Charlie Chaplin’s Life – The Beginnings
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.
 Lambeth Board of Guardians, Lunacy Examinations Book, 12 September 1898, GLC Archives.
 Renfrew Road (Lambeth) Workhouse Register, GLC Archives.
 Armitage School Register. The school registers have now disappeared, but the entry was illustrated in a Manchester newspaper (unidentified cutting in Chaplin family archive) in 1921
 Lambeth Board of Guradians, Lunacy Reception Order, 9 May 1903, GLC Archives.
 Charles Chaplin Jr., 1960, My Father, Charlie Chaplin.
-  Louvish, Simon (2010). Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey. London: Faber and Faber, p.228