Charlie Chaplin: his life story

Charlie Chaplin eats his shoe in a scene from 1925 film gold Rush. Charlie Chaplin life story
Charlie Chaplin eats his shoe in a scene from 1925 film gold Rush. Credit: ClassicStock/Alamy

As a blue plaque is unveiled in his honour, we tell the story of London-born Charlie Chaplin – a British comedy genius who used silent films to convey a subtlety that revolutionised cinema

Today, British comedian Paul Merton is to unveil an English Heritage Blue Plaque to Charlie Chaplin at a mansion block in Brixton where the silent movie star lived with his brother Sydney from 1908 to 1910. Below, we chart Chaplin’s meteoric rise from the slums of London to the Hollywood elite…

His charcoal black eyebrows and tuft of a moustache poking out from under his trademark bowler hat made Charlie Chaplin one of the most famous faces of all time. Donning an ill-fitting suit, accessorised with a walking cane and gawky posture, as his Tramp persona, Chaplin rose to great heights, becoming one of the world’s most successful silent movie stars and one of its richest men.

But behind this comical onstage appearance lay a complex genius whose life began with a Dickensian working-class childhood full of hardship and tragedy, which has been billed as one of the world’s greatest ‘rags to riches’ stories.

Charlie Chaplin: the early years

Sir Charles Spencer ‘Charlie’ Chaplin was born on 16 April 1889 to Hannah Chaplin and Charles Chaplin Senior, both music hall entertainers of the time. There is no official record of Charlie’s birth but it is believed he was born in East Street, Walworth, in south London.

Though his parents never divorced, by the time Charlie was a toddler they were estranged, so he spent his early years with his mother and brother, Sydney, in Kennington, south London. Hannah had no means of income and the situation quickly deteriorated, until Chaplin was admitted to his first workhouse at the age of seven.

The council assigned him to the Central London District School for paupers, which Chaplin remembered as a “forlorn existence”, until he was reunited with his mother 18 months later. Tragically, the boys were soon readmitted and by September 1898, Hannah Chaplin was committed to Cane Hill mental asylum, having developed a psychosis seemingly brought on by syphilis and malnutrition.

For the two months she was there, her two sons were sent to live with their father. Little more than a stranger to them, and a severe alcoholic, he died two years later from cirrhosis of the liver.

Bar a few periods of remission, Hannah’s decline in mental health was rapid. During one bout of illness, Chaplin took her to the infirmary, from where she was sent back to Cane Hill, leaving him alone for days, searching for food and sleeping rough until his brother returned from his work with the navy. Chaplin wrote of this time: “There was nothing we could do but accept poor mother’s fate”, and she remained in care until her death in 1928.

Amazingly, in the midst of this, Charlie managed to develop his talent for drama and comedy, making his first amateur appearance on stage aged just five. He attributed
a lot of his interest in performing to his mother’s encouragement, saying that she “imbued me with the feeling that I had some sort of talent.” Before long, others started to see his potential and he began touring the country as a popular young music hall star.

Chaplin hits the big time

But it was Chaplin’s seemingly overnight success in 1914 as an inventive director-star in Hollywood that established him as one of cinema’s most ground-breaking figures.

Chaplin first visited the US to tour with a theatre company in 1907, but it was on his second tour that he was signed to Keystone Studios to act in films, making his debut in 1914 in one-reeler, Making a Living.

For his second appearance on camera, Chaplin chose the costume with which he would forever be identified – that of the Tramp – in Mabel’s Strange Predicament, though audiences met Chaplin’s new character in Kid Auto Races at Venice, shot later but released two days earlier.

The birth of the ‘Tramp’

Charlie once said that he had no plan for the Tramp, “but the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the make-up made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on stage he was fully born.”

Before turning 26, Chaplin had signed a contract with Mutual Film for $670,000 a year, which, according to his biographer, David Robinson, made him one of the highest paid people in the world. Chaplin spent the next decade making a series of shorts, notably classics The Kid, The Gold Rush and A Woman of Paris, earning a reputation along the way for having a demanding and fastidious work ethic as both an actor and a director.

Here come the ‘Talkies’

When the introduction of ‘talkies’ began to change the film industry, Chaplin was the only filmmaker to stand his ground and continue to champion his silent art. Talkies were in vogue, but Chaplin still managed to make silent films that moved and entertained in equal parts. Who could forget the touching scene in 1931’s City Lights when the Tramp is finally recognised by the flower girl? It is widely regarded as one of Chaplin’s finest works.

Then there’s 1936’s Modern Times, as much a celebration of silent film as it is a deconstruction of the modern industrial age. Here Chaplin gets daringly political, with the Tramp struggling to come to terms with working in a factory; a comment on the poor conditions of many workers during depression-era America.

In his later career, Chaplin’s political leanings made him many enemies, tarring his image with controversy. While his slapstick acrobatics may have made him famous, it was the subtleties of Chaplin’s acting that made him truly great; his ability to improvise, to locate the humour or pathos in any situation and to control the environment with depth rather than hammy or stagey effects that paved the way for a new, more sophisticated world of cinema.