The first in an occasional series of articles on the life and work of Charlie Chaplin
“It is a wise man who knows his own father,” remarked Plato. Charlie Chaplin didn’t have that advantage. Charlie’s mother Hannah Hawkes gave birth to her son Sidney prior to her marriage with Charles Chaplin, while Charlie was born about a year later, in 1890. Which should have made Charlie legitimate, right?
Well, no. While many people believe that Charles Chaplin was the father of Sidney, practically no one believes that he was the father of Charlie. Shortly after the marriage, Charles Sr. (above left) disappeared from the scene, and Charlie and Sidney were raised as by Hannah (above right)alone, although Mr. Chaplin did provide some financial support for a while.
Both Charles and Hannah were singers in England’s music halls and for the first years of their lives Sid and Charlie enjoyed an atmosphere of bohemian extravagance. But Hannah’s voice soon failed and she was forced to support the boys and herself by taking in needle work. Poverty and isolation drastically affected Hannah’s already eccentric personality. Chaplin’s autobiography, written late in life, gives an astonishingly vivid picture of “Mother” and her moods:
She would perform before us, not only with her own vaudeville material, but with imitations of other actresses she had seen in the so-called legitimate theatre.
When narrating a play, she would act the various parts; for instance, in The Sign of the Cross, Merica with divine light in her eyes going into the arena to be fed to the lions. She would imitate the high pontifical voice of Wilson Barrett proclaiming in five-inch elevated shoes — for he was a little man: ‘What this Christianity is I know not. But this I do know, that if it made such women as Mercia, Rome, nay, the whole world would be all the purer for it!’ … which she acted with a suspicion of humour, but not without an appreciation of Barret’s talent.
The more eccentric Hannah became, the more the family’s income dwindled. She had to enter herself and the boys in the Lambeth workhouse, from which Charlie and Sidney were soon transferred to the Hanwell Schools for Orphans and Destitute Children. While the institution was not nearly as bad as it could have been, the regimentation and lack of privacy was the perfect violation of Chaplin’s reclusive spirit.1 Ever after, he detested any and all government institutions.
After eighteen months, the boys left Hanwell and lived with Mr. Chaplin for a time, a situation not helped by the presence of his girlfriend Louise. Charlie was fascinated by the man he identified as his father. “I would watch him like a hawk, absorbing every action.” But he was also horrified by Chaplin’s hopeless alcoholism, and saw his drunken father knock his drunken mistress unconscious.
They boys moved back in with their mother, all three working now in an attempt to keep the family afloat financially. Despite their best efforts, they descended the near-infinite staircase of Victorian respectability. While still a boy, Charlie was already exquisitely sensitive to every jolt.2
Charles Chaplin died when Charlie was ten. “He looked very ill,” wrote Chaplin, describing their last encounter. “His eyes were sunken, and his body had swollen to an enormous size. He rested one hand, Napoleon-like, in his waistcoat as if to ease his difficult breathing.” When Hannah and Charlie returned from the funeral, there was nothing to eat but a plate of beef drippings. They sold an old oil-stove for a halfpenny and bought some bread to dip in the grease.
Finally, Hannah’s mind broke, in a scene that must have been etched on Chaplin’s brain. “Then I ran and fell on my knees and buried my face in her lap, and burst into uncontrollable weeping.”
The stage was Chaplin’s natural element. He was a noted child performer from an early age, though he suffered some prolonged dry spells in his teens. He had the support of his older and more sensible brother Sid, who showed Charlie the ropes and helped get him jobs. By their late teens, they had their own place.
At age seventeen, Chaplin joined Fred Karno’s troupe. Karno, like many impresarios, was either a genial or malignant monster, depending on who’s doing the talking. Chaplin’s success allowed him to have sentimental memories of the man who sent him to America first in 1911 and then again in 1914.
In 1914, Chaplin was the star of the troupe, with featured billing. His roommate, Stan Laurel, recalled that Chaplin was always “weird.” Poverty had made the most extreme economy second nature to him, which success had done nothing to change. Despite having the highest salary in the company, he wore shabby clothes and took no interest in his appearance or even his own cleanliness. He did not drink himself and never bought a drink for anyone else. Many of them were probably happy to see him leave Karno to take a job with Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studio in the new business of motion pictures.3
Charlie Goes to Hollywood
It never occurred to Chaplin to try to charm the crowd of ambitious young Americans in whose midst he now found himself. He fought with Mabel Normand, both Sennett’s leading lady and his mistress, refusing to accept direction from a woman. He didn’t like doing what other people told him to do, and he didn’t like discovering that his performances could be cut and edited by other people.
