This obituary for Charlie Chaplin appeared in The Times on December 28, 1977.

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Charlie Chaplin

Sir Charles Chaplin, KBE. Charlie Chaplin, the comedian, died on Christmas Day. He was 88.

He was the last survivor from among the founding fathers of the American cinema, one of the greatest comic creators in film, and achieved greater, more widespread fame in his own lifetime than perhaps anyone else in the history of mankind. He was the darling of the intellectuals, who loved to theorize on the significance of his comedy, its social responsibility, its relation to the great tradition of commedia del' arte and circus clowning, its anarchic force and vigour. But he also had to a unique degree the common touch-people of virtually any culture were able to respond with laughter to his screen antics, and for generation after generation of children he was the first introduction to the magic world of the cinema.

During the latter part of his long life Chaplin, though loaded with honours and universally regarded as one of the unshakable monuments of the cinema (whatever controversy his political attitudes might arouse), did begin to suffer from a certain reaction to the excesses of his early admirers. This had something to do with a grudging but progressive disenchantment with his later films, and something to do with the rediscovery and revaluation of the work of his many rivals in silent comedy. As we moved into the 1950s it became permissible to prefer the refined and unsentimental art of Buster Keaton, who was certainly a far more subtle and imaginative film-maker than Chaplin could ever claim to be, or even the totally unpretentious humour of Laurel and Hardy. The time was coming, in fact, for a thorough reassessment of Chaplin's own work, concentrating on aspects of it which would be more congenial to modern sensibilities: the elements of childlike ruthlessness which had endeared it to the Surrealists, perhaps, rather than the sentimentalizing elevation of the "little man" which had made him a hero to liberal humanists.

As with Chaplin's performances, so with his career as a whole, the secret of his success lay in his immaculate timing. His genius was essentially pantomimic, and so ideally suited to the silent cinema. He came into films at a period when the various functions of film-making were undefined, so that anyone with a strong idea of what he wanted to do (which Chaplin certainly had, almost from the outset) was free to go ahead and do it. Having got in on the ground floor, he was able, with the aid of extraordinary business acumen, to build at once on his great success with the public in order to become rich and powerful as well as famous-even in these early days Chaplin off-screen, the budding tycoon and central figure in many an over-publicized romantic drama, was sharply differentiated from the somewhat pathetic underdog he played in films, with his cane and baggy pants, his slum-bred cunning, and his understandable tendency to be overlooked by the girl of his dreams. By the beginning of the 1920s he was his own master in films, able to do exactly what he wanted, in exactly the way he wanted-and in his own time.

And with the coming of sound, he alone was able to fight a long rearguard action, making what were in effect silent films with the addition of music and sound-effects, and in The Great Dictator a little localized speech, until right into the 1940s. He had had the foresight to own outright and control all his mature works and to withhold them from general release for years at a time, so that each reappearance of a Chaplin film had a sense of occasion all its own. And even his later contretemps with the American authorities over his flirtations with marxism and his staunchly preserved British nationality, which resulted in some years of exile from America, was eventually resolved to the complete satisfaction of both sides.

The central figure of this almost totally satisfactory and successful life, Charles Spencer Chaplin, was born on April 16, 1889, at East Lane, Walworth, and his childhood was spent at 3 Parnell Terrace, Kennington Road. His father was of mixed French and Irish descent, and his mother had gypsy blood in her veins. Both were well known in the music halls of their day.

His childhood was an unhappy one, and when Charles was five his mother, who was never strong, found that the problems of looking after the family in the face of poverty and adversity had become too much for her. Charles and his half-brother Sydney were therefore sent to an orphanage. This was a great shock to the sensitive child and it gave him a sense of insecurity which was to haunt him throughout his life.

He emerged from the orphanage in March, 1896, and became a waif of the London slums. His first stage appearance was made soon after at the age of seven, when he performed a clog dance: three years later he was appearing in music halls all over the country as one of "The Eight Lancashire Lads". Then for a short time he became a legitimate actor, and played Billy the office boy, in Sherlock Holmes, and was also seen as one of the wolves in the first production of Peter Pan.

When he was 17 Charles Chaplin joined Fred Karno's pantomime group, and in 1910 was taken as first comedian on the company's tour of the United States. In 1913 he was seen in New York by Mack Sennett, America's foremost producer of comedy films, playing a drunk in a sketch called A Night in an English Music Hall, and was taken on as a film comedian to replace Ford Sterling.

Chaplin was reluctant to leave Karno, and his early days in Hollywood only confirmed these doubts. His first film, in which he appeared in a frock coat and top hat, was a failure. Later he adopted the tramp costume of the baggy trousers and ill-fitting suit, but it was not until the making of Tillie's Punctured Romance in 1914, with Marie Dressler and Mabel Normand, that he became famous.

Chaplin made about 40 comedies for Sennett, then made 14 for Essanay, and in 1916 he went over to the Mutual Company after signing a contract for what was, in those days, an unheard-of salary. But by now he was world famous, and was writing and directing his own films. More important still was the fact that the character of "the little fellow", as the tramp was always known to his creator, had become firmly established in his mind.

For Mutual Chaplin made some of his best short comedies, including, The Floorwalker, The Rink, and Easy Street. In 1918 he joined First National, and for them made eight films, including A Dog's Life and Shoulder Arms. Then he built his own film studios and formed his own company, and in 1919 he joined with the other leading film-makers of the period-D. W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford-in forming the United Artists Corporation.

