One of film’s most iconic figures, Charlie Chaplin, was born on 16 April 1889 in London. Born into poverty, Charlie found himself in the workhouse twice before the age of nine. His father, an actor, died when Charlie was ten and his mother, an actress and singer, suffered with mental illness and was moved into an asylum when he was fourteen.
Charlie and his brother Sydney were forced to take care of themselves, turning to work on the stage as a means of making a living.
Charlie entered vaudeville comedy and moved to the United States in 1910 where he joined the Fred Karno Repertoire Company. His performances proved popular with American audiences and he was soon offered work in motion pictures.
It was whilst working with Keystone Film Company that Charlie developed his iconic character, the tramp. The character, with his instantly recognisable moustache and baggy trousers, was seen first by audiences in “Kid Auto Races at Venice” and became tremendously popular. Chaplin went on to play the character in dozens of films.
In 1917 Charlie decided to become an independent producer. In 1919 he joined forces with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D. W. Griffith to found the United Artists Corporation.
Over the coming years, Chaplin released a series of successful films including The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1928) for which Chaplin received his first Academy Award, and City Lights (1931), a silent film produced in the new era of the ‘talkie’.
“The Great Dictator”
In 1940 he released his most famous film, the political satire “The Great Dictator,” filmed during the eve of the Second World War. Twelve years after the advent of sound, this was Chaplin’s first all-talking picture.
Chaplin plays both of the central characters: a fascist dictator and a persecuted Jewish barber. At the end of the film Chaplin used the inclusion of sound to great effect during a powerful closing speech, delivered by Charlie himself, stepping out of character. The film is widely considered to be the greatest satire ever made and one of the finest films ever produced:
…this is Chaplin’s most serious, most tragic, most human work.
Robert Ebert on ‘The Great Dictator”
In his later biography however, Chaplin made clear that he would never have made the film if he had known the true extent of the horrors the Jewish population were suffering under the Nazi regime at that time.
Chaplin appeared in his final film, “The Countess from Hong Kong” in 1966.
He died on Christmas day in 1977.