News broke today that spies for Britain’s MI5 have been puzzling over the exact date of Charlie Chaplin’s birth. Despite Chaplin’s own claim that he was born in London on April 16, 1889, no proof exists to back up that claim. When all is said and done, it may go down as a mystery for the ages, but there’s no doubt about what the legendary comic did with the (presumed) 88 years that followed until his death on Dec. 25, 1977. Below, we run down some of the highlights of Chaplin’s 86-film career, which spanned five decades.
Decked out as his now-famous character, “The Tramp,” Chaplin filmed his first scenes in those ill-fitting clothes for the film Mabel’s Strange Predicament.
This was one of a series of shorts for film studios Keystone, Essanay, and Mutual. In his review of the shorts, Ty Burr said they “reveal a man who was talented, lucky, hard-working — and increasingly self-absorbed.” And that was just the beginning. In 1918, Chaplin was signed to the First National studio for an unprecedented $1 million contract.
Did you know that Chaplin’s Tramp costume was just the tip of the iceberg? He also donned lady clothes for three early films, The Masquerader, A Busy Day, and A Woman. Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin, the 2004 documentary by Time magazine critic Richard Schickel, covers much ground in Chaplin’s formative years and, said EW’s Owen Gleiberman, “connects you to what a radical entertainer he was — an alchemist of enchantment.”
After more than two decades, Chaplin retired The Tramp, who had evolved from “the cruel slapstick pranks of the early two-reelers to the sentimental idealism of the feature films.” He would still go on to act and direct in movies for another 31 years until his last film, 1967’s A Countess From Hong Kong. Burr examines Chaplin’s greatest hits, and those of his contemporary Buster Keaton, in EW’s 2002 cover story.
Chaplin was famously snubbed by the Oscars for many years after the Academy decided to classify the award he won for 1929’s The Circus as a “Special Award.” Despite nominations for his directorial debut The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux, it would be 33 years until Chaplin (by then “Sir Charles”) was presented with an honorary Oscar in 1972. Find out which late, great Oscar winner presented the statuette to Chaplin in our 2003 lookback. It seems to have been a good omen for both of them because Chaplin won another Oscar for his Limelight score in 1973, and his presenter snagged a coveted Best Actor trophy in 1974.
Eighteen years later, the biopic would also vie for Oscar gold, including a nod for its star Robert Downey Jr. Gleiberman thought Downey, “offers a graceful re-creation of the comic’s slapstick balleticism. On a music-hall stage, where he captivates the crowd with an inspired drunk routine, Downey gets the gyroscopic perpetuity of Chaplin’s movements, the way he made the very notion of random buffoonery seem choreographed. (The first truly modern screen artist, he revealed the hidden grace in a disordered world.)”
So it only seems appropriate that Chaplin is revealing the disorder in the world once again, 34 years after his death, with this revelation of his mysterious birth. And a few years back when it was declared that there appeared to be a time traveler in The Circus. Consider Chaplin’s legacy as you check out this clip and decide for yourself.