Original Creators: Charlie Chaplin

Original Creators: Charlie Chaplin

Each week we pay homage to a select “Original Creator”—an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today’s creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields—bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. Today, on what would be his 123th birthday, slapstick comedy’s founding father: Sir Charles Spencer “Charlie” Chaplin.

“Failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself.” — Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin is perhaps the silent film era’s MVP, and even more impressive is the fact that he overcame his poverty-stricken upbringing to become a revered actor, director, and composer… not to mention the father of slapstick comedy.

Born in south London on April 16, 1889, Chaplin began working to help support his family at the age of 7. His first acting role was the character of Billy the pageboy in William Gillette‘s 1903 staging of Sherlock Holmes, which eventually led him to tour the US with the Fred Karno acting troupe. He bombed his first film appearance in 1914’s Making a Living, but the success of his character The Tramp, which debuted in Kid Auto Races at Venice that same year, has since been Chaplin’s most significant cultural contribution.

Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914)

The Tramp, described as an oxymoronic vagrant with the dress and manners of a gentleman, wears baggy pants, a tight coat, and big shoes accessorized with a cane, small hat, and a tiny moustache that Chaplin believed added age without masking his expressions. The success of the character—who appeared in the first film trailer showing in US cinema—is believed to have stemmed from the immigrant class’s ability to relate to The Tramp, along with the dire need for comic relief during WWI and the rise of Adolf Hitler.

After the debut of The Tramp, Chaplin started writing and directing his own films and was hired by film companies like Keystone Studios, Essanay Studios, and the Mutual Film Corporation to produce dozens of shorts and feature-length films in relatively short windows of time. He started producing films in 1916, and was composing the music for many of them by 1918. In 1919, Chaplin co-founded the film production house United Artists with some of his contemporaries including Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith. He served on the United Artists’ board until the early 50s. Chaplin received knighthood in March of 1975, and was billed as the “10th greatest male screen legend of all time” by the American Film Institute in 1999.

Here we look at his most significant career highlights and almost never-ending legacy.

The Kid (1921, 1971)

The Kid was Chaplin’s first feature-length film. In 2011, it entered the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry.

Felix in Hollywood (1923)

The character of Felix the Cat was inspired by an animation of Charlie Chaplin. The two are pictured together here in a still from Felix in Hollywood.

Modern Times (1936)

Considered the last silent film of the era, The Tramp character’s voice is finally heard as part of a silly song. The theme music for Modern Times, later entitled “Smile” after John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons added lyrics to the original composition in 1954, has been covered by the likes of Nat King Cole, Michael Jackson, and Barbara Streisand.

The Great Dictator (1940)

The Great Dictator is considered Chaplin’s first “talkie.” In it, he plays a Jewish-looking barber who resembles The Tramp character. Chaplin was nominated for three out of the film’s five Academy Awards including Outstanding Production, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Actor.

A Woman of Paris (1923)

The score for 1923’s A Woman of Paris was Chaplin’s last work before he died on Christmas Day in 1977 at the age of 88.

Unknown Chaplin (1983)

Though he kept his film techniques largely under wraps while he was alive, his style—which was largely worked out in the moment—is revealed in Unknown Chaplin.

New York Guitar Festival 2010

Justin Vernon of Bon Iver plays the score from Chaplin’s Easy Street (1917).

The Artist (2011)

Michel Hazanavicius plays tribute to the silent film era in last year’s Academy Award-winning film for Best Picture (among other awards).