How Charlie Chaplin Worked

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Katie Lambert: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I am Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdey: And I'm Sarah Dowdey.

Katie Lambert: Something you may not know is that Sarah and I are actually friends in real life, and we had a class together in college with one of our very favorite professors, Dr. Hubert McAlexander, and that's where I was introduced to the poet Hart Crane, and Crane had a fascination with a certain cinema star, so much that he wrote a poem about him and once had the chance to meet him, where they partied 'til dawn. If you're wondering who this man was, he was a listener favorite. We've gotten so many requests for Charlie Chaplin.

Sarah Dowdey: Charlie Chaplin was known to us for his Little Tramp character, which PBS's "American Masters" described as "a well-meaning man in a raggedy suit with cane, always found himself wobbling into awkward situations and miraculously wobbling away."

Katie Lambert: He was also known for being a perfectionist to the point of complete control freak, and possibly the greatest actor ever, so let's get to know our man.

Sarah Dowdey: Charlie Chaplin was born Charles Spencer Chaplin in London on April 16th, 1889. His mother, Hannah, was an actress who was also mentally ill. She had some bizarre stories about her life pre-Chaplin. She had one about eloping with this lord and living on a South African plantation, which is how she got Charles's half-brother, Sydney, but whatever. It's maybe true, maybe not.

Katie Lambert: Either way, she ended up marrying one Charles Chaplin, who was a singer, shortly after Sydney was born, which was a bit of a scandal to his family. Our Charlie Chaplin didn't think this Chaplin was his father for the rest of his life, and indeed, Hannah did have a weakness for affairs with different men, so who knows? They separated when he was young. Although the couple had been successful for a time, both on the stage, they ended up very poor. They weren't even sleeping in beds. His mom turned to evangelical religion, and wasn't very good with money. His father was alcoholic and estranged, and bad at giving them money.

Sarah Dowdey: So the boys, little Sydney and Charles, end up in a workhouse. Chaplin later said it wasn't so bad. He just daydreamed about being in Parliament. From there he moves on to an orphanage where they really tried to crush his spirit.

Katie Lambert: So they ended up in more workhouses, and then living with their father the drunk, and then living with their mother in bad circumstances, basically as dirty little ragamuffins. You have to picture him here. He was once part of the middle class with a very successful father, and then he's poor and ashamed of his poverty with a semi-famous alcoholic father who didn't really support them and died when he was young. We also have a mother who loved him, but couldn't take care of him, and spent a lot of her time in mental hospitals. This is where Charlie Chaplin came from.

Sarah Dowdey: Kind of like some of our vaudeville stars we mentioned earlier, this sad kind of childhood eventually drives the kids to the stage. Young Charlie was a clog dancer with the Eight Lancashire Lads, which is a great way to enter show business, I think.

Katie Lambert: He also learned a lot about pantomime, but his break came through his brother, Syd. He played a role in "Jim: A Romance of Cockayne," and then in a touring play, "Sherlock Holmes," he played a cockney boy in both.

Sarah Dowdey: But by the time he was 17, he had hit that rough period for a child star, you know, too old to play kids' parts, too young to play adults. We know how that usually turns out, but he manages to pull through, and he ends up in a production called "Casey's Court Circus." That's where he accidently discovered how to be funny.

Katie Lambert: He came out on stage very serious and had this serious rendition planned of the role he wanted to play, but everything went wrong. His hat fell down over his face, and he dropped things, and he realized that you laugh because it's unexpected. Those little nervous shocks make you laugh.

Sarah Dowdey: Soon enough, he's on the vaudeville stage, and he makes his way to the United States where he becomes a star. Famous words from the head of his touring company, Fred Karno, were "Keep it wistful, gentlemen. Keep it wistful." That's something that when he does forget that, his career kind of goes astray.

Katie Lambert: Later that becomes such a part of the tramp character.

Sarah Dowdey: Making it funny, but sweet.

Katie Lambert: He gained this reputation for being eccentric, but that didn't keep him from being signed with Mack Sennett and Keystone Studios, which is where he would start making film. He never thought he would stay in film. He thought it was a bit of a fad that would go out of style, but he starts acting, and his first film experience isn't what he expected. He thought movies would be like a stage play. You would act it out in front of a camera, film the whole thing, and then that would be it.

Sarah Dowdey: Start to finish.

Katie Lambert: But of course, that's not how it works. You film things out of order. Some of it's done really quickly. He was really disconcerted by the whole thing. In this film, he basically just fell off a ladder. No one thought he was very good, and he wanted to quit.

Sarah Dowdey: But of course he doesn't. He thinks up the character of the tramp. Remember that Chaplin had a lot of experience with a shift in class, going from respectable middle class to living in the workhouse, and he tries to keep some dignity in his portrayal of being poor, so the tramp premiers in "Mabel's Strange Predicament," which is actually a pretty risqué film. His early work is super twisted. It's not the tramp that you would think of.

