March 27, 2018 | Stephanie Kelsey

Slapstick Facts About Charlie Chaplin, The Silent Master

Charlie Chaplin was once the biggest star in the entire world, but a cruel twist of fate—and his own dark demons—destroyed his reputation, turning his fame into infamy. Yet when it comes to this English king of comedy, those scandals are just the beginning. Put on that bowler hat and read these facts about Charlie Chaplin, the silent master.

Charlie Chaplin Facts

1. A Star Is Born

Chaplin's childhood was like something out of a Charles Dickens' novel. His parents, Hannah and Charles Sr., were both roaming music hall actors with very little stable income. Chaplin and his older half-brother Sydney grew up in abject poverty, but it was about to get so much worse. His father and mother soon became estranged, with his dad all but abandoning the family.

Charlie Chaplin As The TrampCassowary Colorizations, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

2. Child Prodigy

Though Chaplin adored his mother Hannah, she was usually penniless and unreliable. Even raising her sons, she tried desperately to make it as an actress on the stage, but often found that her voice failed her right in front of the crowd. In an early glimmer of glory, a stage manager once sent out a five-year-old Chaplin to sing for the audience instead.

Charlie Chaplin's mother Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

3. The Role of a Lifetime

Chaplin's most well-known role is The Little Tramp, the gentile and clumsy character he played in many of his films. Except the Little Tramp hid a dark secret. Later, Chaplin's daughter Geraldine once confessed that Chaplin was obsessed with achieving immortality through the character, and he was so afraid he wouldn’t be remembered that he let the Tramp appear on almost anything.

Charlie Chaplin sitting on a benchKeystone-France, Getty Images

4. Creating a Career

Just like a Dickens character, the young Charlie rose from rags to immense riches almost overnight. He spent his childhood and adolescence touring with various vaudeville troupes, until in 1913 he moved to California and signed with Keystone Studios as a comedic actor. From there, everything changed: He went on to star in and direct 35 of their films.

Charlie Chaplin filming wearing a suit and a hat Keystone, Getty Images


5. It's a Nice Day for a Sham Wedding

At the height of his career, Chaplin's love life was the stuff of nightmares. When he was a rising star, his 16-year-old lover Mildred Harris confessed to him that she was pregnant, forcing him to marry her in a quickie wedding. Chaplin was deeply unhappy in this first marriage—but he didn't know it was going to get much worse. 

When their son was born, the baby boy was severely malformed, and died just days later. Within a year, Chaplin and Harris had divorced.

Mildred Harris wearing a hat and black dress Hulton Archive, Getty Images

6. Taking Things Into Their Own Hands

Chaplin famously campaigned for putting more power into actors' hands and away from the big studios, which is why he created his own studio, United Artists, alongside other silver screen stars like Mary Pickford. In a probably ill-advised move, Chaplin sold his shares in the company in 1955, just eight years before it released the first James Bond film.

Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. GriffithUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

7. I Got a Bad Case of Loving You

By 1915, Chaplin's films were so popular with audiences that he had become a total pop culture phenomenon, and maybe even the first real film star. Stores stocked Chaplin and "The Little Tramp" merchandise, and people hounded him in public wherever he went. One journalist called the worldwide craze "Chaplinitis."

Charlie Chaplin with dollUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

8. Charles of All Trades

In addition to writing, directing, and performing in his own movies, Chaplin also wrote many of their scores.

Charlie Chaplin in suit The Library of Congress, Flickr

9. Second Time's Not the Charm

Chaplin's second marriage to the starlet Lita Grey was even more troubled than his first. Like his first wife Mildred, Grey was just a 16-year-old girl when she met the 35-year-old Chaplin...and got pregnant. Chaplin was terrified that the authorities would charge him with activity with a minor, so he hastily wed the girl in Mexico and tried to be happy. He wasn't.

Chaplin spent all his free time away from home, desperately trying to avoid Grey even after they had two children together.

  Charles And Lita Chaplin With Infant SonTopical Press Agency, Getty Images


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10. Unnaturally Right

Chaplin was naturally left-handed. You’ll notice in his films he does things with his left hand, like playing the violin or throwing rocks. However, like other lefties, he was forced to learn to write with his right hand because left-handedness was seen as deviant. In a film documenting the formation of the United Artists, you’ll see him writing with his right hand.

