All of us are very familiar with the mustachioed Little Tramp with the bowler hat and cane _ Charlie Chaplin. But behind this little fellow lurked an extremely creative film maker who scripted, directed and starred in some of the best films of the century.

Charlie Chaplin was born Charles Spencer Chaplin in London, England on 16 April 1889. His parents Charles Chaplin Sr and Hannah Hill were Music Hall entertainers but separated shortly after Charlie was born, leaving Hannah to provide for her children. In 1896 when Hannah was no longer able to care for her children, Charlie and his brother were admitted to Lambeth Workhouse and later Hanwell School for orphans and destitute children. He made his debut at the age of five in Music Hall when his mother was taken unwell.

Charlie Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin [akiyoko / Shutterstock.com]

Chaplin like his parents became a Music Hall performer, appearing as a clown in Fred Karno’s Mumming Birds Company from 1906. In 1910 he went to the United States and with the Keystone Company in Los Angeles (1914-15) he made films in which his early hardships are reflected in humour and sadness. In Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), he originated the gentleman tramp routine, twirling cane, bowler, tight jacket, and baggy pants that became his trademark. He also learned to direct his own short films.

During the next four years, Chaplin consolidated his growing international reputation. At the same time he refined his tramp character into a poetic figure that combined comedy and pathos yet retained his meticulously timed acrobatic skills. His films grew in length and subtlety with A Dog’s Life and Shoulder Arms (both 1918). After co-founding United Artists in 1919, Chaplin began independent production in the 1920s of his best feature-length films: A Woman of Paris (1923), The Gold Rush (1925), The Circus (1928), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), and The Great Dictator (1940), his first all-talking film, in which he abandoned the tramp to parody Adolf Hitler. Among his later films only the poignant Limelight (1952) achieved popularity; the apparent cynicism of Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and A King in New York (1957) alienated audiences, while his last effort, A Countess from Hong Kong (1966), left little impression.

Charlie Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin

Although he was loved and appreciated throughout the world as the inimitable Charlie, Chaplin’s personal life including four marriages, a 1944 paternity suit, and his refusal to accept U.S. citizenship gained him adverse publicity in America. In 1953, accused of Communist sympathies, he was denied re-entry into the country. Thereafter, he settled in Switzerland with his wife, Oona O’Neill and a family of nine children. Initially embittered, he returned in triumph to the United States in 1972 to receive a special achievement award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, followed in 1973 by an Academy Award for his score to Limelight. In 1975, at age 86, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. He died on December 25, 1977.