Sir 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 Chaplin 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, Chaplin 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. Chaplin 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a Communist sympathizer by the United States government during the Red Scare after the end of World War II, his visa was revoked in 1952 (he was a British citizen) and he lived the remainder of his life in Europe.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:
- Mabel's Strange Predicament — his second film appearance and the debut of The Tramp
- Tillie's Punctured Romance — feature film for Keystone Studios, directed by Mack Sennett
- The Knockout — actually a Fatty Arbuckle vehicle in which Chaplin has a small part
- The Tramp
- The Floorwalker
- The Fireman
- The Vagabond
- The Rink
- Easy Street
- The Cure
- The Immigrant
- The Adventurer
- A Dog's Life
- Shoulder Arms
- The Idle Class
- The Kid
- Pay Day
- The Pilgrim
- A Woman of Paris — a drama which he directed but did not star in
- The Gold Rush
- The Circus
- City Lights
- Modern Times
- The Great Dictator
- Monsieur Verdoux
- A King in New York
- The Chaplin Revue — a Compilation Movie made up of three short films, that Chaplin made at First National: A Dog's Life, Shoulder Arms, and The Pilgrim, along with footage from an unfinished documentary about the Chaplin Studio, called "How to Make Movies" and new scores for each film composed by Chaplin himself, including a theme for "The Pilgrim", "I'm Bound for Texas".
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 daughter Geraldine Chaplin and granddaughter Oona Chaplin. Geraldine 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. He was also the uncle of Spencer Dryden, drummer of Jefferson Airplane.
A particularly good documentary series is Unknown Chaplin (1983), which managed to unearth lots of rare footage of outtakes from Chaplin's Mutual two-reelers, giving a unique insight into his working methods.
He ended at #66 in One Hundred Greatest Britons.
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 (he wasn't, but was 1/4 Romanichal aka British Romani, which probably wouldn't have endeared him to the equally Romani-hating Fuhrer). 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.
''What’s most important about Hitler is the fact that he is, in fact, ridiculous—and that people nonetheless adulated him as a political leader. In Chaplin’s film, Hynkel is a joke, but there’s nothing funny about the anti-Jewish pogroms he instigates.
- Of note: while other filmmakers were horrified of the propaganda power of Triumph of the Will, Chaplin laughed at it. He used the film copiously to perfect his satire.
- 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.
- Richard Brody, the critic for the New Yorker, nonetheless argues that Chaplin's lampoon was a dead-on parody:
- 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: A small one.
- Banister Slide
- Bittersweet Ending: Very few clear-cut happy endings in Chaplin's work.
- Brick Joke
- Bucket Booby-Trap
- 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.
- Dashingly Dapper Derby
- Dirty Communists: 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.
- 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 "Barkeep": "The Little Tramp/Charlot"
- Evil Elevator: Possibly the first filmmaker to use malfunctioning mechanics such as elevators as gags.
- Excuse Plot: Chaplin made whole movies by trial and error, only using some pre-planning on his features, saying that he didn't worry about the story, knowing it would naturally grow out of the characters;"I don't care much about story—plot, as they call it. If you have the neatest tailored plot in the world and yet haven't personalities, living characters, you've nothing."
- Five-Finger Discount: In The Floorwalker a group of shoppers strip a display in a department store bare while the salesman is trying to run The Tramp out of the store.
- 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 (1921), The Circus, and A Dog's Life.
- Iconic Item: His bowler hat, big shoes, toothbrush moustache and bamboo cane.
- Insult Backfire: After repeatedly being "accused" of being Jewish, he finally retorted, "I'm afraid I don't have that honor."
- 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.
- Literal Ass-Kicking: Lots of it. The Tramp in particular seems unable to let a good rump go by unkicked.
- 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.
- Mickey Mousing: Even though his movies were silent, Chaplin would always have someone playing an instrument like the violin on the set so a tempo and rhythm for the scenes could be established, and then a separate score could be played to the film later on. Jerry Lewis said in an interview that he learned this method from Chaplin and applied it to his own movies.
- 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
- 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, etc.
- The Pratfall: Featured in many of his works.
- Pretty Boy: Just look◊ at young Chaplin!
- Prima Donna Director:
- Propaganda Machine:
- Chaplin directed Shoulder Arms in 1918: a film in which he is a soldier in the trenches during World War I, 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 I because he was scared. By making and appearing in this film he did show some sort of engagement.
- The Great Dictator was used as a propaganda film too.
- Furthermore, Chaplin made The Bond at his own expense purely as a war bond promotion after the US entered World War I.
- Public-Domain Character: The Tramp.
- 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. Chaplin did work together with Keaton in Limelight.
- 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. However, when they were sailing to their next gig, Chaplin would practice the violin so Stan could cook bacon on the gas ring and nobody would notice.
- 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).
- Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Even though most of his films didn't have clear cut happy endings, there was still a sense of heartfelt optimism and human emotion in many of his movies. This shines the strongest in The Kid and City Lights.
- 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?"
- 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.