Charlie Chaplin was a beloved film star in the silent screen era and beyond. His character “The Tramp” is one of the most well-known in movie history. Chaplin’s career lasted more than 75 years, but it wasn’t without controversy. His personal relationships and political leanings caused him a lot of trouble throughout a large part of his life.
His Father Was An Alcoholic & Charlie Was Thrust Into The Spotlight At An Early Age
Charles Spencer Chaplin was born on April 16, 1889, in London, England. His father had a problem with drinking and abandoned him, his mother, and the future entertainer’s older half-brother shortly after Charlie was born. Charlie’s mother Hannah Chaplin (stage name Lily Harley) was a vaudevillian and music hall singer.
When Charlie was just five years old, he entered the spotlight after his mother lost her voice during a performance. The production manager knew Charlie could sing so he pushed the young child onto the stage. Charlie’s mother was very encouraging, and it wasn’t long before he fell in love with performing.
His Family Was Destitute
Charlie’s mother struggled financially to support her family. Her only sources of income were a little bit of nursing and dressmaking. Charlie’s father did not help at all. When he was just seven, Charlie was sent to Lambeth Workhouse. He later moved to the Central London District School for paupers.
About a year and a half later, Charlie moved back home to live with his mother, but she couldn’t afford to take care of him by herself. At age nine, he once again moved to the workhouse. He and his brother attended the Norwood Schools for destitute children.
His Mother Was Committed To An Asylum When He Was A Teen
Hannah did her best for her children, but in later years, she would succumb to mental health problems and be confined to Cane Hill mental asylum. Syphilis and malnutrition were responsible for her psychosis. Charlie, 14, and his brother were sent to live with a father they barely knew.
It was a difficult time in Charlie’s life. Conditions at his father’s home were so bad, they were visited by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Two years later, his dad Charles Chaplin Sr. (also an entertainer), died from cirrhosis of the liver. He was just 38 years old.
A Young Charlie Was Forced To Take Care Of Himself & His Ill Mother
Charlie’s mother recovered for a short time but got sick again in 1903. She was readmitted to the asylum, and Charlie had to fend for himself for several days. He had trouble sleeping and had to find his own food until his brother returned from a stint in the Navy.
Eight months later, Charlie’s mother was released from the mental institution. In 1905, her condition flared up again, and she would never recover. Charlie took care of his mother until her death in 1928. He later wrote about the experience: “There was nothing we could do but accept poor mother’s fate.”
He Successfully Pursued His Acting Ambitions & Was An Accomplished Performer By Age 18
Charlie joined the Eight Lancashire Lads clog-dancing troupe and toured music halls in 1899 and 1900. He enjoyed it but wanted to do more than dancing — he wanted to be a comedy act. By age 13, he stopped going to school. During his mother’s relapse, he joined a theatrical agency in London’s West End.
Charlie’s first show, Jim, a Romance of Cockayne, was a flop. But critics praised Charlie’s comedic performance. He went on to play Billy the pageboy in Sherlock Holmes for two and a half years until 1906. By the tender age of 18, Charlie had become an accomplished comedic performer.
His Iconic Character, The Tramp, Was Born In 1914
Charlie made his film debut in 1914 after traveling to Los Angeles. He debuted “the Tramp” character in his second film, Mabel’s Strange Predicament. He wrote in his autobiography:
“I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large … I added a small moustache, which, I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression. I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on stage he was fully born.”
He Made 33 Films With His Lover, Edna Purviance
In 1915, Charlie met Edna Purviance while she was working as a secretary in San Francisco. He thought she was very attractive and wanted her to appear in his film A Night Out. Even though Charlie thought she may be too serious for comedic films, she wound up starring in 33 of his projects.
The pair started a romantic relationship while working together. She landed the lead in their last film together, A Woman of Paris, but the movie did not do well, and it signaled the end of their partnership and her acting career. They had worked together for eight years.
