The first great screen comedian, Charles Chaplin was also one of the most gifted directors in history, in addition to being a formidable talent as a writer and composer. The son of music hall performers from England, he began working on the stage at age five. He was a popular child dancer and got work on the London stage, eventually moving up to acting roles. It was while touring America in 1912 that Chaplin was spotted by Mack Sennett, the head of Keystone Studios, and he was signed to them a year later. After a disappointing, relatively non-descript debut, Chaplin began evolving the persona that would emerge as his most famous screen portrayal, The Little Tramp, and after his first 11 movies, Chaplin began to manifest a desire to direct. By his 13th film, he had shifted into the director's chair, and also emerged as a writer.
Chaplin's 35 movies at Keystone established him as a major film comedian and afforded him the chance to adapt his stage routines to the screen. He next moved on to Essanay Studios, where he had virtually complete creative freedom, and The Little Tramp became an established big-screen star. In 1916, Chaplin went to Mutual, earning an astronomical 10,000 dollars per week under a contract that gave him absolute control of his films -- the Mutual titles, most notably The Immigrant and Easy Street, are still counted among the greatest comedies ever made.
These modestly proportioned two-reelers were followed by Chaplin's move to First National Studios, where he made lengthier, more ambitious, but fewer films, including the comedy The Kid, which was the second highest grossing silent film after D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, and made an overnight sensation of his co-star, Jackie Coogan. By this time, Chaplin had become an international celebrity of a status that modern audiences can only imagine because he achieved his success through comedy. With three other screen giants, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., and D.W. Griffith, he founded United Artists, the first modern production and distribution company, and achieved further renown as a director with A Woman of Paris two years later. In 1925, he made what is generally considered his magnum opus, The Gold Rush.
Chaplin's success continued into the sound era, although he resisted using sound until Modern Times in 1936. He had his first failure in 1940 with the anti-Hitler political satire The Great Dictator at about the same time that his personal life -- he had been involved in several awkward problems with various women, including a paternity suit filed against him by aspiring actress Joan Barry -- began to catch up with him.
Chaplin's career during the immediate post-World War II period was marred by continuing problems, as his pacifism and alleged anti-American views led to investigations. He also made the black comedy Monsieur Verdoux, which failed at the box office. It was followed, however, by the best of his sound comedies, Limelight, which, because of his legal difficulties, didn't open in Los Angeles until two decades later -- when its score, written by Chaplin, received an Oscar. A King in New York, in 1957, and The Countess From Hong Kong, made nine years later, closed out his career on a lackluster note.
After D.W. Griffith, Chaplin was the most important filmmaker of the silent film era. Through his clear understanding of film and its capabilities, and his constant experimentation -- he frequently ran though hundreds of takes to get just the right shot and effect he wanted -- he set most of the rules for screen comedy that are still being followed, and his onscreen image remains one of the most familiar.
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