Since I reported the results of my researches into the brief career and subsequent total oblivion of the one-time superstar boy comedian Billy Lancet, I have been having second thoughts (and like them better).
The theatrical journalists who wrote about Billy in his own time had been familiar for twenty years with the other “boy comedian”, Wee Georgie Wood. They recognized Georgie as a victim of a thyroid disorder which condemned him (like the later Jimmie Clitheroe) to remain for life in a boy’s body, with a boy’s unbroken voice. Sceptical critics of the time, consequently, questioned Billy’s advertised age and assumed him to be a fellow artist turning his glandular defect to artistic and financial advantage. In my previous speculation, I went along with this notion – which left the mystery of why Billy’s career abruptly came to an end, while Georgie kept on for two more decades. Now I would like to propose another possibility.
Could the claim that Billy debuted as a very accomplished comic at 9 years old actually be true? Prodigies usually evince their gifts in their first ten years, and can come with multifarious talents – mathematical wizards, composers, dazzling instrumentalists, actors, poets (in 1955 we saw the publication of the 9-year-old French Minon Drouet’s inspired poetry). So why not a 9-year-old genius with a talent for inventing non-stop comic monologue to torment the grown-ups around him.
If this explanation of the inspirational comic gift of Billy Lancet is correct, the story becomes less mysterious. He made his triumphant debut in 1928, at 9. His success was instant and phenomenal. But in 1933, at 14, his voice broke…. THE END!
Someone recently posted on You-tube a recording from an old 8” low-cost shellac gramophone disc released in 1930.
It was entitled “The Butcher Boy” and was labeled as being performed by “Billy Lancet, The Boy Comedian”. It was indeed the voice of a very cheeky boy, and a very lively performer.
So who was Billy Lancet? There was some speculation on-line when the disc appeared , and vague recollections of an artist of some such name. but then he returned to obscurity.
Since I match the disc in age, I was curious enough to turn to the archives. The startling discovery was that for a few years, between 1928 and 1933, the now forgotten Billy Lancet was a super-star of British vaudeville, touring with his own company, topping the bill In the major British variety theatres. A typical review of the time informs us:
The chief attraction is Billy Lancet who appears in a sketch “Willie’s Birthday”. with Thelma Rayne and Cameron McKinley. One would not like to guess the age of Mr Lancet. He has the appearance and mannerisms of a boy of ten, but his work suggests many years of experience as a comedian. It is a most laughable sketch. The diminutive comedian has an irresistible personality and gets a grip on the audience before he has been on the stage many seconds. There is no story in the sketch. It is merely an incident in the life of a precocious young lad who knows his mother will always take his side against his stepfather, and his antics are decidedly amusing. Mr Lancet would hold the stage for twice the length of time allotted to him, and he is to be commended on a clean and entertaining act.
The Bad Boy of Variety
Willie’s Birthday was succeeded by other titles – Willie Lends a Hand, Leave it to Willie, Willie’s Good Deed, but clearly the sketches were constantly changing and updating, so that audiences could see them again and again and encounter new gags. He styled himself “The Boy Comedian” and “The Bad Boy of Variety (or Vaudeville)”.
As it happens, one of his earliest traceable performances was at the Bristol Hippodrome, in the week of 4 December 1928. Even then, however, the Bristol press announced him as “the eminent Billy Lancet”, so he must have been around before that. Curiously he is also advertised for the same week at the Bath Palace, so it may have been that his popularity led him to revive the old music hall practice for an artist to play several theatres in the same evening, racing by taxi from one to the other.
With his restricted growth and un-breaking voice, he could have continued indefinitely, like his senior, Wee Georgie Wood (1894-1979), who had been performing since the first decade of the 20th century, and went on until 1953, and the later Jimmie Clitheroe (1921-1973) . Lancet evidently shared with them the unexplained glandular disorder that trapped them in permanent boyhood. However it is likely that ill-health abruptly, prematurely and finally ended his starring career in 1933. He was to appear on stage only once more, in February
1938, when he was at Wood Green Empire in the supporting cast of the veteran Charles Austin’s comedy sketch company.
He was briefly in the news again for a day in 1952, when he was hospitalized for the spectacular inconvenience of coughing non-stop for two weeks.
Not even pictures of Billy Lancet have turned up, except for a tiny newspaper print in a variety theatre advert. There is still a haunting vitality in the face.