The 1920s were the golden age of the silent cinema, and Chaplin entered this golden age with wealth, power, authority, and complete freedom as an independent producer of his own work. To this period belongs The Kid (1920) with Jackie Coogan, The Gold Rush (1925) with Mack Swain, and The Circus (1928) with Merna Kennedy. During this period he also startled the film world by writing and directing a picture in which he did not himself appear. This was A Woman of Paris (1923), with Adolphe Menjou and Edna Purviance-an interesting and original work, but one that attempted a sophisticated elegance which was not really within Chaplin's province and which Lubitsch was shortly to undertake with much more success in The Marriage Circle.

Up to this point in his career there was little room for controversy of any kind: his popularity was unchallenged, and even A Woman of Paris enjoyed considerable success, on its own merits rather than as a Chaplin film. It seems likely now that his lasting reputation will rest most securely on the films he made between 1916 and 1928: later reissues of The Gold Rush, The Kid, Shoulder Arms, Easy Street and other films of this era in sparkling new prints with musical soundtracks composed by Chaplin himself confirmed their power over new generations of filmgoers, while The Circus, which Chaplin had never considered one of his better films, came as a revelation when shown again in this new form. But from the beginning of the sound era things become more arguable. There were many, and are still, who regard City Lights (1931) as his finest film. But for others the sentiment in the "little fellow's" love for a blind flower girl becomes cloying and for the first time a deathly self-consciousness about the character's symbolism and message for the world seems to intrude. In this film Chaplin resolutely turned his back on the talkie, making a silent film with the musical accompaniment on the soundtrack instead of live in the theatre. He used the same approach in Modern Times (1936), a would-be satire of the mechanization of man which leaned heavily on Ren� Clair's � Nous la Libert� and despite funny moments demonstrated rather clearly that satire and explicit messages were not Chaplin's forte.

It was no doubt inevitable that eventually Chaplin would have to talk on the screen, and he took the plunge at the end of The Great Dictator (1940), with a six-minute speech driving home the point of his satire at the expense of Hitler and Mussolini. Most of the film remained speechless, however; it was the swansong of Chaplin's little man character, in the shape of the humble Jewish barber with an uncanny resemblance to a Hitler-like dictator also played by Chaplin. Monsieur Verdoux (1947) marked a complete break with the past: a talkative "comedy of murders" suggested by the life and career of Landru, it gave us a suave, middle-aged Chaplin very different from anything we had seen before. For the first time it is unavoidable to see the limitations of Chaplin's skill as a film director rather than as a performer-the film is stiff and stagy in the extreme, and not too well written either, in a context where high style is a necessity. Limelight (1952) was something of a return to form, however: unashamedly Victorian and sentimental in its tale of an aging clown's love for a waiflike ballet dancer, it took on an indefinable quality from Chaplin's own nostalgic re-creation of his early days in the London theatre, and at least it did not even try for most of its length to be funny.

Its appearance marked the beginning of an unhappy period in Chaplin's life. When he left America for the European premiere the State Department banned his re-entry (which they could do as he had never become an American citizen), and Chaplin took up residence, at first resentfully, in Switzerland. His next film, The King in New York (1957), made in Britain and for long unseen in America, was a bitter but ineffectual satire on America and the American way of life, notable chiefly for Chaplin's succumbing to what is supposed to be the classic comic's temptation, that of playing Hamlet, with an unfortunate rendition of "To be or not to be" during a New York dinner party. But the anger on both sides, product of those witch-hunting days, gradually subsided as Chaplin moved into an honoured old age.

His last film, A Countess from Hong Kong (1966), was a light romantic comedy starring Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren, based on a script he had written for himself and his then wife Paulette Goddard in 1938 and showing signs of its age; for the first time since his earliest days he was working for someone else (the film was completely financed by Universal), and for the first time since A Woman of Paris he himself made only a token appearance. The film was kindly received, if with many reservations, and was an almost total disaster at the box office. Nevertheless Chaplin made definite plans to direct yet another film, The Freak, starring one of his younger daughters, but the increasingly delicate state of his health precluded him from doing so. In 1973 he was at last received back with open arms into the American film establishment, given a special Oscar in recognition of his lifetime contribution to film art, and commemorated with a statue at the historic corner of Hollywood and Vine. In 1975 he was made KBE in the New Year's Honours.

During the intervals of film-making Chaplin wrote My Autobiography (1964), a fascinating if in certain respects disingenuous document which is of particular value for its vivid evocation of the London of his childhood and his early struggles in the theatre; the latter parts become heavy with dropped names and grievances rehearsed. In fact his off-screen life was considerably more eventful than the book gives one to suppose, and his three earliest marriages, to Mildred Harris, Lita Gray and Paulette Goddard (who had starred opposite him in Modern Times and The Great Dictator) were stormy, plagued by scandal, and ended in divorce. His last marriage, to Oona O'Neill, daughter of Eugene O'Neill, brought him happiness, repose and several children, one of whom, Geraldine, achieved considerable success in her own right acting in films, as had Sydney, the older of his two sons by Lita Gray. His old age was a satisfying crown to a life of activity and creative endeavour, bringing honours and reconciliation and universal reverence for the man and his work. Whatever the ups and downs of taste in the years to come, his greatness as a clown and his crucial role in the history and serious acceptance of the cinema as an art form are certain to stand the tests of time.

Source: The Times [] and Microsoft� Encarta� Encyclopedia 2001.