It is fascinating to note that IMDb insists that he is, in fact, Charles Chaplin, despite then having to annotate practically everything he’s credited in as “as Charlie Chaplin.” Wikipedia, meanwhile, does title the page “Charlie” while at the same time informing us that he was officially Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin Jr. KBE. So okay, the “Sir” and “KBE” is from the New Year’s Honours in 1975, almost exactly three years before he died, but still. Wikipedia knows his full name and knows you don’t call him by it. For well over a century now, he’s just been Charlie Chaplin.
The idea that he would end as internationally beloved and knighted might well have come as something of a surprise to people who knew the boy. His parents were both music hall entertainers at the time of his birth; they separated when he was very young, and for most of his childhood, his father provided no support. His mother apparently had tertiary syphilis. Young Charlie and his older half-brother, Sidney, grew up in incredible deprivation; at age seven, Charlie and Sidney were actually committed to a workhouse, because workhouses actually still existed in those days. By the time he was nine, his mother began a series of institutionalizations of her own; she would die “in care.”
At age five, he said, he took over a performance from his mother. He would become a child performer—the London-born Chaplin would be a member of the Eight Lancashire Lads, a clog-dancing troupe. At thirteen, he dropped out of school; at fourteen, he acquired a theatrical agent who was aware of his talent. By seventeen, he was a star. At twenty-four, he signed with the Keystone studios. He was considered too young-looking, and it took some months before he actually began to act in front of the camera.
Frankly, we can skip a lot of the intervening years. You already know what happened. For his second short, he built a costume that created a character to him, and he played that character from “Mabel’s Strange Predicament” in 1914 to The Great Dictator in 1940—or, if you don’t accept the Jewish Barber as the Tramp, Modern Times in 1936. However, at least as important as picking out his costume at Keystone was those months he spent not acting. Because he spent those years studying the craft instead. The landscape of film would look very different if Chaplin hadn’t studied how to make movies while they weren’t letting him be in them.
Saul Chaplin, probably no relation, has more competitive Oscar nominations than Charlie Chaplin did. He has three competitive wins (scoring An American in Paris, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and West Side Story), whereas Charlie Chaplin’s only ever competitive win was for scoring Limelight, which has a whole complicated history behind it. He was given a special aware in the first ceremony for having acted in, written, directed, and produced The Circus, but not nominated for anything for it and not nominated at all until 1940, proving that the Academy will be impressed by doing a lot without ever actually respecting your work if it doesn’t fit into their narrow requirements. Robert Downey, Jr., has as many acting nominations for playing Charlie Chaplin as Charlie Chaplin received in his entire career.
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