Do you believe laughter is the best medicine?
So did Charlie Chaplin.
Charlie Chaplin's life had nearly as many twists and turns as the movies that made him perhaps the world's first global celebrity. His story begins in true rags-to-riches fashion, centering on a boy born in 1889 London. His father was largely absent so his mother Hannah, a singer and vaudevillian, brought up her sons, Charlie and Sydney, backstage. One night, so the story goes, Hannah – who performed under the name Lily Harley – lost her voice in the middle of a show. The production manager thrust five-year-old Chaplin onto the stage in her place.
He wowed the audience with his singing abilities and comedic timing – at one point, bringing the house down by imitating his mother's cracking voice.
The early death of his father and the subsequent illness of his mother meant that Charlie was thrown on his own resources before the age of ten. He and Sydney followed in their mother’s footsteps, taking to the stage as the best opportunity for survival. They were in and out of the poorhouse and working odd jobs between auditions – as news paper vendor, printer, toymaker, even doctor's assistant. But the fates smiled on the boys when, at the age of twelve, Charlie landed the role of “Billy” the page boy in a stage production of Sherlock Holmes.
That break led to gigs with vaudeville, circus, and pantomime troupes, which brought him on tour to the United States. This is also when he honed his craft as a tragic-comic mime. In 1914, Charlie made his film debut. Though Make a Living was not particularly special, it enabled the young actor to develop the beloved tramp persona that would soon catapult him to stardom. In the following year, he performed in 35 different movies, including The Tramp (1915).
From there, it appeared that Chaplin could do no wrong. His career blossomed throughout the 1920s, 30s, and 40s with such classics as The Kid (1921), The Circus (1928), Modern Times (1936), and The Great Dictator (1940). He resisted "talkies," arguing that not limited by a single language, his silent pictures had broader, international reach.
With fame came artistic freedom to make increasingly political statements through his characters. On tour in Europe in the 1930s, Chaplin was disturbed to see the rise of nationalism and other negative social effects wrought by economic depression, unemployment, and automation. He spoke out for a more equitable distribution of both wealth and work. He believed that machinery should benefit humankind, not replace it or turn human workers into mere cogs in its tireless production line, a theme we see clearly in Modern Times (1936). In the film, the Little Tramp is now a factory worker, one of the millions coping with the social anxieties of the day, which are not so very different from those of the 21st century: poverty, unemployment, strikes and strike breakers, political intolerance, economic inequalities, the tyranny of the machine, and narcotics.
Unfortunately, Chaplin's political opinions got him into trouble with authorities in his adopted homeland. When Cold War tensions fueled fears of widespread Communist subversion, Chaplin was labeled a communist. He discovered, while en route by boat to London for the premiere of Limelight (1952), that he’d been blacklisted and denied re-entry to the United States.
That’s when Chaplin settled in Switzerland. He would die there on December 25, 1977, surrounded by his wife and eight children, but only after daring to expose, through satire and ridicule in A King in New York (1957), the paranoia and political intolerance that gripped the United States in the 1940s and 50s and to which he fell victim.
"Charlie Chaplin is my hero not only because he was a genius (which he was), but because he used that genius to demonstrate how the poor, the marginalized, and the suffering possess grace and poignancy in their lives. The Little Tramp wasn't just a protest against the everyday injustices of the society in which he lived, he was a testimony to the beauty and pathos of ordinary people."
Tim R. Noddings