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The life and career of Charlie Chaplin

To celebrate our screening of The Kid, which is 100 years old this year, Sarah Helm reflects on the life and career of Charlie Chaplin...

In these uncertain times, it can be comforting to watch something which warms the cockles of your heart.

Following the popularity of Buster Keaton’s The General (1926), which CFS screened a few years ago, this season’s Classic Film is The Kid (1921). Written, directed and starring one of cinema’s all-time greats, Charlie Chaplin, The Kid tells the story of an abandoned child (played by Jackie Coogan), who is found by Chaplin’s Tramp, and the two form a surrogate family. The pair live a happy but frugal life, surviving on minor scams and dodging brushes with the law, until the child’s mother reappears looking for her son.

The Kid was the first full-length feature film that Chaplin wrote, directed, edited, and starred in. It became the second highest grossing film of 1921, after The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and made Jackie Coogan Hollywood’s first child star (in later years Coogan played Uncle Fester in The Addams Family). The Kid has a winning mix of laughter and pathos, which became synonymous with Chaplin’s work, and has kept audiences enthralled for a century! In 2011, it was entered into The United States Film Registry by the Library of Congress for preservation, as it was cited for being ‘Culturally, historically or aesthetically significant’. Find out if you agree on 20th October at The Elgiva with a rare chance to see it on the big screen.

Charlie Chaplin

Chaplin, who became the leading auteur of early cinema and one of the most recognisable icons of 20th century film, came from impoverished beginnings. Here is a brief history of his extraordinary life:

Early Life:

Charles Spencer Chaplin was born in 1889 in Walworth, South London. His parents, both music hall artists, separated in 1891, leaving Charlie, his mother and half-brother, Sydney, in poverty. Their mother suffered from ill health and mental illness and often had no means of income, resulting in the boys spending considerable time in workhouses and poor schools.

Karno’s Army:

Chaplin inherited his parents’ love of performing, and from the age of 5 appeared in amateur theatre productions and repertory tour groups. Chaplin was beginning to find success, but it wasn’t until he signed with theatre impresario, Fred Karno, at the age of 19, that his career really took off. Karno ran a comedy company, which Sydney was already working for. Karno recognised Charlie’s comic ability and soon enrolled him in his American Vaudeville tour, as part of Karno’s Army, along with Arthur Stanley Jefferson, the future Stan Laurel, as his understudy.

Chaplin gained impressive reviews for his performances. During Karno’s second tour of the US, in 1913, Charlie was talent spotted, resulting in a film contract with Keystone Studios, which would pay $150 per week. Although Keystone’s comedy was not to Chaplin’s taste, he took the opportunity to learn the basics of filmmaking and to develop his on-screen persona – which resulted in his most famous creation, the Little Tramp, who first appeared on screen in Kid Auto Races At Venice, in February 1914.

Silent Film Career:

Chaplin’s fame continued, and after signing with Mutual for $670,000 per year he became one of the highest paid stars in the world. In the days before television and the internet, people would frequently visit the cinema for their news and entertainment, so it was a huge achievement for a boy from Lambeth. Wishing for more autonomy and becoming increasingly frustrated with the studio system, Chaplin set up a new production company, United Artists, alongside Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D. W. Griffith. The company would give artists the power to finance their own films and have creative control. Although United Artists was set up in 1919, Charlie continued to be tied to his contract with his existing studio, First National, until 1922, where he had to finish his 6 picture contract, which included The Kid.

United Artists provided Chaplin with his most notable successes, including The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936), which kept audiences enthralled and entertained with their winning mixture of pathos and slapstick, and all featured Chaplin’s Tramp character. Sadly, this final film would also be the final one for the Tramp, too.

Charlie Chaplin


With the introduction of sound, Chaplin was reluctant to move onto ‘talkies’, despite the change in audiences’ tastes. 1940 saw the release of The Great Dictator, a political satire which explored the rise of fascism and acknowledged the resemblance that Chaplin shared with Adolf Hitler. Although the film was a critical success and received Oscar nominations, audiences felt that Chaplin, breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the camera in the final reel, was too preachy and was pinpointed as the beginning of the decline in Chaplin’s popularity.

Charlie Chaplin


By the mid 1940s, Chaplin’s public appeal was on the wane. A series of affairs with young actresses and high profile paternity cases followed (Chaplin would father 11 children in his lifetime), greatly damaging his reputation. Chaplin continued to make and star in films, but having left his Tramp persona far behind he explored darker themes in films such as Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and Limelight (1952).


Chaplin’s political views labelled him as a Communist, and he was subject to an official investigation by the FBI, which began in 1947. In 1953, Charlie and his 4th wife, Oona O’Neill, moved their family from Beverly Hills to Manoir de Ban, overlooking Lake Geneva in Switzerland, where they would live for 25 years. Chaplin wrote his memoirs, re-edited his back catalogue and set up a new production company, Attica. He filmed A King of New York (1957) at Shepperton Studios in the UK. In 1967, he wrote and directed A Countess in Hong Kong, starring Sophia Loren and Marlon Brando. It was Chaplin’s only colour film and although it did not receive favourable reviews, the theme, This Is My Song, written by Chaplin and sung by Petula Clark, was an international hit.


In 1972, Chaplin was given an honorary Academy Award for the impact that his films had on the industry. Charlie returned to America for the first time in 20 years to receive the honour and was given a 20-minute standing ovation at the ceremony, which is the longest in the history of the awards. Chaplin received a Knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II in 1975, in the New Year’s Honours, but had to remain in his wheelchair as he was too frail to kneel.


Charlie Chaplin died in his sleep, on Christmas Day, 1977. He was 88 years old. He was buried at Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland and left more than $100 million to his widow, Oona.

Charlie Chaplin

To this day, Charlie Chaplin remains an icon of early cinema and his films continue to delight and inspire. We hope that you will feel the same when you watch The Kid on October 20th.

See you at the movies!


So many aspects of modern cinema is a result of the inventiveness and inspiration from the early movie making pioneers like Charlie Chaplin. We owe such a debt to them all.

For more information about the Slapstick Festival and a breakdown of all the events for 2022, CLICK HERE.

Information about the Chiltern Film Society can be found HERE.

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