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"Movies are a fad," Charlie Chaplin said early in his career. "Audiences really want to see live actors on a stage."

 

Chaplin's words seem silly now, but he wasn't known for words, and his statement might have been prophetic if not for his contributions to the early days of cinema. With the possible exception of D.W. Griffith, who rewrote the language of film with his epic, Birth of a Nation, no other filmmaker had as profound an impact on motion pictures as the man whose mustache, bowler hat, and twirling walking stick are instantly recognizable even to generations of movie fans who have not seen his films. At its 44th annual awards ceremony in 1972, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognized Chaplin with an Oscar honoring his "incalculable effect in making motion pictures the art form of the twentieth century."

 

Film critic Richard Schickel described Chaplin as "unquestionably the greatest narcissist in screen history...He wished nothing to distract us from our pleasure in contemplating what he regarded as the world's supreme object of contemplation - his dear self."

 

During the early days of the cinema, millions were happy to share Chaplin's fascination with himself. In the silent era, Chaplin didn't merely make movies. He was the movies.

 

Few screen icons have been the recipient of so much praise. To his contemporaries, Stan Laurel and Buster Keaton, Chaplin was "the greatest artist that was ever on the screen" and "the greatest comedian who ever lived." George Bernard Shaw thought he was "the only genius developed in motion pictures." Such figures as Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein were also admirers, and even that most contemporary of actors, Johnny Depp, has cited Chaplin as an influence, paying tribute to him in a scene in Benny and Joon. He inspired both Jerry Lewis and Woody Allen who would follow his lead by writing and directing their films, and Roberto Benigni who hailed Chaplin as "the prince of each comedian in the world. Chaplin is our Michelangelo."

 

On the other hand, few celebrities have been as vilified for their politics and personal lives. Married five times, often to women young enough to be his daughters, Chaplin's left leaning politics led FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to compile a dossier on him that ran 2000 pages.  Like many another screen icon, his hand and foot prints were immortalized in cement outside Hollywood's legendary Chinese Theater, but his were the only ones to be removed in protest, and they remain lost to this day.

 

Born in London on April 16, 1889, Chaplin's childhood was marked by extreme poverty and hardship, and he would identify so strongly with the title character of Oliver Twist that he would re-read the Charles Dickins's novel throughout his life, even into old age.

 

"Charles Chaplin was Charles Dickens reborn," wrote Alastair Cooke. "There is an eerie similarity between Oliver Twist and the first sixty pages of Chaplin's autobiography."

 

"My childhood was sad," Chaplin said, "but now I remember it with nostalgia, like a dream."
 

It was actually a nightmare. Chaplin's father deserted the family, and his mother ended up in an asylum.

 

"I shall never be able to tell anybody all the poverty and all the misery and all the humiliation we - my mother, my brother, and I - have endured," he told a friend. "I shall never be able to tell, for no one would believe it. I myself at times cannot believe all the things that we have gone through."

 

When his mother could no longer afford to support her children, Chaplin and his brother were placed in a workhouse, an experience he survived because "I was of a dreamy, imaginative disposition. I was always pretending I was somebody else and the worst I ever gave myself in these daydreams and games of 'pretend; was a seat in Parliament for life and an income of a million pounds."

 

His parents were both performers, and after making his stage debut at age five, Chaplin aspired to an acting career. In 1914, at the age of 25, he journeyed to America on a freighter accompanied by another famous face to be: Stan Laurel. The impish Laurel would remember Chaplin standing at the rail, shouting, "America, I am coming to conquer you!"

 

America was conquered shortly after Chaplin signed a contract with the Keystone Film Corporation. In July 1925, when Chaplin became the first film star to appear on the cover of Time, the news magazine offered a summary of the star's amazing career trajectory:

 

"In three months, the U. S. raved; in six, England shrieked; in a year his hat, feet, waddle and harrassed, insouciant smirk were familiar to South Sea Islanders who pasted his picture on the walls of their bathhouses; to lamas in Tibet who chucked each other in the ribs at a mention of his name; to bushwackers, coolies, Cossacks, Slavs, Nordics. His salary became $1.000, $2,000 $3,000 a week. One film company after another outbid each other for him; he worked for Essanay, Mutual, First National, United Artists."

