Charlie Chaplin was born in London on April 15, 1889, although no birth certificate has ever been located. We are certain of the date because his proud mother placed an announcement in a music hall newspaper.
The poverty and lack of social convention that characterized Chaplin’s childhood seem contained in this bureaucratic absence. Hannah, his mother, was then married to a man of the stage, Charles Chaplin, who was not convinced of his fatherhood but who nevertheless gave the boy his surname. For the most part, he was absent during Charlie’s childhood; Hannah, Charlie, and older brother Sydney (probably the offspring of a liaison with a bookmaker) were on their own, moving from lodging to lodging. As a child, Charlie occasionally earned a few pennies dancing outside a pub. When he was 7, his mother was hospitalized—she was exhibiting signs of syphilitic mental deterioration—and he and Sydney spent three weeks in a workhouse before being consigned to a school for destitute orphans.
We might expect that Peter Ackroyd, author of the walloping 848-page London: A Biography, would bring these early years to life. The opening sentences alert readers to settle in and have a good time:
Welcome to the world of South London in the last decade of the 19th century. It was frowsy; it was shabby; the shops were small and generally dirty. It had none of the power or the energy of the more important part of the city on the other side of the Thames. It moved at a slower pace. . . . Glue factories stood adjacent to timber warehouses and slaughterhouses. The predominant smells were those of vinegar, and of dog dung and of smoke, and of beer, compounded of course by the stink of poverty.
There is plenty of color here, even without pictures. These surroundings contributed to the traits of invulnerability and detachment that would characterize the “little tramp,” at one time the world’s most iconic motion picture persona. It is not surprising that young Charlie hated poverty, but what distinguished him and allowed him to escape the vaudeville stage and become the most highly paid actor in the world by the time he was 27 was what Ackroyd calls his “indomitable energy and determination.” These, too, would seem to characterize Chaplin’s famous creation, standing athwart the blows of the world by ignoring their claims.
The Tramp was not born overnight, however, and Ackroyd describes the monomaniacal discipline and attention to detail that Chaplin brought to the task, in the process showing how spontaneity and chaos (marks of Chaplin’s earliest films, from 1914-15) were created out of relentless routine. The years of stage apprenticeship taught him timing, the importance of the characteristic gesture, and, most important, pantomime. He studied the clowns and comedians appearing on the same bills. His artistic inheritance included such characters as waiters, tramps, and men down on their luck, some of whom dressed oddly, walked comically, or made use of umbrellas, canes, and other props. The audiences were raucous and often inebriated, and it was necessary to impress them with that ineffable trait, personality, as well as with expertly directed custard pies. He perfected the “funny run” and halting in the middle of a run. The boy who began his stage career at 10 in a rough-and-tumble clog dancing troupe went on to become graceful, precise, balletic. Charlie quickly stood out in the music hall environment and, by 1914, was in Hollywood under contract with Max Sennett’s Keystone Cops Company.
Chaplin never appeared in any of the famous Sennett chase scenes. Apparently, Sennett recognized his individuality, and, as Ackroyd writes, Chaplin was training himself to be a solo performer in a collective cast. In his second film, a one-reeler called Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), he portrays an interloper who hogs the race car scene simply by staring the camera down, as if daring it to ignore him in favor of the action behind him. It was the first appearance of his famous cigarette flick kick. In the next movie, Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914), we see the bowler hat, the cane, the short, tight jacket, the baggy pants, the frayed tie, the huge shoes.