“Humor preserves our sanity. Because of humor we are less overwhelmed by the vicissitudes of life.”
Charlie Chaplin was born in England in 1889. His parents were music hall entertainers. When Charlie was 2 his parents separated, and his father did not give any financial support.
Chaplin’s mother was unable to support herself and her two sons and at 7 Chaplin and his brother were placed in an institution for destitute children. At age 9 his mother was committed to a mental asylum. His father, an alcoholic, died 2 years later from cirrhosis of the liver. Chaplin began performing on stage at age 5 and left school at 13, supporting himself with odd jobs.
His great ambition was to be an actor. The young comedian was successful touring England and the U.S. in vaudeville shows. At that time he was said to be unsociable, shy and moody. At 24 he was invited by Keystone Studios to make his first movies. He soon created the character of the little tramp and began directing his own films. He went on to create 81 movies!
The Buddhist philosopher, Daisaku Ikeda has written about Chaplin’s appreciation for his mother, who taught her son the art of pantomime. Ikeda wrote:
“She played a major role in his becoming an actor and comedian. No matter how famous he became, Charlie always had a sense of appreciation toward his mother.”
“If I have amounted to anything, or ever do amount to anything, it will be due to my mother.”
He soon hired 20 year-old Edna Purviance as his leading lady with whom he had an affair. They made 35 films together.
At the end of that first year his movies were so popular that he was offered the equivalent in 2016 of 30K a week and a bonus of 240K! In Dec. of 1915 he was offered 10K a week the equivalent of 240K per week today. At age 26 Chaplin was making the 2016 equivalent of 16 million dollars.
Chaplin had literally become the most famous man in the world! He was given his own studio and later referred to his years there as the happiest period of his career.
Chaplin personally edited all his films and composed the music that accompanies them. The song Smile is his best known composition.
Chaplin played the violin, cello and piano, as a teenager, practiced 4-6 hours a day and had great ambitions to be a concert artist, but gave up when he realized he couldn’t achieve excellence as an instrumentalist. Chaplin was also a conductor.
In 1917 Chaplin purchased 5 acres in L.A. on which he built his own studio, and gained complete control over every aspect of filmmaking. He soon created United Artists with D.W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, and quietly married his first wife, Mildred Harris, a 17 year-old actress he believed he had impregnated. It turns out she wasn’t pregnant at that time, but a year later a son was born deformed, and died after 3 days. They divorced the following year.
A month after the death of his son, Chaplin began filming The Kid, co-starring 4 yr old Jackie Coogan who Chaplin discovered. It’s a serious film about an abandoned baby the tramp finds and raises on his own. The film is a reflection of Chaplin’s childhood.
Chaplin was the most incredibly versatile actor. In the film A Woman, It’s hard to believe that it’s actually him.
Chaplin wrote, directed, produced, edited, starred in, and composed the music for most of his films. Stan Laurel said “He just absolutely refused to do anything but the best. To get the best he worked harder than anyone I know.”
In The Adventurer the chase scene is one of Chaplin’s masterful achievements.
Chaplin was a perfectionist and his financial independence enabled him to spend years on the development and production of a movie. He took longer to shoot a movie than any other filmmaker at that time. It was common for him to film 50 or more takes for every finished take he used in a film. Chaplin said that he would shoot 20 hours of film for a movie that lasted only 40 min.
Nijinsky told Chaplin that his comedy was balletic, and that he was a dancer.
For most of his movies there was no written script. He improvised as he went along, filming all the rehearsals of a scene. When he ran out of ideas, he would stop filming, sometimes for days, keeping the studio and his employees standing by until the inspiration returned. When asked how he got ideas, he responded: “By sheer perseverance to the point of madness. One must have the capacity to suffer anguish, and sustain enthusiasm over a long period of time.
“At the completion of a picture I would be left depressed and exhausted, so that I would have to rest in bed for a day.” This relentless pursuit of perfection caused severe mental anguish, was extremely costly, and Chaplin would become very agitated, lashing out at the actors and crew.
Chaplin was not only an athlete, a dancer, an acrobat and a mime; he was also a virtuoso skater. In The Rink the meticulous, perfectly timed choreography is amazing!
In 1924 and 25 Chaplin spent a million dollars filming the movie he said he wanted to be remembered by: The Gold Rush. In one scene Charlie and his friend are stranded in a cabin high up on a mountain during a blizzard. They’ve run out of food and Chaplin prepares a gourmet meal consisting of his shoe. He savors the shoe laces as if he were eating spaghetti!
During the production of the Goldrush he began an affair with his 2nd wife, Lita Grey, a 15 year-old who became pregnant with their son Charles. They were secretly married in Mexico and their 2nd son, Sydney was born a year later. A bitter divorce settlement that year and a claim by the IRS that he owed a million dollars in back taxes resulted in c experiencing a nervous breakdown and he attempted to jump out of a window of his attorney’s apartment. The courts ordered him to pay a divorce settlement of 825K including support for his 2 sons.
Chaplin was worried that his creative powers might become damaged. “My ability as an actor is very frail–you don’t know whether the spark will die.”
His next great film, City Lights, took over 2 years to make. Chaplin said that he had “worked himself into a neurotic state of wanting perfection.” In fact he made 342 takes just of the opening scene before he was satisfied! City Lights became his personal favorite.
The tramp falls in love with a blind girl. He manages to raise the money to pay for an operation which cures her of her blindness. She thinks it is a millionaire that has helped her. In the film’s final scene, c meets the girl again, and when she holds his hand, she recognizes his touch. It is only then that she realizes it was the tramp that paid for her surgery. The girl was played by 20 year-old Virginia Cherrill.