 

Chaplin was the first superstar recognized and understood around the globe, crossing cultural and language barriers like no other performer before, and possibly since. As the fan publication Photoplay observed, "people who never went to the movies before were driven by the accounts of the new comedian." From 1914 to 1923, one theater in Los Angeles showed nothing but Chaplin films.  

 

Unlike most stars, however, Chaplin was almost unrecognizable off-screen. He appeared on-screen in the guise of the Tramp, a character he claims "came about in an emergency. The cameraman said put on some funny make-up, and I hadn't the slightest idea what to do. I went to the dress department and, on the way, I thought, well, I'll have them make everything in contradiction - baggy trousers, tight coat, large head, small hat - raggedy but at the same time a gentleman. I didn't know how I was going to do the face, but it was going to be a sad, serious face. I wanted to hide that it was comic, so I found a little moustache. And that moustache was no concept of the characterisation - only saying that it was rather silly. It doesn't hide my expression."

 

Stepping before the cameras, Chaplin remembered that he suddenly "felt dressed. I had an attitude."

 

As Richard Schickel observed, "the Tramp figure had a resonance in the culture in those days that it doesn't have now. There were hundreds and thousands of hobos wandering around the country."

 

Schickel may be correct in describing Chaplin as an artist whom the modern audience regards as "someone to be hurried appreciatively but dispassionately past in Survey of World Cinema's first boring weeks, someone whose importance is now, alas, merely historical," but Chaplin's best feature films continue to rank among the cinema's greatest and win over new generations who are not only accustomed to sound, but are bombarded with it in the blockbusters that dominate the multiplex. 

 

Chaplin's influence was also profound on the business side of the movies. In 1919, Chaplin joined Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D. W. Griffith in forming the United Artists Corporation, a film distributor they hoped would give them greater creative freedom and a bigger slice of the profits from their work. The studios wielding power at the time were not pleased. "The lunatics have taken over the asylum," Metro chief Richard Rowland said. Despite the power and prestige of these superstars, UA would struggle for much of its early history, but would flourish under new management in the '50s. In the '70s, Woody Allen, much influenced by Chaplin, would make his films there.

 

Chaplin's first feature-length film, The Kid, released in 1923, was a turning point in his career. Chaplin was no longer just a funny man, but a tragedian as well, and the pathos added to this story of the Tramp and an orphan played by Jackie Coogan, was a deliberate move on Chaplin's part.

 

"The Elizabethan style of humor, this crude form of farce and slapstick comedy," he said, "was due entirely to my early environment, and I am now trying to steer clear from that sort of humor. " 

 

Chaplin's partners in United Artists waited four years for Chaplin to deliver his first film for the company. A Woman of Paris represented several other firsts for Chaplin: It was the first film he directed in which he didn't appear, his first dramatic film, and his first box-office flop. Still, Variety was impressed. Chaplin, the showbiz bible gushed,  "comes forth as a new genius both as a producer and a director."

 

Audiences preferred Chaplin the funnyman, and his next film, 1925's The Gold Rush, met their expectations and pleased the critics as well. Hailed by The New York Times for its "priceless comedy and haunting pathos," the film would be successfully reissued in 1942 with sound effects and music to delight a new generation. More than seven decades after its initial release, Entertainment Weekly found it delightful enough to name it the 15th greatest film of all time.

 

Ironically, for a filmmaker so intrinsically linked with the silent era, Chaplin's greatest films may very well have been made after Al Jolson's famous declaration, "You ain't heard nothin' yet," in 1928's The Jazz Singer.  The emergence of sound represented a threat to Chaplin, but he faced the challenge with stubborn defiance. For Chaplin, "pantomime is far more poetic and it has a universal appeal that everyone would understand if it were well done." 

 

City Lights was released in 1931, a landmark year in which James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson earned stardom as the tough guy gangsters of The Public Enemy and Little Caesar respectively, and Frankenstein and Dracula established horror as a film genre and made household names of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.

 

Yet the year's most memorable film may have been the silent City Lights, often regarded as Chaplin's masterpiece. This time, Chaplin's Tramp becomes smitten with a blind flower girl who mistakes him for a wealthy duke. He then sets out to earn the money to pay for the operation that will restore her sight. Rarely has a moment in a movie touched audiences as deeply as the final scene in which the girl, now able to see, learns that her benefactor is actually the little Tramp.

