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Throughout their childhoods, Charlie Chaplin and his older brother lived in extreme poverty with their mother in cockney London. They were in and out of workhouses and schools for the destitute, and their mother was in and out of asylums for the insane. Chaplin idolized his mother.
There is no doubt that she met Mr Chaplin when he found lodgings with the Hill family in Brandon Street, Walworth; she was nineteen years old, and already pregnant, but the baby was not Chaplin’s. The child, Sydney, was said by Hannah herself to be the result of an elopement to South Africa with a rich bookmaker named Sydney Hawkes. Whatever the truth of the matter Charles Chaplin married her in June 1885, and gave the infant his surname. He also gave Hannah’s second son his surname. This child bore his first name, too, but he walked out on Hannah a year after the birth. It must be suspected that the fault was her infidelity. He may have guessed, or suspected, that the infant son was not his. Chaplin later confessed that his mother had enjoyed many affairs; it is also more likely than not that, in moments of distress and poverty, she took to the streets. In My Autobiography Chaplin states that ‘to gauge the morals of our family by commonplace standards would be as erroneous as putting a thermometer in boiling water’. In his subsequent films he is preoccupied by the role of the prostitute.
Charlie Chaplin: an egocentric and eccentric genius
By the time Chaplin was 30 years old, he was one of the most famous people in the world. In Peter Ackroyd*‘s biography of Chaplin, full attention is paid to the story of how he became so successful, including detailed (but not oppressively so) looks at his films and the genius and dysfunction and dramas behind their production.
Chaplin was egocentric and eccentric, and this book provides the details, whether he was taking seven or eight showers a day, patrolling the grounds at night with a pistol, or perhaps narrowly cheating death on William Randolph Hearst’s yacht after seducing Hearst’s mistress. His first two marriages were nightmares. He despised his second bride, who was 16 years old and pregnant. After the ceremony he stated that it was “better than the penitentiary” but wouldn’t last, and invited his bride to jump from the train platform and put an end to her misery.
Chaplin didn’t believe talkies would replace silent films, and his career never recovered from the change. Scandals in the 1940s involving communism and womanizing did even more harm to his popularity, and in 1953 he exiled himself from the United States and took up residence at a 35-acre lakeside estate in Switzerland.
more resources related to charlie chaplin
- My Father, Charlie Chaplin
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- The Internet Archive offers a selection of films and film clips by Charlie Chaplin you can watch for free.
- Amazon has a selection of Charlie Chaplin films to buy* or rent.
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