Known as one of the greatest comedians of all time Charlie Chaplin rose to fame in the era of silent film.
In this talk I’ll cover how Chaplin started his journey from growing up in the sordid realties of his South London childhood all the way to receiving an Honorary Academy Award for “the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century”.
I’ll also cover his obsession with acting and characterisation and how stringent and meticulous he was when it came to the creation of the Tramp and his film work.
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So, let’s get started:
When Chaplin was growing up, he spent time in an orphanage in his younger days but he persevered and wouldn’t let anything defeat him. This invulnerability later became part of his screen persona. The little tramp who is often detached and invincible, always picking himself up and walks jauntily into the distance. Showing energy and determination and rarely becoming an object of pity.
In his early days he joined the music hall stage to become a professional dancer. Starting off in a troupe named the Lancashire lads Chaplin rehearsed for several weeks before being allowed to appear on stage for the first time. But he suffered from stage fright and a further few weeks passed before he could perform a solo dance.
Theatre work was exhausting plus they were loud and rowdy places where the audience might engage in impromptu dances or violent squabbles. Chaplin could not have had a better training in the discipline of song and dance. He also took the opportunity of studying the clowns and comedians who appeared on the same bill with him.
Every move they made registered on his young brain like a photograph. He used to try it all when he got home and his earliest study of the clowns in the London pantomimes had been of tremendous value to him.
The life of the music hall was a tough and demanding one. He would perform in front of an often raucous audience generally inebriated by alcohol. Magicians, acrobats and comedians would vie for applause and attention; an inattentive audience spelt death to a performer.
Originality was important for the performers to create a success on stage and yet for Chaplin he was to make an art out of personality.
His first ever acting role on stage was at the young age of 14 when he was given the role of a cockney newsboy in a Sherlock Holmes play. During the production he was learning the importance of timing; knowing how to pause, to project his voice, to notice the right cues, even how to sit. At first he had a tendency to overact and to move his head too much that in later life he would tell his actors not to move their heads too much.
As the play was touring around the country Chaplin was beginning to receive good notices.
He had done four tours with the Sherlock Holmes production and by then, after more than 3 years Chaplin began to tire of the part he was playing.
He shortly moved onto performing slapstick routines on stage. This was where Chaplin really belonged. He had hoped to become a serious actor but he returned to the music hall world he knew so well. Ahead of him lay sketches, skits, stunts, spoofs and send ups which was popular among the audiences.
After attending to several shows in the comedy arena he was finally introduced to Fred Karno who was a theatre impresario of the British music hall. As a comedian of slapstick he was credited with popularising the custard-pie-in-the-face gag.
Chaplin was introduced to Fred via his brother Sydney and even though Fred thought of Chaplin to be too shy and too frail to excel in slapstick he agreed to try him out.
Chaplin, at the age of eighteen, seemed nonchalant about the whole affair and simply shrugged. He believed that due to his indifference he got the job.
Fred made a point of rehearsing with his troupe to a point of military precision so that every element of their performance was measured and concentrated. He taught his troupes how to be precise so that they each had perfect timing and had to know the peculiarities of everyone else in the cast so that they could, collectively, achieve a cast tempo.
This was the speed and timing that Chaplin applied in all of his films. Fred also taught his players that humour came from the unexpected or from a sudden change in pace. When you knock down a man, kiss him on the head. If you hit someone hard, just look sorry for a few seconds. That makes the action funnier. Chaplin would never forget these early instructions in the art of comedy.
Once he began touring with the Karno company, Chaplin began to become even more popular on stage and his new found popularity was not to the taste of his fellow comedians who reacted with natural jealousy. Chaplin would rely upon timing, dexterity and the ability to take a tumble without injuring himself. He had found his metier. Mimic because his single most important music all part and one that eventually launched him into a film career.
Chaplin eventually signed a new contract with Karno and was now the star performer and an acknowledged master of music hall pantomime. He travelled overseas to Europe and then to America to perform, although it took a production or two to break him in, Chaplin eventually managed to convince the American audience of his abilities as a comedic performer and he spent a good year touring around the country.
