Major Film Directors of the American and British Cinema

By Gene D. Phillips | Go to book overview

1
Charles Chaplin
The Little Fellow in a Big World

When the first Academy Awards were presented in 1928, a special award went to Charles Chaplin for "his genius and versatility in writing, acting, directing, and producing The Circus." At the 1972 award ceremonies Chaplin was on hand to be honored again, this time for "the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century." In addition, he was knighted in 1975, in recognition of his supreme importance in shaping the motion picture medium as an art form.

In more than half a century of film making Chaplin produced an impressive body of work that is uniquely his own personal achievement. He not only wrote, produced, directed, and acted in his films but composed musical scores for them and supervised the editing as well. Therefore Chaplin's films are surely the expression of his own personal vision, a vision developed throughout the years as he continued making films. Hence Chaplin is a classic auteur, in the sense explained in the Prologue.

The Tramp character, which he made beloved the world over, had its roots in his own poverty-ridden childhood. "Perhaps because of my early environment," Chaplin said, "the comedy in tragedy has always been second nature to me. Cruelty, for example, is an integral part of comedy. We laugh at it in order not to weep."

Chaplin was born in London on April 16, 1889.' Both of his parents were moderately successful music hall entertainers. When he was still a youngster, his father died of alcoholism, and his mother retired from the stage because of poor physical health and mental illness. Consequently, Chaplin was forced to earn his living in vaudeville before he reached his teens. Mack Sennett, the creator of the Keystone comedies, saw Chaplin perform while the comedian was touring the United States with Fred Karno's vaudeville company and invited Chaplin to go into pictures in 1913. Chaplin left the stage for a career in movies the following year.

One rainy afternoon Sennett heard that a children's auto race was to be held at Los Angeles's Venice Amusement Park, and he sent Chaplin and the rest of his troupe over to the park to make a short comedy. Chaplin had no idea what kind of costume to wear, so he borrowed various items from his fellow comics on the Sennett lot and put together an outfit. From "Fatty" Arbuckle he took a pair of baggy pants, from Mack Swain a false mustache, and from Ford Sterling a pair of oversized shoes. To this Chaplin added a coat that was too tight and a derby hat that was

-23-

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