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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Charles Spencer Chaplin

                     Click above--
Charlie Chaplin and his Little Tramp as seen in City Lights
and depicted by painter,  Renato Casaro.
Hollywood has always loved "rags to riches" stories. Unfortunately, it's fond of "rags to riches to rags again" stories too. It often seems that Hollywood treats some of its greatest talents in the same manner as its movie sets--what Hollywood builds, Hollywood reserves the right to tear down. In a nutshell, that pretty well describes the life and times of Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin. It would be hard to overstate the impact Charlie Chaplin had on the American film capital almost exactly one hundred years ago. It's not so much the "Little Tramp," though that was a brilliant piece of prolonged improvisation never seen before and seldom seen since. Mostly, however, Chaplin brought to Hollywood not just a new way of filming comedy, but a whole new way of thinking of comedy. Without Chaplin, their would likely have been no Three Stooges, no Martin and Lewis, no Hope and Crosby, no Red Skelton, no Woody Allen, no Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, nor Ellen DeGeneres, at least not in the manner we know or remember them today. Each in their own way, owes a debt of gratitude to the genius and creativity of Charlie Chaplin.

The Little Tramp makes his debut, Kid Auto Races at Venice, 1914.
The Little Tramp's paper dolls from
the 1920s demonstrate the variants
in Chaplin's tramp wardrobe.
The silent comedy of the 1910-1930 era is often referred to as "slapstick." Though it may have begun that way, Charlie changed and refined that. His slapstick was not of the Barnum & Bailey variety but one of his own invention--an intelligent slapstick, equal parts humor, pathos, irony, restrained physicality, and subtle romanticism. The year was 1913. The Little Tramp was born in the wardrobe department of Max Sennet's Keystone Pictures where Chaplin pulled together a look of strong contradictions--baggy pants, tight vest, huge, oversized, floppy shoes, and tiny moustache (above). Although the character developed out of the costume, it's what Chaplin did with the tramp which makes them both Hollywood icons. He was more than a talented comic actor, also a screenwriter, music composer (who couldn't read music), director, innovator, and producer. Chaplin's son once claimed that if his father could have sewn the costumes, he would have done that too. The word workaholic comes to mind.

Charles Chaplin, ca. 1903-08
Charlie Chaplin learned to make people laugh from the ground up, starting as a boy, observing London vaudeville comedians, watching his actress mother imitate people they saw on their street, and by actually performing on stage himself. He was in a stage version of Sherlock Holmes at the age of fourteen. Born in 1889, young Charlie learned the pathos and driving ambition early in life. His father was an alcoholic, his mother, though she lived to be sixty-three, the final twenty-five years of her life she spent in and institution for the insane. To say that Charlie and his older half-brother, Sydney, were underprivileged and poverty stricken, while accurate, would be better described as simply starving. Twice Charlie was put in an orphanage. We could legitimately call them "street urchins." As practically his only means of survival, Charlie and his brother began performing on the London vaudeville stage, eventually landing spots in a boys' group called the Eight Lancashire Lads. Their act involved clog dancing.

By the time Chaplin was sixteen he was starring in a major West End stage production. Meanwhile, his brother had joined the highly successful Fred Karno Comedy Troupe, becoming one of their key performers. As a result, he managed to wrangle a two-week tryout for his little brother. The very first night, performing at the London Coliseum, Charlie stole the show, far outshining Sydney, receiving great press reviews, and a long-term contract. He was still in his teens. When the group moved to the United States to join the American vaudeville circuit, Charlie and his brother went with them. It was some forty years before either went back to London. Six months into the tour, Charlie landed his first movie contract, with Keystone Pictures. (Remember the Keystone Cops?) At the time they were still making motion pictures on the banks of the Hudson. The year was 1913, Charlie was earning $150 per week.

Chaplin's Modern Times deals with his take on the industrial dehumanization
of the Depression era. It was released in 1936, an attempt perhaps
to make the jobless less unhappy at not having jobs.
Shortly thereafter the company (along with Charlie and his brother) landed in sunny California (mostly because it was sunny), and a certain real estate development named Hollywood Land began to take off. From that point on, the rise of Charlie Chaplin from bit player to millionaire Hollywood producer could be considered nothing short of meteoric. His first film, a one-reeler, was called Making a Living (below), which Chaplin disliked. It did, however, allow him to learn the film-maker's art (limited as it was at the time) from the ground up. The "Tramp" made his first appearance in Chaplin's second film and was so successful with audiences as to become Chaplin's only screen persona for then next ten years.