Chaplin thrived on learning all the time. He was always reading and at one point tried to learn Greek and yoga. He bought a cello to complement his violin. And He was, in other words, intent upon self improvement. Dress was also very important to him that the spirit of clothes accommodated the whole soul and intelligence of him.
Eventually after a second tour in America and after fifteen months of continuous touring and doing three or four shows a day, seven days a week, Chaplin found the routine bleak and depressing and needed a change.
Not surprisingly he was approached by the New York motion pictures company who handled the Keystone comedy company as a subsidiary and one of their comics was threatening to leave and they needed a replacement and they believed they had found one in Chaplin.
He was offered a lot of money of which he never earned in his life and his decision was quick – to join keystone as soon as his contract with Karno came to an end.
Growing tired of the stage Chaplin entertained hopes of a cinematic career. Film was the coming thing. With the advent of small storefront theatres, known as nickelodeons, motion pictures of ten to fifteen minutes duration were becoming increasingly popular.
The pictures provided immediate access to American life and were filled with action and with moment never before captured by any other medium. They offered what seemed at the time to be spellbinding realism.
In 1913 he joined Keystone studios which for him was a lucky year since he believed he had the advantage of being the instinctive artistic in the preliminary years of a new art.
The life of the film studio was at first a bewildering and wholly alien experience for Chaplin. No scripts were used; the essential art was that of improvisation. Everything that was filmed had to go as fast as possible; the audience were not to be given the time to think.
The short films were filled with car chases and riotous pursuits, bricks were hurled, mallets were deployed, and much pleasure was derived from what Chaplin always called ‘arse kicking.’
These films were manufactured at high speed whereby three to four films were completed each week.
Even then Chaplin was a curious observer, he watched everything all the time and said little except to ask a few pointed and professional questions. Why were scenes shot out of chronological sequence? Why were the rushes viewed as negatives? How am I supposed to react to another actor who isn’t actually there?
Making a living was Chaplin’s entrance on to the screen. He was not yet the little tramp but was playing the role of a stage villain. In the film he was insidious and oddly threatening. He already had a full range of facial mannerisms, twitching and smiling and scowling. He also tried out a distinctive walk, the ancestor of a more famous one.
It took him a couple of more films to find his tramp vibe when he preformed in Mabel’s strange Predicament where he was rehearsing himself that walk, the cane, the hat – did it look funny there and then? He shuffled with his feet turned outwards, twirled his cane and knocked off his own hat. The technicians and performers, standing around, started to laugh. Chaplin then knew that he had done it.
The tramp was thus born. The origin of this character and personality is unclear. In interviews Chaplin said that he thought of all those little Englishmen he had seen with their little black moustaches, their tight clothes and their bamboo canes and he fixed on these as his model.
Yet he also had recalled the large shoes and baggy trousers of many music hall acts in England. But, in contrast, he also explained that his appearances had come ‘by degrees’. Sometimes he attempted a metaphysical explanation with the little moustache as a symbol of vanity and the baggy trousers as a caricature of our eccentricity, our stupidities, our clumsiness.
The costume then created the performer. The movement came with the clothes. He followed the lead of the character, discovering aspects of its personality all the time. While performing in 35 films for Keystone films he began to create the little fellow as a living dimension of himself. He thus found his brand.
Chaplin showed a great interest when working in the studio environment. On many occasions he would suggest additional scenes or devices to the directors but they would refuse to comply.
He was, to a certain degree, considered an oddball amongst his contemporaries. He would walk the streets peering at things and people and live in shabby hotel rooms even though he could afford better ones. But his appetite for work was undiminished. He came to work at the studio an hour before the others, and stayed after they had left. He would question the directors about his days performance, and run over the rushes with a keen eye for his mistakes.
At one point Chaplin fell out with a director and refused to carry on with the filming. The head of studio was furious with Chaplin’s insubordination and it seemed likely that Chaplin’s contract would be torn up and end his career. But due to Chaplin’s string of outperforming films the head of studio relented and Chaplin capitalised on the moment to offer his services to direct as well as act and even finance his first film with his own money.
