Every few weeks, outside the movie theater in virtually any American town in the late 1910s, stood the life-size cardboard figure of a small tramp--outfitted in tattered, baggy pants, a cutaway coat and vest, impossibly large, worn-out shoes and a battered derby hat--bearing the inscription I AM HERE TODAY. An advertisement for a Charlie Chaplin film was a promise of happiness, of that precious, almost shocking moment when art delivers what life cannot, when experience and delight become synonymous, and our investments yield the fabulous, unmerited bonanza we never get past expecting.
Eighty years later, Chaplin is still here. In a 1995 worldwide survey of film critics, Chaplin was voted the greatest actor in movie history. He was the first, and to date the last, person to control every aspect of the filmmaking process--founding his own studio, United Artists, with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith, and producing, casting, directing, writing, scoring and editing the movies he starred in. In the first decades of the 20th century, when weekly moviegoing was a national habit, Chaplin more or less invented global recognizability and helped turn an industry into an art. In 1916, his third year in films, his salary of $10,000 a week made him the highest- paid actor--possibly the highest paid person--in the world. By 1920, "Chaplinitis," accompanied by a flood of Chaplin dances, songs, dolls, comic books and cocktails, was rampant. Filmmaker Mack Sennett thought him "just the greatest artist who ever lived." Other early admirers included George Bernard Shaw, Marcel Proust and Sigmund Freud. In 1923 Hart Crane, who wrote a poem about Chaplin, said his pantomime "represents the futile gesture of the poet today." Later, in the 1950s, Chaplin was one of the icons of the Beat Generation. Jack Kerouac went on the road because he too wanted to be a hobo. From 1981 to 1987, IBM used the Tramp as the logo to advertise its venture into personal computers.
Born in London in 1889, Chaplin spent his childhood in shabby furnished rooms, state poorhouses and an orphanage. He was never sure who his real father was; his mother's husband Charles Chaplin, a singer, deserted the family early and died of alcoholism in 1901. His mother Hannah, a small-time actress, was in and out of mental hospitals. Though he pursued learning passionately in later years, young Charlie left school at 10 to work as a mime and roustabout on the British vaudeville circuit. The poverty of his early years inspired the Tramp's trademark costume, a creative travesty of formal dinner dress suggesting the authoritative adult reimagined by a clear-eyed child, the guilty class reinvented in the image of the innocent one. His "little fellow" was the expression of a wildly sentimental, deeply felt allegiance to rags over riches by the star of the century's most conspicuous Horatio Alger scenario.