Charlie Chaplin – Early Life

Charlie Chaplin – Early Life

Exclusive extract from David Robinson’s new biography

This year Slapstick Festival’s Comedy Gala returns bigger and better than ever with a spotlight on the 1921 Chaplin masterpiece the Kid.

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.

Charlie Chaplin's the Kid

Chaplin’s childhood

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.[1] The American trip, however, seems to have marked the final break-up of the Chaplins’ marriage[2]. 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,[3] 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’’.[4] 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.

Post script

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 TwitterFacebook and Instagram to find out more about Chaplin, and other famous silent stars.

[1] The Era, August 1890.

[2] 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

[3] Renfrew Road (Lambeth) Workhouse Register, GLC Archives.

[4] Southwark Workhouse Register, GLC Archives

Charlie Chaplin’s Life – The Beginnings

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.

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Extract Two

[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.[1]

On 12. November 1898 she was discharged from Cane Hill Asylum,[2] 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.

Extract Three

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.[3]

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.[4]

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’.[5]

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[6]
  • 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.

[1] Lambeth Board of Guardians, Lunacy Examinations Book, 12 September 1898, GLC Archives.

[2] Renfrew Road (Lambeth) Workhouse Register, GLC Archives.

[3] 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

[4] Lambeth Board of Guradians, Lunacy Reception Order, 9 May 1903, GLC Archives.

[5] Charles Chaplin Jr., 1960, My Father, Charlie Chaplin.

  • [6] Louvish, Simon (2010). Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey. London: Faber and Faber, p.228

The Boot Cake

The Boot Cake

One of the tasks that I help with in the festival office is organising and cataloguing the festival’s very large film collection. Most of this involves just inputting the titles into a database, but occasionally, I do have to investigate the title a bit more. It’s always an interesting task, and I learn quite a bit while doing this. Today, I stumbled across a great documentary that I couldn’t help but watch!

The only information that I had was that the film was titled, The Boot Cake, and that it was a documentary. A quick search on IMDB brought up the film, and the following blurb caught my attention:

“Charlie Chaplin is a saint to earthquake survivors in a small desert town in India and they are throwing him a birthday party. Australian filmmaker Kathryn Millard is taking the cake – a chocolate truffle sponge shaped like the Tramp’s boot.”

Usually, I just watch a clip or two to see if a film is worth further attention. I decided to just give it a go and watch the entire film. I don’t think I stopped smiling through the entire film.

Adipur is a small town in northwest India. There is a group that was formed in this town called the Charlie Circle who revere Charlie Chaplin and his philosophy towards life. They want to do the same as Chaplin… make people smile and bring them joy through laughter. Yes, there is pain in life – but laughter helps us all move forward. Each year the group celebrate Chaplin’s birthday with a procession, cake and screening. The filmmaker was asked to bring a cake modelled after the boot that Chaplin famously eats in The Gold Rush. It’s great to see the whole town gather together to watch the film and celebrate Chaplin’s comedic creation.

Kathryn Millard mainly focuses on this town and its celebration, but she does briefly explore Chaplin’s influence in India and other cultures. I think someone could make a very interesting documentary exploring this subject. I would have liked to have seen a bit more how Chaplin’s films were screened in these other countries. As his films were silent, the visual comedy had a universal appeal and could be easily viewed and understood worldwide. We also get to see three Chaplin impersonators and they discuss why Chaplin had such an impact on their lives.

It is well worth seeking this documentary out. I always find it interesting to hear people speaking passionately about something they love. The film also gives us a chance to get a glimpse of just how far-reaching Chaplin’s fame was. There are also some great clips included of Chaplin copycats who made films during the 1920s to compete with his fame.

I’ve put a link to the trailer for the documentary below:

Slapstick Festival’s Silent Comedy Gala returns to Colston Hall

Slapstick Silent Film Festival Comedy Gala 2016 - Charlie Chaplin The Kid

SILENT COMEDY GALA

Fri 22nd January
7.30pm
£25/£20concs /£10 under 12s

Slapstick Festival’s annual celebration of silent comedy returns to Colston Hall for a 12th year, beginning with a special triple bill.

Both wonderfully funny and deeply moving, THE KID (1921) is rightly considered a cinematic masterpiece. Chaplin’s first feature film was a landmark of world cinema, where pathos meets slapstick to perfection. Chaplin excels in his role as the devoted, but comically inept, self appointed parent after he discovers an abandoned baby. Jackie Coogan turns in the performance of a lifetime as his mischievous, adopted ‘son’.

This is a UK premiere of Chaplin’s own score performed live by a 15-piece orchestra – the Bristol Ensemble.

The evening also features two other classic clowns: Charley Chase, and that great master of the stone-face, Buster Keaton, in their own silent mini-masterpieces.

COPS (1922) is considered one of Keaton’s finest – and funniest – comedy shorts. A series of mistaken identities leads to mishaps resulting in Buster being chased all over the city by the entire police force. Here it is accompanied live by the European Silent Screen Virtuosi.

There will also be an exclusive screening of MIGHTY LIKE A MOOSE (1926). It’s a silent gem of a short, starring the rare genius of comedy master Charley Chase.

With a special guest host to be announced*, and other surprises, there’s no better way to brighten up those gloomy January nights.

Book early to avoid disappointment!
*Previous hosts include: Victoria Wood, Chris Addison and Griff Rhys Jones.