Sunday, April 16, 2017

Born Today April 16: Charlie Chaplin


Giant of the silver screen and silent megastar Charlie Chaplin (birth name Charles Spencer Chaplin) was born on this day in the Walworth area of London, England, UK.  His parents were music hall entertainers, so acting and the stage was literally in his blood.  Though his parents separated when he was very young and his mother's acting career was never successful, therefore, he grew up in poverty, and was even sent to a workhouse more than once.  Chaplin and his brother were sent to at least two schools for paupers, places that he later remembered as sad and soul crushing places to be "schooled."  Things only got worse when, while his mother was convalescing in a public mental institution, he and his brother were sent to live with their alcoholic father, who was so abusive that the National Prevention of Cruelty to Children even paid a visit--a rarity in that day.  His mother would recover, but only for a time and eventually was permanently institutionalized.  This period in Chaplin's life were particularly hard, especially after his brother entered the Navy.  He was a one point homeless and still a young teenager.  Still, by this time, he had also already started to perform on the stage.  In fact, according him, it was his mother that introduced him to the stage at the age of five.  Acting became an active interest to the youngster, something that his mother was said to have encouraged before her hospitalizations.  At 14, he registered with a theatrical agent in London's West End.  Things slowly began to turn around for him.  His first major role came in the play Sherlock Holmes in which he played the pageboy; the play toured nationally.  He stayed in the role until 1906.  By this time his brother Sydney was also pursuing an acting career and the two embarked on a comedy tour together entitled Repairs.  By the age of 18, young Charles had become a seasoned comedic actor with good reviews to his name.  In 1906, Sydney Chaplin had signed with the successful company owned by Fred Karno.  Sydney persuaded Karno to hire his younger brother.  Though Karno was at first reluctant; after Charlie's first performance, Karno was won over.  By 1909, he was a star at the company, and in 1910 he was given a new sketch Jimmy The Fearless, which turned out to be a huge success and had wide positive write-ups in the press.  It this that lead to the decision that Charlie would be one of the company's actors to tour on the vaudeville circuit in North America.  The tour lasted 21 months, and had wide spread positive reviews.  It's success brought another North American tour, and it was at this time that film work entered into Chaplin's life.  About half way through the tour, the New York Motion Picture Company, which operated Keystone Studios, invited him to join.  Though Chaplin didn't think all that highly of the slapstick comedies that Keystone produced, he knew it would be madness not to accept the offer.  Of course, it's history in the making and Chaplin would never have to worry about finances again.  He signed a contract with them for $150 dollars a week (roughly a little over $3600 in today's money). Chaplin arrived in Hollywood where the studio was located in December of 1913.  Despite that his boss Mack Sennett had concerns about Chaplin looking too young, Charles made is film debut in Making A Living in very early February.  He was off on the road to serious comedic history.  There is some confusion about what film came next; many sources site Mabel's Strange Predicament (1914), others that it was Kid Auto Races At Venice (1914).  Whatever the case, the later of these two films introduced his ultra-famous "Tramp" character.  During this period of time, though uncredited, he contributed a great deal to sketches--most of them Mabel Norman films; in fact, he has far more writing credits than acting ones.  He apparently didn't along very well with Norman and when he clashed with her on set, he was almost booted from his contract.  Nonetheless, he kept his contract  and made his directorial debut in Caught In The Rain in May of 1914--thereafter he would direct nearly all the films that he appeared in for Keystone (Tillie's Punctured Romance was notably not among them).  When his contract was up, he asked Sennett to up his weekly salary to $1,000 (around $24,200 in today's money); Sennett refused.  Chaplin was quickly snapped up by Essanay, for a whopping $1,250 a week and a signing bonus of $10,000.  This was December of 1914.  Here he would make some his most famous early silent films, including The Bank (1915) and The Tramp (1915), both of which he directed.  When his contract was up at Essanay at the end of 1915, Chaplin was well aware of his bankability and shopped his contract around, requesting a $150,000 signing contract.  