Out of sheer competitiveness, he began to learn the film-making business, which was then so primitive that even a techno-phobe like Chaplin could master it if he really wanted to. Gradually he discovered that film gave him more control over his performance and himself than he had ever enjoyed before. If he made a mistake, he could do it over again. If a routine wasn’t funny, it could be worked and revised until it was funny.
The origin of Chaplin’s tramp costume and character are endlessly debated and trivial topics. However it came about, Chaplin and everyone around him quickly realized that it was gold. He began to possess in full that power that every performer seeks, the power to move others while remaining distant from them.
Pauline Kael titled her second of collection of film reviews Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, in honor of a movie poster she claims to have seen in Japan. The films Chaplin made for Keystone could fairly be described as Kick Kick Kick Kick. Two shorts, Mabel’s Married Life and The Rounders, with Fatty Arbuckle, are available on DVD today, along with the atypical feature-length Tilly’s Punctured Romance, a Keystone extravaganza that starred Marie Dressler, along with everyone on the Keystone lot.4
Where did Chaplin’s act come from? When Chaplin joined Sennett, the acknowledged king of screen comedy was “Max Linder,” the nom de cine of the decidedly French stage actor Gabriel-Maximilien Leuvielle. Linder had been making screen comedies as early as 1908 and by 1911 was making a million francs a year. A few of his early one-reelers have been released on DVD under the title Laugh with Max Linder.
Linder made an enormous impression on Chaplin. When Linder came to Hollywood after World War I, Chaplin gave the Frenchman a portrait of himself inscribed “To Max — the Professor — from his Disciple.”5 Linder had a remarkable screen presence — a sort of French Cary Grant — and his work offers traces, but only traces, of Chaplin. In Troubles of a Grasswidower, for example, when Max’s boorish behavior drives his wife home to Mother, he performs a brief “victory” dance of the sort that Chaplin used to do.6 But in what follows, most of the “humor” derives from seeing a man washing dishes, shopping, cooking, etc. Max in an apron! What next?7
Despite his admiration for Linder, Chaplin’s “mature” work for Keystone (he was only there for one year) seems miles ahead of the Frenchman.8 Chaplin’s incredible quickness, his ability to use expressions, gestures, and body language to “tell a story,” along with his great physical talent for knockabout slapstick farce, made him easily the funniest man in pictures, and pushed his salary demands from $150 a week to $1,500.
Essanay and Edna
In the end, Chaplin moved to Essanay Pictures, for $1,250 a week plus a $10,000 signing bonus. Chaplin’s first film for Essanay bore the self-referential title His New Job and the plot is self-referential as well, Charlie applying for a job with a movie company. Chaplin had already done Behind the Screen for Keystone, so this wasn’t his first film about the movie industry. Since Behind the Screen isn’t available, it’s anybody’s guess how original His New Job is. The short includes satirical looks at show biz types — grande dames and Shakespearean hams. Charlie is hired as a stagehand but naturally gets pressed into service as an actor as well. He struggles with an outsized leading lady while playing a dashing swordsman but also finds time for plenty of Keystone-style violence and ends the film by beating most of the male members of the cast senseless with a wooden mallet.
There’s one bit that occurs over and over in Chaplin’s films — Charlie struggling with his emotions when confronted with a nude statue. Charlie was clearly fascinated by nudes, but what they all meant remains a mystery.
When he went to work for Essanay, Chaplin set out to find what every leading man needs, a leading lady. Naturally, he fell in love with her as well.
Edna Purviance was not Chaplin’s first love. When he was still with Karno, he fell in love with fifteen-year-old Hetty Kelly, who declined his advances. When he saw her a year later, he “was disappointed to notice that she had developed breasts, which he did not find attractive,” according to Joyce Milton, in her excellent 1996 biography Tramp. After first being smitten by Kelly, he developed a crush on twelve-year-old Maybelle Fournier. Chaplin later “explained” that “I have always been in love with young girls, not in an amorous way – I just loved to caress and fondle her [Maybelle] — not passionately — just to have her in my arms.”
