Tonight: Charles Chaplin in the five-star masterpiece City Lights. It is Chaplin’s ultimate achievement in silent films—made three years after the arrival of sound.
Chaplin’s life and career had a very real influence on me when I was growing up in Chicago. I loved his films and identified with him when his personal life and political views threatened to destroy him.
Born in London in 1889, Chaplin first appeared on the music-hall stage at the age of five, when his mother was unable to perform.
His father dead and his mother suffering from a nervous breakdown, Chaplin and his brother Sydney survived as street urchins who performed for pennies from passersby.
He was a professional performer by the age of eight. In his teens, he joined the Fred Karno Company, whose comedy routines were popular in England and abroad.
He came to the United States with one of these troupes in 1910 and again in 1912.
On Chaplin’s second tour, Mack Sennett, the boss of Keystone, saw him playing a drunken reveler in A Night in a London Music Hall.
In December 1913, Chaplin joined Keystone, where he made 35 short films over the next year.
When Chaplin moved to Essanay Studios in 1915, he was successful enough to command $1,250 a week. At the end of his first year at Essanay, his contract was renewed for $5,000 a week. But in mid-1916, he moved to Mutual for $10,000 a week, plus a $150,000 signing bonus. At Mutual, he created memorable shorts such as The Rink, Easy Street and The Immigrant.
In 1918, he signed a contract for more than one million dollars for eight two-reel films. Soon after, he made his first feature film, The Kid, which was hailed as a masterpiece and became the second highest grossing film in history (up to that time).
Chaplin was, by then, an international celebrity, known and beloved the world over. In 1919, he founded United Artists with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith.
With total control over his work, Chaplin’s perfectionism became increasingly apparent. Problems in his personal life—an affection for teenage girls—became apparent as well.
His next picture, The Gold Rush, was completed in 1925 and called a masterpiece, proving hugely popular with critics and the public alike.
At the first Academy Award ceremony (1927-28), Chaplin won a special Oscar “for versatility and genius in writing, acting, directing and producing The Circus,” his next film.
While working on City Lights, talking pictures arrived, and by 1930, silent films were only a memory.
City Lights had been conceived as a silent film, and Chaplin decided to release it that way—with the addition of a musical score that he wrote and conducted himself.
He did the same on subsequent films as well: Modern Times in 1936, The Great Dictator in 1940, Monsieur Verdoux in 1947 and Limelight in 1952.
The song “Smile” is from the score of Modern Times.
In the 1940s, Chaplin’s personal life produced lurid tabloid headlines with a paternity suit filed by Joan Barry, an aspiring actress, and charges that he had violated the Mann Act (transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes). He was found innocent of violating the Mann Act, but guilty of fathering Barry’s child, even though a blood test proved he was not the father.
In the middle of the scandal, Chaplin married 18-year-old Oona O’Neill, the daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill. The marriage lasted the rest of his life.
But the Hearst Press, Hedda Hopper, J. Edgar Hoover, the American Legion and others mounted a smear campaign against him. Consequently, by the late 1940s, the Little Tramp was one of the most unpopular men in the country.
When he took Oona to England in 1952 for the premiere of Limelight, the U.S. government informed him that he would not be welcome back into the country unless he submitted to an inquiry into his moral character.
It was the time of McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee.
But our story has a happy ending. In 1972, Chaplin returned to Hollywood with his wife to accept a special Oscar from the Academy for his lifetime achievement in cinema.
City Lights, my favorite Chaplin film, opened at the newly completed Los Angeles Theater on South Broadway in January 1931. Among those attending the premiere were Charles Lindberg and Albert Einstein.
So now, the Little Tramp and the blind flower girl in the unforgettable City Lights.