Another smart critic of the time torments us with the great opportunity that was missed with Billy:
In the vaudeville houses, there is a delightful delineator of boy parts who is known by the name of Willie Lancet. He is immensely popular and even in these bad times manages to sneak bookings where bookings are said not to be. He reminds one of Georgie Wood as he was in his best days, but without the curls. Willy’s boy is your real little he-man, a rascal of rascals, a good boy gone delightfully wrong. Watching him a few nights ago in one of the fast vanishing variety houses I thought of an ingredient that some British film director might do worse than make use of, namely: one helping of Mrs Richmal Crompton’s William stories, a sprinkling of English countryside and a generous slice of Willie Lancet’s refreshing juvenile nonsense. Season with a selected cast, a smothering of crisp witty dialogue, and you have a dish the cinemas might be glad to add to their programmes”
SLAPSTICK would have been up for those!
***A post script on Wee Georgie Wood: I remember often seeing his act, which invariably began with Georgie striding onto the stage and catching sight of the microphone placed there. “Take that thing away!”, he would holler; “I was there before it was!”. And even in the biggest variety theatres he could make himself heard to the back the gallery. These eternal boys knew their job. ***And finally – Billy Lancet is known to have made another gramophone record, The Telegraph Boy. One to look out for!
For years animation has been one of the most impressive and entertaining disciplines in cinema. Developing from simple flip books to modern CGI graphics it continues to dazzle and develop year after year. Of Course the technicality of it is incredibly impressive, but the thing that has kept animation at the forefront of film for so many years is its universal humour and unique blend of surrealism and hyperrealism. Animated films were designed to bring joy to everyone, it’s done just that since its inception and it continues to do so.
Moving images and animation go back thousands of years, from puppeteering and shadow plays all the way up to the first genuine animated film, made using the ‘Théâtre Optique’. A device created by Charles-Émile Reynaud, the Théâtre Optique, allowed transparent paintings to be projected over a background, and shown in a way that emulated movement, It was first used in 1892 to screen a series of animated short films, heralding the beginning of a century of developments in animation.
Using the Théâtre Optique, drawings came to life and became more fluid through rotoscoping. They also eventually appeared in colour, thanks to the film tinting technique. This continued development would go on for years and years, to this day still animation techniques are getting more and more complex and intricate.
With all this constant development some films can get lost in the past, but one filmmaker’s innovation is still being used to draw constant inspiration. Wladyslaw Starewicz is the founder of modern stop motion animation, originally a professor of biology he was asked to create an educational film exploring how beatles would engage in a fight. But it appeared the beatles would not fight under the lighting required to film the event, angered by this Sterewicz took matters into his own hands and ended up creating the principles for what would be the basics of stop motion.
He would attach the separate limbs of the bugs to strings, occasionally replacing specific body parts with plastic, the result was these incredibly realistic and human-like movements. Sterewicz went on to create many more incredible films, all using beatles and other bugs but
telling incredibly human and emotional stories. The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912) tells a simple story of infidelity, a short tragic comedy made using stop motion bugs. The incredible attention to detail is what made this film the masterpiece it is, every minute movement is accounted for and the result is this magical piece of cinema. Stop motion animation would stay true to its originator, continuing to be an art form for absolute perfectionists whose obsession with precise details allows them to create some of the most jaw dropping films.
Think of Fantastic Mr Fox by Wes Anderson or the incredible Wallace and Gromit series by Aardman Animations.
Both Anderson and Aardman have noted that their inspiration came from Wladyslaw Starewicz. Indeed, if you were to watch Le Roman de Renard – roughly translated to The Story Of The Fox – you would see many similarities between it and Fantastic Mr Fox.
As we mentioned before, animation is an ever-adapting and changing art form. Contemporary examples of stop motion have become intertwined with CGI technology. But by no means has this changed the principles it was founded on. They are still about perfectionism and continue to tell incredibly human and emotional stories.
Aardman studios’ recent body of work showcases perfect examples of this. The Academy Award winning studio began as a project by two students, Peter Lord and David Sproxton, animation fanatics who made innovative strides in claymation.
Now a major film studio, Aardman uses thousands of talented artists in combination with CGI technology while still staying true to the art of stop motion and continuing to tell entertaining and beautifully charming stories.
At Slapstick, we have an incredibly close relationship with Aardman and appreciate the lengths they go to to keep such a timeless art form alive. We will be welcoming Peter Lord back to the festival this year to discuss some of the animations that inspired him and celebrate the unique blend of surrealism and visual comedy that animation does best.
Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin. All three began their careers more than a century ago, yet all still maintain their places as the greatest names in on screen comedy. Their films are still constantly discovered by new generations of lucky audiences who can now see them with worthy musical accompaniment – in Chaplin’s case, of his own composition.