 

The picture had one of the longest production schedules in history with Chaplin spending two years and eight months on the film, 180 days of which were devoted to the actual filming.  

 

Chaplin cast 20-year-old socialite Virginia Cherill in the role of the blind girl with whom the Tramp falls in love, but there was no love lost between them off-screen. "Charlie never liked me," Cherill said, "and I never liked Charlie." Chaplin complained that Cherill was an amateur whom he once fired after she insisted he allow her to leave early for a hairdressing appointment.

 

Variety praised City Lights but warned that Chaplin was "in danger of becoming an anachronism."  Alastair Cooke thought it "flows as easily as water over pebbles." Time has sided with Cooke. In 2007, the American Film Institute ranked City Lights as the 11th greatest film of all time, and, a year later, the AFI named it the greatest romantic comedy.

 

"The picture is sound entertainment, though silent," Variety said of 1936's Modern Times, Chaplin's first film in five years. More than any other film, Modern Times may have immortalized Chaplin's Tramp as the everyman haplessly grappling with life's difficulties. Even in the 21st century, few images portray man's relationship with technology better than Chaplin trapped in the wheels of a clock in Modern Times. In the '80's, IBM would use the image in a successful advertising campaign for its personal computers. In 2006, Bob Dylan would appropriate the title for an album.

 

1940's The Great Dictator was Chaplin's first genuine "talkie," and it would be his biggest box-office hit. Chaplin played the role of a Jewish barber mistaken for Hynkel, the dictator of Tomania, based on none other than Adolf Hitler.

 

The New York Times hailed the film as a "truly superb accomplishment by a truly great artist—and, from one point of view, perhaps the most significant film ever produced."

 

Chaplin's status as the greatfilm artist was apparent at the film's New York premiere which was attended by such luminaries as Albert Einstein, H. G. Wells, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

 

When The Great Dictator was still in the planning stages, the world was not aware of the extent of such Nazi atrocities as the Holocaust, and some felt that Chaplin had gone too far, especially in his portrayal of the Nazi's persecution of the Jews. History would make the film look more like prophecy.

 

Reviewing the film in 1972, Roger Ebert found it to be "Chaplin's most serious, most tragic, most human work. He did not find Hitler at all funny . . . the comedy is never neutral. It is jugular, as he creates a Hynkel who is a vain, strutting buffoon, given to egomaniacal rages and ridiculous posturing. Charlie never for a moment allows us to laugh with Hynkel, but only at him, and Hynkel thus becomes the only totally unsympathetic character Chaplin has ever played."

 

It was the film's closing speech in which Chaplin breaks from the character was denounced as maudlin then, but, 32-years later, Roger Ebert would call it "uncannily appropriate."

 

The speech was an example of Chaplin expressing his most deeply held beliefs, and his political leanings would make him very controversial indeed, and ultimately turn public opinion against him.  Although it's doubtful he ever embraced Communism, he became something that Americans detested almost as much, a "limousine liberal," whose desire to share the wealth stopped at his own pocket. Chaplin supported the gubernatorial ambitions of author Upton Sinclair, whose novel The Jungle exposed the inhumane working conditions in the meat packing industry, despite Sinclair's proposal to tax the rich into extinction. A friend who listened to Chaplin's frequent rants against capitalism asked him how a millionaire like himself would be affected by such a policy. 

 

"Don't be silly," Chaplin replied. "It doesn't affect artists."

 

Indeed, Chaplin apparently thought an artist should not be required to pay taxes, and he frequently didn't, bringing the Internal Revenue Service to his door on numerous occasions. Add to that Chaplin's refusal to serve either the U.S. or Britain in times of war, his praise for Soviet Russia, and his statement criticizing patriotism as "the greatest insanity that the world has ever suffered," and it's no surprise that Chaplin became a target of the House Un-American Activities Committee headed by Senator Joseph McCarthy. His films were thought to include Communist propaganda, and pickets greeted the release of Monsieur Verdoux

 

After visiting Britain in 1952 to attend the premiere of Limelight, Chaplin was denied re-entry to the United States and immediately emigrated to Switzerland from where he issued a statement saying he had been the victim of "lies and vicious propaganda by powerful reactionary groups, who by their influence and the aid of America's yellow press have created an unhealthy atmosphere in which liberal-minded individuals can be singled out and persecuted." He was especially disappointed in the film industry for failing to use "the most powerful instrument in their hands - the motion picture. They should have used it to expose these bastards. Instead, they sold out and became weak and mealy-mouthed."

