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Birth Name: Charles Spencer Chaplin
Born: April 16, 1889, London, England
Died: December 25, 1977


James Agee wrote that "the finest pantomime, the deepest emotion, the richest and most poignant poetry were in Chaplin's work." Andrew Sarris called Chaplin "the single most important artist produced by the cinema, certainly its most extraordinary performer, and probably still its most universal icon." In a career spanning half a century, the soaring flicker of the Chaplin myth has been immense, enveloping both the cinema and world culture in its glow.

Chaplin's childhood was marked by wretched poverty, hunger, cruelty and loneliness�subjects which became major themes in his silent comedies. Born in London to music hall entertainers, the young Chaplin saw his father die of alcoholism and his mother go insane, forcing him and his brother Sydney into a succession of workhouses. His escape from grueling poverty was through the theater, where by the age of 16 he was playing the featured role of Billy in William Gillette's West End production of Sherlock Holmes (1905). At the prompting of his brother, Chaplin secured a spot in Fred Karno's music hall revue, appearing as a drunk in "A Night in the English Music Hall" and in the sketches "Mummingbirds" and "Harlequinade in Black and White." While the Karno troupe was touring the US, Chaplin was spotted by film producer Mack Sennett and signed to his Keystone Company.

Chaplin's performances drew on the pantomime traditions of the French and British music halls�a style decisively out of place in the mechanized world of Sennett, who ran his studio with production-line efficiency, churning out two films a week and allowing no more than ten camera setups per film. For an actor used to refining a set character night after night with the Karno company, the Sennett style was a loud slap in the face.

In his first film for Sennett, MAKING A LIVING (1914), Chaplin played a boulevard rou� in the finicky Max Linder manner. But in KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE (1914) and MABEL'S STRANGE PREDICAMENT (1914), Chaplin emerged in his emblematic costume (influenced by Dan Leno and Fred Kitchen from his Karno days) of baggy pants, decrepit shoes on the wrong feet, carefully trimmed moustache, cane and dirty derby hat, moving with a gait and manner contrary to his slovenly appearance.

KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE demonstrated Chaplin's uncanny ability to communicate with his audience. As Sennett's comic buffoons mugged on the sidelines of a kiddie car race, Chaplin held the camera with his gaze. By his thirteenth film, CAUGHT IN THE RAIN (1914), Chaplin had begun to direct himself, and the fissure between the Sennett and Chaplin styles was beginning to widen. Chaplin began to move the camera closer than Sennett permitted, allowing his costume to function as an extension of character rather than a simple jester's emblem. Chaplin brought to the frenetic Keystone world a comedy of emotions, an ability to convey thoughts and feelings more in line with a Lillian Gish than a Ford Sterling or Ben Turpin. He also slowed the breakneck Keystone pace, reducing the number of gags per film and increasing the time devoted to each.

Within a year, Chaplin had revolutionized film comedy, transforming it from the rag-tag knockabout farces of Sennett into an art form by introducing characterization, mime and slapstick pathos. As a director, Chaplin rebelled against the montage technique of Griffith; he introduced, in Andr� Bazin's words, a "comedy of space" in which the Tramp interacted with other objects in the mise-en-sc�ne and reconstructed them through his presence. Chaplin's subtle and reflective acting techniques also radically changed the notion of film performance, allowing action to be motivated through character rather than through some exterior force. Thanks to Chaplin, comedy began to be centered on the performer as opposed to the events which befall him or her�an emphasis on character which paved the way for the subsequent achievements of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon and Stan Laurel.

But it was the public, most of all, who transformed Chaplin from a star into a mythic figure. By 1915 he was a household word. Cartoons, poems and comic strips under the Chaplin name appeared in newspapers. Chaplin dolls, toys and books were manufactured. While the public eagerly awaited the release of the next Chaplin production, pretenders to the throne raced in, comics like Lloyd, Billy West, Billy Ritchie and even someone who billed himself as Charlie Alpin.