Edna did not fit the mold of Chaplin’s previous passions. She was nineteen, not at all young by 1915 standards, plump, and seriously busty. She evidently had a spontaneous, innocent charm that fascinated the high-strung Chaplin. Their relationship ultimately foundered in part because Edna liked being “ordinary” — unlike the fiercely ambitious Chaplin, she refused to take her act uptown. She put on weight as she grew older, and, when Chaplin put out a press release saying that she had performed Shakespeare at Vassar, Edna told a reporter that she had never been east of the Rockies and boasted of her skill at shorthand.
Edna first appears in A Night on the Town, Chaplin’s second short, which strongly resembles The Rounders, with Ben Turpin taking over Fatty Arbuckle’s role. She’s awkwardly inserted half-way through, more to give her screen time than to take part in the proceedings. While twice as long as The Rounders, A Night on the Town is certainly not twice as funny.
The Champion, Chaplin’s next short for Essanay, inspired in part by yet another unseen Keystone short, The Knockout. Edna has more of a role here, and she and Charlie share their first screen kiss, though Charlie holds up a jug so we won’t see the actual smooch.
Edna’s father, clearly delighted by the prospect of having a French aristocrat as a son-in-law,10 gives Charlie a cigar and invites him to stay for dinner. Charlie lords it over the staff and blows cigar smoke at the crotch of a tiny nude statue. At the dinner we see Charlie for the first time as a misfit, trying, but failing, to be like everyone else. Chatting nonchalantly while slicing a loaf of bread, he cuts the whole loaf into a spiral. Later. He struggles with an uncuttable steak and coffee that seems too hot only to him. Worst of all, he has to cover his mouth with his hand when he eats his beans, because he doesn’t know how to eat them properly!11
Once the real Count Chloride12 shows up, Charlie and Edna take flight in a “jitney,” a Model T Ford,13 and the film slides into mindless action with no real laughs. Chaplin was not comfortable with car chases (they took the camera off him, for one thing, and, for another, he didn’t really know how to drive) and rarely used them in his films.
Enter the Tramp
Chaplin upped the pathos ante considerably in his next film, The Tramp, which was a first draft of virtually all his later work. We meet Chaplin as a hungry yet fastidious tramp, who is never too hungry to dine “correctly.” His good manners naturally lead to the theft of his food by a “bad” tramp, leaving Charlie to dine on grass. Minutes later, he rescues farmer’s daughter Edna from a gang of bad tramps. In gratitude, Edna’s father takes Charlie in. Charlie returns the favor by half beating the old man to death in the course of helping with the chores, but then further ingratiates himself by foiling a robbery attempt by the tramps, getting wounded in the process.
Charlie falls in love with Edna when she cares for him, but then the arrival of a “poet,” whom Edna clearly loves, opens his eyes. He leaves a Huck Finnish note, “I thort your kindness was love but it ain’t cause I seen him good bye,” and departs without a farewell. We see him walking first slowly down the road and then determinedly kicking up his heels to drive away the hurt.
Charlie’s successful rivals are usually “respectable” artists, and usually painters rather than poets.14 Chaplin appeared to think of painters as guys who had it made — short hours, good working conditions, big bucks, and social acceptance.15 Chaplin almost loses Edna to a painter in The Vagabond (1916); a painter gets Edna pregnant in The Kid (1921); and Edna’s youthful lover in A Woman of Paris (1923) is a painter as well.
Once they reach the house, however, it’s back to normal as Charlie all but smothers his boss in wallpaper paste and leaves the house in ruins.16 He sees a nude statue and slips a lampshade over the girl’s waist for modesty’s sake but then lifts it for one last peek. He has a brief, fascinating bit with Maid Edna. “A Sad Story” a title card announces. We can almost see Chaplin say “I have not always been as you see me now”.17 What follows is a remarkable mime monologue, in which Chaplin presents himself with rueful good humor as a graduate of the school of hard knocks.18 But this introspective mood soon passes, and the film ends with a gas explosion that leaves the cast covered with a ton of bricks.
Chaplin followed Work with A Woman, an irresistible drag tour de force that leaves us wishing Charlie had used the bit more often.19 The film may also supply the “answer” to Chaplin’s fascination with nude statues. Charlie accompanies Edna and her mother to their home and, fleeing a variety of menaces, runs upstairs into Edna’s bedroom, where he’s confronted by a clothing dummy dressed in Edna’s clothes. He confronts the dummy with a clearly sexual gaze and begins to undress it, ultimately disguising himself as Edna’s “college chum.” Did a youthful Charlie regard his mother’s clothing dummy in a similar manner? Who knows?20
In The Bank Charlie is jilted by Edna once more, but it’s more painful this time around, because he gets the news face to face.21 Chaplin here makes pathos itself funny, a device he will take to limitless heights in The Gold Rush. Thinking that Edna is in love with him, he buys her a rose and writes her a romantic note. Before placing them on her desk, he sniffs the rose passionately and then kisses the note, then kisses the rose, and, finally, sniffs the note.
