Contrary to popular belief, Charles ‘Charlie’ Chaplin, the man who more than anyone turned Hollywood into the entertainment giant it is today, was not American. He was one of our own, London born and bred. He took the music hall tradition of his actor parents, put it on film, and created one of the first global brands, ‘the tramp’. And what a brand: he acted, wrote and directed for nearly 75 years, becoming the personification of the silent film era. Even today, the ‘the tramp’ is as recognizable as Mickey Mouse. For this, we salute him as a truly Great Briton.
Chaplin was born in 1889 and right away had it rough: his father was an alcoholic and his mother was mad. As a kid he spent some time in the workhouse. Still, his early years of poverty turned out to be a great resource, giving him a unique perspective and allowing him to create characters that the ordinary man could identify with, as well as laugh at.
His big break came when he toured America in 1910 with a troupe of actors. They were hired to make some little films, and Chaplin decided to experiment with his costume.
That little trip to wardrobe proved to be fateful. He put on a tight jacket, baggy trousers and too-big shoes, picked up a top hat and cane, and plastered on a little false moustache – and boom, the tramp was born.
The character proved instantly popular. At a time when the world was sunk in woe – the First World War, then the Great Depression - Chaplin cheered people up with mythic tales of this bumbling clown at the bottom of the heap who through tenacity and good nature, somehow always comes out on top, though not without taking plenty of pratfalls along the way
Of course, being silent, the films could speak to the whole world, and they particularly struck a chord with America’s newly arrived immigrants. The tramp was poor and he didn’t know how to behave, but he was decent, and in his own way a gentleman – just like them. Classics of this period include ‘The Tramp’, ‘The Bank’, and the feature ‘The Kid’. Chaplin write and directed these as well as starring; he created his stories by first making the set, then playing around the find a tale to place in it.
The tramp character was finally retired in 1936, when the talkie had established itself; he was last shown, fittingly, in ‘Modern Times’, walking into the sunset.
Chaplin’s first talkie in 1937. the Great Dictator, is, perhaps unexpectedly, one of his best films. He plays both a Jewish barber and a dictator, Adenoid Hynkel, modelled on Hitler – who had of course, copied Chaplin’s little moustache. The film is a daring attack on authoritarianism, lampooning dictators for the puffed up frauds that they are, and it ends with Chaplin giving a speech in praise of peace.
Chaplin was always a little left wing, and was treated with suspicion by the American establishment. During the McCarthy era, this little Brit who had done so much for Hollywood was accused of un-American activities. He left the States to live out the rest of his life in Switzerland.
They might not have shown much gratitude, but we will. For his creation of one of the great Hollywood figures, and his uncompromising political stance, Charlie Chaplin must surely rank as one truly Great Britons of the modern era.
Charlie Chaplin Films:
Great Britons / Charlie Chaplin