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The Vintage Guide To London | February 24, 2018

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Famous Londoners: Chaplin

With the Academy Awards being screened live to over 200 countries this weekend, what better way to get into the spirit of the movies than by celebrating London’s greatest export to Hollywood – Charlie Chaplin? Rebecca McWattie reports.

Charles Spencer Chaplin was born into poverty in Lambeth in 1889. His mother and father, who were both regulars on the London music hall stage, encouraged Chaplin to enter the entertainment business from an early age. The lights, laughter and gaiety Chaplin witnessed in the music halls were in stark contrast to his daily existence and started his desire to escape the destitution his parents constantly verged on.

Chaplin’s parents separated when he was three. By his tenth birthday
his father had died and his mother had been admitted to an asylum for mental illness. Chaplin managed to keep himself and his younger brother from the workhouse by landing small roles in theatre companies. When he toured America in 1910 as a feature performer in the Fred Karno Repertoire Company, the Americans instantly fell in love with Chaplin’s humour, and soon he was offered a motion picture contract.

Chaplin accidentally invented his most famous character The Tramp when searching the studio wardrobe for a costume for his second film. Dressed in baggy trousers, scuffed shoes and wearing a forlorn look, The Tramp not only touched the hearts of a generation, but made Chaplin one of the best loved movie stars of all time.

Chaplin became one of the greatest influences in establishing the success of motion pictures in America and around the world. Many years later he said “I went into the business for the money, and the art grew out of it. If people are disillusioned by that remark, I can’t help it. It’s the truth.”

In the age of the silent film, Chaplin’s innate honesty and integrity as an actor endeared him to an ever growing audience. From his most touching performance in The Kid to famously ridiculing Adolf Hitler in his first ‘talkie’ The Dictator (1940), Chaplin’s moral convictions created both a lasting memory and powerful political statement.

In the 1940s and 1950s Chaplin was accused of communist sympathies, and in 1952 his visa was cancelled, forcing Chaplin to relocate to Switzerland.

Chaplin made some of the highest grossing films during the silent film era. In 1972 Chaplin was honoured with a special Oscar in recognition of his long service to the film industry. In 1975 Chaplin was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.

Watch: The Kid, The Great Dictator and Robert Downey Jr’s spellbinding performance as Chaplin in the film of the same name directed by Richard Attenborough.

Visit Chaplin – The Great Londoner Exhibition a permanent feature at the London Film Museum, tracing Chaplin’s rags to riches life, from his childhood in Lambeth to his distinguished career in Hollywood. You can also see Chaplin’s trademark bowler hat and cane, complete with original customs declarations.