 

Jerry Epstein who worked with Chaplin in his later years discovered that his association with the once beloved star was a hindrance in his Hollywood career. "Charlie Chaplin had suddenly become a dirty word," he wrote in Remembering Charlie, "and I was advised by a United Artists executive that it would be better if I kept quiet about my association."

 

Chaplin's career came to a standstill, but his reputation improved in the more liberal environment of the 1960s, and he embarked on a new film project.

 

"Failure is unimportant," Chaplin said. "It takes courage to make a fool of yourself."

 

Most critics felt he displayed plenty of courage in A Countess from Hong Kong, his final film which Universal released in 1966. His status as a cinema legend meant that the biggest stars clamored to work with him, and both Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren signed on to the project without reading the script.

 

"The way he directed was unlike anyone I ever saw," co-star 'Tippi' Hedren recalled.  "He acted out all the parts himself . . . Marlon hated it." At the time, though, Brando described Countess as "the easiest picture I've ever made. I don't have to do anything. Charlie's doing it all."

 

In his memoirs, Brando expressed a different view of his director, describing Chaplin as a "fearsomely cruel man . . . the most sadistic man I'd ever met . . . an egotistical tyrant and a penny-pincher."

 

Brando didn't get along too well with Loren either, and Chaplin found it a challenge to direct them.

 

"The antipathy between the two stars was evident on the screen when each clasped the other as if embracing a werewolf," he wrote in his autobiography.

 

"I'd hate a picture that was perfect, it would seem machine-made," he said. "I want the human touch, so that you love the picture for its imperfections." The imperfections were too numerous to love in A Countess from Hong Kong,and, Bosley Crowther in The New York Times suggested those with fond memories of Chaplin should "draw the curtain fast on this embarrassment and pretend it never occurred."

 

"If they don't like it," Chaplin said of the critics, "they are bloody idiots."

 

His earlier films were still relevant, though, and in 1969, United Artists, the company he co-founded,  celebrated its 50th anniversary by re-releasing The Circus. Its surprise success may have inspired Chaplin to re-release seven more films in late 1971 and early 1972, including the  classic Modern Times and The Great Dictator. Of special interest to film buffs was the release of two later Chaplin films, A King in New York, and Limelight, which had brief, limited runs in the United States.

 

"I go to a lot of movies," Roger Ebert wrote upon seeing Modern Times in January 1972, "and I can't remember the last time I heard a paying audience actually applaud at the end of a film. But this one did."

 

There was more applause to come. In April 1972, the Film Society of Lincoln Center decided to honor Chaplin with a life achievement award, and when he agreed to attend the festivities in New York, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles thought it wise to bestow an honor of its own in the form of an Oscar for his contributions to the cinema. Chaplin was still controversial, however, and California governor Ronald Reagan was among those who opposed the honor. Columnist Nancy Anderson also felt Chaplin should remain persona non grata in the United States. "I remember how he sat out WWII, helping neither his adopted country, this one, which made him rich, nor his native one, England, which was fighting for its life...nor did he do much of anything else, including pay his taxes."

The Academy itself walked on eggshells, not sure if Chaplin's bitterness had subsided.  Would he use his time on stage to lambast the United States?

Their worries were unfounded.

I like America," he said. "I am prepared to be shot."

Appearing on stage with tears streaming down his face, Chaplin received a rousing standing ovation and gave a heartfelt acceptance speech that ignored politics and old animosities. 

"This is an emotional moment for me," he said, "and words are so futile, so feeble...You're wonderful, sweet people."

Three years after the Oscar tribute, he would be knighted by the Queen. It would be his last major appearance in public. He returned to Switzerland where he died at age 88 on Christmas Day 1977, a legend in his time and ours. 

Chaplin's story is the classic one of rags to riches, decline and fall, and the triumphant comeback. In short, a cliche perfect for the movies.

"All life is a cliche," he once remarked. "We don't awaken with any sort of originality. We all live and die with three meals a day, fall in and out of love." But no one ever made such art out of life as the little man with the twirling cane and the bowler hat. Even now, after a century's worth of movies and film icons, Chaplin remains the cinema's greatest artist.

 

--by Brian W. Fairbanks



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