Biography of Charles Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin was an English comedian, actor, director, and composer, who achieved international fame during the silent film era and remains one of the most well-known and influential figures in film history to this day. He is most famous for his recurring Little Tramp character, which was likely the most internationally recognized film character from the 1920s through the 1940s, and which remains immediately recognizable to this day. He was known for talking full artistic control of much of his work, including directing, acting, composing the score, and producing his films.

Chaplin was born in 1889 and grew up in difficult conditions in South London—his mother was poor and suffered from psychosis, and his father was not present. He was twice sent to a workhouse as a young child and housed at the Central London District School for paupers and then the Norwood Schools for destitute children. Between these difficult times, his mother, a performer herself, nurtured his talent for acting. He began acting at a very young age, in plays and with dancing groups, quickly finding success as a young stage actor, which led to larger, national stage roles. By the time he was 16 he was acting in major national productions in London and receiving critical acclaim. His older brother, Sydney, who was also a stage actor, secured a trial run for him at the Fred Karno company where he acted, which lead to a longer-term position and better roles at the company.

Chaplin’s work with the Fred Karno company brought him to the USA on tour, where he was scouted by Keystone Studios, based in California, in 1914. He soon developed the iconic Tramp character and garnered a massive fan base over the next few years, moving between Keystone Studios, Essanay, Mutual, and First National companies. He often directed his own films at this time, and in 1919 co-founded the distribution company United Artists (with D.W. Griffiths, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks), which gave him more control over his films. After the founding of United Artists, however, he was forced to finish out his contract with First National (they refused his offer of a buyout), and he completed six more films for them over the next three years, including The Kid (1921), one his most commercially successful and critically well-received films up to that point. It was also his first film that was over an hour long, and marked his transition into longer, feature-length films, which he would pursue mostly with United Artists.

He briefly tried his hand at a direction-only film with A Woman in Paris (1923), but it failed commercially because audiences did not want to see a Chaplin film that did not feature the Tramp. He returned to the Tramp character for his next film, The Gold Rush (1925), which became the most expensive film he had made up to that point as well as one of the highest grossing films of the entire silent era, earning more than $4 million at the box office. He continued making films that featured the Tramp through 1940, including some of his most lasting, commercially successful, and critically acclaimed films, such as City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936), finally dropping the character in The Great Dictator (1940).

During this period he was increasingly politically active, which became evident in his films. Though his liberal, or progressive, ideals came across clearly in several of these films, such as Modern Times, they reached a head in The Great Dictator. His likeness as the Tramp had often been compared to that of Hitler, creating an easy avenue for satirization, and he also took on the dual role of a Jewish barber in response to the Nazi party’s belief that he was Jewish. Though such a subject was seen as highly controversial, the freedom that Chaplin was afforded by his own distribution company and his commercial success up to that point allowed him to make the film. It was one of the most highly anticipated and commercially successful films of the decade, but met with criticism and controversy, mostly because of the way that Chaplin chose to end the film. In the last five minutes, he breaks character and delivers a speech pleading against war and fascism. This overt preaching was unpopular with the general audience and contributed to the decline of his popularity over the next decade, though it was well-liked by Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt (and he was consequently invited to speak at various patriotic events as part of the war effort, including Roosevelt’s inauguration in 1941).

The loss of popularity that he suffered as a result of his films’ political messages was magnified by scandals and lawsuits relating to his personal life and affairs. He was already known as something of a playboy, and was criticized for his interest in very young women; by 1942 he had already been married and divorced three times, twice to women who were 16 years old when he married them. He was largely able to avoid controversy by keeping his marriages and private life relatively discreet, and because of the extent of his fame and the strength of his fan base, but one of his marriages (to Lita Grey) ended with a bitter divorce, many details of which were leaked to the press. The scandal, which centered on his infidelities, alleged abuse, and sexual desires, was briefly headline news, but Chaplin’s lawyers ended up agreeing to a cash settlement (the largest one yet awarded by US courts at this point) and it was soon forgotten. However, his private life came back to the forefront of the news in 1942, when an actress named Joan Barry, with whom he had an affair, filed a paternity suit against him and kicked off a host of legal troubles. J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, was suspicious of Chaplin’s political leanings (at a time when communist paranoia was beginning to mount), and used the case to damage Chaplin’s image in the US. The FBI indicted him on four counts related to the Barry case, three of which were dismissed out of court, and the fourth of which Chaplin was acquitted of. Though he was cleared, media coverage was negative, stoking public outrage at Chaplin. He was eventually declared to be the father of Barry’s daughter and ordered to pay child support, though blood tests indicated otherwise (blood tests were not admissible in California court at this time). The scandal was not helped by the announcement of his marriage to Oona O’Neill, who was 18 years old at the time, two weeks after the paternity suit was filed. However, he and Oona had a very happy marriage by many accounts, and remained together until his death, having eight children together in that time.

After the scandal, Chaplin did not produce a movie again until 1947, when he came out with Monsieur Verdoux, in which he abandoned the character of the Little Tramp. In the meantime, his political activities had further hurt his reputation in the US, and he was accused of being a communist. This, together with the Barry scandal, damaged his public image enough that Monsieur Verdoux flopped in US theaters and Chaplin was booed at the premiere. Around the same time, the FBI launched an official investigation into Chaplin’s alleged communist ties.

His next film, Limelight (1952), lacked political commentary and was instead heavily autobiographical. It followed the story of a forgotten vaudeville star, forced to deal with his loss of popularity in middle age. The day after leaving the US to attend the premiere in London, Chaplin’s re-entry permit to the US was revoked by US Attorney General James P McGranery, who said that he would have to submit to an interview concerning his political views and moral behavior if he wished to re-enter. Though Chaplin refrained from speaking negatively about the incident in public, he would later remark in his autobiography that he was fed up with the United States, referring to it as an ‘unhappy country’ with a ‘hate-beleaguered atmosphere.’

After Limelight and his banning from the US, he moved to Switzerland and started his own production company, called Attica. He next produced A King in New York (1957), which was based on his personal experience in the US and openly criticized communist paranoia and the HUAC. It received mixed reviews and was moderately commercially successful in Europe. He then focused mostly on re-releasing his old films, including re-scoring and re-editing them. The only other new film he produced after 1957 was A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), which received bad reviews and was a box-office flop. During these years of re-releasing his old films, his earlier work received a great deal of attention and appreciation, and he received many honorary awards. In 1972 he received an honorary Academy Award, and he was Knighted by the British Empire in 1975. He passed away in 1977.


Study Guides on Works by Charles Chaplin

In 1928, Charlie Chaplin's The Circus was released to positive reviews. However, things were starting to change, as silent films were getting replaced with "talkies"—movies with sound. The first talking picture, called The Jazz Singer, was...

Charlie Chaplin took two years to produce The Gold Rush. During that time he got an underage girl pregnant and was forced into a marriage he didn’t want. That pregnancy incurred a change in leading ladies and by the time film was into full swing...

The Kid was Charlie Chaplin's feature film directorial debut. He wrote, produced, directed and starred as his most famous character, The Tramp alongside child actor Jackie Coogan. This film is considered one of the greatest pictures of the silent...

Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times tells the story of Chaplin's iconic Little Tramp as he struggles to survive in a newly modernized world. The Tramp starts out working at a factory on an assembly line, but the new technology and oppressive...