D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin signing of the contract establishing United Artists motion picture, Flickr


11. Class Clown

Chaplin tried to make a joke of almost everything, and the habit sometimes got him into trouble. In the lead up to World War II, Chaplin once met with Winston Churchill, who was reading newspapers and looking very worried. When Chaplin asked what was wrong, Churchill answered, "Germany." Chaplin then tried to make light of the situation, only to have Churchill snap, "No, no, it's quite serious." Um, yeah.

Winston Churchill with Charlie ChaplinCassowary Colorizations, Flickr

12. You'll Pay for This

In 1926, Lita Grey finally had enough and left Chaplin, taking their children with her. But when she filed for divorce, everything unraveled. A bitter, enraged Grey charged him not only with infidelity and misconduct, but also with "perverted desires." Even worse, the press got a hold of the allegations, and soon the public was demanding to ban his films.

Ultimately, Chaplin paid Grey the massive (for the time) sum of $600,000 to make it all go away. If only he knew that it would be far from his last controversy...

Chaplin's FamilyTopical Press Agency, Getty Images

13. Learning From a Pro

One of Chaplin’s friends, Granville Redmond, helped teach the comedian how to pantomime techniques for use on camera. Redmond was actually a masterful teacher, and helped mold Chaplin into the master silent comedian he became. Why was that? Well, Redmond had a secret weapon: He was deaf, so Chaplin had to make sure he was communicating exactly what he needed to.

Granville Redmond And Charlie ChaplinUnknown Author,  Wikimedia Commons

14. Is He or Isn't He?

There are countless myths and legends about Charlie Chaplin, but one of the most bizarre whispers was that he was actually Jewish, and born in France. Some say his real name was Israel Thornstein, a claim that even the FBI looked into. They turned up nothing, but it wouldn't be Chaplin's only brush with the secret service...

Charlie Chaplin Circa 1916National Media Museum - Daily Herald Archive, Wikimedia Commons

15. A Clash of Titans

An elderly Chaplin directed Marlon Brando in A Countess From Hong Kong—and it ended in utter disaster. While directing, Chaplin loved to impersonate each of the actors to show them what do to in the scene. Brando was insulted and disgusted to see Chaplin taking on his role, and even threatened to quit the production. He later called Chaplin “the most sadistic man” he’d ever met.

Chaplin And Brando speaking to each other Keystone, Getty Images

16. You've Lost That Loving Feeling

Chaplin's third wife Paulette Goddard was his only kind-of age appropriate bride, and his least controversial nuptials (which, as you'll still see, isn't saying much). While Chaplin was 47 at the time, Goddard was at least a grown adult at 26 years old. They married in 1936 and stayed that way for six years, drifting apart mostly because of their mutual devotion to work.

Paulette Goddard and Charlie Chaplinkate gabrielle, Flickr


17. Talk Is Cheap

Chaplin was infamously dismissive of the turn away from silent films and toward so-called "Talkies." He resisted the call for almost all of his films, even when silent films were becoming obsolete. When it came to his commitment to silent comedy, he once quipped that, "Words are cheap. The biggest thing you can say is 'elephant.'"

Charlie Chaplin in suit and a hat Essanay,  Wikimedia Commons

18. Young Love

Chaplin had experienced public troubles in love before, but his last marriage was his most infamous. In 1943, Chaplin married the young Oona O'Neill, the 17-year-old daughter of famed playwright Eugene O'Neill. The actor obviously had a well-known taste for young girls, but even this was too much for the public to take. Why? Chaplin was 54 years old at the time.

Oona O'Neill   And ChaplinKeystone, Getty Images

19. House of Stark

One of Chaplin's granddaughters, also named Oona, is an actress in her own right. You might recognize her from such places as Game of Thrones, where she played Talisa Stark. Of her grandfather, she said, “When people say [Charles Chaplin] I still think now of the guy in the mustache and bowler hat and funny walk—I don't think of an old man who was my grandfather.”

