Today is the birthday (1889) of Sir Charles Spencer “Charlie” Chaplin, KBE, English comic actor, filmmaker, and composer who rose to fame in the silent era. Chaplin became a worldwide icon through his screen persona “the Tramp” and is considered one of the most important figures in the history of the film industry. His career spanned more than 75 years, from childhood in the Victorian era until a year before his death at age 88, and was marked by both adulation and controversy.
Chaplin’s childhood in London was one of poverty and hardship making the Tramp especially poignant as a lifelong image even though he became rich through his work. Because his father was absent and his mother struggled financially, he was sent to a workhouse twice before the age of nine. When he was 14, his mother was committed to a mental institution. Chaplin began performing at an early age, touring music halls and later working as a stage actor and comedian. At 19 he was signed to the prestigious Fred Karno company, which took him to the U.S. Chaplin was scouted for the film industry, and made his first appearance in Keystone Studios’ Making a Living (1914). He soon developed the Tramp persona and formed a large fan base. Chaplin directed his films from an early stage, and continued to hone his craft as he moved to the Essanay, Mutual, and First National corporations. By 1918, he was one of the best known figures in the world.
In 1919, Chaplin co-founded the distribution company United Artists, which gave him complete control over his films. His first feature-length was The Kid (1921), followed by A Woman of Paris (1923), The Gold Rush (1925), and The Circus (1928). He refused to move to sound films in the 1930s, instead producing City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936) without dialogue but with musical soundtracks partly composed by Chaplin. Chaplin became increasingly political and his next film, The Great Dictator (1940), satirized Adolf Hitler. The 1940s were a decade marked with controversy for Chaplin, and his popularity declined rapidly. He was accused of communist sympathies, while his involvement in a paternity suit and marriages to much younger women caused scandal. The FBI opened an investigation and Chaplin was forced to leave the United States and settle in Switzerland. He abandoned the Tramp in his later films, which include Monsieur Verdoux (1947), the semi-autobiographical Limelight (1952), A King in New York (1957), and A Countess from Hong Kong (1967).
Chaplin wrote, directed, produced, edited, starred in, and composed the music for most of his films. He was a perfectionist, and his financial independence enabled him to spend years on the development and production of a picture. His films are characterized by slapstick combined with pathos, typified in the Tramp’s struggles against adversity. Many contain social and political themes, as well as autobiographical elements. In 1972, as part of a renewed appreciation for his work, Chaplin received an Honorary Academy Award for “the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this [20th] century.” He continues to be held in high regard, with The Gold Rush, City Lights, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator often ranked among industry lists of the greatest films of all time.
As with many great artists I prefer not to give you a blow by blow account of Chaplin’s life and career, the details of which are readily available to the interested. Instead it seems fitting to provide a few clips of classic scenes and then talk a little about his perfectionism as a performer/director. I will start with one of his most famous routines, the dinner roll dance from The Gold Rush:
Surviving footage reveals that he performed this routine numerous times and that it was likely something of a party piece for Chaplin.
But it was in the making of City Lights that Chaplin displayed his talent for (or obsession with) critical detail. City Lights is the story of a man, the Tramp, who meets a blind flower girl and is immediately enamored. This is followed by a series of misadventures with an alcoholic millionaire from whom he receives money to give to the flower girl for an operation on her eyes. However, through a series of misunderstandings with the millionaire he winds up in jail. Upon release he meets the flower girl again who now can see but, of course, does not immediately recognize him. It is only when she touches him that she realizes he is her mysterious benefactor. Here is the last scene which James Agee referred to as the “greatest single piece of acting ever committed to celluloid.”
The setup for the main plot of the film is a scene in which the flower girl and the Tramp meet for the first time. The key element is that the flower girl must mistake the tramp for a rich man, so that she believes he is simply a rich man who is generous with her, rather than a tramp who has gone through endless travails to help her. It took Chaplin over a year and 342 takes to get it right, to his satisfaction. Here is a compilation showing Chaplin directing this critical scene.
City Lights was a risky undertaking because Chaplin insisted on making it as a silent film even though “talkies” were becoming well established, and the silent era was effectively over. But Chaplin was committed to silent films as his medium, and his risk paid off, literally and metaphorically. When released in January 1931, City Lights had positive reviews and box office receipts of $5 million. Today, critics consider it not only one of the highest accomplishments of Chaplin’s career, but one of the greatest films ever made.
I just discovered that Chaplin’s favorite confection was marshmallow and coconut coated in milk chocolate and salted cashews, and in certain parts of New York State there is a bar (and dessert) called the Charlie Chaplin. If you are in the vicinity, and have a hankering, you can go to the Broadway Market in Buffalo to get some, or use this website for a mail order: http://www.aletheas.com/shop/chocolate-menu/charlie-chaplin/
Or, you can make a version yourself.
Charlie Chaplin Chocolate
2 lbs milk chocolate wafers or morsels
2 cups salted cashews
1 cup coconut flakes
Melt the chocolate in the top of a double boiler. Or use a bowl in a microwave, stirring every so often until the chocolate is barely melted. Do not overheat.
Add the coconut flakes to the chocolate and mix them gently but thoroughly.
Butter the bottom and sides of an aluminum loaf pan, and add enough of the warm chocolate mix to coat the bottom and sides. Work quickly so that the remaining chocolate mix does not stiffen.
Add the cashews to the remaining chocolate and mix.
Fill the pan with 12 marshmallows evenly spaced and then pour enough chocolate mixture over them to cover them and fill the pan about half way.
Add the remaining 12 marshmallows to the pan and pour the chocolate mixture over them to cover and filling the pan.
Chill several hours or until firm. Dip the loaf pan in hot water and release the chocolate. Alternatively you can simply cut away the pan. Even so it is a good idea to dip the pan in hot water first to make removal of the aluminum easier. Cut into bite-sized pieces.