This year marks the thirty fifth anniversary of the death of Charlie Chaplin.
When he passed away in Switzerland, in 1977 at the age of eighty eight, he was so far removed from his tough upbringing and early life in poverty and hardship that it is hard for anyone to countenance just how he did it. We’re all familiar with his silent films; he produced some of the greatest early cinematic moments of all time. Even with the advent of talkies he continued to make silent pictures, refusing to believe that the medium of sound cinema would last. However, many people don’t know about his background, where he came from and what he endured to get to where he did. This is Chaplin’s early life.
An auspicious start turns sour
Chaplin was born into the popular world of Music Hall. London, during the Victorian period was the very epicentre of this particular form of entertainment. His parents, Charles Senior and Hannah were impoverished performers who had married four years prior to Charlie’s birth, Charles senior taking on the role of father to Hannah’s illegitimate son and Charlie’s half brother, Sydney.
Of the two performers, only Charles Senior had any success. He was a reasonably popular singer, but his life was punctuated by a battle with alcohol and he died at the age of thirty seven in 1901. The last few years of his life he rarely ate solid food, relying solely on drinking Port Wine to steady his nerves and gulping down raw eggs for extra sustenance. He and Charlie’s mother, Hannah split up when Charlie was two, after this period he gave little, if any, support to her for Charlie and his brother’s upbringing.
Poverty now strikes hard
This was the start of a period that was a hand to mouth existence. A time before a proper benefits system existed, or credit and debt systems which meant people could at least keep on top of things and buy food and clothes. Many people who were destitute, like the Chaplins had to rely on the Poor Law for handouts and help while they were renting, or in the worst case scenarios turn to crime as a means of keeping their heads above water.
Hannah was in poor mental health and gave up her career on the stage where she’d taken the stage name Lily Harley. She took in sewing to try to make ends meet, but it wasn’t enough. When Charlie was seven, Hannah took the family to the Newington Workhouse because she could no longer take care of him or his brother. Her own health was in decline and she simply wasn’t earning enough money to support them. They were admitted and separated from each other, as was procedure at the time.
Life became unbearably unpleasant and the admission to the workhouse was the start of a period of severe decline for the family marked by ill health and times of unbearable strain. Hannah was diagnosed as being schizophrenic and also had the double indignity of suffering from syphilis, which caused additional health problems until her death. Syphilis was an illness that was punctuated by periods of becoming very unwell and remission. In these times of remission, Hannah would remove herself and the boys from the care of the workhouse or asylum and try to start again. Invariably, it always ended with the whole family back where they started. Charlie became responsible for her and was often in charge of taking her to the asylum when she became too infirm to look after herself. She rallied like this until 1928, long enough to see her son’s rise to prominence.
Interest in the theatre
Chaplin’s brother Sydney had been put on a programme from the Workhouse school that was designed to train up young men who came from destitute backgrounds to become seamen. As a result he’d been sent away to Exmouth in Devon and spent the next few years working on ships. He, like his brother had harboured ambitions to work on the stage and after his final ship voyage he came back and landed a job working with Fred Karno’s London Comedian Troupe in 1908. During this period, he managed to secure a trial period of work for his brother too and the rest, as they say, is history. The boys went on a sea voyage across to North America with the Karno Company and worked there for twenty one months touring with comic productions. Among their colleagues, a little known actor from Ulverston in Cumbria who went by the name of Stanley Laurel…
Just six years later, Chaplin’s first appearance as “The Tramp” came in this short, but unremarkable film called “Kid Auto Races In Venice” in which his character generally annoys and gets in the way of the director of a film:
Chaplin’s film work as autobiographical
Thankfully, his later work improved, though Chaplin is often accused of being overly sentimental. Harsher critics call his work twee or affected. Chaplin was unapologetic about this. He wanted to show the nature of human suffering as he had seen it. He had lost his father at a very young age and had been forced into work when he should have been a carefree adolescent.
When Chaplin filmed “The Kid” in the early 1920s, with the young actor Jackie Coogan (who later went on to become Uncle Fester in The Addams Family), he was trying to recreate the embers of his childhood. The room he shares as he tries to bring up The Kid is highly reminiscent of his childhood home of 3 Pownall Terrace, Lambeth, before he was forced into the Workhouse. The performances in this movie, not only his own, but the one of Jackie Coogan are incredibly emotional.
Similarly, his film “Easy Street” harks back to a time when he had nothing, the street of the film was based on the places of the locale he grew up in Lambeth, but recreated in an American setting.
Chaplin may have been gone thirty five years, but his work remains a strong influence on many actors and directors today. His eye for the frailty of the human condition, brought into play by the harsh realities he had suffered are still unrivalled.
Eve Pearce © 2012