a younger half-brother who did not learn he was Chaplin’s brother until he was 26 years of age.

Due to the negative press in America, Chaplin decided to premiere Limelight in London in 1952. Chaplin and his entire family sailed to England on 18th September 1952, learning soon after their arrival that his re-entry permit had been revoked. To return to the USA, Chaplin would have to attend an interview about his political views and behaviour. Although later evidence suggested the FBI had no real reason to prevent Chaplin’s re-entry, Chaplin decided to stay in Europe, where he was warmly received.

“I have been the object of lies and propaganda by powerful reactionary groups who, by their influence and by the aid of America’s yellow press, have created an unhealthy atmosphere in which liberal-minded individuals can be singled out and persecuted. Under these conditions I find it virtually impossible to continue my motion-picture work, and I have therefore given up my residence in the United States.”

Chaplin’s wife travelled to the USA to settle the family’s affairs, then returned to her husband, renounced her US citizenship and became a British citizen. In January 1953, Chaplin decided to relocate his family to Switzerland, where he purchased Manoir de Ban, a 35-acre estate overlooking Lake Geneva. The building is now the site of Chaplin’s World, a museum dedicated to the life and work of Charlie Chaplin.

In America, the FBI continued to label Chaplin a communist, especially when the communist-led World Peace Council awarded him the International Peace Prize. Fortunately, in Europe, Chaplin’s political views were less important, and he felt encouraged to return to film work. Chaplin founded a new production company, Attica, and released A King in New York in 1957. Featuring autobiographical elements, the storyline featured a character facing accusations of communism. Without access to the equipment in Hollywood, the quality of the film suffered, but it still achieved moderate success in Europe.

Before working on his second European film, Chaplin edited some of his old film scores, composing music for earlier recordings and releasing several together as a compilation. The Chaplin Revue (1959), for instance, included A Dog’s Life, Shoulder Arms, and The Pilgrim. Simultaneously, Chaplin worked on his memoirs, which he released as My Autobiography in 1964. Whilst it became a best-seller, fans expressed disappointment at the lack of detail about his film career in America.

After the publication of his autobiography, Chaplin worked on a romantic comedy called A Countess from Hong Kong. Rather than starring as a lead character, Chaplin cast Marlon Brando (1924-94), Sophia Loren (b. 1934) and his son Sydney as the key characters. Chaplin only had a cameo role, which became his final film appearance. Sadly, A Countess from Hong Kong was a box office failure.

Chaplin suffered several mini-strokes in the early 1960s but was still determined to write. Unfortunately, he never finished his final work, The Freak, due to declining health. Instead, he focused on editing and compiling his old films.

During the early 1970s, Chaplin became the recipient of several awards and honours. At the Cannes Film Festival in 1971, he was made a Commander of the National Order of the Legion of Honour, the highest French order of merit. In 1972, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in America offered Chaplin an Honorary Award. Naturally, Chaplin felt uncertain about accepting the latter but eventually agreed to return to the USA for the first time in 20 years. At the Academy Awards gala, Chaplin received a 12-minute standing ovation, which remains the longest in the Academy’s history.

Chaplin had plans to work on more films, but another series of strokes left him wheelchair-bound. With assistance, he compiled a pictorial autobiography using old film reels and appeared in a documentary about his life, The Gentleman Tramp. In 1975, Chaplin was awarded a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II (b. 1926) at the 1975 New Year Honours. To receive it, Chaplin had to break protocol and receive the honour in his wheelchair rather than kneel in front of the Queen.

By October 1977, Chaplin needed round-the-clock care. On Christmas morning, he suffered another stroke and passed away in his sleep. According to his wishes, the funeral was a small, private affair, and he was interred at the Corsier-sur-Vevey cemetery. Many filmmakers and actors wrote tributes, including Bob Hope (1903-2003), who declared, “We were lucky to have lived in his time.”

Chaplin left more than $100 million to his wife, which tempted grave robbers Roman Wardas and Gantcho Ganev to dig up Chaplin’s coffin and hold his body for ransom in 1978. The criminals were caught a few months later, and the coffin returned to the Corsier-sur-Vevey cemetery. To prevent further burglaries, Chaplin was interred in a reinforced concrete vault.

Charlie Chaplin’s life is a story of rags to riches with many ups and downs along the way. Born into poverty, Chaplin had no choice but to fend for himself, using his love of acting as a means to escape his situation. Through talent and determination, Chaplin made a name for himself, soon becoming an international star. As celebrities still discover today, fame comes with public scrutiny. With his every move documented, Chaplin’s poor decisions, such as his relationships with younger women, were analysed and discussed at every opportunity. The media backlash allowed the FBI to attack Chaplin and accuse him of communist sympathies among other things. Fortunately, while his world and career were being torn to shreds, Chaplin met the love of his life and lived the remainder of his years in peace, surrounded by his children.

Film critic Andrew Sarris (1928-2012) named Chaplin “the single most important artist produced by the cinema, certainly its most extraordinary performer and probably still its most universal icon.” The multitalented performer is ranked by the American Film Institute as the 10th greatest male star of Classic Hollywood Cinema. Chaplin inspired actors, directors, scriptwriters, film producers, composers and musicians throughout his career, including Marcel Marceau (1923-2007), the French mime artist. Chaplin’s slapstick routines also inspired cartoon characters, such as Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse.

Time magazine claims Chaplin helped turn the film industry into an art. Without Chaplin’s input, films may have taken a different direction. He developed comedy as a genre and not just something for music hall entertainment. Despite all the scandals during his lifetime, Chaplin is a man to be respected, admired and remembered. Statues and memorials across the world preserve Chaplin’s iconic Tramp look and remind people of his achievements. Generations to come will know his name and recognise his signature style, proving how successful Chaplin was in an industry that the world now takes for granted.


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