Amazingly enough the subsequent Chaplin films at Keystone, all of which he directed except the last were the most successful in the studio’s history.
His first attempt at direction under the supervision of the head of the studio was completed in the space of one afternoon. It was scripted, as well as acted and directed by Chaplin.
It seemed that direction was an energetic and personal affair. Chaplin demonstrated to the other actors the attitudes and expressions he wanted from them; the camera was anchored at middle distance, from which vantage the actors performed in full view with very few close ups or fanciful editing; this is the way Chaplin liked it. He always wanted to make sure from the cameraman that his feet were showing. Like a dancer he needed the full revelation of his art.
It seemed that Chaplin had invented rhythm. In one interview Chaplin commented that moment is liberated thought.
One of the things Chaplin believes that drew the audience to attend his films was that most of the dispossessed or lost, or those who had failed in life, saw in him an image of themselves. That was his genius – to turn this early experience of hopelessness into a universal symbol.
The little tramp could be seen as a working class hero battling against the rich and the privileged. He could never yield to order or regimentation; he must always be free to express his own quixotic and mercurial nature.
At times during his performance as the tramp he would collude with his audience with impish glances; winks and grins; and mimicked exasperation and indignation towards the camera.
He would attend the film houses, often standing at the back, and loved to hear what he called ‘the joyful little screams’ that were provoked by his first appearance.
The Chaplin phenomenon was soon spreading beyond the shores of America and began to travel across Europe as well.
Many of his female companions on the screen admit to Chaplin having certain feminine qualities. His performances have in that respect often been described as camp, but that is to mistake the nature of his role. Like all great clowns he partakes of both sexes; he is the born inveigler who goes through the world seeking sympathy and even affection.
He puts his hands between his knees and bats his eyelids; he wriggles and pouts; he saunters and swaggers; he often flirts with bullies in order to avert their wrath; he employs all the sexual signals of a woman. He is not parading himself as a homosexual but instinctively and unexpectedly defending himself against a hostile world.
After making thirty six films in one year for the Keystone studios his contract was now coming to an end and as a result he had become the most popular film comedians in America. It seemed he had rejected the frantic environment of the studio system and he would never work again for another director and would always write his own parts.
By then he was known across most continents from Africa to Asia, Australia to South America. In Japan he was known as professor alcohol because of the popularity of his impersonation of the funny drunk.
And in 1915 Chaplin became the most famous man in the world. He had become much larger than film. He had become the emblem of popular culture.
There was even a point that medical wards of wartime hospitals were showing Chaplin films as a welcome recuperative. Even Lenin said that Chaplin is the only man in the world he wanted to meet.
By an instinct of genius he had created an icon or image of common humanity that was deeply congenial to people around the globe. He seemed to epitomise the human condition itself, flawed and frail and funny.
His immense popular success meant that he had the power to control all aspects of film production, from rehearsals to the editing room. Chaplin also realised that he could continue to fashion and develop the most significant screen character in the history of the cinema.
It gave him the chance to learn how to prefect his techniques of film making and his scripts would develop as it went along. He’d have an idea and he’d build up. He relied upon intuition, instinct and inspiration; he would improvise with new props and new comic situations.
He would revise scenes or create new ones on the spot. An actor might be obliged to change his or her make up and play three or four different parts until Chaplin found the effect he wished for.
‘No’, he would say, ‘that’s not it.’ He would think of new beginnings and new endings as he worked.
He had infinite capacity for taking pains; each shot might be taken and retaken numerous times until he believed it to be as near perfect as possible.
When problems would arise he would retire to think, to meditate and to imagine. At times, when directing other actors he would tell them ‘above all, don’t act!’ That was his refrain. ‘You must think the part. You must be sincere and natural in order to be convincing. Don’t sell it. Remember, the audience are peeking at you.’
