Charlie Chaplin was a worldwide sensation in the era of silent film. He was an actor, a director and composer whose career started when he was just a child. He had multiple wives and children, and was dogged by controversy over his marriages, offspring, and political views.
His personal life aside, he had an entertainment career that spanned over 75 years and still has influence on the industry today. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was Knighted into the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Even though he was such an amazing figure, there’s still so much mystery that surrounds him – here are ten things you didn’t know about Charlie Chaplin.
10. Parents and Family
Born to an actress and singer on April 16, 1889, in London, Charlie was immediately immersed in show business. His mother gave birth to two other sons – Sydney and George. George was taken by his father shortly after birth and Charlie Chaplin did not meet his second brother until later in life. Sydney was Charlie’s half-brother, but they were raised by their mother in a lifetime of poverty and hardship. Without financial support from Charlie’s estranged father, a popular singer at the time, their mother, Hannah, was having a hard time making ends meet.
Charlie and Sydney first went to a workhouse when Charlie was 7-years old and their mother couldn’t afford to feed and house them anymore. They were briefly reunited with their mother before both boys were sent back to an institution for destitute children in 1898. Eventually, their mother was committed to a mental asylum for a short period and the boys were sent to live with their abusive, alcoholic father. After the death of his father, Charlie returned to his unstable mother, quit school, and started to support himself with odd jobs so he could continue acting and dancing.
9. First on Stage at Age 5
Charlie’s mother was an actress when he was a child, and he traveled with her while she was working. One tragic night she lost her voice while on stage and her manager pushed Charlie onto the stage to take over for her. To everyone’s surprise, the audience loved him – he had a natural charisma and ability to entertain. He immediately shifted to comedy, cracking his voice like his mother and taking a slapstick approach. Charlie’s career followed the comedic path while he was touring in the early years, and continued when he moved into acting and producing his movies.
His mother’s singing voice never returned and that pushed Charlie and his brother into an early life of poverty. However, this first amateur experience fostered Charlie’s love of entertaining and inspired the rest of his life. His first stint was with the dancing troupe Eight Lancashire Lads. After the Lads, Charlie moved on to Casey’s Court Circus and finally traveled to the United States with the Fred Karno Pantomime Group. A film producer found Charlie during his first trip to the United States and signed him to his first profitable film contract.
8. Four Marriages
Charlie Chaplin was plagued with drama in his personal life. He had numerous affairs with the actresses in his movies and he was married multiple times. His first wife was named Mildred Harris, who was just sixteen at the time they wed. The marriage was short and they were divorced in just two years. Charlie was remarried a few years later, and his next wife was an actress in The Gold Rush named Lita Grey. The marriage was a reaction to an unplanned pregnancy, and while they had two sons together, Lita and Charlie divorced after three years.
Almost ten years later Charlie married his third wife Paulette Goddard. They did not have any children, but their marriage ended when Joan Barry, another actress, sued Chaplin for child support and paternity. She had a daughter that she claimed was his, and even though tests came back negative, Charlie was still court-ordered to provide for Joan’s daughter. Charlie’s fourth and final marriage to the 18-year-old Oona O’Neill was a happy one, which was a surprise to many. They had eight children together and were married from 1943 until Charlie died in 1977.
7. Only One Color Movie
Charlie Chaplin’s one and an only color movie was a film that he produced titled A Countess from Hong Kong. The movie premiered in 1967 and had a star-studded Hollywood cast. Chaplin made a small appearance himself and gave the main role to his son Sydney who was named after his brother. Three of his daughters also had minor roles in the film. A Countess from Hong Kong was Charlie’s last film and was produced through Universal Pictures.
Chaplin started developing his idea and writing the movie in 1930 with a different cast in mind but had to wait to produce it. The movie details a wealthy man traveling on a steamship while in the midst of divorcing his wife. On his return journey, the man finds a woman in his cabin that he spent the night with. Plenty of complications ensue, he falls in love with his Countess, and matters only get worse when his soon-to-be ex-wife arrives at port. However, despite years of work and a star-studded cast, A Countess performed poorly when released to the public and is not recognized as one of his great accomplishments.
6. Body Stolen After Death
Charlie Chaplin died of a stroke in his home on the 25th of December in 1977 at 88-years old. Even though he was known to be agnostic, he wished to be buried in an Anglican ceremony and his family granted him that wish. His funeral was very small and private, but he was nationally remembered by many in the film industry as an icon and a trailblazer. Charlie was interred near Lake Geneva in Switzerland, where he had lived after his exile from the United States.