What was special about these three was that they were not only the stars, but conceived, wrote and for all practical purposes, directed their own films. They were the total creators. Needless to say, they performed all their own stunts, however perilous: there could be no doubles for such personalities.
For Slapstick 2022 we have chosen each one’s last or penultimate silent film. Talking pictures had arrived, with The Jazz Singer (1927), but our stars did not rush to adopt sound, and Chaplin, though he was to make use of musical sound-tracks, did not speak on screen until 1940.
Keaton’s marvellous The Cameraman (1928) was the first film he made after giving up his own studio to move to MGM – a sacrifice of independence which he rightly came to regard as the worst mistake of his life. His budget was assured, but he was an employee, subject to the producer’s final word and whim. He was no longer permitted to risk doing his own stunts – and no-one else could do them.
Perhaps the producers had not yet learned to exert their full control when he made his first MGM film The Cameraman (1928). Despite the studio, The Cameraman (1928) still has the qualities of Keaton’s great silent films: his uniquely expressive physical comedy that belies the “stone face”, in the service of a gripping narrative.
The film was Keaton’s penultimate silent movie, as was Harold Lloyd’s spectacular The Kid Brother (1927). Lloyd, like Chaplin, retained his creative autonomy and was one of the comparatively few actors to make a triumphant transition to sound films.
Lloyd, sporting his indispensable lens-less horn-rimmed spectacles, plays Harold Hickory, a hick from Hickoryville, who plays the substitute housewife in a family of overly manly men. He has a chance to prove his worth and clear his family name when a group of con artists menace town.
It is an ingenious blend of slapstick, horror, romance and inventive gags. It was one of Lloyd’s own favourites and one of most impressive monuments of silent comedy
Upon release, it was a smash hit, both at the box office and among critics. Made at the apex of Lloyd’s career – and of silent film – it is undoubtedly one of the most impressive pieces of silent comedy.
It is as common for filmmakers to have a favourite as to have a film they try to forget.
In Chapin’s case the making of The Circus (1928) proved the worst year of his working life. The trouble was not the film but the circumstances surrounding its production.
Throughout the year he was battling a merciless divorce case brought by his wife Lita Grey. Her lawyers fought – and sometimes succeeded – to take possession of Chapin’s assets, including the studio and the negatives, which the crew was always having to secrete or smuggle elsewhere. This was only the start.
The shooting began with the difficult tightrope scenes for which Chaplin and the film’s romantic lead Harry Crocker, had been tirelessly rehearsing. The scenes were successfully shot – but the lab fouled up all the negatives.
Then the set was destroyed by a fire. Because of delays, when they went back to reshoot location scenes, they found the places had been transformed by Hollywood’s rapid development.
Finally, with relief, they set up the film’s final scene in a remote location, where the whole horse-drawn circus train goes off into the distance, leaving Chaplin deserted and alone. All was ready, but when they returned in the morning, everything had disappeared, stolen by mischievous students.
Incredibly the film was finished – to become one of Chaplin’s finest and most faultless silent comedies, with scenes of incredible virtuosity like the hall of mirrors or the climactic scene where Chaplin, balancing on the high wire, is assaulted and de-trousered by a gang of monkeys. It received a special award at the very first Oscar ceremony (nothing like today’s spectacle – just a banquet in the Roosevelt Hotel). But for Chaplin it would always evoke memories of that tormented year.
Forty years later, in 1968, Chaplin finally felt able to return to the film, to release it with his own accompanying score, and a title song, ”Swing Little Girl”, for which a top pop singer of the moment, Matt Monro was contracted. However, Chaplin’s musical arranger Eric James however decided that the 81-year-old Chapin performed it better, so it is his voice we hear over the titles of The Circus.
These three great films all have one notable cast member – a monkey, who saves the day for Keaton, leads the de-bagging of Chaplin, and helps Lloyd sail. This unique simian star is Josephine, whose showcasing career in major films extended from these three films and Street Angel (1928) all the way to Arabian Nights (1942).
But Josephine is not the only thing these films have in common. They represent the finest work of the three great comedy legends of cinema, and they mark the climactic end of the silent era. They also happen to ALL be featured at the 18th edition of Slapstick Festival. Be sure to seize this opportunity.
The following is a review of The Real Charlie Chaplin, originally published for Silent London and reproduced here with the kind permission of the author Pamela Hutchinson.
THE REAL CHARLIE CHAPLIN
It’s a bold, almost alarming title. At this distance, can it be possible to uncover The Real Charlie Chaplin? And if there is something hidden in the biography this most famous of filmmakers, one that can without trepidation be called an icon, might those of us who love his films really want to know?