The Bank is more than a little unsettling because Edna doesn’t seem very sympathetic. She’s entirely taken up with her middle-class boyfriend and doesn’t seem to notice how poor Charlie is suffering.
Chaplin gave emotion a rest in both Shanghaied and A Night in the Show. Shanghaied is very uneven and has perhaps the worst print condition of any Chaplin film available on DVD. But it does have a charming hornpipe danced by Charlie and a funny bit at the end. When Edna’s dad refuses to bless the marriage even after Charlie has saved all three from drowning, Charlie simply tosses the patriarch overboard. Thus always to old farts!
Chaplin did Carmen in response to enormous publicity being to given to two competing “straight” versions of the story, which were among the biggest films of 1915.22 The short is entertaining in part because it gives Edna her one “bad girl” role and she has a lot of fun tossing her head and snapping her fingers and making poor Charlie her sex slave.23 At the end of the film Chaplin made the curious choice of filming the murder/suicide absolutely straight — the only “straight” acting, more or less, Chaplin ever did on the screen. He even wears “normal” clothes. After he and Edna are dead, he suddenly springs up and shows us that the knife has a trick blade that slides into the handle.
Chaplin was starting to feud with Essanay about the time he finished Carmen. D.W. Griffith’s 1915 racist masterpiece The Birth of a Nation had turned the film world on its ear, and Chaplin set to work to create a full-length film with the less-than-subtle title of “Life.” It was to be a tale of petty cons and flophouses, and, surely, much, much more, but Chaplin was never allowed to finish it. Essanay pieced together several films out of the footage, available today as Police and Triple Trouble. Naturally, neither makes much sense.24
Chaplin frequently portrays preachers as hustlers and conmen, agents of the System that steals from the poor and gives to the rich. Chaplin was taken to evangelical services by his mother as a boy, and the experience gave him a lifelong distaste for emotional religion, or indeed any other kind.
Now seriously down and out, Charlie has to take refuge in a flophouse, portrayed with a grimness equal to Gorky’s The Lower Depths. Although I doubt that Chaplin ever spent a night in a flophouse, he had images of poverty and despair from his childhood that he wanted to get on the screen. By the time Chaplin set to work on “Life” he had become one of the most famous men in America. D. W. Griffith had shown what a filmmaker could do when speaking from the heart, and Chaplin wanted to match him.25
Charlie is “rescued” from the flophouse when he runs into a former cellmate who enlists him on a burglary. Naturally, the house is inhabited by Edna (and her husband), who ultimately identifies Charlie as her husband to allow him to escape, an act of kindness that hardly seems believable, considering she’s never laid eyes on him before.26
Overwhelmed, Charlie leaves the house and walks out into the day, his arms outstretched to embrace the freedom he’s been given. Then he pauses, with his feet together, an unmistakable suggestion of Christ on the cross. At the top of the frame, we can see a mansion set on a hill. As Charlie walks towards his reward, a cop appears, and chases him off the screen.27
Image Entertainment is the DVD source for almost all of Chaplin’s early work. The Rounders can be found on a six-DVD set, The Slapstick Encyclopedia, while Tillie’s Punctured Romance and Mabel’s Married Life are on a separate DVD. Robert Youngson’s compilation When Comedy Was King, available from Terra Entertainment, has some Keystone material that’s not available from Image. Image has released all of Chaplin’s work for Essanay on three DVDs. Both restoration and documentation are excellent.
Chaplin’s My Early Years, out of print but available second hand through the web, makes fascinating reading. His My Life in Pictures, also out of print, has wonderful photos and memorabilia. Joyce Milton’s 1996 biography Tramp regards Chaplin short of idolatry, which is as it should be. Jefferey Vance’s Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003) is pricey but has wonderful photos as well and probably can be gotten second hand at a reduced price.
A previous article of mine for Bright Lights, “Why Are They All Ugly Little Men?”, discusses Chaplin’s work as part of an overview of silent slapstick.
