Charlie Chaplin: The life story you may not know

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April 23, 2021
Bettmann // Getty Images

Charlie Chaplin: The life story you may not know

Charlie Chaplin is arguably the most recognized actor for generations of audiences, entertaining the world with the antics and calamities of his “Little Tramp” character.

The iconic funny man in the mustache and ill-fitting clothes appeared in dozens of silent movies, getting into scrapes, romantic mixups, and silly arguments. Chaplin, who grew up in London workhouses and performed on vaudeville stages as a child, became not just a talented actor but an extraordinary director, producer, and musical composer. With Hollywood heavy hitters Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith, he launched United Artists studio.

He had an incomparable influence on the world of comedy, the entertainment industry, and the business of Hollywood. His life was filled with scandal as well. Two of his four wives were just 16 years old when he married them, his divorce settlement was the most expensive at the time, and he was forced to leave his adopted home of America to live in exile in Switzerland.

Looking at Chaplin’s 88 years as an entertainer, creative genius, and at times controversial celebrity, Stacker compiled a list of 25 facts from his life story that you may not know. To put together the list, Stacker consulted media accounts, biographies, and film histories.

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Michael Ochs Archives // Getty Images

1889: Born to performers in London

Charlie Chaplin was born on April 16, 1889 in South London to Hannah and Charles Chaplin Sr., who were music hall entertainers. His parents split up, and Chaplin and his half-brother Sydney spent their childhood in workhouses and charity homes after their mother was committed to an asylum in 1903. She lived in the asylum for 18 years, before Chaplin moved her to California in 1921.

[Pictured: Charlie Chaplin is third row from front, third from left.]

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1899: Joining a touring dance troupe

At 10 years old, Chaplin joined a troupe of clog dancers called The Eight Lancashire Lads. They toured across England.

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1903–1908: Appearing in burlesque, vaudeville, comedy

Chaplin landed roles in several stage plays and joined a burlesque company called Casey’s Circus. With his older brother Sydney, also a performer, he joined The Karno Co., a well-known comedy theater and vaudeville touring group.

[Pictured: Chaplin is center, wearing a bowler hat.]

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1910–1913: Getting discovered in America

As a member of The Karno Co. theater group, Chaplin toured the United States, where he caught the eye of the New York Motion Picture Co. In 1913, he landed a contract with the Keystone Film Co. earning $150 per week.

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Keystone Film Company

1914: Making a movie debut

The first movie featuring Charlie Chaplin was “Making a Living” in 1914. Wearing a large mustache, Chaplin played a charming swindler named Edgar English.

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1914: Introducing the 'Little Tramp'

Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character first appeared in the 1914 movie “Kid Auto Races At Venice.” Chaplin’s character was a spectator who disrupted a go-kart race. The movie was shot at a real race, with the actors improvising with actual race spectators.

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1914: The 'Little Tramp' finds fame

In his year at Keystone Film Co., Chaplin developed his “Little Tramp” character and made 35 comedy shorts. Chaplin later described how he chose his trademark costume, saying: “I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large.”

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Keystone Film Company

1914: A first turn at directing

Among the comedy shorts Chaplin made in 1914, “Twenty Minutes of Love” was his first directing effort. Of another 1914 comedy, “Her Friend the Bandit,” no known copy survives. The now-lost film starred Chaplin and Mabel Normand, and they co-directed as well.

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1915: The 'Little Tramp' character evolves

In “The Tramp,” made in 1915 for Essanay Studios and directed by Chaplin, his iconic creation started to transform into the more familiar character that audiences know well. The “Little Tramp” became less slapstick and grew more poignant and caring.

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1916: Becoming the highest-paid actor

Signing a $670,000-a-year contract with the Mutual Film Company, Chaplin became the highest-paid film actor in the world. He made a dozen short comedies for Mutual, including “The Floorwalker,” the first movie to employ the “running staircase” gag in which actors run down an up escalator—or vice versa—and don’t get anywhere.

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1918: Marrying 16-year-old child actress Mildred Harris

In October 1918, at age 29, Chaplin married 16-year-old Mildred Harris, a popular child-actress. They had a son in 1919 who lived for just three days, and they separated later that year. When they divorced in 1920, Harris got some property and a $100,000 settlement.

