The rise and fall of Chaplinitis: How Charlie Chaplin changed the film industry forever

Sir Charlie Chaplin is widely celebrated for bringing the term “movie star” into existence as a true inspiration. Chaplin’s perseverance, talent and extraordinaire has helped him be the celebrated protagonist of an exemplary ‘rags to riches’ story. Not only did he change the face of cinema in Hollywood forever but also had a worldwide impact. His skill lay in his innate ability to blend in everyday struggles and tragedy into a comic everyman character which made him funny and relatable at the same time. 

With a splendid on-screen presence and commanding demeanour, Chaplin mostly acted in silent films; such good were the expressions that he conveyed aeons of information despite never uttering a single word. Charismatic and refreshing, Chaplin came as a beloved welcome release from the struggle of the Great Depression and the World Wars; while some of his films dealt with poignant matters comprising social realism and political innuendos, of which the latter brought in immense trouble, he mostly starred in comic roles, creating a fictitious persona that would win hearts all over the world, cementing his legacy as one of the greatest actors of all time. 

Chaplin was not born with a silver spoon. Born and raised in 1893 London, Charlie belonged to a dysfunctional family with an absent father and a mentally-ailing mother. Times were tough for young Charlie as he had to look after himself while his mother was in the asylum. He was made to live in an orphanage and attended a school for paupers but never had the desire to participate in school. He eventually quit at the age of 13.

Although his parents had no good memories to offer, they had embedded in him the desire to perform. Being associated with stagecraft themselves, it was only natural a for young Chaplin to imbibe that passion and enthusiasm to perform. He credited his mother’s encouragement in particular when at the tender age of five he had exhibited his interest in acting; she had made him feel that he “had some sort of talent”. It was a motivational force in Charlie’s life despite the hardships he faced. Chaplin, who grew up to be quite wise and eloquent, made a sad but profound comment on his childhood in his book My Autobiography when he said:

“I was hardly aware of a crisis because we lived in a continual crisis, and, being a boy, I dismissed our troubles with gracious forgetfulness.”

Chaplin was intelligent beyond his years. At the age of six, he utilised his alcoholic father’s connections to tour English music halls with a clog-dancing troupe named ‘Eight Lancashire Lads’. Despite being popular, he realised that dancing was not his forte and he was more comfortable being a part of a comedy act. However, it was not until the age of 14 that Chaplin finally gained the role of a newsboy in a relatively unsuccessful play, Jim, a Romance of Cockayne. Despite the show’s failure, his performance gained noticeable acclaim. Soon after he secured the role of a pageboy in a Sherlock Holmes production where his sheer talent won him high praise, and “like tidings from heaven”, he soon received an opportunity to star in the original West End production.

Charlie Chaplin holding a doll, 1918. (Credit: Wikimedia)

As he continued engaging in solo burlesque acts, it was via his half-brother Sydney Chaplin that he joined a prestigious comedy troupe run by the famous Fred Karno. Although Karno had his initial inhibitions about the “pale, puny, sullen-looking youngster”, Chaplin’s ground-breaking performance at the London Coliseum left an indelible impact on the crowds, securing his position as one of the key performers. 

Chaplin’s energy and effervescence shone through all his performances whether it was in stage plays, vaudeville shows or, later, on-camera. It was in one of Karno’s shows that Charlie came up with a genius blueprint of an ‘Inebriate Swell’, a foolish drunkard, which earned him the high praise of being “one of the best pantomime artists ever seen here [North America]”. Charlie joined Keystone motion picture company intending to be with the goal of being an assistant in the process of filmmaking and very soon was cast before the screen. Although he was nervous in his first on-screen appearance in Making a Living, a film he thoroughly disliked but was a debut that made him a recognisable name, it was not until the second film that he began to garner people’s interest. 

For his appearance in Mabel’s Strange Predicament, Chaplin had a genius idea which resulted in the birth of his most iconic and beloved persona, the Tramp. The Tramp was clad in hilarious clothing with “pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large” and Chaplin even added a “small moustache” which “would add age without hiding [my] expression”. The Tramp was a good-natured and kind-hearted vagrant whose social status earns him the scorns of the gentile society, while he desperately tries to emulate their mannerisms. His epic fails and funny walk elicited peals of laughter from the audience who instantly fell in love with this silly goose-like character. 

Humour is a mystery that is hard to decode. It is evident that people laugh hardest at other’s misery. For example, a man slipping on a banana peel was one of the most common motifs of slapstick comedy. Similarly, Chaplin’s Tramp was a typical everyman whose fate brought upon him unavoidable situations that got him into trouble which became the cause of laughter. In the era of silent films, the Tramp character in its glory of foolish antics and impoverished dreams of attaining a gentleman-like stature was very popular due to the employment of physical actions. While the audience laughed at his buffoonery, Chaplin managed to evoke sympathy at the truant’s fate, and the trap would go down in cinematic history as one of his most iconic creations. 