At Age 26, He Became One Of The Highest Paid People In The World
Charlie’s popularity skyrocketed in 1915. His character became an integral part of merchandising, and before long his likeness was featured on products as well as in cartoons and comic strips. People even wrote songs about him. It wasn’t long before he became famous worldwide.
Around this time, his contract with The Essanay Film Manufacturing Company of Chicago ended. Banking on his popularity, he asked for a $150,000 bonus from his next film studio. He signed with the Mutual Film Corporation and made $670,000 a year (he had previously taken home $1,250 a week). At age 26, he was incredibly wealthy.
He Was Criticized For Not Fighting In WWI
World War I started in 1914, and Charlie was criticized by the British media for not fighting for his country. The actor and filmmaker responded that he would fight for Britain if he was asked to do so. He also registered for the draft in the United States. Neither country requested his service.
While Charlie didn’t serve in the war, he was a fan favorite among the troops, and his popularity kept increasing. The majority of men who attended costume parties dressed like the Tramp. People were so obsessed with him that Charlie had to take legal action against professional imitators in 1917.
He Wed A Teen Actress & Their Son Died Just Days After He Was Born
In September 1918, Charlie, then 29 years old, secretly married 16-year-old actress Mildred Harris, who claimed she was pregnant with his child. Shortly afterward, he realized the pregnancy was not real. Charlie was not happy in the marriage, and it affected his film production.
Mildred eventually did get pregnant and gave birth to their son, Norman Spencer Chaplin, on July 7, 1919. The infant had some birth defects and died three days later. The couple dissolved their marriage in 1920. It’s believed the loss inspired Charlie to turn the Tramp into caring for a child in The Kid.
Charlie’s 1925 Film The Gold Rush Was One Of The Highest-Grossing Films Of The Silent Era
The Gold Rush opened in 1925. It centered on the Tramp, who was a gold prospector looking for love. Production cost nearly $1 million and featured elaborate sets and special effects. Charlie was very proud of the film and considered it the best of his career. He said at the premiere it was the film he wanted “to be remembered by.”
The film showcased some of Charlie’s most famous moments, including the Tramp eating his shoe and the “Dance of the Rolls.” It earned $5 million at the box office, making it one of the highest-grossing movies of the silent film era.
His Second Teen Wife Accused Him Of Horrible Things, Nearly Ruining His Career
Charlie, 35, wed actress Lita Grey, 16, in Mexico while making The Gold Rush. She was pregnant, and under California law, he would have been accused of criminal activity. Their son, Charles Spencer Chaplin, Jr., was born on May 5, 1925. Their second son, Sydney Earl Chaplin, was born the following year.
Charlie was unhappy in this marriage and left his wife in 1926. Grey accused him of infidelity, abuse, and much more. After her statements leaked to the press, several groups tried to get his films banned. It was a public relations nightmare, so Charlie gave Lita $600,000 in the divorce settlement to avoid additional scandal.
He Made A Controversial Comedy About Hitler, Which Was A Box Office Hit
Charlie and Adolf Hitler had many similarities, in addition to their trademark mustaches. They both grew up poor and were born four days apart. Charlie decided to make a comedy, 1940’s The Great Dictator, about Hitler and fascism. People eagerly waited for the film, which became one of the biggest box office hits of the era.
The ending was controversial. Charlie spent the final five minutes out of character. He addressed the camera and expressed his views against the war and fascism. From then on, people had a difficult time separating Charlie from his political views. Nonetheless, the film was nominated for five Academy Awards.
He Was Sued In A Paternity Case Then Finally Found Love & Had Eight Kids With Oona O’Neill
From 1941 to 1942, Charlie had an affair with actress Joan Barry. She was obsessed with Charlie and was arrested on two occasions after they split up. Joan terminated two pregnancies during their relationship and later claimed daughter Carol Ann was his child. She filed a paternity suit against him in 1945.
