Peter Takes on History
January 12, 1927
Charlie Chaplin: The Little Tramp
On this day in 1927, mired in a contentious divorce, US courts froze the assets of the most popular Hollywood actors of his day. Maybe the most widely known person in the world.
Charlie Chaplin started his career on the London stage when his mother, a singer, was stricken with laryngitis and the precocious five year old strode out and finished her set.
His mother’s rapidly declining health and his father’s alcoholism left the young boy orphaned, dancing on street corners for coins.
A lucky break got him into a Vaudeville show - dancing with a clogging troupe and doing some pantomime bits. A luckier break got the show an American tour. The luckiest break of all came when a representative of Keystone Studios offered the young man a $150 per week to appear in Max Sennet comedies.
That's how Charlie Chaplin got his foot in the door.
Sennet didn’t have much use for him at first. Chaplin spent the first couple of months just hanging around, learning the filmmaking process. When he was finally cast Chaplin hated his own performance. Luckily a local critic disagreed. The good review got him more parts and more time on set.
One day, between scenes, Chaplin dressed up in baggy pants and a tight coat. He grabbed some big shoes and a small bowler hat. Then drew in a small mustache. Walking with his feet splayed, swinging his bamboo cane, interacting wordlessly with his fellow actors, he had them rolling with laughter. The Keystone studio head who walked in on Charlie’s performance said, “Chaplin, you do exactly what you’re doing now in your next picture.” And with that, The Little Tramp was born.
Chaplan’s success was immediate and worldwide. The press called it “Chaplinitis.” The studio let him write his own ticket. He appeared in scores of films, mostly directing himself. By 1921 Chaplin was worth more than $235 million in today’s dollars.
Everything was coming up roses, except his love life. In 1918, at age 29, he fell in love with a 16 year old. They were married and scandal! Three years later, they were divorced. But the public was so enamored of Chaplin that his popularity didn’t wane one bit. In 1924, at age 35, he fell in love with another 16 year old but this time suffered an expensive, messy, sordid divorce.
Chaplain had ridden high through the teens, the twenties and the thirties. With his friends Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D. W. Griffith, he founded United Artists and enjoyed full financial and creative control of his films; and there were many, many films! But as the Twenties stopped roaring, and the bellies of depression era Americans started growling, Chaplain was slow to react. He was reluctant to try talkies. He drifted away from comedy shorts. His projects became more expensive and less frequent and Chaplinitis fever broke.
His box office suffered, his legal and moral trials mounted. So when in 1943, at age 54, he married his fourth wife; this time to an 18 year old Oona O'Neill, daughter of a very unhappy playwright Eugene O'Neill, the wedding gift he received was a bundle of trouble.
Post World War he was accused of being a communist. Targeted by the CIA, the FBI and the British Foreign Service, returning from an overseas vacation, he was denied re-entry to the US. By the time the chaos of McCarthyism ended, Charlie and Oona had set up housekeeping in Switzerland where the couple lived until his death in 1977. He returned to the US only one more time - in 1972 - to accept an Oscar honoring his immeasurable contribution to the film industry.
Nowadays the Red Scare is forgotten, the happier memories of the Little Tramp live on and Charlie Chaplin is again recognized as one of the most important and lovable film artists of the 20th Century … who prefers teenage girls.