Chaplin did not want his performers to act in any conventional sense; he wanted them to remain as unforced and natural as if they were in a real situation. Any exaggeration from the actor would be instantly recognised. In this realisation Chaplin was ahead of his contemporaries, many of whom still favoured the more theatrical actions of the earliest film stars.
Chaplin always praised actors simplicity and restraint above all else. Silent film is best at conveying simplified feeling in a look, a gesture or the simple act of lighting a cigarette.
Sometimes he would get his actors to go for numerous takes until they’d get it right. He wanted to reach a purity of expression and he had great patience in unfolding his vision.
It is also significant that the other performs opposite him did not know what he was going to do next in the scenes and therefore had to instinctively react.
Chaplin realised that in the more dramatic moments of life men and women attempt to conceal rather than to express emotion; it is a mechanism of self defence. It could be said that Chaplin established a new cinema of social manners as well as a novel style of acting. If Hollywood has ever produced a genius, Chaplin is certainly the first choice.
Chaplin was first and last an actor. He lived only in a role, and without it he was lost. As he couldn’t find his inner Chaplin, there was nothing for him to retire into.
He always looked to improve himself not just physically, when it came to performing his own stunts or learning to ice skate or even dancing ballet and pirouetting but at one point, even before the talkies came to be there’s some evidence to suggest that he employed someone to act as an elocutionist.
Sometimes, when he wanted to come up with a scene he would walk through the streets of Los Angeles in order to get inspiration from what he saw in everyday life. He would spot a scene, or an object in a shop window and Sydney, his brother, would transcribe his comments on its possible comic use.
In his later films Chaplin began improving upon his talents by providing sets that were more durable and realistic; productions then were more accomplished and slapstick which was more elegant. The plots to his films were more highly developed, with a recognisable narrative structure which was no longer comic mayhem but situation comedy.
With the same performers around him, in each of the pictures, he was in a position to create what can be called ensemble acting.
Chaplin was in the habit of screening his latest films, unannounced, for the audiences attending a normal cinema programme. He would then sit among them, unknown and unseen, and gauge their reactions; if they did not laugh at a sequence, he would cut it out. You could say he was the first to do test screenings with audiences which is now what most studios do prior to releasing a film.
In the films that followed, Chaplin’s roles combines pathos and dignity together with an unbreakable strength of spirit. But he had always said that his way of working was ‘sheer perseverance to the edge of madness.’
But there was also another side to his personal life, a much darker one where the relationship between Chaplin and Charlie were kind of the polar opposites. As Chaplin became more powerful in life, Charlie became less assertive and more subservient. As Chaplin became a millionaire, Charlie was always impoverished. As Chaplin was a dedicated and professional film maker, Charlie could settle down to no employment. Charlie was Chaplin’s shadow self or alter ego.
There were points in Chaplin’s life that he desired to play Napoleon which he was obsessed with all of his life. Perhaps as the paradigm of the small man who obtains mastery over the world since many photographs show him in Napoleonic poses, one hand tucked into his jacket.
Even when the talkies began to take hold of the industry Chaplin relented and wanted to stick with silent films. He wished to convey the fact that silent film was supreme in the art of human expressiveness.
In his last silent film ‘Modern Times’ Chaplin right at the end of the film walks into the distance and it is clear that Charlie has never and will never have a home and will always be the wanderer.
His progression in film as a character throughout his career had started off with violence and lasciviousness; then becoming gentler and more ingenious; after that he grew into a figure of human kindness; and at the end he was a romantic, filled with pathos.
In the Great Dictator Chaplin had his first speaking role which he received the award for Best Actor from the New York critics but he refused to accept it. Chaplin considered that his acting was only a small part of his achievement in The Great Dictator, and it seemed that he was loathed to be regarded as just a mere actor. He had in the past turned down other awards together with a note saying ‘I don’t think you are qualified to judge my work.’
Later on in his life he was presented with an especial Oscar for the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of the 20th century. He was moved to almost tears as he said ‘words seem so futile, so feeble.’
Towards the end of his life Chaplin was reported saying that ‘to work is to live – and I love to live.’