Despite blood tests that proved otherwise, Charlie was ordered to pay child support until Carol Ann turned 21. Meanwhile, Charlie fell in love with and married 18-year-old Oona O’Neill, the daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill. Charlie was 54. The couple wound up having eight children together over 18 years.
He Became A Target Of The FBI
J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), was wary of Charlie’s political leanings and decided to take advantage of the paternity lawsuit by launching a smear campaign against the comedian. As a result, the bureau issued four indictments related to the case.
In part, the FBI accused Charlie of violating the Mann Act, which prohibits individuals from transporting women across state borders for the purpose of adult activities. If prosecuted, Charlie faced 23 years in prison. The trial took place in 1944, but he was acquitted. Even so, the case made headlines, and Charlie’s reputation was damaged.
The 1947 Film Monsieur Verdoux Was His First Critical And Commercial Flop
The black comedy Monsieur Verdoux was released in 1947, a couple of years after Charlie was indicted by the FBI and sued by Joan Barry. The film is centered on a French bank clerk who loses his job and marries and murders rich widows. Charlie was vocal about his political views in the film.
He slammed capitalism and claimed that the world supported the killing of large amounts of people through war and weapons of mass destruction. Charlie’s views did not go over well with audiences, and the film was met with harsh criticism. It also failed at the box office.
He Was Accused Of Being A Communist
Charlie’s public image had fallen greatly following the release of Monsieur Verdoux and in the aftermath of the Joan Barry scandal. It didn’t help when he supported Soviet-American friendship groups during World War II, attended events with Soviet diplomats, and was friends with suspected communists.
The FBI launched an investigation into Charlie in 1947, and he was accused of being a communist. The comedian denied the claims and labeled himself a “peacemonger.” Many wondered why he never became an American citizen, and people called for his deportation. He was not in a good position at the start of the Cold War.
He Left The United States For Good After His Re-Entry Permit Was Revoked
In 1952, Charlie decided to hold the premiere for the film Limelight in London — the setting of the film. He wouldn’t return to the United States until 20 years later. Attorney general James P. McGranery revoked Chaplin’s re-entry permit even though the FBI had no evidence to prevent the comedian from returning to the states.
Charlie’s reputation in America had been tarnished, so he and his family moved to Switzerland. Charlie kept making films and was given the International Peace Prize by the World Peace Council after meeting with the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China, Zhou Enlai, and secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev.
Two Decades Later, America Welcomed Him Back With Open Arms
Photo credit: Hulton Archive / Keystone / Getty
Over time, the political climate changed in the United States, and people acquired a renewed interest in Chaplin and his work. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to honor Charlie in 1972. While he was reluctant to return to the United States, he made the decision to do so — 20 years following his departure.
His return made headlines and was a huge event. During the Academy Awards gala, he received a 12-minute standing ovation. It was the longest in the Academy’s history. Charlie was overcome with emotion when accepting an award for his influence on motion pictures.
He Died On Christmas Day In 1977, But Grave Robbers Stole His Body A Few Months Later
Charlie’s health started to fail in the late 1960s. He had a series of minor strokes, and by 1977 he required around-the-clock care. He died at the age of 88 on Dec. 25, 1977, after having a stroke in his sleep. The following year, two immigrants dug up his coffin at Corsier-sur-Vevey cemetery in Switzerland.
The men, Roman Wardas from Poland, and Gantcho Ganev from Bulgaria, held the body for ransom in exchange for money from Charlie’s wife, Oona. Police caught the men two months later, and Charlie’s body was re-interred in the same place with a more secure foundation.
His Granddaughter, Oona Chaplin, Is A Spanish Actress Who Appeared In Game Of Thrones
Oona is a Spanish actress who frequently traveled as a child due to her mother’s career. She has appeared as Talisa Maegyr in the critically acclaimed HBO TV series Game of Thrones.
She has also starred in the BBC drama The Crimson Field and the historical series Taboo. She will appear in James Cameron’s Avatar sequels.