Charlie Chaplin: The Revenge of the Little Fellow
We have only to say the name to conjure the man; bowler hat, moustache, bow-legged walk swinging a cane. A true icon of the 20th century. At his height he was probably the best known star in the world, instantly recognizable, millions enjoyed his films.
That Charlie was British is less well known. He was born (London 1899) into poverty and a childhood of hardship. His father was often absent and his mother struggled financially, he was sent to the work-house twice before he was nine years old. A recurring theme in his films was the struggle of the underdog against the odds.
Chaplin was no stranger to controversy, both for his alleged political views and his private life.
Custard pies and crazy cops
Admittedly a lot of routines and sketches can look a bit dated nowadays but they were hugely innovative at the time. His skill as an acrobat got him work with the popular Keystone Cops, a bunch of misfit policemen whose incompetence and madcap chase scenes enthralled huge audiences. Then there were the epic custard pie fights which usually had their origins in minor disagreements but escalated into huge culinary battles.
These scenes still retain their charm and were famously revived in the culminating scene of Mel Brook’s Blazing Saddles.
Most memorable scenes
Here are some personal favorites;
- The Great Dictator (1940). Chaplin’s masterpiece, a ‘talkie” as well, the ‘little fellow’ satirizes Hitler. Unforgettable scenes involve the Fuhrer character Adenoid Hynkel dancing with the globe (really a balloon) contrasted with his lookalike a Jewish barber living in the ghetto.
- Gold rush (1925). Memorable take on the Klondyke Gold rush. Memorable scenes include the balancing of the pioneers hut on the edge of a precipice. An idea subsequently used by other film makers.
- Modern times (1936). Mass production is the target of this landmark Charlie falls into the machinery becoming literally trapped in the wheels of production. A big favorite with social historians!
- The Champion (1915). In another often replicated sketch Charlie the novice boxer is chased around the ring before finally flooring (with the aid of his pet pit-bull) both his opponent and referee.
- The Circus (1928). The perfect setting for Chaplinesque fun and games. Charlie helps out an aspiring acrobat enabling her to marry her fiancée and remain with the circus. The film ends (as they often did) with the hero walking off alone into the sunset.
Private Life and Controversy
In terms of being reserved Chaplin was the quintessential Englishman. He tried to avoid being in the newspapers if he could but it wasn’t always easy.
He was involved in a series of trials with actress Joan Barry who claimed to be carrying Chaplin’s child. After the birth Chaplin was declared the father. Controversy intensified when he later married his 18 year old girlfriend Oona O’Neil. Chaplin was 54.
Charlie was also accused of Communist sympathies. He was known to be friendly with several communists and frequently attended functions with Soviet diplomats in Los Angeles. Chaplin denied the accusation, considering himself a ‘peacemonger’.
Well, that’s my take on another iconic Brit. Which Charlie Chaplin movie is your favourite? Which Chaplin moment still makes you smile? Let me know via the comment box.
 Conjure (verb) to perform clever tricks.
 Work-house (noun) a place in Britain in the past where poor people lived.
 Sketches (noun) comic routines
 Culinary (adjective) connected with cooking
 Precipice (noun) steep side of a cliff or mountain
 Landmark (adjective) an important event in (this case) filmmaking.
 Novice (noun) someone without experience
 Pit-bull (noun) a (sometimes aggressive) breed of dog
 Quintessential (adjective) a perfect type of something.