Charlie Chaplin In Close Up

22 February – 13 October, 1985

The great comic genius of the 20th century, Charles Spencer Chaplin, was born in poverty in London in 1889. The films he made in Hollywood from 1914 brought him worldwide fame as the creator of perhaps the most universally recognised fictional image, his famous tramp. His last years were spent in self-exile in Switzerland; he was knighted in 1975.

Chaplin hardly ever sat for formal portraits. This display provides a visual biography of the star and the man through eight decades of his professional life, mostly in documentary photographs.


Charles Chaplin was born in London on 16 April 1889. While he was still a small child his parents separated. His father became an alcoholic, his mother retreated into permanent insanity, and Charlie and his elder brother Sydney spent much time in public institutions.

At ten he made his first appearance on the variety stage, and at fourteen he toured for two years as Billy the Page in Sherlock Holmes. He returned to the music halls and joined Fred Karno’s sketch companies in February 1908. With Karno, where he worked alongside Stan Laurel, Chaplin was soon an established star, working with troupes that toured the United States in 1910-12 and 1912-13.

1. 1893
Charles Chaplin Senior, Chaplin’s father, was a modestly successful music hall artist. This was one of his song successes.

2. 1903
As Billy in the stage play Sherlock Holmes. Chaplin toured in this role for more than two years, from 1903-1906

3. 1905
Programme for the London production of Sherlock Holmes; Chaplin appears in the cast as Billy.

4. 1906
As star of the comedy troupe Casey’s Court Circus. This advertising card was issued in the twenties when he had become famous in pictures.

5. c. 1910
With the Karno roller hockey team, seated, second from left; behind him Stan Laurel.
Ref Neg 41603

6. c. 1910 As Archibald in the Karno comedy sketch ‘Skating’
Courtesy of Lady Chaplin
Ref Neg 41591

7. 1910
September. With the Karno troupe en route for America. Photograph by Alf Reeves, manager for Karno and later Chaplin.

8. 1910
Advertisement for the Karno Company’s American tour. The artists illustrated are (from top) Amy Minister, Alf Reeves (manager), Chaplin, Mickie Palmer and Mike Asher.

9. c. 1910
In Minneapolis, having apparently just invested in a new suit.

10 c. 1910
Studio portrait by Sussman of Minneapolis.

11 c. 1912
With other members of the Karno Company on tour in the United States. The train is at the Solano Depot, Philadelphia.

12. 1912
On tour in the USA with the acrobats Lohse and Sterling. Chaplin and Ralph Lohse considered going into pig-farming together.

13. 1920
Chaplin’s childhood was overshadowed by his mother’s madness. This photograph was taken when she was in a nursing home in Peckham.

In September 1913 Chaplin joined the Keystone Film Company in Hollywood. In February 1914 he made his first film, Making a Living; and for his second – either Kid Auto Races at Venice or Mabel’s Strange Predicament – he devised the tramp costume which was to become famous throughout the world.

As Chaplin’s fame and popularity grew, he moved from one company to another – Essanay, Mutual, First National – earning astronomic salaries. Always fighting for creative independence, in 1918 he built his own studio, where he was to make all his films until 1952. Among the masterpieces of cinema created in this modest establishment on the corner of LaBrea and Sunset were Shoulder Arms, The Kid, A Woman of Paris (1923), The Gold Rush (1925), The Circus (1928), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), The Great Dictator (1940), Monsieur Verdoux (1946) and Limelight (1952).

Chaplin’s Essanay unit on the set of The Bank, 1915
Left to right: Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Harry Ensign, the cameraman, Jesse Robbins, the producer. The set of the bank vault is clearly visible; to the left is part of the set of the manager’s office, to the right the dressing rooms. Overhead are the muslin light diffusers characteristic of the open-air film studio of the period.

1. The Champion, 1915
British poster issues by the Essanay Company.
Ref Neg 41598

2. 1915
The Funny Wonder: Chaplin’s first appearance as a comic strip character.

4. Chaplin souvenirs
These include a Toby jug by Doultons of Lambeth (c. 1915), Dancing Charlie (c. 1920), a ceramic ornament and a clock-work Charlie made in Germany (c. 1930). Within a year of his going into pictures, Chaplin’s fame was worldwide and souvenirs like these were produced in enormous variety. In Germany his films were later banned under the Third Reich.

5. 1917
Visiting the site where the Chaplin studio was to be built, Chaplin at left, his brother Sydney to right. The big man is Eric Stuart Campbell, the ‘heavy’ in the Mutual films, who was killed in a road accident a few days later.

6. 1917
Charles and Syndey Chaplin at the studio site, the grounds of an old Hollywood mansion.

7. 1918
Rehearsal at the Chaplin studio. To the right of Chaplin are Henry Bergman and his leading lady Edna Purviance.

8. 1918
23 January. Harry Lauder visits the Chaplin studio. The two comedians shot a short film together that afternoon.

9. C. 1918
Conducting a screen test. The cameraman is Jack Wilson.
Ref Neg 41600

10. 1918
With Mut, his co-star in A Dog’s Life, the first film completed in the Chaplin studio
Ref Neg 41592

11. 1918
31 March. Photographed after working four days and nights editing A Dog’s Life.

12. 1918
8 April. Supported by Douglas Fairbanks , at a Liberty Bond rally in Wall Street.
Ref Neg 41593

13. 1918
Between takes on The Bond. Sydney Chaplin as the Kaiser; Henry Bergman as John Bull.

