Chaplin: A Little Tramp or Major Threat

Updated Monday, 13th February 2006
Charles Chaplin is arguably the most well-known figure in film history. Dr Michael Hammond outlines his life and work.

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Chaplin

Charles Chaplin is arguably the most well-known figure in film history. He was the first global star phenomenon of the mass media age and his popularity and the controversy that attended it remains unequalled even to the present day. Chaplin defined film comedy in the silent period. He was, along with DW Griffith, one of cinema's first 'auteurs' handling almost every aspect of his productions and working outside of the influence of the major Hollywood studios almost his entire career.

Made truly independent by his phenomenal early success, Chaplin developed a form of physical comedy through the theme of an impoverished outsider, a tramp, which depicted the painful and tragic conditions of living in the modern age. His comedy went beyond parody or satire and moved to the truly revelatory. His subject matter ranged from unrequited love and comic ineptitude in the workplace to the killing fields of the First World War, the alienation of the city, the danger and oppression of the life of a factory worker, the sinister ranting of a fascist dictator and the chilling calculations of a serial killer.

With such a range of unexpected fodder for comedy it is not surprising that he was dogged by controversy. Always critical of the powerful, he early on attracted the attention and animosity of conservative groups of American society. This was aggravated by his personal life, most notably his promiscuity and penchant for teenage girls. This and his socialist values attracted not only the ire of moral guardians, but also the scrutiny of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and Herbert Hoover and the FBI that ultimately resulted in his exile from the US in 1952.

Charles Spencer Chaplin was born on 16 April 1889. His parents were both music hall artistes. His father, Charles Chaplin, had a degree of success in the early 1890s with comic songs before succumbing to alcoholism. His mother, Hannah Hill, briefly had a career but suffered continuous bouts of mental illness throughout her life. Often left to fend for themselves, Chaplin and his brother Sydney were in and out of workhouses from a young age. Chaplin's early childhood was marked by the torments of Victorian London street life, which was the basis for much of his comedy and his most enduring films.

At the age of nine, Charlie joined an act called the Eight Lancashire Lads, a troupe of child clog dancers. From 1903 for three years he played the role of Billy in the play Sherlock Holmes in a touring production and also appeared on the West End stage. During this time he spent a short run working with the American actor manager William Gillette who had originated the Holmes role. Chaplin's most meticulous biographer David Robinson has noted that Gillette's theories of acting focused on an understated type of acting based on 'observation of life', which assisted him in his development of the tramp character and as a film actor later.

The most important development in Chaplin's music hall career came when he joined Fred Karno's sketch comedy troupe. Karno's flair for stage direction and subtle comic touches provided Chaplin with both instruction and a firm grounding for developing comic characters. His most well known role was 'the inebriate' in the sketch comedy 'Mumming Birds'. Chaplin was starring in this production in the US, renamed A Night in an English Music Hall, when he was spotted, probably by Harry Aitken in Los Angeles, despite Mack Sennett's more famous claim for having discovered him in New York.

By the time Chaplin signed to the Keystone Film Company in September 1913 he was a veteran of 14 years on the stage and only 24 years old. He appeared in his first film Making a Living as the character of a down-at-heel English fop. However it was in his second film Kid's Auto Races that he appeared in the Tramp costume that he was to develop for the next two decades. In various versions his inspiration for this character is set down as a desperate improvisation to gain a comic identity before he lost his job or, in Chaplin's own words, from observations of characters he knew from the London streets. His famed waddling walk was derived from a disabled man he knew as a child. Combined with the fast developing film industry Chaplin's distinctive pantomime style reached a worldwide audience and proved immediately popular. His comedy did not fit the frenetic Keystone style at first however as his Karno-base style employed a more deliberate form of comic business. Nevertheless he quickly adapted and began directing in order to best bring out his comic potential.

By the summer of 1915, with the First World War raging, US and Allied audiences were in the grip of what was termed 'Chaplinitis'. Chaplin signed a lucrative contract with Essanay studios and began to introduce pathos into the character of the Tramp. The Tramp in the Keystone and most of the Essanay films is a vicious and opportunistic pest, stealing drinks and accosting girls in the park just out of reach of irate boyfriends and policemen. Chaplin once remarked that all he needed to make a film was a park, a policeman and a pretty girl. At Essanay and later more completely at Mutual he pushed the melodramatic potential of this basic combination to develop empathy for the tramp's situation and to incorporate political and social injustice.