Chaplin’s career catapulted when he made his directorial debut at Keystones, earning him immense fame. He gained a better contract at Essanay and began to weave in personal experiences into the touching tales, often provoking and playing with the viewers’ imagination. Hilarious yet moving, the films evoked in the audience love and empathy for the adorably foolish Tramp. Very soon, he became a pop-cultural icon. With one of the very first film actors to have his own set of merchandise, Chaplin’s popularity reached unthinkable heights when he was recognised as an international film star, the first person in the history of Hollywood to have attained this stature. Loved and adored by all, Chaplin’s sheer brilliance brought in waves of adulation and endearment which was called by Motion Picture Magazine as ‘Chaplinitis’. 

A perfectionist, he toiled relentlessly to gain the final products which reeked of superiority and masterful craftsmanship with a hint of humanism. He would never settle for less and prompted his associates to work as hard, taking hundreds, sometimes thousand takes to perfect a single shot. His acting as well as the directorial style has been the inspiration for many over the course of years—and rightfully so. The magnificence of Chaplin’s oeuvre lay in his ability to blend in the pathos and the suffering of common masses during contemporary events like Great Depression, wars, unemployment, food shortages and more, into his comedic roles. The systemic oppression that rejected the Tramp’s ability to move upward the social ladder resonated with the audience who sought solace in his films. The slapstick humour was peppered with feelings and a wake-up call to realise how the society as gradually crumbling down at the hands of the power-mongering bourgeoise. 

With the advent of films that included wordy dialogues and background scores, Chaplin was pressurised to include the same. He did not want to tarnish the Americanised image of the Tramp by speaking in his heavily accented British English and, instead, he composed music for his films which became iconic as soundtracks often employed even now for comic routines. His artistic brilliance shone exuberantly through every aspect he dipped his hands in—be it acting, direction, composing and more. However, Chaplin’s career was not spared of scandals and more such scandalous tainting news. While he was incessantly crucified for his involvement with younger girls and gradually for a paternity suit despite the child not being his, biologically, he soon became the victim of a politically-motivated witch hunt at the hands of yellow journalists. It was an incident which brought a decline in the flourishing and mutually beneficial relationship shared between him and the United States of America. 

After a few hit features like A Dog’s Life, The Gold Rush, The Circus, City Lights and more, Chaplin’s Modern Times was called out for being a nearly realistic political commentary on the state affairs which echoed Chaplin’s personal fears regarding the rise in unemployment due to increased dependency on machinery and ensuing capitalism. However, the real conflict began after Chaplin decided to make The Great DictatorDeeply affected by Hitler and his horrifying fascist tendencies, he created a political satire attacking Hitler, the Nazi Party and fascism. While he was criticised for employing laughter in a topic as grave as Hitler, he defended himself by saying how “Hitler must be laughed at”.  

The film has an iconic monologue at the end in which he made an earnest appeal to his viewers to reject war, fascism and see these for what they really are. This tarnished his Tramp image, politicising it; Chaplin would never be able to distinguish his star-like status from his political beliefs ever again. 

A young Charlie Chaplin, 1921. (Credit: Strauss-Peyton Studio)

At the same time, Chaplin was embroiled in a series of scandalous legal accusations which had no truth-value and were very ambiguous. The FBI, who wanted to deport Chaplin, capitalised on his somewhat perilous situation and started digging dirt on him. They fanned the Red Scare anxieties among the masses against Chaplin, declaring him a sympathiser of communism. By the release of his film Monsieur Verdoux, which was considered “the cleverest and most brilliant film I have yet made” by Chaplin himself, the shift in the western sentiment was palpable. As the film further asserted his anti-capitalist beliefs, Chaplin, despite gaining praise and acclaim abroad, faced major boycott and failure in Hollywood. 

Hurt by the treatment he received at the hands of Americans after entertaining them with decades of pure laughter and joy, the self-proclaimed “peacemonger” left the country. He was driven out by selfish political motives despite his contribution to the country, especially to the film industry. Hollywood, which has always boasted a vicious and ungrateful reputation, did not do anything to prevent their comedic messiah from leaving. Although Chaplin continued with his work, his traumatic experiences at America had taken a toll on his creative genius. Limelight, despite not being his last film, can be seen as Chaplin’s farewell in which an epic epiphany as an artist and about how an artist gradually exhausts himself before becoming replaceable. With profound imagery, it is a glorious film in whose poignance Chaplin basked, and his career was reflected. 

However, in Hollywood’s classic redeeming fashion, Charlie Chaplin was invited to America in 1972 to receive an honorary Academy Awards for his monumental contribution to the field of cinema. Shortly after he received the knighthood, he died at the age of 88 in 1977. Chaplin left behind an outstanding legacy and shaped the film industry as well as helped Hollywood spread its wings worldwide. He changed the perception of comedy and transformed comedy from being a side-kick to one of the most essential components in cinema. America, as well as the rest of the world, is thankful for being able to experience the mastery and talent of this man, whose utmost dedication and love for his craft of filmmaking changed the course of the film industry forever. Charlie Chaplin, after 43 years of his death, continues to rule hearts and be the king of comedy, and will be so till eternity.  

“Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.”

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