Born April 16, 1889 – Walworth, London, England
Died December 25, 1977 - Riviera-Pays-d’Enhaut District, Vaud, Switzerland
One of the most important figures in the history of comedy and in film making, Charles Spencer “Charlie” Chaplin was born into a hardscrabble life in Victorian London, the recollection of these experiences tempering some of his later works. He took to performing at a very young age, making his first amateur appearance at five, and was touring British Music Halls with a clog dancing troupe not long after. By 14 he was signed by a talent agency, the next year he was appearing regularly onstage in London’s West End, and at 19 joined theatre empresario Fred Carno’s prestigious comedy company.
It was with Carno’s crew on a tour of the American vaudeville circuit where he was discovered by a representative of the New York Motion Picture Company, who thought he would be a good addition to their Keystone Pictures, and in January of 1914 Chaplin would go there to work under its head Mack Sennett. It was in his early days at the studio when he decided to fashion a costume for his film work - small hat, big shoes, baggy pants, tight jacket, and a small mustache to make him appear older but not hide his expressions. His character The Tramp was born. Combining the elements of slapstick and pantomime he had mastered, adding elements of pathos as time went on, The Tramp would make Chaplin the most famous entertainer in the world.
Over the years through various studios, he had always tried to have more control over his film making, and the more control he got, the better the films were, but it was always a battle. Thus it was that in 1919 Chaplin, along with two of the world’s other great stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, and director D.W. Griffith, formed United Artists, allowing them to finance and control their own films. Now he was creating some of the best films ever made, and the audiences loved them more than ever.
The Tramp (1915, at Essanay), The Rink (1916, Mutual), The Kid (1921), The Pilgrim (1923), The Gold Rush (with its famous Dance of the Rolls, 1925), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (the first time you hear him speak, 1936), classics all, not to mention The Great Dictator where he pillories Hitler and Mussolini.
Twenty years after being exiled from Cold War America he was asked to return to accept an honourary Oscar for his contributions to filmmaking, and he was unsure of how he would be received. The writer, director, producer, editor, composer, studio executive, and star who had toiled in workhouses as a child was greeted with a 12-minute standing ovation.