Rest easy then, as this documentary by Peter Middleton and James Spinney (Notes on Blindness) has no disturbing revelations. That is, as long as you have already been reading those large gaps between the lines of his biography. Chaplin liked the company of young women – girls, in fact. He married teenagers. He sometimes (often?) treated them badly. It’s a been said before and it is stated again here without excuses or attacking the women such as Lita Grey who testified to his ill-treatment. This has been trumpeted in some quarters as a belated #MeToo reckoning for Chaplin. That would be very belated. In truth we have always known this, but some fans refuse to hear it.
We learn also that he was temperamental, even as a child, that he was prone to self-pity, and finally was a distant father. The last words in this documentary are given to his daughter Jane, who waited years to get to know her famous dad, and found herself finally alone with him when she had all but given up hope. Also to his final wife Oona, who wrote so much about their life together and then destroyed her own words before she died. Thus the films ends as poignantly as it had began, in Chaplin’s tough, deprived childhood, and his own cruel abandonment by his father. Such cycles are common, we understand. Chaplin was flawed. The films, mostly, are not.
Many devotees will flinch at even that, but The Real Charlie Chaplin is no hitpiece: it’s an elegant, and sympathetic introduction to the man’s work and life, narrated in soothing tones by actress Pearl Mackie. She played Bill Potts in Doctor Who, and she’s from south London, as are the two directors – which matters, just a little. The Chaplin story as they tell it is a diverting way to spend two hours. We follow his path from rags in London to riches in Hollywood to comfortable if perhaps bitter exile in Switzerland.
We see his brilliance and creativity in comedy, his sudden fame and prolonged success, as well as the grisly moment that a certain faction of the American establishment turned against him. His punishment was extreme, in proportion to his previous adulation, you might say, rather than his supposed political crime. His incriminating remarks on communism are quoted here, which are all in a direct line of thought from his cathartic early film comedy, described in this film succinctly as: “The Tramp not only stands up to the man, he gives him a kick up the arse for good measure.” Fellow traveller? Of the funniest kind.
However, it was the murky, messily unresolved case of Joan Barry, dredged up for political ends, that really did for him. The motives of his accusers were far from honourable and no one comes out of this episode with a clean slate.
Illustrating the tale, here are film clips, archive images and the occasional set of distressed mock intertitles. There are few dates and facts – it’s a story rather than a lecture – but there is a certain candour in its tone, despite the absence of shock revelations. As a primer on his career, it gives more the sense of the man and his art, rather than a full filmography. As such, it’s possibly to pick at the odd dropped stich: the voiceover states that Chaplin scored his films, before going on to describe him making The Kid. You could read that as ahistorical, or you could concede the broader point that eventually, musical composition was another string to his bow. A caption on screen refers to Minta Durfee but the voiceover calls her “someone” which tells you the knowledge level that the film is aimed at.
There is something new here, and it provides a dash of welcome cockney colour, if nothing else. A recently rediscovered interview conducted by Kevin Brownlow in the early 1980s with one Effie Wisdom, a neighbour and friend of Chaplin’s from his youth. In re-enactments, Wisdom is played by Anne Rosenfeld, and Brownlow is played by Dominic Marsh. Wisdom recalls in uncanny detail conversations from their childhood and from his return visit to London as an old man, as well as the thrill of seeing him perform on stage as a young boy, and his native accent: “Common, like me.”
If you’re looking for the real Charlie Chaplin, perhaps it’s Effie Wisdom’s young pal we need to think of, the boy who hadn’t had his elocution lessons yet.
The Real Charlie Chaplin will be screened on Saturday 29th January 2022 at the Watershed in Bristol.
The above article was originally written for Silent London (see https://silentlondon.co.uk/2021/10/14/london-film-festival-review-the-real-charlie-chaplin/) and is reproduced with permission of the author Pamela Hutchinson
And proud to be hosting some of the finest and funniest silent films ever made live from Bristol’s best venues. With a little help from world-class musical accompaniments and some incredible guests we are more determined than ever to bring laughter, fun and delight to audiences old and new.
We have a rich and varied programme of events for our 18th edition. Including films from the undeniable legends of classic silent comedy; Keaton, Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, Marion Davies, Chaplin and more.
As well as events celebrating the golden era of classic British TV comedy: ‘Tim Vine Salutes Kenny Everett’, ‘Barry Cryer: An Audience With A Comedy Legend’ plus live onstage talks and performances from master satirist Armando Ianucci along with stand up comedians Arthur Smith and Richard Herring and ‘Would I Lie to You?’ team captain David Mitchell amongst others.