14. 1919
April. Signing the title card for Sunnyside.

15. 1919
Riding a penny-farthing bicycle – a prop he never managed to use in a film.

16. 1919
With Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Oscar Price, president of United Artists, the distribution organisation the three actors had formed with D.W. Griffith.
Photo by Jack Wilson
Ref Neg 41599

17. C. 1920
Publicity photograph
Ref Neg 41602

18. C. 1920
Navigating the studio swimming pool.
C. 1920

19. 1920
Mildred Harris, whom Chaplin married in October 1920. They divorced in November.

20. Studio portrait by an unknown photographer, c. 1920
According to Chaplin’s autobiography, this was taken at the time of his marriage to Mildred Harris.

21. c. 1922
In his cutting room.

22. 1924
2 March. Signing Lita Grey as leading lady for The Gold Rush. Instead she married him on 26 November. The couple had two sons but were divorced in 1927.

23. 1924
Filming The Gold Rush (1925)

24. Photograph by Edward Steichen (2)
One of several taken by the greatest American photographer of his generation, in 1925.
Courtesy of Lady Chaplin

25. 1925
‘Oh! That Cello’, a song written and composed by Chaplin and published by his short-lived music publishing company.

26. The Gold Rush, 1925
Local cinema poster

27. 1925
The most famous sequence of The Gold Rush was ‘the dance of the rolls’. Here Chaplin performs it off-screen,
Ref Neg 41594

28. 1925
Punch cartoon by Frank Reynolds. Chaplin’s tramp was a favourite figure with political cartoonists.

29. 1926
28 September. Production of The Circus was beset with catastrophes. Here Chaplin is photographed moments after a fire had destroyed his set, with fireman still at work in the background.

30. 1927
Chaplin succumbs to exhaustion on the set of The Circus. Snapshot by second cameraman, Jack Wilson.
Ref Neg 41595

31. 1929
Chaplin and Grigori Alexandrov, photographed by the Soviet director Sergei M. Eisenstein, then visiting the USA.
Ref Neg 41601

32. 1929
On the set of City Lights. The buildings at the rear are painted in trompe l’oeil on the studio wall.

33. 1931
Chaplin visited Britain on his world tour. Here he poses with Amy Johnson, Lady Astor, and Bernard Shaw.

34. Caricature by Robert S. Sherriffs, 1931.

35. C. 1935
As Napoleon. Chaplin long planned a film about the Emperor. The costume was made for a fancy dress party in 1925
Ref Neg 41596

36. C. 1935
In his dressing-room Chaplin makes up for Modern Times.

37. 1936.
Modern Times lobby card.

38. C. 1938
With Paulette Goddard at the Ballets Russes. Chaplin and Goddard married in 1936, divorced in 1932.

39. 1948
Directing Somerset Maugham’s Rain at the Circle Theatre, Hollywood. Left to right: William Schallert, June Havoc, Earle Herdan, Jerry Kilburn, Chaplin, Jerry Epstein, Sydney Chaplin Jr.

Although politically unaligned, Chaplin’s independent and liberated opinions made him the darling of the Left and an object of grave suspicion to the Right in the McCarthyite period. When he sailed for the British premiere of Limelight in 1952, the Attorney-General rescinded his re-entry permit. Chaplin spent the remaining years of his life in Switzerland with his fourth wife Oona, the daughter of the playwright Eugene O’Neill, and their family, which eventually grew to eight children. In his exile he wrote his autobiography; completed two more films, A King in New York (1957) and A Countess from Hong Kong (1967); and planned another, The Freak, which was never made. He died on Christmas Day in 1977.

1. 1952
Conducting the orchestra for the music he composed for Limelight.

2. 1952
Limelight. As Calvero, the old music-hall comedian who has lost his confidence and power over the audience.

3. 1952
With Oona at the Comédie Française.

4. 1957
With Oona. Three snapshots taken at their home hear Vevey.

5. 1957
Directing A King in New York. In costume, he shows Dawn Addams how to act the part of a photographer.

6. 1965
At the London press conference to announce A Countess from Hong Kong, with Sophia Loren.

7. c. 1966
Studio portrait by unknown photographer
Taken about the time of the production of A Countess from Hong Kong.

8. 1967
‘This is my Song’, the theme music from Chaplin’s last film, A Countess from Hong Kong.

9. c. 1968
With Oona and Christopher, their youngest son.

10. December 1977. The last portrait. Chaplin died on Christmas day.

11. 1985
Madame Tussaud’s wax portrait figure of Chaplin.

Additional Material

1. Three local cinema posters, 1916-21
a. Burlesque on Carmen (1916)
b. A Day’s Pleasure (1921)
c. Roustabout(The Property Man) (1914)

2. New Yorker Cartoon, 3 March 1975
One of several contemporary comments on Chaplin’s knighthood, conferred in 1975.
By Bud Halsman, 1975.

3. The Gentleman Tramp, 1974
Japanese poster for the biographical film.

4. 1913 autograph letter to his brother Sydney, telling him about his first film contract with Keystone.
Courtesy of Lady Chaplin

5. 25 September 1913 – The original contract with Keystone for his first work in films, signed by Chaplin.
Courtesy of Lady Chaplin

6. C. 1951 – Chaplin’s draft script for Limelight with his notes and corrections.
Courtesy of Lady Chaplin.

7. Studio portrait by Fred, c. 1910
The rising vaudeville star, with Fred Karno’s Speechless Comedians.
Courtesy of Lady Chaplin