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Chaplin, Charlie (1889-1977)

film films chaplin’s tramp

Although his contributions to film extend from acting to directing, producing, and composing, it was his acting in silent films that brought Charlie Chaplin fame and made him the most widely recognized person of his era. He helped boost motion pictures from a novelty entertainment to a form of art, regularly breaking from convention to create fresh meaning.

Born in deep poverty in London, England, Charles Spencer Chaplin spent his early childhood in run-down housing, poorhouses, and even an orphanage. His music hall performer parents, Charles Chaplin and Lily Harley Chaplin, separated only a year after Chaplin was born. His father died in 1901 from liver complications as a result of his alcoholism, and his mother was placed in an asylum for the insane at about the same time.

Chaplin’s acting career began when he was nine years of age. He soon left school and as a young teenager used his talent for entertaining to make living wages that were equivalent to those commonly earned by adults. Chaplin’s brother, Sydney, got him a job in a comedy troupe in 1908. The touring troupe traveled to America, where Chaplin began to dream of working in the movie business. Mack Sennett, newly in charge of the Keystone Studios in Los Angeles, California, saw Chaplin’s portrayal of a drunk with the comedy troupe and offered him a film-acting job in November 1913. His first film, Making a Living (1914), foreshadowed Chaplin’s brilliant career as his creative impromptu comic antics stole the show and received accolades from audiences.

In only his second film, Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), Chaplin invented his trademark jaunty slapstick “tramp” character (often called simply “Charlie”) with baggy pants, a tight coat, big shoes, a small derby hat, and a cane. This costume (with some variations that still left it recognizably in tact) was used in most of the subsequent films that Chaplin would make— although the characterization of the tramp would change significantly. After acting in his first dozen or so films, Chaplin also began directing and codirecting many of the later Keystone films in which he appeared, mostly without the aid of a script.

In 1915, Chaplin achieved more artistic control and a much higher salary with a move to Essanay Studios, where he revealed new levels of character development and multidimensionality, showing a range of mood and personality elements in The Tramp , his sixth film with the company. The immortal characteristics of the tramp character, including his homelessness, his jaunty walk away from the camera, the lower stratum of society in which he moved, and the way the world always shunned him, first came together in this film. The character’s persistent individuality, ability to overcome adversity and turmoil, and limitless empathy and compassion for another who was downtrodden have made this character into a social icon.

By 1916, Chaplin had again moved on, this time for a record $10,000 a week, to the Mutual Film Company. At Mutual, Chaplin had more time to make each movie, bigger budgets, and full artistic control. In his first Mutual film, The Floor-walker (1916), Chaplin began to emphasize the comedy’s narrative structure or form. Instead of the gags and slapstick moves serving as the foundation around which a narrative is built, he began to create strong stories with elements of romance and pathos that are augmented by the comic elements. Other films of this nature that Chaplin made for Mutual include The Vagabond (1916), Easy Street (1917), and The Immigrant (1917).

Chaplin continued to emphasize romance and pathos in the eight films that he created at First National between 1918 and 1923, even though this was a very troubled period artistically and personally. The Kid (1921) was his most noted First National film, receiving accolades for the sensitivity that was expressed in the way the tramp became a reluctant father to an orphaned child. Some of his First National films, including the six-reel The Kid , stretched his work toward feature length. During this period, he also created his own Chaplin Studios.

Chaplin joined Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D. W. Griffith to form United Artists in 1919 (while he was still working at First National). This association of four of the top talents in Hollywood was designed to compete against the established studios that wanted to monopolize the industry to keep salaries in check. It also offered Chaplin the opportunity to have utmost control over the films that he would make after fulfilling his contract with First National.

The Gold Rush (1925), a United Artists production, is most often considered to be Chaplin’s greatest film, as well as one of the best films of the silent era. The scene in this film where the tramp character has a boiled shoe for dinner is a classic film moment. This film, which was a financial blockbuster for the financially strapped company, was the last Chaplin film to be finished before the advent of talking pictures.

When Chaplin moved to sound, he did so in gradual and masterful ways. Rather than purely embracing the new technology, he let it enhance the silent art, filming City Lights (1931) with no dialogue and Modern Times (1936) with very little, but both films had synchronized sound effects to enhance emotion and meaning. Chaplin’s artistic greatness was solidified with his successful transition to “talkies” in The Great Dictator (1940). While the tramp remained silent, Chaplin adopted a new, boisterous tyrant persona as the dictator, Adenoid Hynkel, who was a representation of Adolf Hitler. Chaplin repeated this tyrant persona in Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and in Limelight (1952), the only other two talkies that he filmed in Hollywood.

Prior to the release of Monsieur Verdoux , Chaplin became the target of politicians during the “Red Scare” and his last two Hollywood films were ignored and boycotted. Chaplin left America for a trip to Europe in 1952 and, rather than answer U.S. Immigration Department questions about his political beliefs, chose to live out the rest of his life in Switzerland. He made two other movies, A King in New York (1957) and A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), but neither film lived up to the standards that he had set for himself in Hollywood.

Chaplin received a special Academy Award in 1972 for his contributions to the art of motion pictures. Limelight was also “officially released” and won an Oscar for best original dramatic score in 1973. Two years later, Queen Elizabeth II of England conferred a knighthood that made him “Sir Charles Chaplin.” After a period of illness, Chaplin died at his home on Christmas day in 1977.

Chapman, George (1559–1631) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION [next] [back] Chapin, Schuyler G(arrison)

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