Charlie Chaplin

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Portrait of a young Charlie Chaplin

Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin KBE (16 April 1889 – 25 December 1977), more commonly known as Charlie Chaplin, was an English comic actor, filmmaker, and composer who rose to fame in the era of silent film. He became a worldwide icon through his screen persona, the Tramp (or Little Tramp)[1], and is considered one of the film industry's most important figures. His career spanned more than 75 years, from childhood in the Victorian era until a year before his death in 1977, and encompassed both adulation and controversy.

In 1919, Chaplin co-founded distribution company United Artists, which gave him complete control over his films. His first sound film was The Great Dictator (1940), which satirized Adolf Hitler. The 1940s were marked with controversy for Chaplin, and his popularity declined rapidly. He was accused of socialist / communist sympathies after the release of Modern Times (1936)[2] and The Great Dictator, and brought to further media scandal over his involvement in a paternity suit and marriages to much younger women. An FBI investigation was opened, and Chaplin was forced to leave the U.S. and settle in Switzerland with his wife Oona O'Neill, who he met when she was 18 and he 54, raising many children and living happily together until his death.

Charlie Chaplin as a Minor Attracted Person (MAP)?

Chaplin married post-pubescent young actors multiple times throughout his life. His first marriage was to the 16-year-old actress Mildred Harris[3], after she revealed she was pregnant with his child in September 1918, with the couple marrying quietly in Los Angeles to avoid controversy. Soon after, the pregnancy was found to be false and Chaplin was unhappy with the union. Harris became legitimately pregnant, and on 7 July 1919, gave birth to a son, Norman Spencer Chaplin, who was born malformed and died three days later. The marriage ended in April 1920, with Chaplin explaining in his autobiography that they were "irreconcilably mismated."[4]

Chaplin's second marriage led to scandal in his own lifetime. Mirroring the circumstances of his first union, Chaplin married the female actress Lita Grey[5] while making the film The Gold Rush. By her own account, she first met Charlie Chaplin at the age of eight at a Hollywood café, and first worked with him at the age of 12 in the part of the "flirting angel" in The Kid, before meeting him again at 15 and marrying him at 16. With Grey originally set to star in The Gold Rush, her surprise announcement of pregnancy forced Chaplin into marriage. With her being 16 years old and Chaplin 35, Chaplin could have been charged with statutory rape under California law.

Consequently, Chaplin arranged a discreet marriage in Mexico on 25 November 1924. They originally met during her childhood and she had previously appeared in his works The Kid and The Idle Class. Their first son, Charles Spencer Chaplin III, was born on 5 May 1925, followed by Sydney Earl Chaplin on 30 March 1926. On 6 July 1925, Chaplin became the first movie star to be featured on a Time magazine cover.

The marriage was unhappy, and a bitter divorce followed. Grey's divorce application accused Chaplin of infidelity, attempting to compel the abortion of her pregnancy, and harboring "perverted sexual desires," and was leaked to the press. Chaplin was reported to be in a state of nervous breakdown, as the story became headline news and groups formed across America calling for his films to be banned. Eager to end the case without further scandal, Chaplin's lawyers agreed to a cash settlement of $600,000 – the largest awarded by American courts at that time. His fan base was strong enough to survive the incident, and it was soon forgotten, but Chaplin was deeply affected by it.

Before the divorce suit was filed, Chaplin had begun work on a new film, The Circus. He built a story around the idea of walking a tightrope while besieged by monkeys, and turned the Tramp into the accidental star of a circus. Released in January 1928 to a positive reception, Chaplin was awarded a special trophy "For versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing The Circus"[6] at the 1st Academy Awards.[7]

Although Chaplin met some of his future wives when they were young actresses, there is no evidence that Chaplin was a pedophile, i.e. preferentially sexually and/or romantically attracted to individuals before puberty. He has been incorrectly implied or labelled as a pedophile across multiple media outlets.[8]

Chaplin's later marriages and declining popularity

After this point, Chaplin married young women who would not currently be considered legal minors in most countries by 21st century standards. Chaplin's third wife, actress Paulette Goddard[9], he met in July 1932 when Goddard was 21-year-old. The couple married quietly in 1936, and Goddard played leading roles alongside Chaplin in the films Modern Times, where the couple endure the Great Depression, and The Great Dictator (1940). However, both were heavily focused on their careers and, citing incompatibility and separation for more than a year, Goddard divorced Chaplin in Mexico in 1942.

Chaplin's fourth wife and widow, Oona

Chaplin was sexually intimate with actress Joan Barry, with whom he was involved intermittently between June 1941 and the autumn of 1942, with Barry being 21/22 years old. Barry, who displayed obsessive behavior and was twice arrested after they separated, announced that she was pregnant with Chaplin's child and filed a paternity suit against him after he denied the claim.

