How Charlie Chaplin overcame poverty to become Comedy King?

Charles Spencer Chaplin was born in London, England, on April 16th 1889. His father Charles Chaplin Sr was a versatile vocalist and actor; and his mother Hannah Chaplin was an attractive actress and singer, who gained a reputation for her work in the light opera field.

At the time of his birth, Chaplin’s parents were both entertainers in the music hall tradition: Hannah, the daughter of a shoemaker, had a brief and unsuccessful career, while Charles Sr., a butcher’s son, worked as a popular singer.

His father, Charles Chaplin Sr., achieved modest acclaim on stage in England, but eventually drank himself to death. His mother, Hannah, was a songstress who lost her voice, and struggled to make ends meet only to end up losing her mind. Chaplin’s earliest attempts at acting are all deeply connected to his mother’s tragic downward spiral.

Chaplin’s childhood was fraught with poverty and hardship, prompting biographer David Robinson to describe his eventual trajectory as “the most dramatic of all the rags to riches stories ever told. His early years were spent with his mother and brother in the London district of Kennington. Mother Hannah had no means of income, other than occasional nursing and dress making, and Chaplin Sr. provided no support for his sons.

Because of poverty, Chaplin was sent to a work house at seven years old. The council housed him at the Central London District School for paupers, which Chaplin remembered as “a forlorn existence”. He was briefly reunited with his mother at nine years old, before Hannah was forced to readmit her family to the workhouse in July 1898. The boys were promptly sent to Norwood Schools, another charity institution.

In September 1898, Hannah Chaplin was committed to Cane Hill mental asylum—she had developed a psychosis seemingly brought on by malnutrition and an infection of syphilis. For the two months she was there, Chaplin and his brother were sent to live with their father, whom the young boy scarcely knew.

Charles Chaplin Sr. was by then a severe alcoholic, and life with the man was bad enough to provoke a visit from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. He died two years later, at 37 years old, from cirrhosis of the liver. Hannah Chaplin entered a period of remission, but in May 1903 became ill again. Chaplin, then 14, had the task of taking his mother to the infirmary.

He lived alone for several days, searching for food and occasionally sleeping rough, until his brother Sydney returned from the navy. Hannah Chaplin was released from the asylum eight months later, but in March 1905 her madness returned, this time permanently. “There was nothing we could do but accept poor mother’s fate”, Chaplin later wrote, and she remained in care until her death in 1928.

Chaplin was just five years old when he first took the stage, but it was a bitter sweet occasion. His mother lost her voice in the middle of a song while performing at a theatre. To appease the crowd, the venue’s manager forced young Charlie out onto the stage. “And in the turmoil I remember the manager leading me by the hand and, after a few explanatory words to the audience, leaving me on the stage alone,” he writes in his autobiography. “Before a glare of footlights and faces in smoke, I started to sing, accompanied by the orchestra, which fiddled about until it found my key.” He sang a standard called Jack Jones, and managed to charm the audience with his stiff manner and innocence, not to mention a few wicked impressions. Unfortunately, while Chaplin first found his voice that night, his mother never recovered hers. It would be the last time she ever sang or performed in public.

Several years passed before Chaplin ventured back into the spotlight. In the intervening years, his mother was in and out of mental wards, while Chaplin and his brother were bounced from one bad housing situation to the next. When he was eight years old, his mother re-entered his life for a while, and re-animated his interest in the theatre once more. He credited his mother, later writing “she imbued me with the feeling that I had some sort of talent”.

During a break in class two months later, Chaplin recited a comedic work his mother had taught him and he became an instant celebrity in his school, experiencing his first conscious taste of glamour.

This time, however, he experienced his first failure. Chaplin tried out for a part in his school’s Christmas musical, Cinderella. Years later, he clearly still felt contempt for being passed over. “I was better able…than those who had been chosen,” he wrote in his autobiography.

Through his father’s connections, Chaplin became a member of The Eight Lancashire Lads clog dancing troupe. He began his professional career in this way, as the group toured English music halls throughout 1899 and 1900. Chaplin worked hard and the act was popular with audiences, but dancing did not satisfy the child and he dreamt of forming a comedy act.

By age 13 Chaplin had fully abandoned education. He supported himself with a range of jobs, but said he “never lost sight of my ultimate aim to become an actor. At 14, shortly after his mother’s relapse, he registered with a theatrical agency in London’s West End. The manager sensed potential in Chaplin and he was soon on the stage. His first role was a news boy in H. A. Saintsbury’s Jim, a Romance of Cockayne. It opened in July 1903 in Kingston upon Thames, but the show was unsuccessful and it closed after two weeks. Chaplin’s comic performance, however, was singled out for praise in many of the reviews. From October 1903 to June 1904, Chaplin toured with Saintsbury in Charles Frohman’s production of Sherlock Holmes. He repeated his performance of Billy the page boy for two subsequent tours, and was so successful that he was called to London to play the role alongside William Gillette,

Chaplin quickly began work in another role, touring with his brother—who was also pursuing an acting career—in a comedy sketch called Repairs. He left the troupe in May 1906, and joined the vaudeville act Casey’s Court Circus. Chaplin’s specialism with the company was a burlesque of Dick Turpin and the music hall star “Dr. Bodie”. It was popular with audiences and Chaplin became the star of the show. When they finished touring in July 1907, the 18 year old was an accomplished comedian. Several months of unemployment followed, however, and Chaplin lived a solitary existence while lodging with a family in Kennington. He attempted to develop a solo comedy act, but his Jewish impersonation was poorly received and he performed it only once.

By 1908, Sydney Chaplin had become a star of Fred Karno’s prestigious comedy company. In February, he managed to secure a two-week trial for his younger brother. Karno was initially wary, thinking Chaplin a “pale, puny, sullen-looking youngster” who “looked much too shy to do any good in the theatre. But the teenager made an impact on his first night at the London Coliseum, winning more laughs in his small role than the star, and he was quickly signed to a contract.

Chaplin’s second American tour with the Karno company was not particularly successful, as cast members fell sick and audiences failed to grasp the troupe’s burlesque humour. They had been there six months when Chaplin’s manager received a telegram, asking “Is there a man named Chaffin in your company or something like that” with the request that that this comedian contact the New York Motion Picture Company. A member of NYMPC had seen Chaplin perform and felt that he would make a good replacement for Fred Mace, outgoing star of their Keystone Studios.

Chaplin said “I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large … I added a small moustache, which, I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression. I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on stage he was fully born.”

Chaplin adopted the character permanently, and attempted to make suggestions for the films he appeared in. These ideas were dismissed by his directors. During the filming of his tenth picture he clashed with director Mabel Normand, and was almost released from his contract. Sennett kept him on, however, when a request arrived for more Chaplin films. With an insurance of $1,500 promised in case of failure, Sennett also allowed Chaplin to direct his own film.

He did not receive screen credit on the many comedies he made for Keystone in 1914-15, as it was studio policy not to credit its actors. Caught in the Rain (issued 4 May 1914), Chaplin’s first directed picture, was among Keystone’s most successful releases to date.

His first screen credit appeared on His New Job (1915), his first film for Essanay. .He went on to create history in the field of cinema.

Charlie Chaplin became a king of comedy though he had to undergo great struggles in the initial stages of his career due to acute poverty and lack of parental support. He built up his career independently and charted a new course though he lacked any formal training. His rags to riches story will definitely inspire us to achieve success by overcoming all obstacles.

Visit his website for more details about his life.

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