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Charlie Chaplin: The Road to Happiness

A former family therapist, Mark is an author, humorist, poet, and short-story writer who enjoys a good comedy.

"I have many problems in my life. But my lips don't know that. They just keep smiling"

— Charlie Chaplin

Sir Charles Chaplin: Complicated Genius

Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin Jr. only stood 5'5", but what he didn't have in stature, he made up for in money, fame, and creativity. Charlie's famous "Tramp" character—in a bowler hat, mustache, and cane—was a worldwide phenomenon.

He was also a complicated man.

Chaplin starred, directed, produced, or wrote over 80 films, most of which were silent. He composed the music for many of his movies and won two Oscars. The last Oscar was a Special Academy Award on his 83rd birthday. He also received several international awards and during his heyday was as famous as The Beatles. Instead of Beatlemania, it was Chaplinmania.

Charlie rose from abject poverty to become Hollywood's brightest star in an era of such celebrities as Mary Pickford, Orson Welles, John Barrymore, and Douglas Fairbanks. He was married four times and had eleven children. Women chased, stalked, hated, and loved him. His adoring fans worshiped him as if he were a God. Yet, for much of his life, he was melancholy and lonely. And in 1952, Chaplin was expelled from the U.S. by FBI agents accusing him of communist activities.

But, if he's known for anything today, it's that he changed the face of comedy in the early days of filmmaking. He moved past one-dimensional Keystone Cops chase scene slapsticks to more developed films with pathos.

Chaplin: Rags to Riches

Much of Charlie Chaplin's melancholy stemmed from his childhood. During the late 1800s, his family was dirt poor in London, England. His parents were entertainer,s but a mental health mess. His mother was in and out of hospitals, and his father a chronic alcoholic who abandoned his family.

Hannah was his mother's name, and although a loving parent, she rarely was able to provide for Charlie and his older brother, Sidney. His father, Charles Sr., was a talented vaudeville entertainer who died of cirrhosis.

When Chaplin's psychotic mother entered a psychiatric institution, the state placed Charlie and Sidney in the Workhouse orphanage. But he never stopped caring for his mother. When he made his fortune, one of the first things he did was buy his mother a house by the Pacific Ocean.

When I think of Chaplin in his tramp outfit, I see the struggling comedian who worked as hard as anyone to improve his life. Even in his spare time, he read the classics, constantly improving his intellect and social standing. As his fame persisted, he befriended most of the famous people of his era: Churchill, Gandhi, Khrushchev, William Randolph Hurst, Zola, Manet, and many others.

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By the time Charlie was 33, after years of being a comic entertainer and eventually a movie-maker, he was on top of the world. Although a genius and innovator, it seldom satisfied Charlie. He felt he needed to do something better, more magnificent; his films were not just entertaining diversions, but masterpieces like the satirical The Dictator, which triggered much controversy about whether he should have made a film about Hitler.

Chaplin: Box Office Success, Emotional Mess

Charlie Chaplin had more than enough money to make the kinds of films he wanted and live in luxury. He was not one to flaunt his wealth like William Randolph Hurst. However, having financial security didn't prevent his panic attacks and dramatic mood fluctuations. He feared losing his wealth and properties. After each movie, depression set in, and he was so emotionally depleted that he isolated for days to recover.

I don't think he recovered from his childhood trauma. He watched his mother struggle with mental illness, go in and out of hospitals, and they were all abandoned by their father. He was sent to a workhouse at nine years old and lived a childhood of crushing poverty. Who wouldn't be depressed and skeptical of society's institutions?

Chaplin seemed to have problems his whole life. Not only was his childhood problematic, but his adulthood was as well. The government believed he was a communist sympathizer who conspired with the Russians. He didn't pay his taxes. He alienated one of his best friends, Mary Pickford. He paid for illegal abortions and secretly transported a former lover out of Hollywood to New York to get her out of his hair.

Oona O'Neill and Charlie Chaplin, 1965

Oona O'Neill and Charlie Chaplin, 1965

Charlie Chaplin & Oona O'Neill

The list of troubles was small compared to his outstanding movie accomplishments and the love he found with his last wife. Oona O'Neill, the daughter of Eugene O'Neill, brought happiness and stability to Chaplin's life.

Chaplin was 54 and finally met his perfect woman in Oona: young, intelligent, beautiful, funny, and a wonderful mother. She understood Charlie and his emotional needs, which contributed significantly to their successful marriage.

Chaplin died in 1977 at his home in Vevey, Switzerland, surrounded by Oona, his children, and grandchildren. He was 88.

His motion picture career spanned 54 years and 81 films. He was one of the founders of United Artists Studio. Queen Elizabeth II knighted him at Buckingham Palace in London.

It was a life that had a shaky beginning, but ended magically.

  • Charles Chaplin: My Autobiography by Charles Chaplin, introduction by David Robinson. A beautifully written book from Charlie Chaplin's point of view. His childhood descriptions are particularly poignant.
  • Tramp by Joyce Milton. A very extensive and objective portrayal of Charlie Chaplin, both good and bad aspects of the man.

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