- At age seven, Chaplin was still considered an infant and was not allowed to bathe himself. Instead, he was washed by fourteen-year-old girls, “my first conscious embarrassment.” Thanks to a laxative, he shit his bed (on Christmas Eve, no less) and had his few Christmas treats taken away from him. Worst of all, he developed ringworm and had to have his head shaved and smeared with iodine. [↩]
- “I was well aware of the social stigma of our poverty. Even the poorest of children sat down to a home-cooked Sunday dinner. A roast at home meant respectability, a ritual that distinguished one poor class from another. Those who could not sit down to Sunday dinner at home were of the mendicant class, and we were that. Mother would send me to the nearest coffee-shop to buy a sixpenny dinner (meat and two vegetables). The shame of it — especially on a Sunday! I would harry her for not preparing something at home, and she would vainly explain that cooking at home would cost twice as much.” [↩]
- However, Chaplin’s emotional farewell to the troupe touched and embarrassed a small clique who had planned to give him a box of mock excrement with the message “Shits for the shit.” [↩]
- Except Fatty Arbuckle. Dressler was determined to keep all the chubby jokes to herself. [↩]
- Linder was known, among other things, for his elegant footwear — black patent leather with gray velvet “uppers.” Chaplin wore such shoes himself throughout the twenties and into the thirties, when they were hopelessly out of date. Chaplin had to have them made to special order. He wore these shoes in both Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight. [↩]
- When Max’s wife does return to Mother, the two ladies engage in a furious, simultaneous discussion of Max’s shortcomings. Chaplin depicted similar non-stop gossiping in The Pilgrim (1923). [↩]
- There is one funny bit where Max tries to master coq au vin while shining his shoes, but it’s over in a minute. [↩]
- And “miles” more violent as well. A true boulevardier, Max eschewed fisticuffs in favor of charm. [↩]
- A “lime chloride” was a lime soda. Early twentieth century soda fountains used a very chemical terminology. Soft drinks were also known as “phosphates.” Even today, soft drinks are referred to in England as “minerals.” [↩]
- And what middle-class American man wouldn’t be? [↩]
- Eating beans with a knife, which is what Charlie does, was considered the ultimate in bad table manners until the sixties, when it suddenly stopped being funny. [↩]
- Leo White, who played exactly the same foppish character over and over in early Chaplin films. [↩]
- They were also known as “flivvers” and “tin lizzies,” among other things. [↩]
- However, Charlie loses Edna to a bank clerk in The Bank (right). [↩]
- And, also, they got to paint women in the nude? [↩]
- In any work setting, the Tramp does as little as possible and treats both employers and fellow employees with complete contempt. The Tramp hates work and is not a team player. [↩]
- The statement itself is striking, because never again will Charlie suggest that the Tramp has ever been anything but a tramp, despite all the indications of good breeding. [↩]
- For some reason, Chaplin never used this device again. [↩]
- He appeared as a woman in two Sennett shorts The Masquerader and A Busy Day. In A Busy Day he’s actually supposed to be a woman, married to Mack Swain. [↩]
- A Woman also has perhaps the most poetic opening shot of the Tramp in all of Chaplin’s films. The action is set in a park, and the camera looks through the glistening haze of a sprinkler’s shower toward the horizon. A small, indistinct figure appears, silhouetted against the sunlight, and advances toward us, our beloved Charlie materializing before our eyes. [↩]
- He would repeat this confrontation at the conclusion of City Lights, prolonging it almost unbearably, although we never find out if he’s actually being rejected in the later film. [↩]
- One version, unavailable on video, starred the once-legendary Theda “Arab Death” Bara and was directed by Raoul Walsh, perhaps best-known for directing Jimmy Cagney in White Heat. The second version starred opera singer (and actor) Geraldine Ferrar and was directed by Cecil B. DeMille. This film is available on DVD. [↩]
- Carmen also has the best score of any Chaplin film. That guy Bizet could write! [↩]
- Essanay also released an expanded, 40-minute version of Carmen, using additional footage that featured Ben Turpin rather than Chaplin. Both versions are available today. [↩]
- The problem, of course, was that Griffith’s heart was full of sentimental nonsense and racist poison. [↩]
- Footage in Triple Trouble of Charlie working as a servant suggests that in the complete film, Charlie would have been part of the household. [↩]
- The Pilgrim (1923) uses a very similar plot. Charlie is an escaped criminal who is mistaken for a minister. Ultimately, he gives himself up to the sheriff to prevent Edna’s father’s house from being robbed. But Chaplin doesn’t reach for the Christ-figure imagery in this film. [↩]