Our celebrated programme of silent comedy will delight both casual fans and aficionados alike. From Soviet comedy My Grandmother (1929) introduced by Actor Paul McGann and Czechoslovakian slapstick comedy Old Gangster Molls (1927) introduced by comedian Lucy Porter to a screening of the brand new documentary The Real Chaplin (2021) and a lecture from Bill Oddie where he shares his enthusiasm for comedy ‘violence’ and another where he shares his love of classic animation with Aardman Animation’s Peter Lord.
But that’s not all. In addition to the above guests already mentioned we have a delightful number of returning slapstick family members, along with some new faces, all bringing their unique qualities to these events.
Writer Stephen Mangan, Actor Sally Phillips, Impressionist Ronni Ancona, the unstoppable Barry Cryer, Tim Vine, Richard Herring, Robin Ince and Andy Day all make a welcome return.
Our incomparable team of musicians return including; Guenter A Buchwald, Stephen Horne, Frank Bockius and Romano Todesco along with Bristol Ensemble’s Roger Huckle and solo pianist John Sweeney. All this accompanied with experts like David Robinson, James Curtis, Kevin Brownlow, Sian Norris, Peter Kramër, Andrew Kelly, Chris Serle and Serge Bromberg each ready to showcase their knowledge and passion.
It’s the perfect antidote to the long cold dark nights and the furore of 2020.
Many of Chaplin’s admirers regard The Kid as his most beautiful and most personal film. In honour of this year’s screening over the coming weeks we’ll be looking at the heartache that inspired this beloved classic. As a special treat, we’ve got our hands on extracts from David Robinson’s biography of Chaplin. Patron and filmhistorian, David Robinson, is a renowned film critic and scholar, whose books Hollywood in the Twenties (1968), The History of World Cinema (1973) and official biographies of both Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin have been critically acclaimed. We’ll be serialising parts from David Robinson’s biography of Chaplin, which looks in greater depth than ever before at Chaplin’s humble beginnings and the events in his life that motivated his work.
For those who have never delved into the history of silent comedy, Chaplin’s life started with great upheaval. He was born in 1889 to Hannah Chaplin and Charles Chaplin, Senior. Both his parents were music hall entertainers, but sadly never achieved fame. The temptations of the music halls meant both Charlie’s parents were distracted and often unable to take care of him. His parents married, but separated when Charlie was small.
His mother Hannah, suffered with mental illness most likely brought on by syphilis. Accepting this was incredibly difficult for Charlie, who often tried to be by her side as much as he could until her death in 1928. Charlie and his stepbrothers George and Sydney had to fend for themselves from an early age, and all had to suffer the hardships of workhouses when Hannah could not take care of them. By the age of nine Charlie had been sent to a workhouse twice. The workhouses were harsh places, effectively a prison for the poor. Despite all this Charlie was a resilient and plucky child, who remained determined and lively even given all the hardships he faced. Coping in London as two young boys, with no parents and little guidance, must have been terrifying. Born from his turbulent childhood, , The Kid shows some of the loneliness and desperation Chaplin must have felt, at this difficult time in his life.
Extract one : A london Boyhood
The Early life of Charlie chaplin
The career of Charles Chaplin Senior [Charlie Chaplin’s father] had a slower start than Hannah’s [his mother] but a more promising progression. At first he worked as a mimic, but soon developed into what was called a ‘dramatic and descriptive singer’ exerting a strong attraction upon his audiences. Chaplin described him as a quiet, brooding man with dark eyes, and said that Hannah thought he looked like Napoleon. The portraits that appear on the sheet music of his song successes show him with dark eyes that seem somewhat melancholy despite the broad prop grin.
Drink was the endemic disease of the music halls. They had evolved from drinking establishments and the sale of liquor still made up an important part of the managers’ incomes. When they were not on stage the artists were expected to mingle with the audiences in the bars, to encourage conviviality and consumption – which inevitably was best achieved by example. Poor Chaplin was only one of many who succumbed to alcoholism as an occupational hazard.
