Charlie Chaplin: the tramp who becomes the biggest Hollywood star

Charlie Chaplin was born in 1889 in London, more than 130 years ago. Its success was universal and reached audiences of all ages and generations. He is unanimously considered one of the greatest directors who ever lived. 

His personal history will later influence his films. Raised in poverty amidst extreme hardships in London he lost his father at the age of 12 and later also his mother, suffering from psychiatric disorders. 

It was his mother who passed on to him the love for singing and acting when Charlie was still very young. He began working in Fred Karno’s circus of traveling shows, where Stan Laurel (the future Laurel) also worked. The two actors were highly regarded and the company took them on tour around the world in 1909. It was in the United States that Charlie Chaplin was spotted by producer Mack Sennett: he signed him for the Keystone production company to shoot short films. comedians. 

Charlie Chaplin and Charlot

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Charlie Chaplin reaches the pinnacle of American production of the 1920s, and also provides one of the best critical analyzes of US society of that era. 

The character that made Charlie Chaplin famous all over the world is Charlot and he was invented in 1914. A character who takes inspiration from the circus clowns with whom he shares huge shoes, extra large pants and expressiveness. But Chaplin adds to the clown what he lacked: the depth, poetry, marginalization and loneliness inspired by the difficult years of his childhood. Charlot is a character who moves with elegance and grace, in contrast to his condition of poverty. An outcast who does not suffer the tragedy of being so but lives it lightly, in a society made up of conflicts and class struggles. 

Charlot became a hugely successful character with 35 short films made until 1918 when Chaplin left Keystone to go to the First National with the idea of ​​becoming the director of his own films himself. With the new production company, one of the Hollywood majors, he made 10 other short films. Brilliant and independent character Chaplin operated as the first great pioneers of cinema like Méliès: an artist who totally took care of every part of his films: interpreter, screenwriter, musician, director and producer of his works. Charlie’s popularity was such that First National won him the richest film contract to date: a million dollars. 

Charlie Chaplin and United Artists

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But the big step towards that vision of independence that distinguishes him was taken in 1919 together with Mark Griffith, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks: the three artists founded United Artists together. With their new production house, the three artists could freely deal with all aspects of their films without being pressured by the producers of the larger studios. 

His feature film debut takes place in 1921 with a film that turns out to be a masterpiece: the brat. A film lasting 81 minutes. Chaplin’s first simple and crude slapstick shorts become a structured tale that hybridizes the Griffith and Dickens-modeled melodrama scheme with comedy. A contamination between forms and genres that favors the birth of that typical poetics of the pathetic and of sentiment, accompanied by social satire. The brat is a sort of extension of the short film A Dog’s Life, where the relationship between man and dog is replaced by that between man and child. 

Chaplin openly wants to subvert the structures of the comic with melodrama, the comic strengthens and makes the dramatic story anarchic, which does not end in a complete happy ending. The sequential gags of Il monello are for the first time creators of a strong and coherent narrative structure. 

Charlie Chaplin international star

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Already very famous Chaplin becomes a world-class star and begins to end up in the mundane news of gossip newspapers all over the world. Chronicles marked by a very eventful love life that will lead him to marry 4 times and have 10 children, and a number of other stormy relationships. From then on he will take care of every phase of his film production by himself, surrounded by a group of loyal collaborators.

Charlot is basically an anarchist and an anti-bourgeois who over the years remains more and more alone, making fun of the world around him, to the point of having his own political and ideological vision. Chaplin’s social criticism reaches various themes: pacifism, anarchism, social and political satire against capitalism and against dictatorship, in an increasingly heated conflict between the individual and the collectivity. A society that in your films always appears totalitarian, albeit in different ways. 

United Artists continues its business for about 30 years and Charlie Chaplin produces 8 other feature films. After the advent of sound, the artist continues to prefer the expressiveness of silent films and creates masterpieces such as The Gold Rush and City Lights, using only a musical soundtrack. 

Gold Rush

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1925 movie based on an idea that came to Chaplin while looking at the slides of his colleagues Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford of a vacation in Alaska. The starting point is to write a dramatic and comic screenplay at the same time, full of daring adventures. A film full of unforgettable and particularly successful scenes that tell the poverty and humiliation of Charlot on his journey, such as the famous gag in which you eat a shoe to feed yourself, or the dance sequence with forks and sandwiches. 

The film was a huge commercial success everywhere, but it marked a difficult period in Charlie Chaplin’s life: it got the 16-year-old co-star of the film pregnant and ended up on the front pages of tabloid newspapers. To remedy the situation he decided to marry her but the relationship was particularly difficult and ended a year later in a divorce.

