In 1914, a young movie actor donned some ill-fitting apparel, smeared a little greasepaint on his upper lip, grabbed a bamboo cane and a derby hat several sizes too small, and wandered onto the set. Thus, Charlie Chaplin’s character came to life. But the one- and two-reelers that followed were without distinction. Neither Chaplin nor his fans were aware that he was about to enter history. That didn’t happen until the following year, when the poetic vagabond was christened in a two-reeler titled The Tramp. Chaplin played a shabby, unconsciously hilarious hero who saves a pretty farm girl from robbers and falls in love, only to learn that she already has a beau. Shrugging off his heartbreak, the loser turns his back to the camera and heads down a country lane—and into the hearts of millions.
The Tramp marks its centenary this year, but its roots go back further, to 1889, when Charles Spencer Chaplin was born in South London. His parents were skilled vaudevillians, but the scapegrace Charles Chaplin, Sr. was an alcoholic, and his wife, Hannah, suffered from mental illness brought on by syphilis. The marriage dissolved. From a shabby genteel household, Charles Jr. and his older half-brother Sydney found themselves thrust into a Dickensian childhood of orphanages, penury, and humiliation.
Senior wasn’t much of a provider, but before his death he managed to get Junior a job as a clog-dancer in a chorus line. Charlie turned out to have a gift for mimicry and movement. He stayed with the troupe until better opportunities arose in the legitimate theater, but it was in the music halls where he honed his comedic skills. Meantime, Sydney also sought a career in the family trade. He caught on in America, and Charlie followed him there.
W. C. Fields once watched the fresh-faced comedian from an orchestra seat. As laughter and applause exploded around him, Fields muttered enviously, “The SOB is a ballet dancer.” Tongue firmly in cheek, he added that Chaplin was “the best ballet dancer that ever lived. And if I get a good chance I’ll kill him with my bare hands.”
The Marx Brothers traveled on the same circuit as Chaplin; they recalled the day that the 5’5” star received a short-term offer from a film studio. When Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo offered their congratulations, Charlie was full of misgivings: “If I don’t make good, they’ll fire me. And then where will I be? Flat on my back!” The quartet assured him that he was good enough to make it in movies, even if he had to settle for bit parts. Five years passed before the Marxes caught up with Chaplin again. On that occasion, he gave them dinner at his California home, where entrées were served on gold plates and a footman stood behind each brother.
What had happened in the interval can be explained in two words: Chaplin Fever. In 1915, notes biographer Peter Ackroyd, Chaplin “became the most famous man in the world,” and that spring, audiences greeted the ragged hobo with rapturous applause. By summer, movie theaters on both sides of the Atlantic were staging contests for the best Chaplin impressionist. (In Cleveland, the winner was another English immigrant, 12-year-old Leslie—later, Bob—Hope.) By the time winter rolled around, Chaplin dolls, postcards, ashtrays, and balloons had appeared, along with hit songs like “Those Charlie Chaplin Feet,” “The Chaplin Strut,” and “Charlie Chaplin: The Funniest of Them All.” The Tramp was followed by a cascade of box-office hits.
Sydney abandoned his own career to take over the finances, guiding his funny brother from studio to studio—from Mack Sennett’s farce factory, featuring pie-throwers and the Keystone Kops, to the more subtle two-reelers of Essanay, and later to First National and Mutual. En route, Chaplin scattered ideas before the public the way John D. Rockefeller strewed dimes before slum children. An annual salary of $500,000 couldn’t hold him; in 1919, he joined with director D. W. Griffith and fellow film stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks to found United Artists, where he could be producer, writer, director, actor, and composer. Alternately a model of patience and a holy terror on the set, he brought film into the modern era, urging his stars not to “act” but to be themselves, demanding retake after retake until he got what he wanted.
Charlie’s colleagues—jesters like Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Buster Keaton, Fatty Arbuckle, et al.—could elicit chuckles from a stone. But Chaplin offered something more. An elderly actress, Dorothy Davenport, put her finger on it. Watching the master at work, she observed, “I know it’s supposed to be funny, but you just make me weep.”
Inadvertently at first, and then with increasing calculation, Chaplin worked on a discovery he had made in the screening room: “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.” The tramp might enjoy occasional victories—he would bounce around the boxing ring, careful to keep the referee between him and the opponent; skate with the agility of an Olympian; wander the deck of a heaving ship, somehow maintaining his balance during a typhoon. Yet as the camera moved in, his triumphs turned to ashes—the slugger knocked him for a loop; money vanished through a hole in his pocket; the girl he fell for didn’t fall for him. Shaking off the disappointments again, he wandered on down the road.
At first, Chaplin was seen as the embodiment of the American spirit, scarred but shatterproof. But the tramp was more than a national celebrity. Europe went crazy for him: Fernand Léger put him in paintings, and, for a time, Marcel Proust trimmed his mustache in sedulous imitation of “Charlot.” Asia followed suit; the London Daily Mail reported that a Chaplin poster outside Chinese movie houses was “as great a draw as his electronically lighted figure in the Strand.” Africans cheered him. The Japanese referred to Chaplin as “Professor Alcohol” because of his mock-drunken sway. And a new line of Indonesian puppets sported black hats and canes. Chaplin dined with George Bernard Shaw and Mahatma Gandhi; he discussed economics with John Maynard Keynes, art with Pablo Picasso, and history with the Prince of Wales. It would have taken a superhuman to stay above this adulation. Alas, Chaplin was merely a genius.