Chaplin took advantage of his fame to consolidate control over his career and Tramp character. The years 1915-25 not only marked the period of his greatest popularity, but the time in which Chaplin, bucking the newly formed studio system, held his own as an independent filmmaker. His spiraling salaries reflected both his popularity and his artistic freedom. After leaving Sennett, where he had begun at $150 a week, Chaplin signed with Essanay Studios at a salary of $1250 per week. By 1918, Chaplin's fame led to film's first million-dollar contract, with First National, which also agreed to build a studio for him.

At Essanay, Chaplin began to assemble his stock company and, with the emergence of Edna Purviance as his leading lady, introduced an element of sentimentality and gentlemanly respect into his films. The Sennett knockabout factor was still a dominant ingredient, but it was tempered with humanity and the gags featured a degree of experimentation. With THE BANK (1915) and THE TRAMP (1915), Chaplin introduced a new comic twist�the unhappy ending. In THE TRAMP, Chaplin for the first time exits the film alone, with a kick of the feet and a twirl of the cane, down a deserted road.

Chaplin's twelve Mutual films of 1916 and 1917 rank among his greatest achievements. ONE A.M. (1916), THE PAWNSHOP (1916), BEHIND THE SCREEN (1916), THE RINK (1916), EASY STREET (1917), THE CURE (1917), THE IMMIGRANT (1917) and THE ADVENTURER (1917) all revealed a master at work, with mime and satire, sentimentality and slapstick all stitched into a seamless whole. In such First National films as A DOG'S LIFE (1918), SHOULDER ARMS (1918) and THE PILGRIM (1923), Chaplin took his first serious steps toward feature-length comedy. THE KID (1921), expanded from a planned three-reeler, proved that the Chaplin persona could sustain his comic appeal for the duration of a feature-length film, broadening the parameters of screen comedy and paving the way for the works of Lloyd and Keaton.

In 1919, Chaplin (along with fellow stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford and director D.W. Griffith) formed United Artists as a vehicle for distributing their films without studio interference. Chaplin's first United Artists production was the atypical A WOMAN OF PARIS (1923), a comedy of manners and the swan song for Chaplin's costar Edna Purviance. He appeared in the film only in a cameo role and it was his first financial failure (although it proved to be an influence on Ernst Lubitsch, who adapted its understatement and ellipses for his 1924 film THE MARRIAGE CIRCLE).

chaplin1.gifWith THE GOLD RUSH (1925), Chaplin basked once again in the public's adulation. By this time, however, his output had begun to slow as he assiduously refined his art, subjecting his comic persona to an increasingly microscopic scrutiny. THE CIRCUS (1928) investigates the nature of comedy and audience acceptance. CITY LIGHTS (1931) is a chamber study musing on the fine line between comedy and tragedy, as well as a deification of the Tramp character. In MODERN TIMES (1936) Chaplin bid farewell to the Tramp, leaving society in satirical ruins and again walking into the sunrise, but this time with a street urchin in tow.

The look of Chaplin's films also changed during this period. In what may have been a response to a series of emotionally draining scandals, Chaplin had increasingly restricted his productions to the studio; the settings consequently took on an otherworldly look in a kind of retreat from the reality of 1930s America. His sentimentality had also become laced with dark strains of cynicism and hopelessness. ("An old tramp is not funny," he once explained.)

The startling transformation of Chaplin into the murderous MONSIEUR VERDOUX (1947) turned his once adoring public against him. Finally, in 1952, amid an atmosphere of Red-baiting hysteria, Chaplin, who had never become an American citizen, found his re-entry permit to the US revoked after he had attended the London premiere of LIMELIGHT (1952). Public reaction against Chaplin was so rabid that A KING IN NEW YORK (1957), a gentle satire on American consumerism and political paranoia, remained unreleased in the United States until 1976. Chaplin's last film, A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG (1967), proved to be a sadly anachronistic farce more appropriate to the 1930s and totally out of place in a cinematic era that included WEEKEND, BONNIE AND CLYDE and THE GRADUATE.

Chaplin was the subject of Richard Attenborough's affectionate biographical film, CHAPLIN (1992), in which Robert Downey, Jr. gave a remarkably convincing performance in the demanding title role.

Biography and Filmography from Baseline's Encyclopedia of Film



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