The director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), J. Edgar Hoover, who had long been suspicious of Chaplin's political leanings, used the opportunity to generate negative publicity about him. As part of a smear campaign to damage Chaplin's image, the FBI named him in four indictments related to Barry. Most serious of these was an alleged violation of the Mann Act, a precursor to modern sex trafficking laws, which prohibits the transportation of women across state boundaries for sexual purposes. If Chaplin was found guilty, he faced 23 years in jail.

Chaplin was acquitted two weeks later, on 4 April, while the case was frequently headline news, with Newsweek calling it the "biggest public relations scandal since the Fatty Arbuckle murder trial in 1921."[10] Barry's child, Carol Ann, was born in October 1943, and the paternity suit went to court in December 1944, in which Chaplin was declared to be the father and forced to pay child support until Carol Ann turned 21. Media coverage of the suit was influenced by the FBI, which fed information to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, and Chaplin was portrayed in an overwhelmingly critical light.

The controversy surrounding Chaplin increased when – two weeks after the paternity suit was filed – it was announced that he had married his newest protégée, 18-year-old Oona O'Neill[11], the daughter of American playwright Eugene O'Neill. Chaplin, then 54, had been introduced to her by a film agent seven months earlier. In his autobiography, Chaplin described meeting O'Neill as "the happiest event of my life", and claimed to have found "perfect love".[12] Chaplin's son, Charles III, reported that Oona "worshipped" his father.[13] The couple remained married until Chaplin's death, and had eight children over 18 years.

Happily leaving the United States for good

After traveling to London for a premiere showing of his latest film, the United States Attorney General James P. McGranery revoked Chaplin's re-entry permit to the U.S., stating that he would have to submit to an interview concerning his political views and moral behavior to re-enter. Chaplin privately decided to cut his ties with the United States:

Whether I re-entered that unhappy country or not was of little consequence to me. I would like to have told them that the sooner I was rid of that hate-beleaguered atmosphere the better, that I was fed up of America's insults and moral pomposity...[14]

Chaplin never attempted re-entry of the U.S., and lived from 1953–1977 until his death in Switzerland, fathering children and making films with his young wife Oona O'Neill. In a press-release, Chaplin said of the U.S.:

I have been the object of lies and propaganda by powerful reactionary groups who, by their influence and by the aid of America's yellow press, have created an unhealthy atmosphere in which liberal-minded individuals can be singled out and persecuted. Under these conditions I find it virtually impossible to continue my motion-picture work, and I have therefore given up my residence in the United States.[15]

Chaplin's legacy

Chaplin remains a cultural icon throughout the world. His films touched on issues which remain controversial: immigration (The Immigrant, 1917); illegitimacy (The Kid, 1921); and drug use (Easy Street, 1917). He often explored these topics ironically, making comedy out of suffering.

Social commentary was a feature of Chaplin's films from early in his career, as he portrayed the underdog in a sympathetic light and highlighted the difficulties of the poor. Later, as he developed a keen interest in economics and felt obliged to publicize his views, Chaplin began incorporating overtly political messages into his films. Modern Times (1936) depicted factory workers in dismal conditions, The Great Dictator (1940) parodied Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini and ended in a speech against nationalism, Monsieur Verdoux (1947) criticised war and capitalism, and A King in New York (1957) attacked McCarthyism[16] and is thought to reflect his experience of being shunned by the United States.


  1. According to Wikipedia: "The Tramp (Charlot in several languages), also known as the Little Tramp, was English actor Charlie Chaplin's most memorable on-screen character and an icon in world cinema during the era of silent film. The Tramp, as portrayed by Chaplin, is a childlike, bumbling but generally good-hearted character who is most famously portrayed as a vagrant who endeavors to behave with the manners and dignity of a gentleman despite his actual social status. However, while he is ready to take what paying work is available, he also uses his cunning to get what he needs to survive and escape the authority figures who will not tolerate his antics."
  4. Chaplin, Charles. (2003) [1964]. My Autobiography. London: Penguin Classics. p. 235
  6. Pfeiffer, Lee. "The Circus – Film by Chaplin [1928]". Encyclopædia Britannica.
  8. See The Telegraph and another example.
  10. Maland, Charles J. (1989). Chaplin and American Culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, pp. 214–215.
  12. Chaplin, op. cit. pp. 423, 477.
  13. Robinson, David (1986) [1985]. Chaplin: His Life and Art. London: Paladin. p. 519.
  14. Chaplin. Op. cit., p. 455.
  15. Larcher, Jérôme (2011). Masters of Cinema: Charlie Chaplin. London: Cahiers du Cinéma. p. 89.