As part of his first visit to the United States in 20 years, British film pioneer Charlie Chaplin accepts an honorary Academy Award for his “incalculable” contribution to the art of filmmaking. Chaplin, once America’s most successful movie star and director, had left the country under a storm of controversy in 1952.
Born in London, England, in 1889, Chaplin was the son of music-hall performers, and he appeared onstage from a young age. His father later died, and his mother was put in a mental institution, leading to a rough childhood that ended when Chaplin joined his half-brother’s vaudeville troupe at the age of 17. Mack Sennett, the innovator of U.S. slapstick movie comedy, discovered Chaplin during a U.S. appearance by the vaudeville troupe. In 1913, he was signed to appear in movies produced by Sennett’s Keystone Company.
In his second picture, Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), Chaplin originated the character that would make him famous–the “Little Tramp.” The tramp wore a derby hat, neatly kept moustache, baggy trousers, and cane, and affected a bowlegged walk in his oversize shoes. He was an underdog hero, beloved by moviegoers, and Chaplin would play him in more than 70 films. In the era of silent film, slapstick was king, and Chaplin was a master of physical comedy. He became one of the most recognized U.S. personalities and commanded increasingly high salaries. He soon took to directing his own movies and, with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith, founded United Artists in 1919 so he could have greater control over his projects.
Chaplin directed, starred in, wrote, produced, and composed the music for his feature-length comedies, including The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), and The Great Dictator (1940). These films addressed social and political issues of the day, which, seen through the eyes of the Little Tramp, appeared a little sharper. After the advent of sound in the late 1920s, Chaplin appeared less often in movies, but his fame continued to grow as his films won new audiences and became recognized as motion picture classics.
Away from the camera, Chaplin’s personal life often drew sensational headlines. He was married four times, three times to his leading ladies, and in 1943 was accused by another woman of fathering her child. That year, in another controversial move, he married Oona O’Neill, the 18-year-old daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill. Chaplin was 54. Chaplin’s political views were also criticized, as was his failure to apply for U.S. citizenship. Pressed for back taxes and accused of supporting subversive causes by McCarthy-era America, Chaplin left the United States in 1952. Informed that he would not necessarily be welcomed back, he retorted, “I wouldn’t go back there if Jesus Christ were president,” and surrendered his re-entry permit in Switzerland. He lived with his family at Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland, and made several more films.
In April 1972, he did return to the United States for a visit and accepted an honorary Oscar. He had previously won an honorary Academy Award, in 1929 for The Circus (1928). In 1975, Queen Elizabeth II knighted him. He died on December 25, 1977.
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