City lights

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In 1927 the cinema discovered sound. Films began to be shot with new technology and there was a period of major changes in the film industry in which many silent film directors and actors fell into oblivion. New stars were born more suited to sound cinema and Chaplin was in crisis because he belonged to the first category and preferred silent cinema, more functional to his language and his character. He then shot City Lights deliberately without a soundtrack, going against the fashion and commercial demands of the time, risking commercial failure. 

The production of the film was very long and lasted 3 years due to the extreme perfectionism of Chaplin, who, it is said, shot one of the scenes 342 times. The protagonist is once again his vagabond character. He meets a blind flower girl and a drunkard millionaire. He will try in every way to get the rich man’s money into the girl’s hands to allow her to do an expensive operation to regain her sight.

Modern times

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Over time, the cinematic style and themes addressed by Charlie Chaplin in his films change and become more mature. From acrobatic comedian to entertainment he became the director of more personal and dramatic films. An anarchist spirit came to light that could already be guessed from his first feature film, Il monello. Chaplin’s cinema discovers its political potential and its aversion to capitalism. If in City Lights this change is still embryonic in Modern Times, Chaplin tells directly about the clash between the working class and capitalists. 

Charlot is an alienated worker forced to work like a machine with very fast and repetitive work rhythms that cause him a nervous breakdown. He participates in the strikes and protests that cost him his prison and is unable to keep his job because he helps the weakest to get around the law. Until he meets a little orphaned and desperate brat with whom he tries to change his life. A harsh criticism of the American capitalist lifestyle that will cost him expulsion from the United States a few years later, in the McCarthy era.

The great dictator

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The great dictator is one of the most important achievements of Charlie Chaplin ‘s filmography, which condenses all the experience accumulated since the 10s. It is his first sound film with dialogues and was released in cinemas in 1940. This time the protagonist he is no longer Charlot: Charlie Chaplin considered him a character inextricably linked to silent cinema. In The Dictator he tackles the theme of the Nazi dictatorship and plays a double role: a Jewish barber hero of the First World War persecuted by the Nazis and the dictator Adenoid Hynkel, clearly inspired by Adolf Hitler. 

An exchange of person leads the dictator to prison and the barber to become head of state, with the possibility of making a speech in front of millions of people: Instead of speaking in an aggressive and dictatorial tone, he suggests humanitarian values ​​and solidarity for a better future. The Dictator was also a great success with the public, especially in the United States and Great Britain, where it was distributed before the end of the Second World War. The film entered the history of cinema for the courage with which it described and ridiculed the European dictatorial regimes and for some exciting scenes such as the dance with the globe and the final speech of the dictator of Tomania.

Monsieur Verdoux and The limelight

After The Great Dictator, the events of the Second World War will push him beyond the character of Charlot to create the merciless mask of the serial killer Monsieur Verdoux. Taken from a subject by Orson Welles, it is the story of an employee who is fired from the bank where he works and is forced to reinvent himself as a killer of rich widows, to whom he has large sums withdrawn from current accounts with the excuse of the imminent financial crisis by offering them easy investments. 

In 1952 he made a sort of touching and ironic autobiography with one of his most beautiful and moving films, Limelight, which tells the core of the existential story of Chaplin himself, the story of a melancholy and generous variety artist on the avenue of sunset. 

Charlie Chaplin in exile from the United States

In 1922 the FBI begins to control Charlie Chaplin ‘s life for his sympathies for leftist politics and alleged Jewish origins. They gave him no respite for 25 years, until he was brought before the commission for anti-American activities in 1947. In 1952 his visa was revoked and he could no longer return to the United States. So he decided in 1953 to settle in Switzerland, in Vevey, and never return to the United States until the early seventies when he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Oscar. 

Her career will continue even after exile from the United States until 1967 with the film The Countess of Hong Kong. But it is Charlot’s mask from silent films and his gestural and mimic comedy that remain his most modern and universal trait. An icon that made him famous all over the world, exalted by avant-garde filmmakers, which has come down to our days. Rivers of written words, essays, drawn caricatures, inspirations for the films of avant-garde French filmmakers such as Louis Delluc, Jean Epstein and Fernand Leger. He died on Christmas Day 1977 in the same Swiss town. 

Two months after his death, criminals take his body from the grave and demand a ransom from the family. But the police manage to thwart the extortion plan and recover Chaplin’s body, hidden near Lake Geneva.