Senior’s example was all he needed to stay away from booze. And drugs were never a temptation for a man who needed the reflexes of a high-wire acrobat. But women: that was another story, and a lurid one. When Chaplin was not on the set, he was seducing ladies—thousands, by his own account. Most of the affairs (many with teenagers) ended unhappily. Before Chaplin made an enduring fourth marriage, there were three others—one shotgun, two equally catastrophic.
Chaplin was also indiscreet in other ways. After a series of silent masterpieces—The Gold Rush, City Lights, and Modern Times—Chaplin entered the world of the sound picture. In The Great Dictator, he played a dual role—a Hitler-like tyrant and a persecuted Jewish barber. The film lampooned fascism a year before the U.S. entered World War II. But for all its noble intentions, it was preachy and affected. Postwar, Chaplin went out of his way to embrace the Soviet Union, just as America was growing wary of its former ally. He was never a card-carrying Communist, but he went public with his belief that Stalin’s vicious show trials were “a wonderful thing” and that “the only people who object to communism and who use it as a bugaboo are the Nazi agents in this country.”
These opinions could be attributed to naïveté. Chaplin, an artist who called himself a “peace-monger,” was totally ignorant of realpolitik. But his timing was bad: the Red Scare had become Topic A in the United States. Recent revelations of Soviet espionage, the lowering of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe, Russia’s acquisition of nuclear weapons—all conspired to make the Tramp unwelcome in the industry that he had made, and that had made him.
Chaplin was never called before the House Un-American Activities Committee because no one would testify against him. It hardly mattered. By 1947, many agreed with Mississippi Senator John Rankin, who stated for the Congressional Record that Chaplin’s sexual and political history was “detrimental to the moral fabric of America.” Deportation would provide a solution, Rankin suggested. That way, the man’s “loathsome pictures” could be “kept from the eyes of American youth.”
Five years later, Rankin would get his wish. Chaplin and his fourth wife, Oona O’Neill, 36 years his junior, boarded the Queen Elizabeth bound for London. Oona’s father, the playwright Eugene O’Neill, disapproved of the marriage—as did Chaplin’s congressional critics. While still en route to Britain, Chaplin received word that the attorney general had revoked his passport. He decided not to fight the decree. His 1947 feature, Monsieur Verdoux, had been a big loser; its Bluebeard antihero (played by Chaplin sans Tramp makeup) indicted the “state” for its hypocrisy—condemning him to the guillotine for murdering his wives while it conducted wars that slaughtered millions. Critics held Verdoux at arm’s length, and the public stayed away. Any objections to his banishment were kept en famille.
Chaplin’s new film, Limelight, was about to open, and he needed a hit. Limelight’s protagonist, Calvero, is an aging, once-popular clown who has lost his way. He revives a suicidal young dancer (Claire Bloom), makes one more stage appearance, and dies in the wings. As the centerpiece of this autobiographical drama, Chaplin, never off screen, enlivens all of the feature’s 137 minutes. Limelight flourished in Europe and Asia, but in America it was shown only in big-city art theaters. The Chaplins relocated to Vevey, Switzerland. Oona renounced her American citizenship; Charlie, a lifelong Briton, sold his stock in United Artists.
Chaplin made two more films. In 1957, he starred in A King in New York, a labored revenge-satire of American vulgarity and political paranoia. Ten years later, he directed the sex comedy A Countess from Hong Kong, starring an unhappy Sophia Loren and a hostile Marlon Brando. Critics worldwide echoed the New York Times review: “If an old fan of Mr. Chaplin’s movies could have his charitable way, he would draw the curtain fast on this embarrassment and pretend it never occurred.”
But Chaplin wasn’t through with show business. From his Swiss redoubt, the self-taught violinist composed new scores for his old works, oversaw Chaplin retrospectives, and proved the naysayers wrong by staying married to Oona and raising eight children. (Not until many years later was it revealed that he was a martinet at home. The kids were permitted to watch only Chaplin features, and, after looking after Charlie for so many years, Oona often sought solace in the bottle.)
In 1972, after a 20-year absence, Chaplin returned to the U.S. to accept an honorary Academy Award—and an apology for his banishment. The aging master of the silents enjoyed a 12-minute ovation, still the longest in Oscar history. Queen Elizabeth knighted Sir Charles in 1975. France welcomed him into the Legion of Honor. Oxford gave him an honorary degree. By 1977, when he died at 88, the father of the Little Tramp was awash in accolades, extremely wealthy, and recognized by millions who had never laid eyes on a Chaplin film.
Yet that year, “relevance” was in the saddle and rode the entertainment industry. Woody Allen won best director for Annie Hall. Neil Simon’s plays dominated the Broadway theater. The short-lived Richard Pryor Show, costarring Robin Williams, debuted on TV. Humor had changed its tone and style, and, despite all the adulation, Chaplin had become a back number.
Today, his movies can be accessed without moving from the keyboard. The king of pantomime capers on in scores of YouTube videos. Amazon offers more than 500 Chaplin items. Those early films are among the funniest and most poignant ever produced. But their meanings, humor, and humanity no longer reveal themselves at a single sitting; contemporary viewers are impatient with subtlety and restive without dialogue. Thus, in 100 years, the Tramp has come full circle. In retrospect, his works can be seen as festivals of hilarity. But examined closely, the most famous man in the world now seems as sad and isolated as the Little Tramp whose name no one knew.