Chaplin experienced great highs and devastating lows. At times he had tremendous pride in his achievements, at other times he had terrible doubts: No one will laugh. I’ll be ruined.”
In 1932 he met his 3rd wife, the 21 year-old actress, Paulette Goddard whose original name was Marion Levy, and in 1936 cast her in his next film, Modern Times, which he described as “a satire on our industrial life”. He feared that machinery in the workplace would increase the dire unemployment levels of the Great Depression.
Modern Times has an unbelievable skating scene which Chaplin performs blindfolded! Goddard also starred in his next movie, The Great Dictator and divorced him in 1942.
Chaplin’s affair with Joan Barry in 1941 and 42 and her fraudulent paternity suit became the source of a sensational smear campaign against him by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and gossip columnists. Hoover’s surveillance of c dates as far back as 1922. During this scandalous controversy Chaplin, then 54, married playwright Eugene O’Neill’s daughter, Oona, resulting in Eugene O’Neill disowning his daughter. They had become a couple when she was 17, they had 8 children together, and remained married for 34 years until Chaplin’s death.
In 1952 the Chaplin family traveled to England for the world premiere of his film Limelight. The day after leaving the US his re-entry permit was revoked based on his political views and moral behavior. Even though Chaplin had lived and worked in the US for 40 years he never became an Am citizen. Accused of being a communist, Chaplin said: “My sin was and still is, being a nonconformist. Although I am not a comm, I refused to fall in line by hating them. I am what u call a peace monger.”
He considered himself a citizen of the world. Chaplin sold his home and film studio in California and purchased a 16 room mansion on a 37 acre estate in Switzerland overlooking Lake Geneva, where he lived until his death. Chaplin died in his sleep on Christmas day, 1977. He was 88.
Chaplin’s film The Great Dictator is an incredible tour de force. Chaplin made Hitler an object of ridicule and showed how comedy could be a potent weapon and an excellent morale builder.
“For me the funniest thing in the world is to ridicule imposters and conceited people in high places and it would be harder to find a bigger imposter than Hitler. He was the best target in the world for satire and mockery.”
Costa-gravas, film director and producer said: “After doing research on the period, I realized how deeply historical and deeply intelligent the film is.”
The Globe scene has been called the greatest scene in all of cinema.
Chaplin’s films were banned by the Nazis because they considered Chaplin to be the very embodiment of the jew. When asked in 1915 if it was true that he was Jewish, he responded, “I have not that good fortune.” The Nazis published a pamphlet of photos of Jews including one of Chaplin with a caption that read “The little Jewish tumbler, as disgusting as he is boring.” Chaplin responded by playing a Jew in The Great Dictator and announced, “I did this film for the Jews of the world.”
The European profits from the film went to a fund created by c to support the tens of thousands of German Jews trying to escape Nazi persecution. c was dubbed the 20th century Moses and he never tried to dispel the misunderstanding concerning his roots. He told one journalist “I never protested when someone said I was a Jew because I would have been proud to be one.”
Costa–Gravas said: “What’s incredible is that he wrote the script in ’37 & ’38. What’s surprising today is the silence around h at that time. h&m were then at the peak of their glory and were regarded with great admiration. Hitler had saved Germany from communism and had totally revived the economy. All the big companies saw Germany as a country with which they could do a lot of business, so h. wasn’t to be meddled with.
Whereas Chaplin looked into history and saw the future, the great spiritual and political leaders of the world couldn’t see it and remained on Hitler’s side. But Chaplin was a visionary. He saw what was going to happen later.
In The Great Dictator the actor who plays Goering says ‘I’ve just discovered a poison gas that will kill everybody.’ So in the film there’s indirect talk of zyclon as early as 1938.
Knowing now what they didn’t know then you realize Chaplin had been right. He was a visionary.”
He also mocked Mussolini.
It took remarkable insight and courage to make a strongly anti Nazi film. The Hollywood bosses didn’t want to adversely affect the distribution of their films in Germany and Italy. The reactions in Hollywood were hostile and malicious. Chaplin received death threats and was warned that there was a good chance that the film would be banned in certain countries resulting in a major financial loss.
Despite additional pressure from the diplomatic sphere, Chaplin made up his mind to go ahead with the picture, and during the Great Depression spent 2 million dollars of his own money to make the film. In fact he said he would rent his own halls to show the movie if he couldn’t get it into theatres. He wanted to warn people about the terrible danger of Hitler and persuade America to take the right stand, and his only weapon, his absolute weapon would be laughter.
Chaplin later stated “Had I known the actual horrors of the German concentration camps I could not have made The Great Dictator.”
Chaplin began shooting the film on 9/9/39 six days after Hitler began WW II by invading Poland.
Chaplin also played the role of the dictator’s double, a Jewish barber.
The legendary shaving scene is brilliantly choreographed to Brahms’s 5th Hungarian Dance.
During production Chaplin had 2nd thoughts about finishing The Great Dictator, but Pres. Roosevelt indicated that HE wanted to see the film completed. It opened in New York City in Oct. 1940. It opened 2 mos. later in London where it lifted people’s spirits during Hitler’s aerial bombings of England.
The ending of the movie is a 6 min. speech given by the barber who is mistaken for the dictator. It was filmed 1 week after the fall of France. Chaplin shot this scene last, rewriting, and reshooting for a full three months. And it’s the first film in which Chaplin’s voice was heard speaking!
In 1972 Chaplin returned to the U.S. for the 1st time in 20 years to be honored by the film industry.
“I’ve been through a hell of a lot.”