Chaplin - an essay by Aaron Hale

    Feltham once said, "Laughter should dimple the cheek, not furrow the brow." Charlie Chaplin was a man who definitely dimpled millions of cheeks in the early 1900's. He had a huge impact on the lives of Americans during the world wars and the hard times of the Depression and he made people laugh for the first time in a long time and changed the way they looked at the world despite his own troubles. And even though his films were in black and white, he put a lot of color into everyone's life.

Charlie Chaplin was born on April 15, 1889, in London, England to Charles Chaplin, Sr., and Hannah Hill(Lynn, Kenneth, pg.376). He was taught to sing before he could talk and danced just as soon as he could walk(Untermeyer, Louis, pg.669). At a very young age Chaplin was told that he would be the most famous person in the world. From then on it was a personal goal for little Charlie. And he would do anything to reach his goal. When Charlie was five years old he sang for his mother on stage after she became ill and taken hoarse(Pringle, Glen). Everyone in the audience loved him and hurled their money onto the stage. When Chaplin was eight, he appeared in a clog dancing act called "Eight Lancashire Lads"(A.Kn, pg.94) Once again he was loved by the audience and he was excited with the attention he received. Charlie's half-brother , Sidney, acted as his agent and when Charlie was ten years old, Sidney got Chaplin an engagement at the London Hippodrome. Within a few years Charlie was one of the most popular child actors in England (Untermeyer, Louis, pg. 670).

Charlie was twelve when his father died on May 9th, 1901. He died in St. Thomas Hospital in London of alcoholism. He was thirty-seven (Robinson, David, pg. 648). After the death of her husband, Charlie's mother, became a chronically psychotic woman who was in and out of mental institutions(Weissman, Stephen, pg. 6). Charlie and Sidney, were placed in a charity home after their mother's mental health plummeted.

Chaplin attended 2 years of school at Hern Boy's College. This was the only formal education that he ever recieved. Charlie was at school when his mother suffered a mental breakdown and was taken away to an institution. Completely alone, Charlie lived on the streets.

When she was well enough, his mother took the children back and supported them by sewing(Untermeyer, Louis, pg.670). Between his twelfth and his fourteenth birthdays, Charlie's places of employment included a barbershop ( where he absorbed the techniques that the Jewish barber would display in "The Great Dictator"); a stationery store, a doctor's office, a glass factory, Chandler's shop, and a printing plant (Lynn, Kenneth S., pg.65).

From 1903 to 1906, Charlie performed in "Sherlock Holmes" as the paperboy, Billy(Pringle, Glen). After his time with "Sherlock Holmes", Charlie joined "The Casey Circus" in 1906 as a mime. He remained there for a year(Pringle, Glen). As a gawky adolescent whose voice was changing, Charlie found that he could not remain a child actor in the legimate theater and was forced back into Vaudeville where he discovered the gift for comic pantomime. After remaining in Vaudeville for a few years, Charlie, not quite twenty, came to the United States as a top comedian( Untermeyer, Louis, pg.670). There he started his career as the most famous person that ever lived.

In 1907, Chaplin joined the Karno Pantomime Troupe. He made his first tour of the United States and Canada in 1910 with the Karno Troupe. He stayed with the Karno Troupe until 1913. In May of 1913, Charlie signed a contract with Adam Kessel, who had an interest in the Keystone Film Company, for $125 per week. On December 29, 1913, Chaplin signed with Keystone Films for $150 a week. In January of 1914, Chaplin made his first feature film, "Making A Living". Charlie remained with Keystone Films all through 1914 until November when he signed a contract with Essanay Films for $1,250 a week to make 14 films during the year of 1915 (Pringle, Glen). In the spring of 1915, Chaplin made his first appearance as the "tramp" character in "The Tramp". The film was a bittersweet comedy with a signature ending in which - plucky and resilient after losing in love - this homeless comic hero waddles down life's highway, desolate and utterly alone ( Weissman, Stephen). His character, the Tramp, was a short, twitchy man with a black mustache, baggy suit and a waddling penguinlike walk(Corn, Kahana, pg13). A biographist, Theodore Huff, believed Chaplin's costume for the Tramp character personified shabby gentility- the fallen aristocrat at grips with poverty. He said the cane was a symbol of attempted dignity. And he thought his mustache was a sign of vanity (Untermeyer, Louis, pg.671). Within two years of his first appearance in motion pictures, in 1914, he had become one of the best known personalities in the nation (A.Kn., pg. 93).