The best offer came from the Mutual Film Company, with the giant sum of $10,000 a week.  He wound up with a contract with them that would pay him by the year at $670,000 a year!   He was just 26 years old.  Mutual gave Chaplin his own studio to boot. There he made such classics as Easy Street (1917)The Immigrant (1917), and The Adventurer (1917).  Chaplin would later recall that his time at Mutual was the happiest of his career.  However, when his contract was up, he chose to become a free agent--his own producer.  He founded Charles Chaplin Productions under the auspices of First National with an agreement to produce 8 films for them in exchange for $1 Million dollars.  He chose to build his own studio on Sunset Blvd.  Probably the well known film that he made under this contract was A Dog's Life (1919).  First National became frustrated with Chaplin's slowing pace in making films, so when Chaplin requested more money from them after making Shoulder Arms in 1918 (it would later be reissued in 1959 in a mono version), they refused any increase in funds.  Angry over this, Chaplin teamed up with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and famed director D.W. Griffith to form United Artists.  The first film that he made with this new arrangement was Sunnyside in 1919, which he also used to count toward his 8 films for First National (this film was also reissued in a Mono version).  Chaplin then could work in his own pace.  As his brother Syd had explained, Charlie wanted quality over quantity.  In 1921, he made The Kid with a very young Jackie Coogan later of "Addams Family" Uncle Fester fame--this was pure Chaplin gold.  Between this time and 1931, Chaplin would produce the silents he most famously associated with, even by those who don't know much about silent film.  Among them are: Idle Hands (1921)Pay Day (1922)The Gold Rush (1925) and the very, very late silent classic City Lights (1931).  At least a couple of these films were made to fully fulfill his contract with First National, but there was no doubt that having formed the United Artists partnership allowed Chaplin to work fully at his own pace during this time.  After 1923, began making full length films as well, with The Pilgrim being his last short (though at 47 minutes long, it's not really all that short).  He would not make another film until 1936, hewing very closely to his comedic silent acting style that he had so famously created.  Modern Times is listed as a Mono film, but recorded with the unique Western Electric Noiseless Recording Sound System; there is very little dialogue in it, rendering basically a very late silent type film.  By the late 1930's Chaplin's popularity had begun to wane and legal and personal problems were on the rise. When people started to remark that his on-screen appearance looking remarkably like the troubling leader of Germany: Adolf Hitler; Chaplin responded by making The Dictator in 1940.  He then gained the very unwanted attention of J. Edgar Hoover, who was determined to go after him because he believed Chaplin was (erroneously) a communist. It did not help that the Nazi party itself was under the misapprehension that Chaplin was Jewish.  He would  go on to make just four more films in his long lifetime, 3 of them in 40's and 50's, with the last coming in 1967.  A Countess From Hong Kong starred Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren, with bit part for him and his brother Syd; the script was based one that he had written for his then 3rd wife Paulette Goddard.  By this time he had long been living in Europe, having been banned from re-entry into the United States in 1952.  Starting in the 1960's Chaplin's health began to seriously deteriorate, having had a series of small strokes.  In 1972 he was offered an Honorary Academy Award, that despite his ill health, he traveled back to the U.S. to accept.  He planned to write and direct more films in the 1970's, but he suffered several more small strokes and was confined to a wheelchair, with his communication abilities effected.  Chaplin died in his Switzerland home after suffering yet another stroke during the night on Christmas Day in 1977.  He was 88 years old.  He was buried in the Corsier Cemetery in Corsier-sur-Vevey Switzerland; his fourth and final wife Oona O'Neill Chaplin  (daughter of playwright Eugene O'Neill) would join him there in 1991.  In a bizarre event that occurred the following March, two Polish immigrants dug up his coffin and tried to ransom his body back to his widow; a scheme that she rejected, saying that her husband would found the whole affair absurd.  Eventually the police were able to recover it and it was re-interred with a cement vault added.  Chaplin was also knighted during his life-time being Queen Elizabeth II.  Several of his children have gone into various aspects of the entertainment industry as well.

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