Charles Spencer "Charlie" Chaplin KBE (April 16, 1889 — December 25, 1977) was the first world-famous movie star, a respected movie writer, director, editor, producer and composer. He remains one of the most recognizable icons of the silver screen today.
Growing up in poverty with his brother, Sydney, with a mother who was a failed Music Hall entertainer of declining mental health, the brothers worked themselves up until he became a star stage comedian himself. On an American tour, He was hired by Keystone Studios and began starring in low budget one-reeler comedies in 1914. By the end of the year, he had starred in 35 movies, many of which he directed as well, and was known around the world. By 1916, he would work for the more prestigious Mutual Studios and would be the writer, director, star, editor, and producer of his own comedy films. In 1919, he co-founded United Artists
- one of the major film studios that still operates today. He would continue making entertaining and influential comedies, which experimented with more dramatic stories amid the comedy.
He is best known for the character of Charlot
or The Tramp
, a poor, downtrodden man who nevertheless takes on life with vim and alacrity, defeating the bully/policemen/figure of authority and getting the girl before walking into the sunset
Outside of films, Chaplin was quite politically active, although this never directly showed itself in his films until The Great Dictator
. A scathing satire of Nazi Germany
, the film closes off with a narrative-breaking Author Tract
delivered directly to the camera, in which Chaplin touches on many of his Real Life
personal beliefs (it is incidentally widely considered to be one of the greatest speeches ever delivered). Accused of being a Communist sympathizer by the United States government after the end of World War II, he fled the country as a refugee in 1952 and lived the remainder of his life in Europe. As a result of his political beliefs, his last American film, Limelight
, wasn't allowed to be released until 1972, twenty years after it was actually filmed, but the fact that it was not screened in Los Angeles before then allowed it to win a competitive Oscar for best music score for that year, which gave the Oscars an excuse to also honor Chaplin with a special award in a supreme moment of "burying the hatchet".
Chaplin's film career lasted from 1914 to 1967. Some of his films include:
According to a memoir, My Life in Pictures
, published a year before his death, Chaplin was still planning movie projects right to the end.
Being arguably the first major film comedian, he is responsible for establishing countless comedy tropes. Many of his descendants followed him into the acting world, including his granddaughter Oona Chaplin
. Daughter Geraldine Chaplin actually played her own grandmother in Sir Richard Attenborough's 1992 Biopic Chaplin
, in which the man himself is played by Robert Downey, Jr.
in one of his best-regarded performances, though the film ends with a montage of footage of the unparalled original.Trope Namer
for Eating Shoes
and Charlie Chaplin Shout-Out
Tropes invoked by his films and the man himself:
- Adolf Hitlarious: Poked fun at Hitler in The Great Dictator, which was a bold stance to take at the time, since most countries, including the U.S.A., considered him to a politician like any other and were reluctant to offend him. Chaplin wanted to warn these people about Hitler's plans and the film was finally released when the man had already invaded Europe. Still, this didn't convince many Americans until Pearl Harbour forced them to enter war with the Axis. From that moment on The Great Dictator was seen as a visionary picture. The similarities between Hitler and Chaplin's physical appearance (tooth brush moustache) were already noticed during the 1930s. Chaplin was even born on April 16, 1889 and Hitler on April 20 of that same year! Hitler himself didn't particularly like Chaplin as he thought that the actor was Jewish. The Great Dictator was banned in Nazi occupied Europe, of course, but he did watch a private copy of it, twice. Chaplin also wondered what he might have thought of it? After the horrors of the concentration camps came to light in 1945 Chaplin was absolutely shocked, as many other people were, and said that if he had known about it he would have never made a comedy about Hitler.
- The physical similarities between Hitler and Chaplin are a Running Gag in pop culture to this day, by the way.
- Adorkable: His Tramp persona in his movies.
- Amusing Injuries: Chaplin falls down a lot and kicks his opponents around.