Katie Lambert: No, it's an entirely unlikable character in those early ones. To give you an idea of what his work pace was like, in 1914 alone, he made 35 short films. It was pretty crazy. Again, he wasn't used to how this whole system worked, which is part of the reason that made him so hard to work with. He was very resistant to direction and incredibly picky about how shots were set up. He wanted constant reshoots, which was really expensive and just not the way things were done.

Sarah Dowdey: But he does work on developing his comedy and bringing more empathy to it. In 1915, he leaves Keystone for a higher salary with a company called Essanay. He leaves them for way more money at The Mutual Company Film Corporation. His annual salary is $670,000.00.

Katie Lambert: We want to talk a little bit more about what he was like to work with. As we mentioned before, he was very demanding, obsessed with every tiny detail, and every actor's performance. He wanted to walk through every scene and criticize what you were doing. He took hundreds of takes and fired actors right in the middle of things. But of course, it paid off, because is films were great. He also did a lot of improvisation on a barebones script, which is pretty cool.

Sarah Dowdey: According to Time, he was the first and to date, the last person to control every aspect of the filmmaking process, founding his own studio, United Artists, with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith, and producing, casting, directing, writing, scoring, and editing the movies he starred in.

Katie Lambert: Those are some big shoes to fill.

Sarah Dowdey: He's a one-man band.

Katie Lambert: He was described as very intense and self-absorbed by most of the people who knew him, but he was also very sweet. His comedy was smart. Again, according to PBS's "American Masters," for Chaplin, the best way to locate the humor or pathos of a situation was to create an environment and walk around it until something natural happened. That's a really good way of summing up a lot of his films. We should talk about some of his most famous pictures.

Sarah Dowdey: Chaplin's first feature film was "The Kid," from 1921 where most of us know that plot. A woman abandons her baby, plans to kill herself, but she ends up becoming an opera star and is always looking for her son. The tramp has been raising the baby all along. Surprise! It's a huge hit, and really kicks off his film career.

Katie Lambert: Another biggie is "The Gold Rush" in 1925. This was the film he said he wanted to be remembered for. It's often considered his masterpiece. He made it with United Artists, and the plot is that he's the tramp, again, this time during the gold rush in Alaska. He falls in love, and there's a famous scene where he eats his own boot for Thanksgiving dinner, which he carves and shares with the Big Jim character. You can see this clip on if you search for it. I was thinking hot ham water might be better, but nobody asked me.

Sarah Dowdey: This is actually the film I watched for a third-grade class project. I'm Charlie Chaplin. I also made a clay sculpture that my dad still has.

Katie Lambert: And you discovered that the movie Charlie was perhaps not proper viewing for an eight-year-old.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, probably not good for an eight-year-old kid, but "The Gold Rush" is.

Katie Lambert: His next big film was "City Lights" in 1930. In this one, the tramp helps cure a blind girl of her blindness, and he's in love, but once she sees who he is, she isn't. This is called by some the most romantic scenes in film history. This one was a compromise between the silent movies and the talkies. He held out for a long time in the silent film and did well. It was a good bet. In this one, he didn't talk, but there was music and sound effects, so it was kind of easing in to the idea.

Sarah Dowdey: He finally spoke in "The Great Dictator" in 1940. He played two roles, a tramp-like Jewish barber and a Hitler figure named Adenoid Hinkel. To give a little context, this is when a lot of people thought maybe we should try to work with Hitler. According to Roger Ebert, it prophesized the persecution of the Jews and the scenes of storm troopers terrorizing the ghetto were thought at the time to go too far. What a sad joke that seems today.

Katie Lambert: In one scene, the Hinkel character tries to rip up a bunch of spaghetti, saying that's how he'll destroy his enemies, but he can't actually do it. It is a very cruel satire and very spot on. He's a wholly unlikeable character. The film starts off with this quote. "This is the story of the period between two world wars, an interim during which insanity cut loose, liberty took a nose dive, and humanity was kicked around somewhat." Chaplin was very political, as we'll learn a little bit later in the podcast.

Sarah Dowdey: In 1947, he changed characters dramatically in "Monsieur Verdoux." He didn't play the tramp. Instead, he played a serial killer - one who marries women and kills them for the insurance money to support his own family, so basically a total Bluebeard. The concept was actually Orson Welles' idea, and based on a real French serial killer, Henri Landru, but the film did not go over well. Around this time, Chaplin was embroiled in a paternity suit and considered a Communist. There was all this controversy. People didn't like him playing somebody who wasn't the tramp.

Katie Lambert: My favorite contemporary review just started with, "Chaplin generates little sympathy."

