How Charlie Chaplin Stole His Mother’s Career
To understand the beginning of Charlie Chaplin‘s career is to understand the dawn of the film industry as we know it today. Both his parents were Vaudeville stars whose lives were derailed by their success, or lack of it.
His father, Charles Chaplin Sr., achieved modest acclaim on stage in England, but eventually drank himself to death. His mother, Hannah, was a songstress who lost her voice, and struggled to make ends meet only to end up losing her mind. Chaplin’s earliest attempts at acting are all deeply connected to his mother’s tragic downward spiral.
He was just five years old when he first took the stage, but it was a bittersweet occasion. His mother lost her voice in the middle of a song while performing at a “grubby, mean theater.” To appease the crowd, the venue’s manager forced young Charlie out onto the stage. “And in the turmoil I remember [the manager] leading me by the hand and, after a few explanatory words to the audience, leaving me on the stage alone,” he writes in his autobiography. “[B]efore a glare of footlights and faces in smoke, I started to sing, accompanied by the orchestra, which fiddled about until it found my key.” He sang a standard called Jack Jones, and managed to charm the audience with his stiff manner and innocence, not to mention a few wicked impressions. Unfortunately, while Chaplin first found his voice that night, his mother never recovered hers. It would be the last time she ever sang or performed in public.
Several years passed before Chaplin ventured back into the spotlight. In the intervening years, his mother was in and out of mental wards, while Chaplin and his brother were bounced from one bad housing situation to the next. When he was eight years old, his mother re-entered his life for a while, and re-animated his interest in the theatre once more. This time, however, he experienced his first failure. Chaplin tried out for a part in his school’s Christmas musical, Cinderella. Years later, he clearly still felt contempt for being passed over. “I was better able…than those who had been chosen,” he wrote in his autobiography. “They spoke their lines eruditely with a schoolboy inflection and an embarrassing falsetto emphasis.” Yet, success was not far off.
During a break in class two months later, Chaplin recited a comedic work his mother had taught him and he became an instant celebrity in his school, experiencing his “first conscious taste of glamour.” Shortly after, he took advantage of his parents’ contacts in the industry, and joined a troupe of clog dancers called the Eight Lancashire Lads, and tapped out his long route from music halls to a solo stage act and ultimately ending up a pionner on the big screen, where he achieved a lasting and unparalleled stardom.