- Auteur License: Chaplin got this very early in his film career. In his earliest Keystone films, Chaplin was constantly arguing with his directors like Henry Lehrmann and Mabel Norman about his gags he developed to the point where he feared he was going to be fired. However, studio head Mack Sennett, upon learning how popular Chaplin's films were and impressed at how hard the British actor worked on them, eventually decided to allow him to direct his own films instead.
- Badass Moustache
- Banister Slide
- Bittersweet Ending: Very few clear-cut happy endings in Chaplin's work.
- Brick Joke
- Bucket Booby-Trap
- Butt Monkey
- Charles Dickens: Chaplin's poor and tragic youth in Victorian London seemed to be something out of of a Dickens novel. Much of his films share similarities with the settings of a typical Dickensian story: orphans, widows, deaths of family members, beggars, dehumanized factory workers, ruthless landlords, cruel policemen, sympathy for the common man,...
- Charlie Chaplin Shout-Out: Trope Namer.
- The Chew Toy: The Tramp's role in every single movie.
- Chummy Commies: He's one of the greatest and most famous comedians of all time, brought laughs to millions, and was generally known as kind-hearted, friendly, charismatic, and an all-around decent guy. He was also completely open and completely unapologetic about being very far over on the left side of the political spectrum (to be specific, an anarcho-syndicalist).
- Couldn't Find a Lighter: In Shoulder Arms, Chaplin in the trenches of WWI holds the cigarette over the trench gets a light from a helpful enemy sniper.
- The Danza: His characters usually have No Name Given, so all the audience can call him is Charlie. Or The Tramp. Or Charlot.
- Dashingly Dapper Derby
- Directed by Cast Member: Chaplin started out as a player with Mack Sennett's studio before becoming mega-popular and striking out on his own. Ultimately, after leaving Sennett the only films in which he didn't both direct and star were a handful of films that starred somebody else.
- Dirty Communist: Was accused of being one, and eventually had to leave the country and live in Europe. He was actually an anarcho-syndicalist, which was just as bad during the Red Scare.
- Dogged Nice Guy
- Doing It for the Art: Chaplin was notorious as being a maddeningly perfectionist filmmaker. For instance, he made his leading lady, Edna Purviance, do so many takes eating beans that she was physically ill. To his credit, Chaplin was even rougher on himself; he did his famous boot eating scene in The Gold Rush so many times that he had to go to the hospital afterward.
- Dumb Muscle: Allowing wily Charlie to defeat him.
- Early Installment Weirdness: In his film debut, the short film Making a Living, Charlie appears as a con artist wearing a top hat with a drooping mustache. His iconic Tramp character debuted in Chaplin's second film, Kid Auto Races at Venice. Perhaps more surprisingly, in his first feature film, Tillie's Punctured Romance, made in late 1914 after the Tramp had become a huge breakout character, Charlie again plays a cynical con-artist type instead of the Tramp.
- Eating Shoes: Trope Namer in The Gold Rush.
- Eponym: The word "Chaplinesque" is used to describe a melodramatic tragicomedy or "tearjerker".
- Everyone Calls Him The Little Tramp/Charlot
- Evil Elevator: Possibly the first filmmaker to use malfunctioning mechanics such as elevators as gags.
- Five-Finger Discount: In The Floorwalker a group of shoppers strip a display in a department store bare while the salesman is trying run The Tramp out of the store.
- Follow the Leader: Many comedians have been inspired by Chaplin's style. Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd also started incorporating tragedy in their comedies, but you can feel Chaplin's influence in the works of Walt Disney too.
- Hall of Mirrors: in The Circus. Maybe the earliest use of this trope?
- The Heavy: 11 of the 12 Mutual films feature Eric Campbell as an intimidatingly large Big Bad and a comic foil to the tramp's antics
- Hot Pursuit: The Tramp often crossing paths with the police, resulting in hilarious chase scenes (a holdover trope from Mack Sennett). Police chase scenes of note include ones from The Kid, The Circus, and A Dog's Life.
