Who is Charlie Chaplin?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Charlie Chaplin was a British actor, director, composer, and musician who is widely considered to be among the greatest comic talents in history. During the heyday of his career in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s, Charlie Chaplin was a worldwide icon, beloved to many and seen on the marquees of movie theaters in far-reaching places. Many of the works of Charlie Chaplin are readily available today, in a testimony to his fame and the enduring popularity of his work.

Charlie Chaplin is one of the most talented people to ever work in Hollywood.
Charlie Chaplin is one of the most talented people to ever work in Hollywood.

Chaplin was born in 1889 to two music hall musicians, who undoubtedly laid the groundwork for his later career in performance. Shortly after his birth, his father disappeared, leaving Chaplin in the care of his mother, who was ultimately committed to an asylum, forcing Chaplin into an orphanage. In 1910, Charlie Chaplin arrived in New York determined to make his fortune, and he did, landing contracts with the premier studios of the silent movie era and ultimately commanding a very high salary for his talents.

Charlie Chaplin's film The Great Dictator parodied Hitler and Mussolini.
Charlie Chaplin's film The Great Dictator parodied Hitler and Mussolini.

In addition to being known for his skill on screen, Charlie Chaplin was also an astute businessman. In 1919, he founded United Artists with several other prominent stars of the day, determined to have more control over his work as an actor, and he was known for being very exacting and controlling on set. He was also one of the first actors to market himself, promoting Charlie Chaplin films and his film persona, known as “The Tramp.” Chaplin became so well known and liked that people would see any film, as long as his name was attached to it.

The Tramp may have been invented by accident, but he became an enduring symbol in 20th century film. As The Tramp, Charlie Chaplin wore loose-fitting, shabby clothing, including a derby hat and distinctive shoes, along with a mustache, and he carried a flexible bamboo cane. In the silent era, The Tramp mimed and clowned his way through an assortment of sentimental films, and when Charlie Chaplin started performing in films with sound, he added music and singing to his performances. Rumor has it that the movements of Mickey Mouse, another American film icon, were modeled on The Tramp.

Some of the more notable Chaplin films include The Kid (1921), Modern Times (1936), and The Great Dictator (1940). Although his work was often sentimental and a bit foolish, he also engaged in a fair amount of political activism, and some of Chaplin's works were actually quite political.The Great Dictator, for example, parodied Hitler and Mussolini, and criticized the United States for not getting involved in the growing European conflict.

Although Chaplin was never positively linked with the Communist party, he certainly associated with a number of prominent American Communists and political activists. This led to persecution in the 1930s and 1940s under the House Unamerican Activities Committee, and when Chaplin left the United States to visit Europe in 1952, efforts were made to revoke his re-entry visa. Chaplin chose not to return to the hostile United States, settling in Europe, where he was honored with a knighthood in 1975, becoming Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin. When Chaplin briefly visited America in 1972, he received a number of honors, recognizing his contribution to the history of film and Hollywood.

Chaplin died in 1977, apparently of natural causes, but not before leading an adventurous and revolutionary lifestyle, blazing his way into the history of American film and into the hearts of millions of fans.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@goldenmist - Charlie Chaplin! If only for a film this article fails to mention but is probably one of his best: City Lights. A good starting point for newcomers, also.

I'm a big fan of Buster Keaton as well though, Sherlock Jr. in particular.


Anyone have any thoughts on the great "who was better" debate, Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton?

Chaplin was certainly more popular at the time, but I've always been more of a fan of Keaton personally. Nothing wrong with liking them both equally though!

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