Just over three months after he was buried, on March 1st 1978, Charlie’s body was stolen and held for ransom. The criminals were two political refugees from Eastern Europe, Roman Wardas, and Gantcho Ganev. Wardas and Ganey were trying to extort money from Charlie’s family, particularly his last wife Oona O’Neill Chaplin, in order to support themselves. Charlie’s wife refused to negotiate with the thieves and said that her husband was in heaven and in her heart. The two men were caught by the police, Charlie’s body was recovered and the men were arrested. When Charlie was re-buried, he was placed in a concrete vault for safety.
5. He had Blue Eyes in Real Life
Charlie Chaplin rose to fame in the world of silent film and black and white pictures. He wore heavy eye makeup in all of his films – specifically for his most famous and iconic character ‘the little tramp.’ As such, he appeared to have dark brown eyes on the screen. Many who met him were stunned by how his eyes were, in fact, a striking blue. Some of his fans did not even think that Charlie Chaplin was who he said he was because his image was so widely known and closely linked to his dark eyes in the film.
It was no surprise then – except maybe to Charlie himself – that when he entered a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest in 1975, he lost. He came in third behind two people who, apparently, looked more like him than he did. Even in his only color appearance for A Countess in Hong Kong, his eyes are not distinctly blue. How funny it is that in present day we can recognize a celebrity from miles away, but Charlie – one of the most recognized faces in the world – could not even win a look-alike contest!
4. Academy Award Record
Charlie Chaplin was presented with an honorary Oscar in 1972 and received a record-breaking and record-holding twelve-minute standing ovation from the audience. He was invited back by the Academy to celebrate a lifetime of achievement and trailblazing in film, and it was his first trip to the United States in over twenty years. The Oscar was presented for “the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century.” Charlie had been exiled from the United States and sent to Switzerland two decades before because he was suspected to have sympathies with the communist party, a suspicion he denied.
The ovation began as soon as Charlie was announced and walked on to the stage to receive his award, and stopped only to let him say a few words before picking back up again. In fact, the entirety of the ovation was not filmed because it went on for so long. As he exited the stage, he was presented with, and wore, his iconic bowler hat and cane. The moment is listed in the top Oscar moments of all time – a true testament to the tremendous effect Charlie had on film.
3. Left Handed
Charlie Chaplin was left-handed, a little-known fact. As with most other children at the time, Charlie was forced to learn how to write with his right hand from an early age. Schools disapproved of students using their left hand to write and so would tie their left hand behind their backs in order to force them to become right-handed. They would even beat children’s left hands with rulers to discourage them from writing with it and make them conform to their ideal of right-handed students. Some have suspected that children were made to write with their right hand because of religious texts, or just because of social constructs.
However, despite his teacher’s attempts, Charlie still used his left hand for almost everything except writing – something we can see in his films and in photographs taken of him. He would use his left hand to play sports and play instruments, and even had to restring his violin backwards so that he could play it. This did not stop him from becoming extremely successful. Charlie Chaplin joins a huge list of left-handed celebrities such as Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and Steve McQueen.
2. Screen Alter Ego “The Little Tramp”
“The Little Tramp” was Charlie Chaplin’s most recognizable character and quickly became an iconic figure in film. The Tramp first came to the silver screen in the comedy Kid Auto Races at Venice and became a runaway favorite character for the public. The Tramp was characterized with huge pants, floppy shoes, a tight jacket, and a too-small derby hat – an awkward but comedic mix that brought the Tramp to life.
The Tramp appeared in multiple films over the years and was Charlie Chaplin’s most-played character. As film started to evolve and silent films were joined with “talkies,” or spoken films, the Tramp remained silent. Champlin made this decision because while he was British, the Tramp was stylized as an American character, and adding a voice would only take away from the icon the Tramp had become. The Tramp was finally retired in 1936 in the film Modern Times, where the Tramp remains silent until the end of the film where he sings a bit of gibberish. Modern Times allowed the Tramp to stay in the era of silent film as Chaplin moved forward into the new world of spoken word films.
1. Did not Fight in either World War
Charlie Chaplin never fought in a World War, which was highly controversial. He was a British citizen, but considered himself a “paying visitor” to the United States, as he was not an American citizen. Charlie stated that he had registered for the American war draft, but neither the United States or Great Britain called on him to serve. After the release of his film A Dogs Life in 1918, Charlie started a campaign to raise money for the Allied troops. He toured as part of the Third Liberty Bond campaign and made a short promotional film entitled The Bond. His films were also shown to soldiers all over the world in order to increase morale and were reported to be successful in doing so.
He also ran into trouble during World War II after his film The Great Dictator, which poked fun at Adolf Hitler and Mussolini. The film brought suspicion upon his possible Communist sympathies because while it teased two terrible leaders, it did not address Stalin – a key figure of the time. He later regretted making the film and apologized, stating that he was not a communist and that he was just a ‘human being.’