Imagining a Better Future by Re-imagining the Past

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Diesel Era Icon: Charlie Chaplin

"We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other's happiness, not by each other's misery." ~ Charlie Chaplin

Nearly everyone recognizes the small mustache, bowler hat, cane and oversize shoes of the little tramp of Charlie Chaplin.

Born Charles Spencer Chaplin on April 16th, 1869, the little tramp had acting in his blood. His father was actor and vocalist while his mother had a successful career in acting. Early in life disaster struck as his father died when Charlie was just ten years old and then his mother became seriously ill. In an age before social safety nets, this forced Charlie and his brother to fend for themselves. With their inherited talents, the brothers took to acting to try to survive. Charlie’s genius was first recognized for his tap dancing with the troop The Eight Lancashire Lads.

At fourteen, Charlie’s first real acting was as a pageboy in a stage production of Sherlock Holmes. He eventually got into vaudeville, which brought him to America in 1910. American audiences loved Charlie on stage. In 1912, this success brought him his first offer of a movie contract though he didn’t sign one until November 1913 when he finally made his first movie with the Keystone Film Company. Just like his stage work, Chaplin’s acting on film quickly captured the heart of the American audience.

By 1914, Chaplin’s popularity had grown considerably and he signed on with the Mutual Film Corporation in which he made numerous movies. When his contract with Mutual Film ended in 1917, he decided to start making movies independent of any studio. Later the next year, he joined with First National Exhibitors’ Circuit to promote his own movies as well working to support the Liberty Loan drive of World War I by producing the movie The Bond.

In response to the iron handed control of the movie studios, Chaplin joined with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith in April of 1919 to found the United Artists Corporation. UA was organized to give the artists, writers, and directors greater control over their productions.

1925 Chaplin suddenly found himself caught up in scandal. He had cast Lillita MacMurray, whom he had employed as a pretty 12-year-old in “The Kid” and who now was 16 and going by Lita Grey, to be his leading lady in his new film, The Gold Rush. In a short time, Chaplin and Grey embarked in a clandestine love affair. Early into the filming, Grey became pregnant, followed by marriage to Chaplin. Though they had two sons, their marriage was a miserable relationship for both.

It wasn't long before their marriage began to fall apart. By 1928 Chaplin was in the midst of a new scandal due to a messy and public divorce with Grey. In spite of the divorce scandal, the next year Chaplin won his first Academy Award for The Circus.

Politically Chaplin was highly progressive. As he saw the effects of both the Great Depression and automation, he conceived of what would become one of his greatest movies, Modern Times. Made in 1936, Modern Times uses humor to portray the alienation and pain created by Modernity.

In 1940, Chaplin turned his attention to the evils of fascism with the making of The Great Dictator. His speech near the end of the film is recognized by critics as being one of the greatest in motion picture history.

As a victim of McCarthyism, when Chaplin was outside the US in 1952 on a visit to England J Edgar Hoover succeeded at blocking his return into the States. In response, Chaplin decided not to fight the block but to stay in exile from his adopted home and settled in Vevey, Switzerland. In 1972, he briefly returned in acclaim to the United States to receive an Honorary Oscar.

Charlie Chaplin died in his sleep on Christmas Day, 1977 in Switzerland.

Chaplin’s legacy continues today. Not only are his films still highly popular, in 1991 his movie City Lights was entered in the National Film Registry, but the songs that he wrote continue to live on in popular media as well. For example, Nat King Cole recorded his song Smile in 1954. Most recently, Smile was also performed on the highly popular television show Glee.

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