In 1890, however, he was still leaping from success to success. In the summer he was invited to sign for an American tour, and in August and September was appearing in New York at the Union Square Theatre. The American trip, however, seems to have marked the final break-up of the Chaplins’ marriage. Hannah had given birth to Leo Dryden’s son, George Dryden Wheeler. Thus the young Charles Chaplin found himself fatherless, but with another half-brother. He was three and a half; Sydney was four years older. In his autobiography he recalls that at this time the children and their mother were still living in some affluence. However the comfort which sheltered Chaplin’s first three or four years was soon to end. Hannah’s liaison with Leo did not long survive the birth of their child. Hannah seems to have been a devoted, affectionate and protective mother, and to have loved the new baby as fiercely as she did her older sons. It is easy then to appreciate the shock that she must have suffered in the spring of 1893 when the appalling Dryden entered her lodgings and snatched away their six-month-old son. The baby was to vanish from the lives of the Chaplins for almost thirty years.
Soon after Charlie’s sixth birthday, the family’s situation reached a new crisis. Hannah became ill – it is not certain with what, but Chaplin recalls that she suffered from acute headaches. On 29 June she was admitted to the Lambeth Infirmary, where she .stayed until the end of July. On 1 July Sydney was taken into Lambeth Workhouse, and four days later placed in the West Norwood Schools, which accommodated the infant poor of Lambeth.
In September Hannah was again taken into the Infirmary, and Sydney and Charlie, now eleven and seven, were admitted to the workhouse, ‘owing to the absence of their father and the destitution and illness of their mother’’. Charles Chaplin Senior was traced and reluctantly appeared before the District Relief Committee. Somewhat heartlessly, he told them that while he was willing to take Charlie, he would not accept responsibility for Sydney, who was born illegitimate.
The Committee retorted that since Chaplin had married the boy’s mother, he was now legally liable for Sydney’s maintenance. At this stage, however, Hannah intervened to reject the idea of the boys living with their father as wholly repugnant, since he was living with another woman. Charles was not slow to point out her own adultery. No doubt somewhat bewildered by the family bickering, the Relief Committee decided that it was desirable to keep the boys together and that the best solution would be to place them in the Central London District Poor Law School at Hanwell.
From his incredible hardship in his earlier years to the famous persona we all know today as the iconic Chaplin; Chaplin’s dramatic ‘rags to riches’ story is an extraordinary tale of determination and ambition. In our next series of blogs, we’ll be exploring Chaplin’s later years looking at howhe attracted attention as a young performer, and track the route he took to stardom in America.
We’ll also be sharing Chaplin trivia acorss our social channels so don’t forget to follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to find out more about Chaplin, and other famous silent stars.
 Glenn Mitchell, op.cit. cites an intriguing ‘personal ad’ in The Entr’acte of 29 January 1887: ‘To Charles Chaplin – send address to “L.H.”, 56 Darwin Street, Old Kent Road, Very ill’. If ‘L.H.’ was Hannah, it may be that the irregularities of the Chaplin marriage had begun before the birth of Charles Junior
Exclusive extract from David Robinson’s new Biography
Charlie Chaplin is still known as the world’s most famous film star. Despite his huge success in the movies, Chaplin came from difficult beginnings. In our first blog, we looked at his childhood in workhouses, where Charlie and his stepbrother Sydney had to fend for themselves during their early adolescent years. In this extract, we look at how Charlie and Sydney coped in this ever-changing environment, and how both boys went on to become entertainers. Unlike his earlier childhood days, luck began to shine on Chaplin. Read on to find out more.
[Hannah] had dermatitis and her body was covered in bruises. No one troubled or dared to inquire into the cause of her injuries; they were most likely explained by violent encounters with other patients as a result of her mental condition. The doctor has scribbled the abbreviation ‘Syp.’ in the corner of the form recording her physical condition on admission, suggesting that he may have supposed or suspected tertiary syphilis as the cause of her disorder. There is no other evidence to support this, though Chaplin to the end of his life appears to have been fascinated and frightened by this venereal disease. Hannah was committed to Cane Hill Asylum, the doctors reporting:
Has been very strange in manner – at one time abusive & noisy, at another using endearing terms. Has been confined in P[added] R[oom] repeatedly on a/c of sudden violence – threw a mug at another patient. Shouting, singing and talking incoherently. Complains of her head and depressed and crying this morning – dazed and unable to give any reliable information. Asks if she is dying. States she belongs to Christ Church (Congregation) which is Ch. of E. She was sent here on a mission here by the Lord. Says she wants to get out of the World.clothes.
On 12. November 1898 she was discharged from Cane Hill Asylum, and soon afterwards gathered up her sons from 289 Kennington Road. The three of them moved into a room at 39 Methley Street, behind Haywards’ pickle factory which exuded a pungent atmosphere throughout the neighbourhood. Their home was next to a slaughterhouse; and Chaplin remembered the horror with which he realised that a merry slapstick chase after a runaway sheep was destined to end in tragedy and the slaughter of the entertaining animal.