Making A Living, 1914, Chaplin's first film.
Two or three other "tramp" films followed, in which Chaplin clashed with uncooperative directors to the point Max Sennet allowed Chaplin to direct his next film himself. It was called Caught in the Rain, debuting in May of 1914. Keep in mind Chaplin had been working in films less than a year. Additional one and two-reel silent epics followed at the rate of about one a week. By the end of the year, Charlie landed his first starring role in a feature-length film directed by Sennet called Tillie's Punctured Romance (these titles crack me up) opposite Marie Dressler. So successful was that movie that when his contract was up at the end of the year, Charlie asked for $1000 per week. Sennet refused, so Charlie took his talents elsewhere.

Charlie Chaplin Studios, La Brea Ave. at Sunset Blvd, Hollywood, ca 1920.

The Little Tramp doll, 1918
Elsewhere was down the street to Essanay Film Manufacturing Company where he negotiated a contract for $1,250 per week with a signing bonus of $10,000. At Essanay Charlie asserted himself, gaining a high level of control over his pictures. During his time at Essanay, the Little Tramp became more popular that Charlie Chaplin, spawning a line of dolls (action figures today) other toys, books, comic strips, and miscellaneous merchandise. Real money began to flow in. Charley began to recruit a troupe of talented players for his films including his future wife, Edna Purviance, who was to work with Charlie in some thirty-five of his films (their professional relationship lasted longer than their marriage). Another year passed, Charlie's contract with Essanay expired, and this time he demanded a signing bonus of $150,000 and $10,000 per week. Universal, Fox, and Vitagraph looked him over, considered the matter, then shook their heads in dismay. No one in Hollywood was making that kind of money and Chaplin had only been in town something just over three years. Mutual Film Studio, however, looked at the deal, rolled their eyes in amazement, then apparently decided, what the hell, it's only money. The contract netted Chaplin $670,000 the first year, not just outstripping everyone else in Hollywood, but making the twenty-six-year-old former street urchin from London one of the highest paid people in the world. The public was shocked, the press outraged, but the studio seemed to think they got their money's worth.

The Kid was Chaplin's first
film to exceed an hour in length.
Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in
The Kid, 1921
A Dog's Life, 1918
Chaplin could have taken the money and ran but instead he used it to start his own movie studio where he could film whatever he wanted, wherever he wanted, however he wanted, with whom he wanted, whenever he wanted, and take as long as he wanted--all of which he did, and still managed to show a profit. They began operations in January of 1918 and continued making movies at what was considered a ruinously leisure rate for the next thirty-four years. (Today, Chaplin's "leisurely" production schedule would be considered a breakneck pace). His most famous films all came from this period--The Kid, A Woman of Paris, A Dog's Life, Gold Rush (which earned $5-million), The Circus, City Lights, and in 1940 The Great Dictator which garnered five Academy Award nominations. It won none. The competition was simply too tough. Also, Chaplin's style of directing was starting to appear dated by that time.

The Great Dictator, 1940, ruthlessly mocked both Hitler and Mussolini while earning
Chaplin five Academy Award nominations. Chaplin plays both Hitler and a Jewish barber.
Even as his wealth, power, and popularity continued to soar, Hollywood began the process of disassembling Charlie Chaplin. It began when the British press excoriated Chaplin for not leaving his skyrocketing movie career to come home and fight in their so-called "war to end all wars." His difficulties exploded with his many legal battles and matrimonial squabbles (his divorce settlement with second wife, Lita Grey totaled out to some $600,000, a record at the time). Combined with these was his reluctance to embrace new technologies in film production (The Great Dictator in 1940, was his first talkie); his final film Countess from Hong Kong (1967) his only color or wide-screen film. Chaplin's troubles further escalated when his movies began to make strident, and highly effective social comments, which offended southern conservatives. Then, during the McCarthy era in the early 1950s, Chaplin, calling himself a "peacemonger" was accused of being a communist. Since he was still a British subject, he was threatened with deportation.

Actor, Jack Lemmon welcomes Charles Chaplain back to the United States for an Honorary Academy Award after having been gone for twenty years.
Angered, Chaplin simply closed up shop in Hollywood and head back to England where he was later welcomed by the queen herself with a knighthood in 1975. He continued to make a few movies, mostly autobiographical in nature (Limelight), but mostly sought peace and quiet with his newest wife, Oona O'Neill (daughter of playwright Eugene O'Neill) who was thirty-six years his junior, and with whom he had eight children. Chaplin was vindicated somewhat when, in 1972 the AMPAAS invited him back to Hollywood for an Honorary Oscar citing his decades of excellence in motion picture achievement. In his later years, Chaplin suffered a series of minor strokes which gradually impaired him to the point he could no longer communicate. He died in Switzerland in 1977 at the age of eighty-eight.


Click below for a clip from Chaplin's Gold Rush from 1925, which he considered one of his best.


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