Charles Chaplin stitched humour with pathos seamlessly over 43 years (1914–1957) and offered the world a fabric of human life embroidered with its intricacies.
Born on April 16, 1889, Chaplin’s childhood was like the beginning of a ride into the storm. With his father’s paternal responsibility reduced to nothing, his mother Hannah had to provide for her two sons, Charlie and his half brother Sydney. She would take Charlie and Sydney out, visit several places together, read out passages from the New Testament to her children explaining Christ’s love and pity for distraught souls in her inimitable style. At night, she would tell stories to her children enacting different episodes with her histrionics with little Charlie broke into peals of laughter. Mother’s seamless display of different characters perhaps inspired him to grow as an actor, a comedian. An official website claims that Charlie Chaplin attributed his own success as a pantomime artiste to his mother’s gifts for mimicry and observation. Her mother happened to be a soubrette who played minor roles in comedy in different British music halls across the city, which fetched the family of three about twenty-five pounds a week.
When Hannah was waging a battle to make both ends meet, her larynx played the spoiled sport resulting in cracked voice. A nervous wreck, she made Charlie appear on stage ignoring the hesitation of the manager. Enthralled by the performance of a five year old kid, the audience stood up and clank of coins filled the air as they poured money on the boy. Too young to judge the merit of his performance, but old enough to realise the bite of penury, he picked up those coins first before he resumed again. As the curtain was about to drop for the day, Hannah bowed to the audience and carried her son off the stage.
After retiring from the stage, Hannah succumbed to migraines followed by mental illness. Seven-year old Charlie witnessed his mother’s continual visits to the mental asylum. In 1901, his father Chaplin Sr died of cirrhosis. A struggling childhood not only toughened him to fight against odds, but also prepared him to find humour in whatever life would have offered.
The young Chaplin started working as an apprentice in local music halls learning slapstick, burlesque routines that would once make him a star. While honing his talent, Charlie found a lucrative offer from Fred Karno, the then famous impresario, who offered him a ticket to America.
As the ship carrying him approached Manhattan, he, twenty one by now, took his hat off and shouted: ‘America, I’m coming to conquer you! Every man, woman and child shall have my name on their lips – Charles Spencer Chaplin!’ It was no hollow statement from a dreamer, he proved himself.
One night in 1912, Mack Sennett watched him in the role of an aged drunk on a stage in New York and the rest was history. “It was weeks before Charlie put over anything real. He tried all sorts of make-ups. One of them I remember was a fat man and they were all about equally fat. As a matter of fact, for some time I felt more than a little uneasy as to whether my find was a very fortunate one!” Sennett mentioned. The legendary owner of the famous Keystone studios in California took little time to sign him by doubling his salary.
The famous style
On a rainy day in February, the newcomer to the Keystone film company started rummaging idly through the greenroom. He came across silent star Fatty Arbuckle’s huge trousers & bowler hat; comedian Mack Swain’s false moustache; put Keystone cop Ford Sterling’s size 14 boots on and wrapped himself in director Charles Avery’s cutaway jacket. Chaplin stood in front of the mirror and saw the transformation that would make him famous. He said he knew the Little Tramp intimately. ‘That costume helps me to express my conception of the average man, of almost any man, of myself.’
During his initial days, Chaplin had to keep in mind two things. Firstly, it was the demand of common viewers who were, literally, shorn of any artistic sense; secondly, it was the earning of revenue for the producer. A film canned for long would shorten the career of the director. So he had to create characters which would give momentary pleasure to the eyes of ‘dull’ viewers, no matter how far they stood from the image of an ‘average man’ or how weak the story lines were. Though the costumes chosen aptly conveyed the image of the same class, scripts had very little elements which would last long in the mind of the viewers.
Written by Partha Mukherjee & Priyanka Mukherjee