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

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.

Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances (1925)

Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances (1925)

Performed with new score at the Slapstick Festival Gala!

Accompanied by the Bristol Ensemble who will be performing the word premiere of a newly commissioned score written and conducted by Guenter A. Buchwald, Seven Chances (1925), one of Buster’s greatest onscreen accomplishments, will lead the celebration of silent comedy on Friday 23rd January at Colston Hall in 2015.

One of Buster Keaton’s funniest comedies, the film features Keaton in the almost impossible situation of having less than twenty four hours to marry in order to inherit a fortune! The film follows Keaton on his quest for a bride, with all the unfortunate (but hilarious) bad luck he could expect; the love of his life turns him down, and this is followed by a string of further turn downs! There are many memorable gags including “an extended sequence, created by accident, with Buster chased down a hillside by a number of small to enormous boulders. During a preview showing Buster noted that a gag sequence of him running away from the brides downhill was falling flat, until the audience saw him briefly running away from rolling rocks that he had accidently dislodged from the hillside.”(www.silentera.com).

The film originally had a Technicolor opening sequence, but unfortunately the negatives for this sequence have been lost. However, they have been rendered “as clear and faithful a representation of the original colour as is possible today”(www.silentera.com) . Slapstick Festival is lucky enough to be screening the film with the recreation of this colour sequence!

Slapsticks musical Director Guenter A Buchwald has been commissioned to produce a new score for the comedy classic and Bristols very own Bristol Ensemble will be playing the world premiere on Friday 23rd January 2015. More details to follow.

We will or course be screening other and more diverse comedies at the gala as well, so keep an eye on our website, Facebook and Twitter pages for the latest updates!

(Sources: IMDB www.imdb.com and Silent Era www.silentera.com)