 

 

Chaplin

Chaplin's popularity by 1916 was truly global, cresting at the moment that the American film industry was gaining a dominant position in the global market. The extent of this popularity brought him to the attention of conservative groups in the US. Chaplin's move to pathos in the tramp can be seen as a counter to the accusations of vulgarity from these groups. In 1916 Minnie Madern Fiske, a respected legitimate stage actress, wrote an article praising Chaplin's art which marked the beginning of the public recognition of Chaplin as comic genius. Looking at Mutual films such as The Vagabond (1916) and The Immigrant (1917), which depict through a combination of comedy and tragedy the stresses and strife of the immigrant experience and of living rough on the road, it is hard to disagree. The over-all effect of this incorporation of pathos was that he brought his audience with him.

 

However, controversy was also a fellow traveller to Chaplin's growing fame, with accusations by the Northcliffe press in Britain of avoiding military service and later suspicion of socialist sympathies and surveillance by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. Hoover had noticed the nature of Chaplin's comedy, which sided with the powerless and in the context of threats of labour unrest, and communism found him a threat. He opened a file on him in 1922 and for thirty years actively sought to discredit him through political and personal humiliation.

While up until 1918 Chaplin had primarily worked in the short film format, the 1920s saw his maturity as a feature filmmaker. In 1919 he formed United Artists, with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and DW Griffith, a film distribution company that would be independent of the major Hollywood studios and would allow unfettered creative control of their projects. Apart from The Kid (1920), which was directly drawn from his impoverished London childhood, the rest of the films on which his reputation rests were with United Artists.

His eight films for United Artists demonstrate both the ingenuity and inventiveness of his film work and also mark out his troubles with an increasingly aggressive American conservatism. The Red Scares of the early 20s give a sense of how counter to conservative values Chaplin's themes of destitution and an unsympathetic world were. His private life gave cause for scrutiny with two sordid divorces in 1920 and 1928, which were cast against the wider condemnation of Hollywood decadence brought about by the Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle scandal in 1921. Chaplin's adulation by intellectuals and artists such as Bernard Shaw, Louis Aragon, Germaine Dulac, as well as Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein continued to fuel a smouldering suspicion among reactionary groups.

Yet Chaplin's comedy was always too subtle and complex for simple interpretations. The famous French critic and semiotician Roland Barthes remarked of this elusiveness in Modern Times (1936): "Chaplin has always seen the proletarian under the guise of the poor man: hence the broadly human force of his representations but also their political ambiguity." Judged from the 21st century it seems astonishing that a film that ridiculed Adolph Hitler would have also been subject to the scrutiny of censuring bodies, yet it was. Chaplin made The Great Dictator (1940) at a time when the US was isolationist and Hollywood had by and large shied away from making films critical of Nazis. During the Second World War Chaplin was a vocal supporter of a second front to support the Russian war effort and the attention he drew from the FBI intensified.

By the time of the release of the dark 'comedy of murders' Monsieur Verdoux in 1946, Chaplin's press reception was preoccupied with his political views rather than his filmmaking. As the McCarthy era gathered momentum so did the frustration of Hoover with being unable to discredit Chaplin. His opportunity came when Chaplin left the US in September 1952 to attend the premiere of his film Limelight in London. Hoover put pressure on Immigration Services and Chaplin, who had never taken up US citizenship, had his visa revoked.

After his exile, he lived in Vevey, Switzerland and made two films in Britain; A King in New York (1957) and The Countess from Hong Kong (1967); neither a success compared to his earlier films. In this period he also devoted his time to developing projects and to rescoring his earlier features.

Chaplin's reputation suffered in the 50s not only from political animosity but also from the disregard that accompanied the end of the silent period generally. This was even more acute with other silent comic greats like Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Harry Langdon. Sparked by renewed interest in the silent period which gathered pace in the 1960s and 70s Chaplin's comedy began to be reassessed so that even his later film Monsieur Verdoux came to be recognised for its dark subtlety – 'murder is the logical extension of business'. Chaplin's films began to be re-screened in special retrospectives in New York and Los Angeles. This revival accompanied a weakening of reactionary forces in the US generally and praise for Chaplin's work began to appear in the press and family magazines such as Life. In 1972 he returned to the US to accept a special award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the US seemed to have miraculously recovered its memory for his contribution to cinematic arts. Later in his book My Life in Pictures he remarked 'I was touched by the gesture – but there was a certain irony about it somehow.' Chaplin died on 25 December 1977.

 

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