Oona ChaplinKathy Hutchins, Shutterstock

20. Worked to the Bone

Unfortunately, Chaplin's mother Hannah met a cruel fate. She was never wealthy, and frequently suffered mental health episodes. In 1903, she was even forced into an asylum. Meanwhile, Charlie and his half-brother Syd had to go live as destitute children in a harsh workhouse. Hannah stayed institutionalized for decades, until an adult Chaplin rescued her and moved her to California.

Chaplin At SchoolMichael Ochs Archives, Getty Images

21. If You’re Not With Us, You’re Against Us

During World War II, Chaplin's tenuous reputation started getting truly tarnished. Not only did the English accuse him of being a coward back in World War I, but FBI head J. Edgar Hoover also became deeply suspicious of Chaplin's later war-time motives, and started creating a file on his supposed political leanings. But that was just the beginning of the nightmare. 

J. Edgar Hoover in suit Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

22. Politically Declined

In 1947, the government subpoenaed Chaplin to testify for The House Un-American Activities Committee. He never did, but in 1952 he got a nasty surprise: The US denied him entry into the country after he had gone to London for a movie premiere. Temporarily exiled from the country he called home, an insulted Chaplin moved his family to Switzerland.

Chaplin Meets WellsCentral Press, Getty Images


23. Making It Work

Though Chaplin's marriage to Oona was bathed in controversy, it had a surprisingly happy ending. Chaplin called the day they met "the happiest event of my life," and Oona reportedly worshipped him. The super May-December couple were together until Chaplin passed on in 1977, and even had a total of eight children together.

Chaplin family 1961Associated Press photographer, Wikimedia Commons

24. Fall From Grace

In 1946, Chaplin put out his black comedy Monsieur Verdoux, only to receive a horrific backlash. By then, his stock had fallen so steeply in America that they wanted nothing to do with his films. The crowd even booed Chaplin at the premiere, and many audiences boycotted its release as well as the release of his next film, Limelight.

Charlie Chaplin with wife at cinema Hulton Archive, Getty Images

25. Don't Call It a Comeback

In 1972, after decades of exile, Chaplin finally traveled to America again to pick up an honorary Oscar. His appearance was absolutely heartbreaking. When he came on the stage, the audience gave him an incredible 12-minute standing ovation. Chaplin was visibly touched that he hadn't been forgotten after all these years. As he said, “Words seem so futile and so are all wonderful, sweet people. Thank you.”

Chaplin oscarAssociated Press photographer, Wikimedia Commons

26. Credit Where Credit It's Due

In 1925, Chaplin became the first actor to ever appear on the cover of Time magazine.

Charlie Chaplin on Time magazine cover, 1925. Time Magazine,  Wikimedia Commons  

27. Do It Right, or Not at All

Chaplin was a notorious perfectionist about his work, and he refused to release any of his films until he was 100% satisfied with the final product. Even so, he never used a working script. Instead, he would go off ideas in his mind, working and reworking the story, which often led to hours of footage that he couldn't use.

Charlie Chaplin carrying a broom  Essanay,  Wikimedia Commons

28. Lost in a Letter

In 2011, long after the star's end, Chaplin's remaining family found a mysterious letter locked away in a drawer with his belongings. Its contents changed everything. In it, a man named Jack Hill states that Chaplin was actually born in a gypsy caravan that belonged to Hill’s aunt, who also happened to be a Gypsy Queen.

Though the family has no further clues, they admit it must have been important—and even true—for Chaplin to have kept it under lock and key.

Charlie Chaplin 1912Apeda,  Wikimedia Commons

29. Just One More Take, I Can Do It!

Actors go to far lengths sometimes in their roles, and Chaplin is no exception. One day, Chaplin even ended up in the hospital for severe insulin shock. Why? Well, he reshot one scene for his masterpiece The Gold Rush a whopping 63 times. As a result, he had to eat a prop boot, which was made of black licorice, over and over again.

