Photograph of the Month

1 April - 30 April 2014

Room 31


NPG x24433 © The National Portrait Gallery, London

Charlie Chaplin on-set for The Pilgrim
by James Abbe, 1922
vintage print
NPG x138888
© Estate of James Abbe
Given by Terence Pepper, 2014

2014 marks 100 years since Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977) first appeared on screen and 125 years since his birth in Walworth, South London.

Chaplin started out in London's music halls and aged seventeen he enlisted with Fred Karno’s theatrical company, soon becoming an established star. He worked with troupes that toured the United States and in 1913 he joined the Keystone Film Company in Hollywood. In 1914 he made his first film, Making a Living and in his next two films, Kid Auto Races at Venice and Mabel’s Strange Predicament, he devised the tramp costume, which was to become famous throughout the world.

Chaplin is seen here in The Pilgrim (1923), in which he played an escaped convict who steals a priest’s clothes and is mistaken by the new minister of a Wild West town. In this portrait, American photographer James Abbe (1883-1973) directed Chaplin in a studio session on the film set, pioneering a new genre of portraiture. Abbe, a collaborator of director D.W. Griffith, had taken publicity shots for The Kid (1921) of Chaplin's co-star Jackie Coogan but it was not until the production of The Pilgrim that Chaplin agreed to be photographed. Abbe recorded: 'Charlie had probably been in a new mood the night he got into his off-beat clerical ‘Pilgrim’ garb and make-up he left every pose to me. He responded so rapidly I used up the 24 8x10 films of my 24 film holders within 45 minutes.'

As Chaplin’s popularity grew he moved from one film company to another, including Essanay, Mutual, and First National, seeking creative independence and higher pay. Chaplin's emergence as the world's favourite film comedian coincided with the outbreak of war. Although he didn’t enlist, Chaplin proved more useful to the Allies for his positive effect on morale and his ability to raise money for the war effort. Shortly before the Armistice, Chaplin released Shoulder Arms (1918), his film relating the First World War. That same year he built his own studio, where he was to make all his films until 1952, when accusations of Communism led him to move to Switzerland with his fourth wife Oona and their family. In exile he wrote his autobiography and completed two more films.

This photograph is displayed alongside a portrait of Chaplin by Strauss-Peyton Studio P283 and two cigarette cards D2662, D2694.


Previous Photographs of the Month