“I remain just one thing, and one thing only, and that is a clown. It places me on a far higher plane than any politician.” — Charlie Chaplin
Charles Spencer Chaplin was born on this day in 1889 in London, England. Today is the 124th anniversary of his birth.
He was practically born to the stage. Both his parents were musical hall entertainers. His father, Charles Chaplin, Sr. was a singer and actor, his mother, Hannah Chaplin — her stage name was Lily Harley — sang light opera. The marriage didn’t last long, and Chaplin, Sr. abandoned the family when Charlie was an infant. He had two half brothers. Sydney Hill Chaplin was four years older than Charlie and was born to Hannah a year before she married Chaplin, Sr. (who was not his father.) Hannah had another baby, George Wheeler Dryden in 1892, by entertainer Leo Dryden. Sydney and Charlie hardly knew this brother, however, because Leo took the boy away when he was 6 months old. George didn’t resurface until his mid thirties.
Hannah continued her stage career for a few years, but…
in a performance that would introduce her youngest boy to the world of performance, Hannah inexplicably lost her voice in the middle of a show, prompting the stage manager to push the five-year-old Chaplin, whom he’d heard sing, onto the stage to replace her…[Biography]
The audience loved little Charlie, but it was a disaster for Hannah…
Her singing voice never returned and she eventually ran out of money. For a time, Charlie and Sydney had to make a new, temporary home for themselves in London’s tough workhouses. [Ibid]
Hannah was in and out of mental institutions until 1905 when she was committed permanently. With the exception of one disastrous stint with their alcoholic father, the boys were left to fend for themselves, and, eventually, thrown into the workhouse. Sydney was trained as a seaman, but both boys wanted to act. Charlie charmed his way into a clog dancing group called the Eight Lancashire Lads in 1897.
It was a short stint, and not a terribly profitable one, forcing the go-getter Chaplin to make ends meet anyway he could…”I (was) newsvendor, printer, toymaker, doctor’s boy, etc., but during these occupational digressions, I never lost sight of my ultimate aim to become an actor,” Chaplin later recounted. “So, between jobs I would polish my shoes, brush my clothes, put on a clean collar and make periodic calls at a theatrical agency.” [Ibid]
His first play was Jim, a Romance of Cockayne by H.A. Saintsbury in 1903. Although the show closed after two weeks Chaplin’s comedic performance as the newsboy received good reviews. Real stage experience came later that year with a 2.5 year run with Sherlock Holmes in which Chaplin played the Page-boy.
He toured with a vaudeville outfit named Casey’s Court Circus and in 1908 teamed up with the Fred Karno pantomime troupe, where Chaplin became one of its stars as The Drunk in the comedic sketch, A Night in an English Music Hall. [Ibid]
He twice came to America on tour with the Karno troupe and film producer Mack Sennett promptly signed Chaplin to a contract for a $150 a week with Keystone Pictures. Chaplin didn’t like his first film, Making a Living, and it wasn’t a hit, but he was singled out for his comic timing and presence.
He wanted to create a persona that made him stand out from the crowd of comedic actors at Keystone, so he borrowed Fatty Arbuckle’s pants, Ford Sterling’s size 14 shoes and Arbuckle’s father-in-law’s bowler to invent the Little Tramp. The Tramp made his debut in Kid Auto Races at Venice.
Charlie yearned for more creative input in his film and finally got a chance to direct in 1914. With the caveat that Chaplin would return $1,500 to producer Sennett should the film fail, he helmed Caught in the Rain . (He did not have to return the money. )
When Keystone wouldn’t give him a raise (he wanted $1,000 a week) he went to Essanay Film Manufacturing Company (they gave him $1,250 a week.) He made 14 films with Essanay.
By the age of 26, Chaplin, just three years removed from his vaudeville days was a movie superstar. He’d moved over to the Mutual Company, which paid him a whopping $670,000 a year. The money made Chaplin a wealthy man, but it didn’t seem to derail his artistic drive. With Mutual, he made some of his best work, including One A.M. (1916), The Rink (1916), The Vagabond(1916), and Easy Street (1917). [Biography]
He got a million dollar deal with First National Exhibitors’ Circuit to make 8 films. (His brother Sydney was his financial manager by then, and he was instrumental in making the deal.) Two of the eight movies broke the old show business rule about not working with children and animals, and those films — The Kid and A Dog’s Life were two of Chaplin’s best.
Click HERE for Charlie Chaplin 4.16.13 Thought of the Day: Part TWO