The beginning of his career: Background
Charlie first performed at the age of twelve, when he got a chance to act in a stage show. He left school permanently at thirteen and followed his ambition to become an actor. It’s extraordinary that Chaplin was so determined to do this, given the fates both his parents suffered in pursuit of the same. Chaplin worked hard from a young age, and his comic performances were quickly noticed by critics who saw him in his early shows, like Jim, A Romance of Cockayne.
By the age of sixteen Chaplin had toured the country twice with different theatre companies. His older brother Sydney had also had some success, and brought Charlie along with him. Charlie met Fred Karno (who ran a prestigious comedy company) but didn’t impress him at first. Karno said Charlie was ‘pale, puny and sullen-looking.’ But within a few months Charlie had become the star of the company, and went to America with Karno’s support.
Chaplin toured America twice with Karno’s comedy group, and on the second tour was invited to join the New York Motion Picture Company. By 1913 Chaplin was earning $150 a week, and had the promise of a new life. He went on to become an international superstar, America’s highest paid actor and still one of Hollywood’s most iconic faces. His childhood, though difficult, had given him the resilience and drive to conquer the American film industry.
On Friday 25 November 1898 Charlie Chaplin was now to become a professional entertainer. In early interviews he occasionally gave rather romantic accounts of his discovery by William Jackson, the founder of the Eight Lancashire Lads:
One day I was giving an exhibition of the ordinary street Arab’s contortions, the kind so common in the London streets, when I saw a man watching me intently. ‘That boy is a born actor!’ I heard him say, and then to me, ‘Would you like to be an actor?’ I scarcely knew what an actor was in those days, though my mother and father had both been connected with the music hall stage for years, but anything that promised work and the rewards of work as a means of getting out of the dull rut in which I found myself was welcome.
In his autobiography Charlie remembered that he had to rehearse his clog dancing for six weeks before he was allowed to appear – almost paralysed with stage fright. His debut may, then, have been at the Theatre Royal, Manchester, where the troupe appeared in the Christmas pantomime Babes in the Wood which opened on Christmas Eve. If so, Charles Chaplin Senior would have been on hand to watch his son’s first steps: he opened on Boxing Day at the Manchester Tivoli. Certainly Charlie was working with the troupe by 9 January 1899, when he was enrolled by Mrs Jackson at the Armitage Street School, Ardwick, Manchester.
Even to a ten-year-old in a troupe of clog dancers, the music halls of those times must have provided an incomparable schooling in method, technique and discipline. A music hall act had to seize and hold its audience and to make its mark within a very limited time – between six and sixteen minutes. The audience was not indulgent, and the competition was relentless. The performer in the music hall could not rely on a sympathetic context or build-up: Sarah Bernhardt might find herself following Lockhart’s Elephants on the bill. So every performer had to learn the secrets of attack and structure, the need to give the act a crescendo – a beginning, a middle and a smashing exit – to grab the applause. He had to learn to command every sort of audience, from a lethargic Monday first-house to the Saturday rowdies
Ill fortune had not done buffeting the Chaplins. Charles was aware that his mother was sick again. She had grown listless, seemed unconcerned when the sweat shop for whom she sewed stopped giving her work and took back the sewing machine, and neglected the little room. In May Charlie arrived home to be told by other children around the door that his mother had gone insane. He had the job of leading her to the Infirmary in Renfrew Road and then, as her nearest known relative, reporting the case to the authorities. He had just turned fourteen. The medical certificate records: ‘Charles Chaplin, son, 3 Pownall Terrace, Kennington Road, states she keeps on mentioning a lot of people who are dead and fancies she can see them looking out of the window and talking to imaginary people – going into strangers’ rooms etc.’ Hannah’s delightful window entertainments had passed into the region of madness.
While waiting for Sydney’s return, Charlie remembered making friends with some wood-choppers – also working in a mews behind Kennington Road – and that one of them treated him to a gallery seat at the South London Music Hall in London Road, Lambeth. The star act was Fred Karno’s Early Birds. This was his first encounter with the company in which he was first to achieve fame. Sydney finally arrived home, and Charlie at last could share his troubles. They went to Cane Hill to visit Hannah and were shocked at how ill she looked. Charlie was long and deeply troubled by her reproach, ‘If only you had given me a cup of tea that afternoon I would have been all right.’