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Charles Chaplin Productions

1918: Helping the war effort

Chaplin made “The Bond” in 1918 at his own expense to promote the sale of U.S. Liberty Bonds to help finance the nation’s military effort in World War I. The movie featured a number of comic sketches portraying types of bonds such as friendship and marriage.

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1919: Creation of United Artists studio

In 1919, Chaplin joined with actress Mary Pickford, actor Douglas Fairbanks, and director D.W. Griffiths to create United Artists studio. It was an effort by the stars to exert more control over their work.

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1924: Marrying 16-year-old actress Lita Grey

In 1924, Chaplin married actress Lita Grey. He was 35 and she was 16, preparing to star in the movie “The Gold Rush.” She became pregnant and lost the role. The couple had two sons—Charles Chaplin Jr. and Sydney Earle Chaplin, both of whom became actors.

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1927: An angry and costly divorce

Chaplin divorced wife Lita Grey in 1927 in acrimonious proceedings. He paid her a record settlement of $825,000, and the legal costs of the divorce came to nearly $1 million. One Chaplin biographer said their marriage served as inspiration for the novel “Lolita,” by Vladimir Nabokov, about a man’s obsession with a 12-year-old girl.

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Charles Chaplin Productions

1925–1931: Creating a legacy of work

In 1925, Chaplin wrote, produced, directed, and starred in one of his most acclaimed works, the silent movie “The Gold Rush.” In 1931, when most movies were talking pictures, he made the silent “City Lights,” which featured a musical score Chaplin composed.

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Charles Chaplin Productions

1936: The 'Little Tramp' bows out

In his final appearance as the “Little Tramp,” Chaplin made the 1936 movie “Modern Times.” The movie is considered a commentary on the joblessness and poverty millions of people faced during the Great Depression.

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1936: Marrying actress Paulette Goddard

The year 1936 saw Chaplin marrying actress Paulette Goddard, whom he had cast as a street urchin in “Modern Times.” She was 22 when they first met. They kept their marriage largely under wraps, and he did not introduce her publicly as his wife until 1940. They split up in 1942. The actor later said they had been secretly married but also said it was a common law marriage.

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Charles Chaplin Productions

1940: Fighting Nazism with comedy

Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” released in 1940, was his first fully talking picture. In the parody of Adolf Hitler and Nazism, Chaplin plays two roles—a Jewish barber and fascist leader Adenoid Hynkel—and delivers a scathing criticism of the German leader. It was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actor and Best Picture.

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1943: Marrying fourth wife Oona O’Neill

Chaplin married Oona O’Neill in 1943. He was 54, and she was barely 18. Her father was playwright Eugene O'Neill, who condemned the union and cut off all contact with his daughter for the rest of his life. The couple had eight children, including actress Geraldine Chaplin.

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1943: Accused in paternity suit

The same year that Chaplin married his fourth wife, Oona O’Neill, he was sued for paternity by actress Joan Barry. The scandal cost him in terms of his popularity and public image. Blood tests showed he was not the father, but the results were not allowed as evidence in a 1944 trial, and Chaplin was ordered to pay $75 a week until Barry’s child turned 21.

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1952: Exiled from America

While traveling in London in 1952, Chaplin learned that U.S. immigration officials would not let him return home to America after he had been openly critical of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings and was suspected by government officials of having communist sympathies. He moved to the town of Corsier-sur-Vevey in Switzerland.

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1972: A 12-minute standing ovation from Hollywood

Chaplin returned to the United States to receive an honorary Academy Award in 1972. The audience gave him a standing ovation that lasted 12 minutes.

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1975: Knighted by Queen Elizabeth

Queen Elizabeth knighted Chaplin when he was 85 years old. The honor had been proposed and rejected in 1931 because Chaplin did not serve in World War I and again in 1956 when the Conservative British government did not want to damage relations with the United States during the Cold War.

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1977: Death in Switzerland

Chaplin died in Switzerland on Christmas Day in 1977 after suffering failing health for several years. He was buried in Corsier-sur-Vevey Cemetery in Switzerland, where in 1978 a band of robbers stole his corpse in an extortion attempt. The grave robbers were caught, and the body was recovered after 11 weeks near Lake Geneva. It was reburied in a vault under several feet of concrete.

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