Although the British actor and director was beloved for his slapstick comedy, Charlie Chaplin was a selfish, raging megalomaniac who treated his children and teenage wives with relentless cruelty.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
This weekend, Charlie Chaplin, a man whose face you know and movies you don't, would have celebrated his 127th birthday. Though no birth certificate for the British film icon has ever been found, it's generally accepted that he was born on April 16, 1889. Celebrities' birthdays are completely irrelevant, yet many have noted that the beloved Aries entered the world just four days before another toothbrush-mustached famous person: Adolf Hitler. Although Chaplin's ridiculous facial hair came with a sense for slapstick, the pair are often compared, and not just because the "tyrannical director" satirized the tyrannical dictator in a 1940 film.
Born into poverty in south London to a deadbeat dad and a mentally ill mother, Charlie Chaplin had all the makings of a rags-to-riches success story. The hard-working, spottily educated little Chaplin spent his childhood as a clog dancer, in and out of workhouses and relatives' homes, before learning physical comedy from the legendary British comedian Fred Karno. From there, according to Peter Ackroyd's 2014 biography Charlie Chaplin: A Brief Life, Chaplin rose to the status of "the most famous man in the world" by the age of 26. This compelling background—combined with a huge Hollywood salary and the respect and adoration Chaplin commanded in spite of being about 5'5"—allowed the actor to sleep with what he estimated were about 2,000 women during his lifetime.
While as a boast this is obnoxious and as a fact it could be neutral, it was these women—along with the children a few of them bore him—who endured the brunt of Chaplin's selfish, domineering, and cruel personality. It seemed that as the public quickly succumbed to "Chaplinitis" or "Chaplinoia," it quickly went to Chaplin's head. One of the first women to experience this, according to Ackroyd, was Edna Purviance, a 19-year-old actress Chaplin hired from an ad he placed in the San Francisco Chronicle. (It read "Wanted—the prettiest girl in California to take part in a moving picture.") The pair quickly became more than costars, but as Chaplin's dedication to his work eclipsed the attention he paid his girlfriend—when he visited New York, Ackroyd notes, Chaplin would not write to her—he became surprised when she started seeing another man.
Chaplin's next conquest took place during a time when his routine at parties was to "imitate the manner in which the leading ladies of the day might experience orgasm," Ackroyd writes. It was with an even younger starlet, the 16-year-old Mildred Harris, who soon informed him she was pregnant with his child. Spooked both at the prospect of domestic responsibility and of a scandal, Chaplin arranged a marriage, which took place in October 1918. It turned out the pregnancy was a false alarm, or a trick. Very soon, according to Ackroyd, Chaplin started to regret all of it: He thought Harris had bamboozled him into marriage and found her embarrassing, a bad actress, and "no mental heavyweight." He would be short and moody with her, often leaving home for days at a time without telling her where he was going. After she truly became pregnant with his child, she had a nervous breakdown, due in part to his mistreatment.
In 1920, the same year he and Harris went through a bitter divorce, Chaplin met the 12-year-old who would become his next wife, Lillita MacMurray, who later went by the professional name of Lita Grey. Although Chaplin admired Grey (even commissioning a portrait of her), he held off on pursuing her until she was a more appropriate 16 years old and playing a small role in his 1924 film The Gold Rush. She, too, became pregnant out of wedlock; Chaplin, spooked this time by the prospect of criminal charges, secretly married her in November 1924. She had two of his children before they divorced, amidst affairs and the failure of her career, in 1927.
The next marriage was Chaplin's most appropriate and least awful: In 1932 he began dating the 22-year-old actress Paulette Goddard, with whom he'd enjoy a decent working relationship until 1942. (They probably married, but no one is really sure.) The most important film they worked together on was 1940's controversial The Great Dictator, after which their relationship deteriorated. (When Goddard was informed—by grave robbers looking for a ransom—that Chaplin had died, she replied, "So what?" and slammed down the phone.)
The film—one of Chaplin's most known and most important—is often interpreted as a straightforward satire of the eponymous Führer, aided by Chaplin's identical mustache. But let us remember that that mustache was not grown for the role; Chaplin had been sporting it for much of his career. While the film parodies Hitler as the nonsensical, wildly gesticulating Adenoid Hynkel, it is also uncomfortably sympathetic in ways; the dictator himself screened the film for his own private viewing twice, and he was not known as someone who enjoyed a bit of constructive criticism.
But back to the women: As they say, the fourth time's the charm. In 1943, amidst criticism from the US government for (allegedly) both pro-war and pro-communist sympathizing, Chaplin wedded another much-younger woman, the Irish playwright Eugene O'Neill's daughter, Oona. Oona was 18; Chaplin, 54; Eugene, the same age, was so furious that he disinherited Oona (though they had a tumultuous relationship anyway). Despite widespread criticism, however, the marriage lasted until Chaplin's death, resulted in eight children, and was described as one of "true happiness."
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This assessment is often trotted out in biographies, an attempt to depict Chaplin as a womanizer-turned-wholesome-husband; he was always preciously looking to his young wife for her opinion or help, both on set and in life! While this may be true, their marriage was also plagued by Chaplin's exacting standards, outbursts, raging temper, and cruelty towards his children. According to Jane Scovell's Oona: Living in the Shadows, the actress Joan Collins said that O'Neill "catered" to her fatherly husband with "an almost geishalike deference." And according to Marlon Brando's autobiography, Chaplin treated Sydney, one of the sons he fathered with Grey, "cruelly." When Brando and Sydney, also an actor, worked with Chaplin on the 1967 film A Countess from Hong Kong, Brando writes that Chaplin humiliated his son in front of Brando and the rest of the cast; Sydney told Brando that his father "treated all his children this way." Brando was also on the receiving end of Chaplin's ire. "In front of the whole cast Chaplin berated me, embarrassing me, telling me that I had no sense of professional ethics and that I was a disgrace to my profession," Brando wrote. His mistake? Arriving on set 15 minutes late.
In other words, while more critical biographers paint the picture of an arrogant genius who manipulated those around him with no remorse, Brando is slightly more blunt. "Chaplin," he writes, "was probably the most sadistic man I'd ever met."