Sydney announced that he had come home for good. He had saved enough to live on for the next few months, and had determined go on the stage. It was an ambition which his younger brother shared. Many years later he was to tell his son (a third Charles Chaplin), ‘Even when I was in the orphanage, when I was roaming the streets trying to find enough to eat to keep alive, even then I thought of myself as the greatest actor in the world. I had to feel that exuberance that comes from utter confidence in yourself. Without that you go down to defeat’.
Facts you might not have known about Chaplin
Chaplin could play piano, violin and cello, all of which he taught himself as a child
Charlie Chaplin never shot a film from a completed script once in his career. The scripts would simply say ‘Charlie enters a shop’ or something vague, and Chaplin would work out the gags once on set.
Chaplin was meticulous about his work, and took longer to complete his pictures than any other filmmaker at the time
In the Kid, it took 53 takes to achieve every finished take that appeared in the final cut.
Charlie married four times, and had 11 children
In the 1950s, he was accused of being a communist and was deported from the US. He lived in Switzerland with his fourth wife for the rest of his life.
We hope this has given you an insight into the background that gave Chaplin such depth, and pathos as a performer. His dramatic ‘rags to riches’ story inspired the Kid, and is an extraordinary tale of determination and ambition.
Next up we look at David Robison’s study of Chaplin’s early life. You can also follow us on Twitter or Facebook to find out more about Chaplin, and the equally wonderful stars of the silent era.
 Lambeth Board of Guardians, Lunacy Examinations Book, 12 September 1898, GLC Archives.
On 30th December 2019, we learnt the sad news that Neil Innes, long-time friend and supporter of the festival, had sadly passed away.
Festival Director Chris Daniels made the following statement about Neil:
“We are deeply saddened to learn of Neil’s sudden passing.
“Neil was more than just a patron and a regular guest at Slapstick Festival, he was a real friend to us.
“His satirical genius through his songwriting, his eloquent lyrics and wonderful, intelligent observations engaged everyone who met or worked with him. You couldn’t wish for a more generous, good-hearted and warm natured human being.
“We will sorely miss his presence as one of the great satirical musicians of our time.
Charlie Chaplin, one of cinema’s most famous stars, was a man of many talents… actor, director, writer, and composer are among his many credits. With the upcoming screening of Modern Times at the Bristol Hippodrome, I thought I would take a bit of time to talk about Chaplin’s work as a composer… especially since the score for Modern Times contains the iconic melody of “Smile,” one of the most beloved songs of the 20th Century that has been covered by many recording stars. Although he had received a couple of honorary Oscars for his work in film, his first Academy Award was awarded for his score of Limelight in 1973.
In making his films, Chaplin had almost complete control over production. With the advent of sound…. he could also have control over an entirely new aspect of cinema production… the film score. The first film that Chaplin composed the score for was City Lights – a film that could have been made as a talkie, but Chaplin resisted, and it remained silent… but it did mean that he could score the film as he wanted. Before sound in cinema, Chaplin had control over the pieces that he wished to accompany his films. After sound, he became a composer. After the success of City Lights, Chaplin went back to his earlier films and composed scores for them as well.
Not a classically trained musician, Chaplin was able to play some instruments by ear and sing melodies. He had assistants who would then transpose these melodies into a finished score for his films. He was also very much influenced by his early experiences in the English music hall tradition. He would also use counterpoint in his compositions. In scenes where characters are living in poor conditions, he would often compose music that would evoke richer surroundings. Chaplin did not want his scores to sound comedic. In his mind, the music should not overshadow the comedy that was showing on screen. He wanted the scores to express the sentimentality of the narrative of his films.
Some of Chaplin’s melodies would go on to become popular songs. “Smile” has already been mentioned, but “Eternally” was adapted from his score for Limelight and “This is my Song” was from A Countess from Hong Kong. The lyrics for “Smile” were written by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons. Petula Clark had a number one hit with “This is my Song,” and “Smile” has been famously covered by Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, and Michael Jackson.
Join us on February 10th to hear Chaplin’s masterful score to Modern Times played by the Bristol Ensemble and conducted by Günter Buchwald. The evening will be hosted by Marcus Brigstocke and will also include two short silent comedies: Laurel and Hardy’s Bacon Grabbers and Buster Keaton’s The Scarecrow. Comic magician John Archer will also be appearing to round out an evening of fantastic entertainment!
More information about the evening can be found here – and for a limited period, we’re running a 2-4-1 offer on gala tickets! To take advantage put the code ‘241 Tickets’ in the box as you check out!
Finally, a quick throwback to Slapstick 2014 when we organised a flashmob prior to our gala with Paul McGann, the City of Bristol Choir and the Bristol School’s Chamber Choir singing Smile. Enjoy!