 Charlie ChaplinUnited Artists, Wikimedia Commons

30. Diva Behavior

One day, Chaplin's famous perfectionism reached disturbing heights. In front of a crowd of people, he destroyed the original negative of his film The Sea Gull. No one knew exactly what was going on in Chaplin's head, but many believe he did it because he was unhappy with the way his lead actress had decided to play her part.

Charlie Chaplin In The BankEssanay Studios,  Wikimedia Commons

31. Cementing His Fate

Like many mega-stars, Chaplin once had his handprints, footprints, and signature preserved in cement at the Chinese Theater—but no one knows where that chunk of cement is now. After his fall from grace, someone or some organization removed the testament to his fame, and to this day no one has ever found it.

Grauman's Chinese Theater, Los AngelesSean Pavone, Shutterstock

32. House of Mouse

How's this for famous? Disney's Mickey Mouse is partly based off Chaplin.

Walt Disney and his cartoon creation "Mickey Mouse" Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

33. All the Better to See You With, My Dear

What color were his eyes? Well, looking at his black and white films, with his eyes covered in makeup, you’d think they were brown. Not true! They were actually blue. He wrote in his autobiography that people were always struck by that fact. His fourth wife Oona even wrote to a friend, "Just met Charlie Chaplin. What blue eyes he has!" right after their first meeting.

 Sir Charles Spencer Charlie Chaplin figure Anton_Ivanov, Shutterstock

34. Sacrilege!

Incredibly, Chaplin never won an Academy Award for acting.

Edna Purviance And Charlie Chaplin In The BankEssanay Films, Wikimedia Commons

35. Charming Charlie

Rumor has it that fellow silent film comedian Buster Keaton and Chaplin had a bitter feud, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, when Keaton was struggling to make ends meet in 1928, Chaplin hired him for his film Limelight to help him put food on the table. Keaton once said that Chaplin was “the greatest silent comedian of all time.”

Charlie Chaplin  Buster KeatonBreve Storia del Cinema, Flickr

36. Borrowing His Shine

Chaplin's Little Tramp character and Adolf Hitler famously shared the same mustache shape, even though the two men couldn't have been more different. However, this wasn't just a coincidence: Reportedly, the German dictator knew how popular Chaplin was, and may have grown his whiskers that way to associate himself with the endearing comedian.

Adolf H. - B&W Portrait - 1938Bundesarchiv, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, Wikimedia Commons

37. Seal of Approval

Chaplin almost decided to pull the plug on his classic film The Great Dictator because he worried that people wouldn’t find his mockery of Hitler funny. When it came time to make a decision, Chaplin got encouragement from the highest source in the land: President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt actually called Chaplin up and told him to go forward with it.

Charlie ChaplinTrailer screenshot,  Wikimedia Commons

38. Even Better Than the Real Thing

According to lore, Chaplin once entered a "Charlie Chaplin Look-a-Like" contest undercover, just to see if he could win the prize for his own iconic look. He was sorely disappointed. Depending on the source you read, he came either in a disappointing second or a middling third. Probably not the results the bona fide Chaplin was expecting.

Charlie Chaplin On A War Bond Tour In 1918Unknown Author,  Wikimedia Commons

39. Built to Bust

Chaplin's home in Beverly Hills, Breakaway House, was a popular spot with the Hollywood set, and Chaplin loved entertaining guests by screening his films or playing a game of tennis with them. The mansion, however, had been built by studio carpenters, who didn't exactly know how to make sturdy homes. Within a couple of years, it was falling apart—though that only seemed to add to its charm.

Portrait of Charlie ChaplinZoller, Charles C., Wikimedia Commons

40. Classic Story

One of Chaplin's biographers claims that Vladimir Nabokov's infamous book Lolita, which depicts the love of a much older man for a young girl, was based off of Chaplin's marriage to Oona.

Lolita ReadersKeystone, Getty Images

41. Wrong Place, Wrong Time

Scandal followed Chaplin around, but one of the most infamous events was his involvement in the mysterious demise of producer Thomas Ince. The incident happened aboard tycoon William Hearst's yacht where, according to one rumor, Chaplin seduced Hearst's mistress. When the magnate found out, he tried to shoot Chaplin—but mistook Ince for the comedian instead.