Sarah Dowdey: That's very dry, isn't it?

Katie Lambert: It cracked me up. But it is a very dark film. One line from Henri Verdoux in the film says, "Wars, conflict, it's all business. One murder makes a villain, millions a hero. Numbers sanctify, my good fellow." It was anti-war, and it's also known as being anti-capitalist film.

Sarah Dowdey: Which 1947, not a good time for that.

Katie Lambert: No. As far as his personal life goes, it was a bit messy to say the least. In 1918, he married a 16-year-old, Mildred Harris. That didn't last. In 1924, he married another teenager, Lita Grey, with whom he had a very bitter divorce. It's possible that their story inspired "Lolita," according to the biographer who wrote Tramp: The Life of Charlie Chaplin, Joyce Milton. I got some very good details from her book.

Sarah Dowdey: He has another marriage to Paulette Goddard, and she describes him as being difficult but charming, and that genius can be rather difficult to live with. He has several affairs, including one with Pola Negri, who Katie's interested in her.

Katie Lambert: Yes, I really like her. She wrote about it in Memoirs of a Star. You might remember a mention from our William Hearst podcast about him being on the yacht with Marion Davies when there was that mysterious murder, and that perhaps he was having an affair with Davies.

Sarah Dowdey: Maybe. He also had a paternity suit with Joan Barry, and this is so strange, but the child was proven to not actually be his, according to blood evidence, but blood evidence wasn't admissible in court, so the court makes him pay. A second trial happens where the exact same thing goes down. They find it's not his child, but he still has to pay.

Katie Lambert: So paying for someone else's baby has to hurt a little bit, but the American public did not app rove of this whole thing, or his womanizing in general. That's not all they didn't approve of. He had some very lefty politics, and he was investigated by the House of American Activities Committee for being a supposed Communist sympathizer for some things he said during World War II. He thought we should help the Soviet Union on a second front.

Sarah Dowdey: People didn't like that he hadn't seen service during World War II, or at least gone on entertainment tour like a lot of the stars at the time did. J. Edgar Hoover kept a 2,000-page dossier on him and had his name down as Israel Thonstein, a Jew.

Katie Lambert: Which brings us to a question that's been asked many times, whether he was Jewish or not. During his own time, he wouldn't say yes or no, because he said that would be playing into anti-Semite hands. But his political views were so controversial that after he went to London for one of his premiers, he wasn't allowed back into the United States, so he became a little bitter about this incident, a little disenchanted with the U.S., and he moved to Switzerland.

Sarah Dowdey: But it's not a terribly unhappy ending in Switzerland. He marries Oona O'Neill, who is the playwright Eugene O'Neill's daughter, when he's in his 50s and she's 18. He really does have a thing for teenagers. But they're quite happy together. They live in Switzerland, and they have eight children. He does end up returning to the U.S. for an honorary Oscar. He gets a 12-minute ovation which is, to record, the longest ovation at the Oscars.

Katie Lambert: He ended up being knighted by the Queen in England. He died Christmas day in 1977, and his body was stolen from his Swiss cemetery by thieves. It was later retuned and reburied, but still. Exhumation in our podcast.

Sarah Dowdey: Always comes up.

Katie Lambert: To end where we started, we'll give you a quote from Hart Crane's "Chaplinesque." "We will sidestep into the final smirk, dally the doom of that inevitable thumb that slowly chafes its puckered index toward us, facing the dull squint with what innocence and what surprise." That brings us to our listener mail today.

Sarah Dowdey: This is an email from James, who was on his way to Vienna when he wrote us. He did mention that our podcast keeps him from losing his mind at work and called us saints.

Katie Lambert: Saint Katie. I like that.

Sarah Dowdey: Yes. Saint Katie and Saint Sarah! But he did write, "In your podcast on the Book of Kells, you incorrectly said that the Latin Vulgate Bible was the basis for English translations today. Though it was a key source for the King James version translated in 1611, most of the King James version, as well as all modern Bible translations, use the Greek and Hebrew text as primary sources. The first English translation made by John Wycliffe was a translation of the Vulgate into English in 1382." So a little more background information for those monks scribbling away at the Book of Kells!

Katie Lambert: If you'd like to email us any corrections, or comments, or suggestions, it's You can also follow us on Twitter at MissedinHistory, or join or Facebook fan page. We'd like to end with an interesting side note about our buddy, Chaplin. His films might be good for your health to completely exaggerate the claims of one study. In this study, breastfeeding mothers watching Chaplin films laughed quite a bit, which upped their melatonin levels and decreased their baby's allergic responses, so rent some Chaplin. If you're interested in learning a little more about that, we have an article called "Does Breastfeeding Make Better Babies?" by our own Molly Edmonds of Stuff Mom Never Told You. You can search for it on our home page at

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