The trousers too baggy, the coat too tight, a hat too small and shoes too big. Oh, and that moustache. The Tramp Character, they called him. And what a character he was. He wasn’t a man, he was a contradiction. From the way he dressed up to the way he used suffering as a way of comedy.
Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin was a millionaire. And why wouldn’t he be? The amount of work he did, the quality he produced, he deserved nothing less. But the fame, the money, it all came later.
First, Charlie had to win over life before he could win over the audience.
There have been many great actors over the ages, but his is a legacy that has been passed on for generations. The Tramp is a character that will live on forever; you see people on the streets pretending to be him, you see them at children’s birthday parties, you see them on stage, you see them in movies. The same getup, but different men.
He was the first comedian. He’s not just another name in the history of acting, he is the history of acting.
His movies and accolades are well known, but his struggles aren’t.
So here is the untold story of Charlie Chaplin.
Charlie’s father played a very insignificant role is his life. The man had a better relationship with alcohol. His mother was also a theatre performer and a stand up comic in her own right. She would often put on small shows for her son to make him laugh. Money was extremely hard to come by, but laughter was not a rarity in the Chaplin household.
He looked up to his mother. She was his inspiration. She was the reason he became a comedian. In fact, it all started because of her; Laryngitis had caused her voice to crack on stage one day. Charlie was only 5 at the time and sitting in the front. As his mother left the stage prematurely, he took her stead.
A young boy who, in his first impromptu performance, had the audience on its feet and his mother full of pride.
But poverty was hovering over the family. His mother would one day collapse. A nervous breakdown that dried up the finances. He and his half-brother Sydney went to the streets and danced. Small kids collecting pennies in a hat to keep the house going. But soon, it all fell apart.
He was only 7, when he and Sydney were sent to a boarding school for orphans. The family had to shift to a workhouse. Workhouses provided accommodation and work for those who had neither. But it was a very depressing state of affairs. The Chaplins were rarely a family again.
When Charlie and Sydney returned from boarding school one time, their mother Hannah was standing in her old clothes, waiting at the gate. A desperate attempt to make them feel like a family again. They went to the park that day, like a family. But that was the last time.
Hannah had to readmit her family to the workhouse. The boys were sent to another school for destitute children. It only contributed to Charlie’s loneliness.
His mother’s mental illness had caught on. While she was admitted to an institution and Sydney joined the navy, Charlie had nowhere to go. He would sleep on the streets and had to search for food. He was only 14 at the time. He was poor and alone, more so than ever. Education went out of the window too. A brief reunion with his mother lifted his spirits, but the illness got worse. He said, “There was nothing we could do but accept poor mother’s fate.”
He earned money later. He earned a lot. But it could not bring back the woman responsible for giving us the greatest comedian ever.
Charlie Chaplin spent all of his childhood in crisis. But that did help him. Troubles stopped bothering him. He had seen horrors that most of us won’t survive. He was never a child. The world took that away from him.
But he found refuge in comedy. His plan was to hide behind the tears of a clown. From the theatres, he would soon reach the screen. Sound in cinema was approaching, but he hardly needed any. He was a silent actor. He probably said more without words than the rest of us could with sentences.
The first time he used proper dialogue, he finished a comedy film with a tear-jerking message. All he ever wanted to do was spread love.
Although no one knew about it, in a way, his pain became the world’s reason to laugh. But his laughter never caused anyone any pain. He once said that he had many problems in life but his lips never knew that.
All he ever wanted was a better world, speaking through his silent films. His performances are legendary not just because of the getup, but because of the story behind them.
Learning what he had been through makes you respect him more. His is the greatest rags-to-riches story, ever.
Because before the riches, the rags were far too many.
No words could describe this man’s genius. And the man himself hardly needed them. When Charlie Chaplin passed away, aged 88, French filmmaker Rene Clair gave him the perfect tribute when he said:
“He was a monument of the cinema, of all countries and all times… The most beautiful gift the cinema made to us.”
But trouble never left him. He had 3 failed marriages. But the last one stuck till the day he departed. Hopefully, he found that feeling of having a family again, that left him all too soon as a kid.
How much ever he may have suffered, he made the world laugh and that is the greatest quality a man can have. To be selfless, to be fearless, to be glorious in his own way. The Tramp character was an identity. One synonymous with trying to make the world a better place. I don’t know how lucky Charlie had been in his pursuit, but I do know that were lucky enough to have had him.
Rene was right, he was a beautiful gift.
Design credit: Aakanksha Pushp