On the 27th of February, 1916, Chaplin signed with Mutual Films for $10,000 a week plus a $150,000 signing bonus(Pringle, Glen). He remained with for a little over a year, until June 17, 1917, when he signed with First National Exhibitor's Circuit for $1,075,000 a year( Pringle, Glen). He was still a bachelor - handsome, rich, and famous - when he became infatuated with a sixteen- year-old movie ingenue, Mildred Harris. On October 23rd, 1918, they were suddenly married (Untermeyer, Louis pg.672). By the early 1920's his box office appeal was so great that no studio could afford his talents, and he appeared only in films produced by himself. Chaplin, together with two other of the foremost stars of the day, Mary Pickford , Douglas Fairbanks (who was Chaplin's best friend) and the director D.W. Griffith formed United Artists, so that each could produce and distribute his own films independently (A.Kn, pg.94). He demanded unquestioning obedience from his associates; years of instant deference to his point of view had persuaded him that it was the only one that mattered.

Chaplin's most famous films that brought him the most admiration, and controversy were: "The Kid"(1920), "The Gold Rush"(1925), "City Lights"(1931), "Modern Times"(1936), "The Great Dictator"(1940), "Monsieur Verdoux"(1947), and "Limelight"(1952) (1998 World Book, pg.377). After these films Chaplin filled the sky as the most famous person in the world. Until he was nearly thirty Chaplin's life had been quiet, scandal-free and without any serious involvement.

Then, "Talkies" started coming out. These are movies with sound. "Talkies are spoiling the oldest art in the world- the art of pantomime. They are ruining the great beauty of silence. They are defeating the meaning of the screen." Charlie Chaplin said when the talking movies came out.

Forty years after he came to America , Chaplin was accused of being a communist. He had no answer to prove the accusations wrong except that it was his constitutional right, and with Senator McCarthy on the loose that wasn't enough. Charlie had come to America, that forty years ago, to breathe free air. Now he was leaving for the same reason (James, Clive, pg 137). After finding out that Chaplin was "sympathetic with the Leftist beliefs", the FBI went to work to find out what was going on. The extensive files on Chaplin maintained by the FBI over a period of more than fifty years. They total more than nineteen hundred pages. Not only was he accused of being a communist, he was also accused of being Jewish, as well, because his half-brother, Sidney, was three-fourths Jewish. Chaplin's reputation was not good with the FBI. Charlie's investigation began on August 15, 1922, when an agent called A.A. Hopkins passed on the information to the FBI that Charlie had given a reception for a prominent labor leader, William Z. Foster, who was visiting Los Angeles (Robinson, David, pg. 751). He was also frequently the guest of the millionaire D.C. James at his cliffside mansion in Carmel. It was there that he came to delight with his host's son, Dan, a would be writer and a communist whom he later would employ as an assistant director on "The Great Dictator". After being questioned about being a communist, Chaplin answered, "I do not want to create any revolution, all I want to do is create a few more films. I might amuse people. I hope so." (Robinson, David, pg.752)

The FBI interviewed scores of witnesses, and the secret evidence they collected fills more than four hundred pages. On January 15th, 1927, Chaplin suffered a serious nervous breakdown. Three days after that, the broken comedian learned from a story in the New York Times that the U.S. Government was about to lien on his assets. In 1933 the impromptu performances stopped. Instead, Chaplin's dark moods became more obvious, and his anger flashes more constant. A fear of failure was plaguing him. The secret to Chaplin's fortitude in weathering the storms of the late 1940's was the unqualified success and happiness of his marriage to Oona.