Of course, this version of events is probably more truth than fiction, but it was the scandal of the day, and it added one more controversy to Chaplin's ledger.

Thomas H. Ince publicity photo.Unknown Author,  Wikimedia Commons

42. Will the Real Charlie Chaplin Please Stand up?

A strange genre of film came up in the latter half of the 1910s. In these movies, professional actors pretended to be Chaplin. The actors, who ranged from Billie Ritchie, Stan Jefferson, and Billy West, were made up to look exactly like Chaplin. Even stranger,  film distributors were adamant that they actually were him.

Billie Ritchie, stage comedianUniversity of Washington, Wikimedia Commons

43. Play That Funky Music

Keep this in mind next time you find something and decide you want to test it out: Chaplin was once fired from his job as a butler because he found a trumpet in his employer’s attic and started to play it. Looks like Chaplin was up to his usual antics again, but his employers didn't seem to appreciate his comedic genius.

Albert Austin And Charlie Chaplin In The AdventurerMutual Film Corporation, Wikimedia Commons

44. Life on Display

In Switzerland, there’s a museum in Chaplin's old home in Corsier-sur-Vevey that’s been open since 2016. You can watch his movies, check out wax figures, and even eat at the restaurant aptly named “The Tramp.”

Charlie Chaplin Statue in Vevey, SwitzerlandRoy Lindman, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

45. Mother Knows Best

Chaplin's interest in comedy came from one incident with his beloved mother. During one period of his childhood, the young Charlie was incredibly ill and had to spend weeks recovering in bed. While he was there, his mother sat beside the window and re-enacted anything she saw that might amuse her son. It was then that Chaplin realized the power of comedy.

Publicity photo of Charlie Chaplin for the film Modern Times (1936).United Artists,Wikimedia Commons

46. The Case of the Body Snatchers

In 1977, Chaplin passed on at the ripe age of 88 from a stroke in his sleep—but even in death, the scandal continued. Get this: After his family buried him, grave-robbers dug up his body and held it for ransom. The thieves demanded his grieving loved ones pay $600,000 for the deceased actor's return. Luckily, though, his widow Oona had a trick up her sleeve.

Oona had the robbers' phones tapped, allowing the authorities to track them down and detain them. After all that, Chaplin was reburied in a vault surrounded by impenetrable cement.

Charlie Chaplin grave mountainpix, Shutterstock

47. Behind Bedroom Doors

Although Chaplin had political troubles and messy marriages, his biggest controversy actually happened because of his illicit extra-marital affairs. In the 1940s, the middle-aged and very married Chaplin started having a steamy tryst with 22-year-old aspiring starlet Joan Barry. Predictably, they were doomed to an utterly ruinous end. 

Joan Barry with feathersSasha (1895–1940), Wikimedia Commons

48. Ex Hex

First, when Chaplin ended things with Barry, the young girl did not take it well at all. She reportedly suffered from obsessive and paranoid behavior, and the breakup didn't help her mental health. Then, when she resurfaced in Chaplin's life, Barry claimed she was pregnant—and that Chaplin was the father. The next months opened up a living nightmare.

Edna Purviance (left) and Charlie Chaplin in The AdventurerMutual Film Corporation, Wikimedia Commons

49. Public Enemy No. 1

After her child, a daughter named Carol Ann, was born, Barry sued Chaplin for parental support. The move ignited a frenzy in the papers about Chaplin's moral depravity and degradation. Even his enemy J. Edgar Hoover got in on the fun, starting a smear campaign and trying to get Chaplin charged on even more offences. But when the trial started, the real horror began.

Charlie Chaplin at trial Fox Photos, Getty Images

50. You Are Not the Father, But…

At the trial, Chaplin's lawyers brought up blood-type evidence to prove that he wasn't the father. However, these tests were inadmissible at the time, and Barry successfully won the suit. The courts forced Chaplin to pay $75 every week until Barry’s child turned 21—even though Carol Ann wasn't his daughter. But the damage was done, and Chaplin's reputation was in tatters for the next decades of his life.

Charlie Chaplin and wifeAnefo, Wikimedia Commons

Sources:  1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

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