- Iconic Item: His bowler hat, big shoes, toothbrush moustache and bamboo cane.
- Instant Seduction: In his autobiography, he mentions that a girl staying next to him flirted with him by knocking on the wall a few times. He went to meet her and within three lines, they "engaged nocturnally." Awesome.
- Kick the Dog: Often the 'dog' is Charlie himself, other times a dog is literally kicked, such as in the short Sunnyside.
- Knight Fever: Was first proposed for knighthood in 1931, and then in 1956, when it was vetoed because of his marriages to much-younger women, as well as his leftist political views. He was finally created a Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in 1975, two years before he died.
- Literal Ass Kicking: lots of it. The Tramp in particular seems unable to let a good rump go by unkicked.
- May-December Romance: Chaplin married Oona O'Neill when she was 18 and he was 54.
- Massive Numbered Siblings: Eleven kids, yo. The most well known being his daughter, Geraldine Chaplin, who also became a film actress.
- Missing Episode:
- Her Friend The Bandit (1914).
- A Woman of the Sea, directed by him in 1926 but in which he did not appears, is also lost; due to legal problems Chaplin was facing at the time, he was not allowed to release the film. In 1933, Chaplin himself was forced to destroy the only known copies of the film and its negative.
- Meat-O-Vision: In The Gold Rush. An anecdote says that the extra performing in the chicken suit couldn't get The Tramp's distinctive walk just right, and eventually Chaplin had to do it himself.
- A Nazi by Any Other Name: The Great Dictator made a not-so-thinly veiled attack on Nazis in 1940 when not only were the Nazis still in power, but America was officially at peace with them.
- Nice Hat: Just try imagining the tramp without His trademark Bowler hat.
- No Ending: If it wasn't a Bittersweet Ending it was probably this.
- No Name Given: For almost every character in his movies.
- Nonspecifically Foreign: The Tramp is seldom refered to by name, but when he is given a name in the inter-titles it's either "Charlie" or "Charlot", implying perhaps that he is intended to be French. The singing scene in Modern Times, the only time the character actually 'speaks' on film, sees him singing a nonsense language that sounds somewhere between Italian and French.
- Perpetual Poverty: The Tramp, although he occasionally comes into money during the course of a movie. See The Gold Rush.
- Pint-Sized Powerhouse
- Playing Against Type: As The Bluebeard Serial Killer in Monsieur Verdoux.
- Directing Against Type with A Woman of Paris, in which Charlie took a break from doing slapstick comedies in which he also starred, and instead directed an entirely serious romantic drama in which he had only a brief cameo. The idea was to establish his former comic leading lady Edna Purviance as a dramatic actress. It failed, and Purviance retired from film shortly thereafter.
- Pop-Cultural Osmosis: Chaplin is universally recognizable to many people, even those who never saw or enjoyed one of his films. He has been a mainstay of pop culture since 1914, inspiring countless songs, comic strips, cartoons, parodies, circus clown acts,...
- The Pratfall: featured in many of his works.
- Pretty Boy: Just look◊ at young Chaplin!
- Prima Donna Director: See this anecdote, from Marlon Brando of all people.
- Allegedly, the scene in The Circus in which the Tramp walks a tightrope took 600 takes before Chaplin was satisfied with it.
- Production Posse:
- Eric Campbell played the bad guy in 11 of Chaplin's 12 short films with Mutual and probably would have done more with Chaplin if he hadn't been killed in a car accident in 1917.
- Edna Purviance made her film debut in in 1915 with A Night Out, Chaplin's second movie after leaving Mack Sennett, and played the Love Interest and/or female lead in almost every picture Chaplin made for the next eight years. He also attempted to help her launch a dramatic acting career, without success. Often considered Chaplin's true soulmate, even though they never married, Chaplin kept her on his payroll for the rest of her life.