In 1947, after the film, "Monsieur Verdoux", he returned to California on April 30th, but for the next six weeks he stayed away from the studio. He was lonely, dispirited, and give to expressing dissatisfaction with his achievements.

One of the FBI's most helpful informants was the beautiful, young actress, Hedda Hopper (Robinson, David, pg.752). The FBI seemed to have bugged telephones and hotel rooms with devices they called "Microphone Technicals." They put stops on border posts to prevent Chaplin's leaving the country if he had been so inclined. Finally in November of 1948, Chaplin was put on the Security Index. He was accused of all those things and no one had proof or any evidence whatsoever. The files were disappointing; on the 29th of December, there came the admission: " It has been determined that there are no witnesses available who could offer testimony that Chaplin has been a member of the communist party in the past, is now a member, or has contributed funds to the communist party." (Robinson, David, pg. 754) Finally, the FBI admitted that they had no evidence to support the beliefs that Chaplin was a communist. On the 25th of August, 1952, Mr. Noto of the Immigration and Naturalization service telephoned the FBI to say that was intending to sail for England in September. Attorney General McGranery, on September 9th, met with J. Edgar Hoover and, nervous and paranoid, told him that he was considering taking steps to prevent the re-entry into this country of Chaplin. Later that day, McGranery announced that Chaplin's re-entry permit would not be honored. On the 16th of September, Hoover told the Los Angeles office that Chaplin had been reissued a re-entry permit, and that they should advise head office on any information. At the bottom of the note it read- "INS has advised that even though he was given a re-entry permit, this permit gives no guarantee he will be aloud to return to the United States." The FBI files show, however, that the Immigration and Naturalization service remained nervous about their permission. Chaplin, instead of coming back, turned in his re-entry permit and chose to make his home in Europe ( Robinson, David, pg.755).

Charlie made his way back to Europe, where he made his home in Switzerland. He said he was happiest there, far away from the fame and misfortune, and with his wife, Oona, and children. And after three disastrous marriages, a succession of love affairs and the FBI's accusations that weren't true, Chaplin felt happy for the first time in a long time.

In 1957, he produced, in London, "The King in New York", a comedy laden with sermons against the House Committee on un-American activities, inane TV commercials, and other aspects of American life. This film brought back fresh accusations of pro-communism, which Chaplin specifically denied (A.Kn, pg.94).

In 1972, Chaplin was honored at the Academy Awards as a wonderful comedian, actor and loving person. It was his first time back to America since the Red Scare accusations about him, and once again the huge crowd of people and fellow actors, producers and directors loved him, and he felt the love that he had always had of laughter and attention.

In 1977, on the 25th of December (Christmas Day), Chaplin passed away of natural causes in his home in Corsier-Sur-Vevey, Switzerland. He was eighty-eight years old (McIntyre, Diane, para.1). He was married to Oona Chaplin at the time, who was his wife for thirty six years.

Even among false accusations and the troubled loves and marriages he went through, Charlie Chaplin, had an impact on everyone's life in the early 1900's. He made more people laugh than any other man who ever lived and changed the way people looked at the world. His films were for the underdog, and with great pity and understanding, his films were about him.


Corn, Kahana. (1987). Madcap Men & Wacky Women From History. New York: Julian Messner.

James, Clive. (1993). FAME in the 20th Century. New York: Random House.

Kn., A.(1985). Encyclopedia Brittanica Vol. 3- Micro. Chicago: The Encyclopedia Brittanica, Inc.

Lynn, Kenneth S. (1997). Charlie Chaplin and His Times. New York: Simon & Schuster.

MacIntyre, Diane.(1996). The Silents Majority. New York: First McGraw-Hill.

Robinson, David. (1985). Chaplin. New York: First McGraw-Hill.

Smith, Scott. (1998). The Film 100. Ontario:Carol Publishing Group.

Untermeyer, Louis. (1955). Makers of the Modern World. New York:Simon & Schuster.

GLen Pringle /
Aaron Hale /
Copyright © 1999 by Glen Pringle and Aaron Hale