BY JESSE GREENSPAN
Born in London on April 16, 1889, Charles Spencer Chaplin rose from crippling poverty to become the preeminent comedic star of his day. Employing a fake moustache and splayfooted walk, he specialized in slapstick portrayals of the quintessential everyman, most notably in such silent films as “The Gold Rush.” Check out nine things you may not know about an actor who, according to the New York Times, “almost single-handedly elevated the novelty entertainment medium of motion pictures into art.”
Chaplin made his stage debut as a tot.
Both of Chaplin’s parents were music hall entertainers in London. In his autobiography, he described how, at age 5, his mother’s voice suddenly failed in front of a crowd of rowdy soldiers. The stage manager—or possibly his father or one of his mother’s lovers—then ushered him onstage as a replacement. Chaplin first sang a popular song called “Jack Jones,” prompting the audience to shower him with coins. He purportedly drew big laughs by announcing that he would pick up the money before continuing. More laughter ensued when he began imitating his laryngitis-addled mother. A few years later, Chaplin made his professional debut as a member of a juvenile clog-dance troupe. He followed that up with a couple of theater roles, toured with vaudeville acts and did one disastrous night of stand-up comedy in which he was booed off the stage.
Chaplin partly grew up in an orphanage.
As the health of Chaplin’s mother deteriorated, so too did the family’s finances. It got so bad that in 1896 Chaplin and his older half-brother were sent to a public boarding school for “orphans and destitute children.” Chaplin spent about 18 months there, the longest period of continuous schooling he would ever receive. He learned to read and write, but apparently suffered quite a few indignities, including a severe caning and the shaving of his head during a bout with ringworm. Shortly thereafter, his mother was committed to a mental institution. His father, meanwhile, played very little role in his upbringing and ended up dying of alcoholism at age 37.
Chaplin loathed his first film.
During Chaplin’s second vaudeville tour of the United States in 1913, Keystone Studios hired him away for $150 a week. He made his first film appearance early the following year, playing an out-of-work swindler in “Making a Living.” Wearing a handlebar moustache, top hat and monocle, he got in a few funny gags, particularly while fighting the story’s hero, a journalist who at one point interviews a man trapped under a car instead of helping him. Overall, though, Chaplin was appalled by his performance. “I was stiff,” he later said. “I took all the surprise out of the scenes by anticipating the next motion.” He also accused the director of cutting his best material out of jealousy.
Chaplin played the same character in all but a few movies.
Prior to his second film, Chaplin dressed up one day in baggy pants, a tight coat, big shoes, a small bowler hat and a bamboo cane. He added a small fake moustache and is said to have strutted around while his co-actors were playing pinochle. Having witnessed the scene, the head of Keystone allegedly “giggled until his body began to shake.” “Chaplin,” he exclaimed, “you do exactly what you’re doing now in your next picture. Remember to do it in that get-up.” This so-called Little Tramp character immediately took off in popularity, spawning so many imitators and marketing schemes that the press labeled it “Chaplinitis,” and would become Chaplin’s onscreen persona for the next two-and-a-half decades. In 1914 alone, he appeared in dozens of short films as the Little Tramp, most of which he directed himself.
Chaplin quickly became a millionaire.
For $1,250 a week, plus a $10,000 bonus, Chaplin moved in December 1914 to Essanay Studios, which touted him as “the greatest comedian in the world.” He then signed with the Mutual Film Corporation for $670,000 a year, after which he agreed to make eight comedies for First National for over $1 million. Finally, in 1919, he founded his own studio with fellow Hollywood icons Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith. “I went into the business for money, and the art grew out of it,” Chaplin once said. “If people are disillusioned by that remark, I can’t help it. It’s the truth.”
Chaplin resisted the arrival of “talkies.”
Starting with “The Jazz Singer” in 1927, films with sound rapidly replaced their silent counterparts. Yet Chaplin hesitated to adopt the new technology, fearing it would ruin the Little Tramp. In his two 1930s movies, “City Lights” and “Modern Times,” Chaplin included music but not dialogue, except for one scene in which he sings in nonsensical fake Italian. Finally, in 1940, he released a full sound film, “The Great Dictator,” an anti-Hitler satire featuring him as a character other than the Little Tramp for the first time in almost 20 years.
Chaplin thrice married teenagers.
In 1918 Chaplin hastily tied the knot with 17-year-old actress Mildred Harris, a decision he would soon come to regret, saying they were “irreconcilably mismated.” Following the divorce, he married 16-year-old Lita Grey, another actress with whom he had a bitter breakup. And in 1943, while in the middle of a high-profile paternity suit, 54-year-old Chaplin married 18-year-old Oona O’Neill, to whom he had been introduced by a Hollywood agent. O’Neill’s father, playwright Eugene O’Neill, was so upset by the match that he disinherited her. But unlike Chaplin’s other relationships, this one would last. The two stayed together until Chaplin’s death at age 88 and had eight children.
The United States essentially exiled him.
Despite living in the United States for almost 40 years, Chaplin never became an American citizen. Meanwhile, due in part to “Modern Times,” a satire of the machine age, he gained a reputation as a communist sympathizer. During the McCarthy era, the FBI put him under surveillance, and a Mississippi congressman called for his deportation. The U.S. government then revoked his re-entry permit in 1952 as he traveled to England on vacation. Rather than returning to answer charges before a board of immigration officials, Chaplin decided to uproot his family to Switzerland. He would visit the United States only one more time, in 1972, to accept an honorary Academy Award.
Grave robbers made off with Chaplin’s remains.
Just a few months after Chaplin’s death, two robbers stole his coffin from a Swiss cemetery and sent his wife a $600,000 ransom demand. When she refused to pay, they allegedly threatened her kids. The bungling robbers were soon caught, however, and the coffin was recovered. It was then reburied in a theft-proof concrete vault.