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Charlie Chaplin’s filmography

In his career he made 11 feature films and many short films. Here is the complete filmography:

Making a Living – A Busted Johnny – Troubles – Doing His Best, directed by Henry Lehrman (1914)

Kid Auto Races at Venice, directed by Henry Lehrman (1914)

Mabel’s Strange Predicament – Hotel Mix-Up, directed by Henry Lehrman and Mack Sennett (1914)

Between Showers – The Flirts – Charlie and the Umbrella – In Wrong, directed by Henry Lehrman (1914)

Charlot makes cinema (A Film Johnnie – Movie Nut – Million Dollar Job, directed by George Nichols (1914)

Tango Tangles – Charlie’s Recreation – Music Hall, directed by Mack Sennett (1914)

His Favorite Pastime – The Bonehead, directed by George Nichols (1914)

Cruel, Cruel Love – Lord Helpus, directed by George Nichols and Mack Sennett (1914)

The Star Boarder – The Hash-House Hero – Landlady’s Pet, directed by George Nichols (1914)

Mabel at the Wheel – His Daredevil Queen – Hot Finish, directed by Mabel Normand and Mack Sennett (1914)

Twenty Minutes of Love – He Loved Her So – Cops and Watches – Lover Friends (1914)

Caught in a Cabaret – The Waiter – Jazz Waiter – Faking With Society (1914)

Caught in the Rain – At It Again – Who Got Stung – In the Park (1914)

A Busy Day – Militant Suffragette (1914)

The Fatal Mallet – Pile Driver (1914)

Her Friend the Bandit – Mabel’s Flirtation (1914)

The Knockout – Counted Out – The Pugilist (1914)

Mabel’s Busy Day – Love and Lunch – Hot Dogs (1914)

Mabel’s Married Life – When You’re Married – The Squarehead (1914)

Laughing Gas – Tunning His Ivories – The Dentist – Down and Out (1914)

Behind the scenes – The Property Man – Getting His Goat – The Roust About (1914)

The Face on the Bar Room Floor – The Ham Actor (1914)

Recreation – Spring Fever (1914)

The Masquerader – Putting One Over – The Female Impersonator (1914)

His New Profession – The Good for Nothing – Helping Himself (1914)

The Rounders – The Revelry – Two of a Kind – Oh, What a Night! (1914)

The New Janitor – The New Porter – The Blundering Boob (1914)

Those Love Pangs – The Rival Mashers – Busted Hearts ( 1914)

Dough and Dynamite – The Donut Designer – The Cook (1914)

Gentlemen of Nerve – Some Nerve (1914)

His Musical Career – The Piano Movers – Musical Tramps (1914)

His Trysting Place – Family House (1914)

Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914)

Getting Acquainted – Fair Exchange (1914)

His Prehistoric Past – The Dream (1914)

Mixed Up (1915)

His New Job ( 1915)

A Night Out (1915)

The Champion (1915)

In the Park (1915)

A Jitney Elopement (1915)

The Tramp (1915)

By the Sea (1915)

Work – The Paperhanger (1915)

His Regeneration (1915) – uncredited

A Woman – The Perfect Lady – Charlie, the Perfect Lady (1915 )

The Bank – Charlie at the Bank (1915)

Shanghaied (1915)

A Night in the Show – Charlie at the Show (1915)

Carmen – Charlie Chaplin’s Burlesque on Carmen (1915)

Police (1916)

The Floorwalker (1916)

The Fireman (1916)

The Vagabond (1916)

One AM (1916)

The Count ( 1916)

The Pawnshop) (1916)

The Essanay-Chaplin Revue of 1916 (1916)

Behind the Screen (1916)

The Rink (1916)

Easy Street (1917)

The Cure (1917)

The Immigrant (1917)

The Adventurer (1917)

A Dog’s Life (1918)

The Bond (1918)

Shoulder Arms (1918)

Sunnyside (1919)

A Day’s Pleasure (1919)

The professor (1919)

The Kid (1921)

The Nut (1921) – uncredited

Rich The Idle Class (1921)

Pay Day (1922)

Hollywood (1923)

The Pilgrim (1923)

A Woman of Paris – The Public Opinion (1923)

Souls For Sale (1923) – uncredited

The Gold Rush (1925)

The Circus (1928)

Show People (1928) – uncredited

City Lights (1931)

Modern Times (1936)

The Great Dictator (1940)

Monsieur Verdoux (1947)

Limelight (1952)

A King in New York (1957)

A Countess from Hong Kong (1967)

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