On this day, 123 years ago, one of the most influential and creative personalities of the silent film era was born. Let us take a look back at the life and silent film milestones of English comic actor Charlie Chaplin in this installment of Today in History.
On April 16, 1889, Charles Spencer Chaplin was born to Music Hall entertainers Hannah and Charles Chaplin Sr. Although he has no official birth record, he cited his birthplace as East Street, Walworth in South London. Chaplin endured a difficult childhood, beset by poverty and misfortune; his mother only had occasional dressmaking and nursing as sources of income, while his father provided no financial support to the family. At seven, Chaplin had to be sent to a workhouse and placed under the care of the Central London District School for paupers.
Perhaps one of the most depressing episodes of Chaplin’s early life was the time his mother was admitted to a mental asylum for two months due to psychosis caused by malnutrition and syphilis infection. Chaplin and his older brother Sydney John were then sent to live with their alcoholic and abusive father during this time. His mother later on became constantly ill, and her madness returned permanently in 1905. Chaplin lived with and took care of his mother until her demise in 1928.
Stories of his early beginnings as a performer tell of the young Chaplin dancing alongside his older brother on the streets of London and collecting pennies in a hat. They eventually landed in an orphanage and joined a children’s dance troupe called Eight Lancashire Lads.
Chaplin’s earliest performances included his role as Billy the pageboy in Sherlock Holmes by William Gillette, who later on took him under his wing and fine-tuned his talents. His comedic skills, meanwhile, was later on developed and polished with the help of music hall comedian Fred Karno’s company, for which his half-brother had already landed a successful stint as a comedian.
Soon, Chaplin was on his way to becoming one of the entertainment world’s most iconic figures, with his signature bowler hat, mustache, out-turned feet, and walking cane. In 1914, Chaplin joined Keystone Film Company and starred as a mustachioed villain with a monocle in his first film, Making a Living. A year later, he joined Essanay company which paid him handsomely compared to his Keystone stint. During this time, he refined the character Charlie the Tramp, which eventually became his legacy.
By 1918, Chaplin had already become a master of silent comedies and pantomimes, earning a significant sum for his films which drove audiences into fits of laughter and tears. He also starred in several films that he wrote and directed, among the most notable being The Immigrant (1917), Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), and The Great Dictator (1940).
His life as an entertainer, from his child performer days until shortly before his death in 1976, spanned more than 75 years. Chaplin was ranked by the American Film Institute as the 10th greatest male screen legend of all time, and remains among the most influential and “gigantic” comedians to this day.
Now, let’s greet the master comedian Charlie Chaplin a happy birthday and watch a montage of some of his silent films below: