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The Brits in Hollywood - Part 1 - Charlie Chaplin

Updated on September 23, 2013

Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin (16 April 1889 – 25 December 1977)

Charlie Chaplin started life as an English comedic actor, moving to America in 1910 to become an actor and film director. He became one of the most famous actors as well as a notable filmmaker, composer and musician.

He acted in, directed, wrote, produced and eventually scored his own films as one of the most creative and influential personalities of the silent-film era with a career that lasted over 65 years, going from Victorian stage and music hall, through to Hollywood movies and ended in 1976.

In 1919, he, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D. W. Griffith co-founded United Artists.

In a review of the book Chaplin: A Life , published in 2008, Martin Sieff wrote: "Chaplin was not just 'big', he was gigantic. In 1915, he burst onto a war-torn world bringing it the gift of comedy, laughter and relief while it was tearing itself apart through World War I. Over the next 25 years, through the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler, he stayed on the job. He was bigger than anybody. It is doubtful any individual has ever given more entertainment pleasure and relief to so many human beings when they needed it the most. "

Charlie and Paulette Goddard
Charlie and Paulette Goddard

The Early Years

Charlie and his brother, Sydney came from very humble beginning in London. Their father was an alcoholic actor/vocalist and their mother was a singer/actress.

Sadly their mother was confined to an asylum in Coulsdon and they spent a time in the workhouse before going to the Central London District School for paupers in Hanwell. Both children bonded strongly in order to survive and went to the stage at a very early age, both of them showing natural talent.

Stan Laurel
Stan Laurel

Between 1910 and 1912, Chaplin went on tour in America with the Fred Karno troup and then returned to England. Five months later, he returned with Arthur Stanley Jefferson, with whom he shared a room. Jefferson would later become Stan Laurel and for a while became Chaplin’s understudy, but while Chaplin stayed on in America, Arthur (Laurel) returned to England.

It was while on his second tour that Mack Sennett, the owner of Keystone Films spotted Chaplin and immediately hired him to replace Ford Sterling, but he and Sennett didn’t warm to one another. After a while however, Chaplin became successful and was soon the biggest stars on the Keystone payroll.

Charlie's best known character
Charlie's best known character

The Tramp

The tramp is the best known of Chaplin’s guises and stemmed from Sennett telling him to get into comedy makeup.

Chaplin said: "I had no idea what makeup to put on. I did not like my get-up as the press reporter in Making a Living. However on the way to the wardrobe I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large. I was undecided whether to look old or young, but remembering Sennett had expected me to be a much older man, I added a small moustache, which I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression. I had no idea of the character, but the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on stage he was fully born."

The outfit consisted of Fatty Arbuckle’s father-in-law’s derby hat and a generously sized pair of his trousers. A tight-fitting jacket and a pair of Ford Sterling’s size fourteen shoes completed his ensemble along with a bamboo cane and a fake toothbrush moustache.

Thus Chaplin’s best-known character, ‘The Tramp’ was born.

His Films

His films appealed and spoke to every level of person, crossing all language barriers, precisely because they were silent. The Tramp character enacted the constant difficulties and humiliations immigrants faced.

The immigrant’s arrived in waves and their constant struggle on the bottom of the American heap was superbly portrayed and although his character regularly triumphed over adversity, he never made it to the top. The films were also incredibly subversive, portraying the officials as bumblers and enabled the immigrants to laugh openly at those they feared.

The Oscar
The Oscar


Chaplin received only one Oscar for his works, but received two honorary awards.

His one Oscar was for original music score, but he was nominated for the following:

  • Best Comedy Director for The Circus in 1929,
  • Best Picture,
  • Best Actor,
  • Best Original Screenplay,
  • Best Original Screenplay and
  • Best Actor for The Great Dictator in 1940,
  • Best Original Screenplay for Monsieur Verdoux in 1948.

The Academy Awards nominations for some of the above are no longer listed since Chaplin received a special award, which they considered blanketed those not officially nominated for.

Since he openly expressed disdain for the Academy and invoked their ire in 1930, by jokingly using his 1929 Oscar as a doorstop, it’s not really surprising that neither ‘City Lights’ nor ‘Modern Times’ – two of his best films were not nominated for a single award.

Honorary Awards

The first Oscars were awarded on 16th May 1929 and at that time, the voting audit procedures were not as they are now. The categories too were still very fluid.

Chaplin had originally been nominated for Best Actor and Best Comedy Directing for ‘The Circus’, but his name was withdrawn and they decided instead to give him a special award "for versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing The Circus"

Forty-four years later in 1972, Chaplin was awarded another honorary award for "the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century".

Chaplin came out of exile to receive this award and received also the longest standing ovation in Academy history, which lasted a full five minutes.

Comparisons with others

He has often been compared to Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, but where Chaplin tended towards the romantic, portraying pathos, Lloyd’s films tended to be much more upbeat, showing the optimism of the twenties and he portrayed himself as Joe Everyone. Keaton on the other hand was much more cynical.

J Edgar Hoover, who ensured Chaplin would not return to his residency in the United States
J Edgar Hoover, who ensured Chaplin would not return to his residency in the United States


For most of Chaplin’s life, there was one sort of controversy or another. The Nazis believed he was Jewish, drawing from the American press to fuel their arguments and the Americans themselves were also constantly delving into his past, with J Edgar Hoover himself having him watched by the FBI, who kept extensive files on him and accused him of "Un-American Activities".

The British press slammed him for not joining up for the First World War, yet he had presented himself and not passed the basic requirements.

Despite all the allegations about his political affiliations or his parentage, he refused to comment. Of the allegations of being Jewish, he said that a comment one way or the other would only play into the hands of the Anti-Semitics.

In 1952, Chaplin returned to London for what was supposed to be a brief visit for the premier of Limelight and was refused re-entry into the US.

More controversy loomed when he was present on a yacht belonging to William Randolph Hurst when producer Peter Ince died under mysterious circumstances; circumstances that are still unknown to this day.

The Knight Commander of the British Empire
The Knight Commander of the British Empire

His knighthood

He was nominated in 1931 for a KBE (Knight Commander of the British Empire), but this did not go ahead because of lingering accusations about Chaplin’s failure to serve in the Army during the First World War. The truth was, Chaplin had presented himself, but was turned away for being too small and underweight.

He was proposed again in 1956, but the Conservative government of the time were more concerned about upsetting the relations Britain had with the US amid the impending invasion of Suez.

He was finally knighted at the age of eighty-five by Queen Elizabeth II and became Sir Charles Chaplin KBE.

Chaplin's death

Chaplin's health began failing in the late 1960s, after the completion of his final film, ‘A Countess from Hong Kong’ and declined more rapidly after he received his Academy Award in 1972. By 1977 he was confined to a wheelchair and had difficulty with simple communication.

He died in his sleep in Vevey, Switzerland on December 25, 1977 and was interred in Corsier-Sur-Vevey Cemetery, Vaud, Switzerland.

An extortion attempt on Chaplin’s family after the theft of Chaplin’s corpse by a small group of Swiss mechanics on 1 March 1978, was thwarted, the robbers captured and the corpse recovered eleven weeks later near Lake Geneva. His body was reburied under two metres of concrete to prevent further attempts.


Because of the sheer number of films made by Chaplin, it is not felt sensible to list them here, so click on this link to see the full list on IMDB.


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