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A waxwork of Charlie Chaplin in Madame Tussauds Amsterdam

Charlie Chaplin: Biography

Image Credit: Anton_Ivanov / | Above: A waxwork of Charlie Chaplin in Madame Tussauds Amsterdam

Despite Chaplin's fierce temper and accusations that he fathered children by underage girls, Oona, his fourth wife, stood firmly by her 'Little Tramp'.

Charles Spencer Chaplin was born into a poor London family of music hall entertainers called Hannah Chaplin and Charles Chaplin SR. Even as a child he found success as a performer, making his stage debut in 1894. Biographer David Robinson has gone so far as to say that Chaplin's life was the ultimate rags to riches tale.

His early years were spent with his mother, who had no means of income, and brother in Kennington. Their father provided no support for his children causing Chaplin to be sent to the workhouse at the age of seven.

Chaplin spent his childhood going in and out of the workhouse as well as being educated by a range of charitable schools. In 1898, his mother was committed to a mental asylum due to a psychosis caused by syphilis and malnutrition. She remained in care until her death in 1928, leaving the young Charles and his brother Sydney to look after themselves.

He started his career in entertainment when he played a paperboy in 'Sherlock Holmes', which ran from 1903-6 from the age of 14, after which he worked as a mime in vaudeville theatres, until he left London for America. When Chaplin first arrived in the States he joined the Karno pantomime troupe, and toured with them for six years.

He signed his first film deal at the end of 1913, with Keystone pictures. His film debut was called 'Making a Living'. It was in the 1915 film, 'The Tramp', that Chaplin first appeared as the downtrodden, dreamy character for which he is most famous.

Chaplin's first controversy occurred during WWI when his loyalty to his native country was called into question as he lived in the US. Many British citizens called him a coward and a slacker.

In 1918, he married Mildred Harris with whom he had son Norman Spencer Chaplin, who only lived for three days. The couple divorced in 1920.

By the early 1920s, Chaplin was making his own films with actors Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks due to the establishment of Chaplin Studios and United Artists in 1919. Having control of his own films lead to classics such as 'The Kid', 'The Gold Rush', 'City Lights', 'Modern Times' and 'The Great Dictator'. These films made him the most popular and successful film star of his time.

During this period, Chaplin was married to Lita Grey, with whom he had sons Charles and Sydney. They had divorced by 1927. This was then followed by a brief marriage to Paulette Goodard between 1936 and 1942.

Chaplin was known for his innovative film-making techniques, although he kept tight-lipped about how he achieved them. He said that revealing his methods would be akin to a magician spoiling his own illusion.

However, it is known that he almost never worked from a finished script, improving jokes and dialogue once the set had been constructed.

Chaplin is often compared to the other great silent comedian - Buster Keaton - however, fans have noted that while Keaton is more cynical in his act, Chaplin had a love for sentimentality and pathos.

The actor also composed the music for many of his films, most notably the song 'Smile', which he wrote for 'Modern Times' and was later covered by Nat King Cole, reaching number two in the UK charts.

When sound films appeared, Chaplin's natural terrain of silent film was eclipsed by the novelty and realism of this new technology.

Chaplin was accused of being a communist by senator McCarthy, and a file was produced that supposedly detailed his subversive political activities since 1922. His first 'talkie' 'The Great Dictator' in 1940 added heat to this accusation and caused a stir. The film saw Chaplin play a caricature version of Adolf Hitler, which was seen as being in bad taste.

Despite this, it grossed over $5 million and won five Academy Awards. His support in aiding the Russian struggle against the invading Nazis was also scrutinized, leading the House of Un-American Activities Council issuing a subpoena against him in 1947 but later decided he didn't need to testify.

In 1952, Chaplin visited Europe for the premiere of his film 'Limelight' and was not allowed to return to the US; he settled in Switzerland. He made a film, 'The King In New York', in 1957, which was full of criticism of McCarthy and American society in general.

In 1964, he released his first autobiography called 'My Autobiography', which was followed by 'My Life in Pictures' in 1974.

He was allowed to return to the US in 1972 to receive an Oscar for his services to film. Chaplin was then given a Knighthood of the British Order by the Queen in 1975.

He died in Switzerland aged 88 from natural causes in 1977.

By the time of his death, Chaplin had fathered 12 children, eight of those with his last wife Oona O'Neill, the daughter of playwright Eugene O'Neill, whom he had married in 1943.