Just more than 100 years ago, an English Music Hall artist was invited to California to take a screen test. On set, soon after, he was dressed in a shabby black coat, with a cane and a battered bowler hat; and, as the director shouted “action,” a screen legend was born. At the end of 1914, Charles Chaplin had made thirty-four “shorts” and was the most famous comic actor in Hollywood. By the end of the following year, he was the most famous man on the planet.
Charles Dickens could have written the early life of Chaplin. Its poverty, suffering, and the characters that inhabited the south London world of the future actor could easily have emerged from the pages of that nineteenth-century master of the comic grotesque. In fact, the infamous blacking factory and debtor’s prison that marked the youth of the celebrated writer were only streets away from where sprang this other Cockney visionary.
As in Dickens’ day, alongside the daily struggle for survival, there lurked still an even more insidious enemy: despair, often fostered by poverty and other assorted woes—with alcohol or madness appearing to be the only means of escape. In regard to both these elements, Chaplin’s family was to be no different than their peers. In later life, the adult actor rarely drank, doubtless a reaction to the drunkenness witnessed during his youth. He also retained a dread of insanity, no doubt due to the incarcerations in asylum after asylum of his mother. As best she could, she tried to raise both Chaplin and his half-brother, Sydney, but it proved a chaotic upbringing. The family was moving constantly, often running from debts. As a result, the boys received little by way of formal education. To the outsider, what we know of these formative years resemble some bizarre theatrical act—one lived on the streets, with comic interludes interspersing the daily melodrama. Perhaps it is no wonder then, that, at the age of ten, Charles Chaplin took his performance to where he would profit from it, and so began to appear on stage.
Just as one century died and another was born, Chaplin entered the twilight realm of Music Hall. At nights, across London, in rowdy theatres, comedic turns were thrown together with popular music, largely for the benefit of the poorer classes. It was into this world the boy was propelled. Initially as a dancer, he soon gravitated to other roles. It didn’t take long before his name became known; soon he was an established presence. And, with that, the course appeared to be set, with a familiar trajectory proceeding apace, until, that is, 1913, when what happened next could not have been foreseen or even imagined.
Whilst on a theatrical tour to the United States, his first trip to the continent, Chaplin was “spotted.” Keystone Studios, famous for its cinematic comedies, had had an actor walk out over pay. They needed another. Someone had seen an actor on stage with a company touring from England, but no one could remember his name. A search began, and, eventually, Chaplin was tracked down. Soon after, he was making his way to Hollywood. The rest as they say—and for once justifiably—is history.
At the start of the most important medium of the twentieth century, there appeared a performer who was to transform it from a popular entertainment into an art form. The hour of cinema had come, and so also had the man. It is difficult now to comprehend the scale of the fame Chaplin endured. There had been popular actors and stage performers before, but there were none that had ever known the global fame that within two years he encountered. Within five years he had become a phenomenon, from Australia to Africa, Hollywood to Russia, and everywhere in between—the Little Tramp, a global image like none before, or since.
Although it was a comedic image, it had its shadow side. Its origins a frightened boy in the darkness of the Lambeth streets and alleys that not so long ago he had fled down pursued by debt, drunkenness and the fear of madness. Unbeknownst to audiences worldwide, these same phantoms continued to pursue Chaplin, with the all-too-present, never-ending threat to reach out and grab him.
In the sunshine of California, and within a few short years, Chaplin had conquered the world. With that completed, he went home. It was 1921 when he made his first post celebrity trip back to London. It was not what he had expected. It had been almost seven years since he had left his former home, and then as a relative unknown. Now, he was returning more famous than anyone could have dreamed. There is a photograph of his arrival off the boat train at Waterloo Station. On the station platform, a sea of people awaits him; thousands had turned out to catch a glimpse of the world’s first movie star. All eyes were upon him; and so, in such circumstances, he did what he had always done: perform.
Unlike the Silver Screen, however, there was no one to call a halt to the performance. Subsequently, it transpired that there was more than one “performer.” Chaplin was followed everywhere. Not by groups of people but by vast crowds. Everywhere, and at all times, wherever he was, they gathered: besieging hotels, pursuing him, trying to catch a glimpse of the actor, to reach out to him, to touch the new idol.
This was never more so than when Chaplin tried to return to where he had grown up. Leaving the Ritz Hotel by a back door, he hailed a taxi and set off for the south bank of the Thames and the Lambeth streets he had known as a child. After the taxi deposited him there, he walked around in the hope of seeing something of his former haunts. He wanted to remember what it was like to walk city streets and be part of a crowd rather than be pursued by one. Quickly, however, he noticed that things were different. The streets were the same, but the people on them acted strangely. Whereas before they had never looked his way, now they did nothing but stare at him. Soon a crowd had assembled, and again he was surrounded. Crowds are unpredictable, often prone to behaviour and actions that few would contemplate if acting alone. As night fell over the city that had, for better or worse, formed him, he felt threatened, and in a way he had never known before, and still the crowd around him pressed ever closer….
Later that night, whilst sitting in his room at one of London’s most prestigious hotels, one wonders if looking at the four walls that contained him, he reflected on the fact that it had been with the aid of police that he had made it there –saving him from a crowd that had become too large, too unruly. That night, perhaps more than ever, Chaplin realised that any semblance of normal life was now all but impossible.
Thereafter, year in and year out, watched around the clock on movie screens from California to China, Chaplin the man was, as much as his image, to be captive there. He was caught forever in the public’s gaze and was to remain so for the rest of his days.
Success on screen was not matched off it. By the end, his life consisted of a trail of unhappy relationships, all too public courtroom disclosures and disgraces, many marriages. It become a permanent cracked mirror, one that reflected back all the childhood memories he thought he had long since left behind on the streets of London. Casting their gloom, it seemed as if the ghosts of his former life had followed him to the sunshine of California only to dull its glow. And, no matter how bright his name grew on the lights above the movie theatres, there was always the fear that, in the darkness below, a spectre waited to drag him back to those streets and the fears that had stalked them, and him.
As the years passed, the screen became Chaplin’s only haven. Paradoxically a “private” place where his imagination could roam free and where his soul could be bared. It was also where the “darkness’”within and around him could be safely explored. It was there he tried to impose order on a series of nightmares that threatened to provoke within him the chaos—or something far worse—he feared. In the traces of his films, fragment by screen fragment, the autobiography of Charles Chaplin is for all to see. The Little Tramp was, and is, a brilliant cinematic creation, but it was also the persona through which Chaplin the man, Charlie the boy explored the world around him. It was also how he dealt with his past.
In 1927 ‘the talkies’ arrived. Chaplin ignored this “advance.” Instead, in 1931, he released a silent film: City Lights. The movie was instantly hailed as a classic, and was soon a box office success. Once more it featured the Little Tramp character. This creation returned again five years later in Modern Times, and, with that, a cinematic masterpiece of characterisation, one that had evolved much from his first appearance in 1914, bowed and left the screen forever. The little tramp of London had found fame with Cinema’s Little Tramp. To Chaplin’s frustration, however, nothing he did on screen after came near the success of that creation. The perfectionist filmmaker was now to be haunted by his own screen persona. Another ghost: one much closer to him than the others, but one just as persistent and that now joined the others to watch his every faltering step thereafter.
By 1953, having been “banished” from the United States, Chaplin went to live on the European continent. He chose not to return to London. Those familiar city streets still awaited him though—called to him, but, by then, he knew they were filled only with memories of sadness, half-forgotten loves and half-remembered crimes, and that, still lurking in their shadows, there remained ghosts who still exerted a strange power over him….
On Christmas Day 1977, Chaplin died in Switzerland. Soon after his burial, grave robbers stole his body and demanded a ransom from his family. Even in death there was something of the gothic, the tragic, and indeed the haunted that could not leave alone the poverty-stricken child of Lambeth.
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