- Henry Bergman joined Chaplin's company in 1916 and worked with Charlie both onscreen and in production for the next 24 years.
- Roland Totherot was Charlie's cinematographer for 32 years, 1915-1947 (and got a "photographic consultant" credit for Limelight in 1952).
- Propaganda Machine: Chaplin directed Shoulder Arms in 1918: a film in which he is a soldier in the trenches during World War One, poking fun at the German soldiers. He made this picture to duck rumors that he didn't enlist in the British Army during World War One because he was scared. By making and appearing in this film he did show some sort of engagement.
- Public Domain Character: The Tramp.
- Real-Life Relative: Chaplin ended up marrying a startling number of the women he co-starred with, divorcing them soon after.
- Chaplin's son, Michael Chaplin, plays the precocious Rupert Macabee in A King in New York.
- Chaplin's son, Sydney Chaplin, has an important role in Limelight.
- Two of Chaplin's best known films - The Great Dictator and Modern Times - star Paulette Goddard, who was either living with him or married to him at the time.
- Ironically, his longest lasting marriage was to someone he never appeared on screen with, Oona O'Neill.
- Chaplin's nephew was Spencer Dryden, the drummer of Jefferson Airplane during it's classic line-up.
- Red Oni, Blue Oni: Red to Buster Keaton. At least when it came to their characters.
- Riding into the Sunset: An ending used in many of his films as the tramp, when at the end he would be seen walking down a street into the sunset, alone or along with the female lead. Fittingly, the last of his Tramp movies, Modern Times, ends this way.
- The Rival: Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd during the silent era. Laurel and Hardy during the talkies era. Chaplin had a specific rivalry with Stan Laurel, being that both men were part of the same music hall comedy group. While Chaplin was the star Laurel was able to imitate Charlie so perfectly that almost no-one could tell the difference. Chaplin felt quite jealous about this and after he made it big in Hollywood in 1914 he never helped Laurel out to become a star himself. When Laurel teamed up with Hardy in 1927 and became the world's most iconic comedy duo Chaplin still didn't see why they were considered to be so funny? Chaplin did work together with Keaton in Limelight however.
- Romance on the Set: Practically every film he made from 1915 to 1940, with the exception of City Lights.
- Seinfeld Is Unfunny: People who consider Chaplin to be old-fashioned and dated tend to forget that Chaplin basically invented and created modern film comedy in the shape we recognize it today. Compare him to many other silent slapstick film comedians from his time and you'll immediately notice that his films were much better structured, edited and paced.
- Silence Is Golden: Several silent film greats faded into obscurity with the arrival of talkies, but not Chaplin; he continued to make silent films (City Lights, Modern Times which has very little dialogue) and had success with them. It would take until 1940's The Great Dictator before The Tramp would speak intelligibly (and there remains great debate as to whether the character Chaplin plays in this film is the Tramp).
- The Shelf of Movie Languishment: Limelight sat on the shelf in the US for two decades due to accusations of his being a communist sympathizer (it was released in the UK and elsewhere without issue). It was eventually released in the US 1972.
- Speaking Simlish: Chaplin's Tramp character never spoke a word until 1936's Modern Times, where he gets a job as a singer. But he's forgotten the words, so he sings complete gibberish instead. Chaplin liked the fact that silent comedy crossed all language barriers and so didn't want to limit the Tramp to one language for his only speaking scene.
- Strictly Formula: This was Chaplin's main misgiving about his period with Mutual: he felt his films there were drifting to this trope, as he noted "Does every film have to end with a chase?"
- Take That: After repeatedly being "accused" of being Jewish, he finally retorted, "I'm afraid I don't have that honor."
- The Tramp: His basic character archetype.
- Walking the Earth: The Tramp is a real globetrotter.
- Your Costume Needs Work: At the height of his fame, Chaplin entered a Tramp lookalike contest in San Francisco and lost. He was not wearing a costume, however, and the judges probably recognized him.