Hollywood Renegades Archive

The Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers

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Charles Chaplin, independent producer and Hollywood renegade.

Charles Chaplin

SIMPP Member (1941-1947)

Charlie Chaplin: BiographyIndependent Profile

by J. A. Aberdeen

Charles Spencer Chaplin was born in London on April 16, 1889, the son of two music hall entertainers. Charlie and his elder half-brother Sydney were raised in a broken household by their mother, whose mental stability was aggravated by poverty and deprivation. When his mother was committed to an infirmary, seven-year-old Charlie was sent to a workhouse outside of London, and suffered from the loneliness of a Dickensian childhood. He dreamed of freedom and wealth, and discovered the performing arts as a vehicle for his ambitions.

Charlie Chaplin. Portrait 1920.

Chaplin's Theatre Days

Chaplin attracted the attention of the manager of a traveling music hall troupe and became one of The Eight Lancashire Lads. With his mother recently committed to asylum, young Chaplin depended on making his own living or faced returning to the orphanage. Augmenting his income with odd-jobs, he gained a reputation and assumed leading stage roles at age twelve. Together with Sydney, who also pursued a stage career, Charlie joined the legendary comedy troupe of Fred Karno, a former music hall acrobat who became one of Charlie Chaplin's important mentors. He debuted with Karno on February 3, 1908 at age seventeen, and quickly rose to prominence as a principle in the cast. In 1910 Karno selected Chaplin as one of the leading comics to accompany the troupe on a touring engagement of America leaving for the States in September.

The knockabout comedy of the Karno Speechless Comedians, combining satire with pantomime, was successful in the United States where vaudeville was then the staple of American entertainment. Precise and thoroughly rehearsed, the Karno routines provided Chaplin with his comedy apprenticeship. Several conspicuous examples from Chaplin's Karno days invaded his later motion picture work. The roller-skating performed with balletic control in The Rink (1916) was perfected in a Karno sketch Skating, as was his highly original portrayal of an intoxicated man-about-town in Karno's Mumming Birds, incorporated into several later films including One A.M. (1916) and The Cure (1917). His captivating portrayal of the drunkard brought public acclaim, and also provided Chaplin with his entry to the movies with Mack Sennett and the Keystone Film Company.

Charlie Chaplin (with violin) - and Alf Reeves, who later became an important manager at the Charlie Chaplin studio.

Early Film Ventures

Documentary evidence suggests that Chaplin's entrepreneurial instincts turned his interest to film production years before his film debut at Keystone. Alf Reeves, manager of the Karno tour in America, listened to Charlie throughout the extended tour as he spoke of his desire to enter the movie business. In 1910 Chaplin proposed a partnership with Reeves. With their finances combined, Chaplin devised a plan to purchase a motion picture camera, photograph the comedy troupe during rehearsals, and then market the film. The visual comedy of the troupe seemed a natural for the silent film, with scenery consisting of already-existing stage sets. The breakneck touring schedule of the troupe precluded Chaplin's plans, however his interest in film continued to evolve. Reeves' association with Chaplin became lifelong. He later served as manager of the Chaplin film studio, and played a key role in helping to establish the company independently.

This early film project significantly reveals Chaplin's ambitions of rising above the status of mere performer. Completely inexperienced in the motion picture field, he was already finding a way to become his own producer, and orchestrating his limited resources to enter the fledgling film industry as his own boss.

Charlie Chaplin's first trip to America with the Karno troupe lasted two years, a coast to coast schedule, playing the major cities of the United States and Canada. As the company planned its return to England, Alf Reeves accepted the offer of William Morris, the owner of the American Music Hall in New York City, to play an unexpected six-week engagement on Forty-second Street. Morris, later the namesake of the influential talent agency, was then an independent theater owner battling the large vaudeville trusts. The Karno troupe presented one of their British reparatory hits Mumming Birds, renamed A Night in an English Music Hall for the American tour. This high-concept play showed a series of faux vaudeville acts with pretend audience members as part of the performance. One of the cast members watching the play-within-a-play was Charlie Chaplin, portraying with great exuberance his specialty the Inebriated Swell.

Mack Sennett

Mack Sennett's Keystone studio in Edendale, California.

This particular New York engagement gave Chaplin's show-stealing performance the exposure that brought him to the attention of the movie industry. Frequent retelling of the incident has led to confusion over some of the facts. Allegedly, Mack Sennett of the Keystone Film Company, who supplied Chaplin with his first movie job offer, attended the play, and spotted Chaplin among the Karno cast. In his ghost-written autobiography, Sennett was on a date with Mabel Normand during a business trip to New York in late 1912 when he saw "A Night in a London Music Hall" at the American Theatre. Chaplin confirms this story in his own autobiography, but more accurately places Sennett's attendance at least six months earlier while Sennett was a comic actor for D. W. Griffith at Biograph's Manhattan studio, before the formation of Keystone in 1912. In early 1913, when Sennett had contractual problems with one of his Keystone Cops, Sennett remembered the British comic from months earlier (which speaks wonders of Chaplin's first impression on Sennett). Although the name of the comedian eluded him, Sennett gave instructions to the New York office to locate the comic. In the spring of 1913 during a Karno performance in Philadelphia, Alf Reeves received a telegram from Kessel and Baumann of New York asking about the comedian.

Adam Kessel, Jr. and Charles O. Bauman, as described by Sennett, were two bookies who entered the film business as exchange operators after inheriting a collection of films from a debtor. They became independent film producers in 1909 with the formation of the New York Motion Picture Company. They opposed the Patents Company monopoly and partnered with Laemmle and others in a preemptive attempt to dominate independent production with the Sales Company of 1910. When the Sales Company was reorganized as Universal, Baumann, the largest of the independents, briefly became its first president, before breaking away from Universal.

In addition to their flagship studio the New York Motion Picture Company, Kessel and Baumann formed several other companies and tradenames to specialize in certain kinds of films. For features, they founded the Majestic Motion Picture Company. Bison 101 (later Bronco) released Westerns. Other labels included Kay-Bee (taken from their initials) and Domino. Already among industry's most active film producers by 1912, Kessel and Baumann decided to form a company to specialize in comedies. Sennett said that he lost money on horseracing owed to Kessel and Baumann when he convinced them to form Keystone. Sennett was given a one-third interest in the new company, based in his reputation as a comic actor and director at Biograph, and in forgiveness of his previous gambling debt to his new partners. Sennett defected from Biograph with several key performers including Mabel Normand, Ford Sterling and Henry "Pathé" Lehrman. Sennett moved the studio to Los Angeles, and continued to build his roster of comedy performers. By the time Sennett instructed Kessel and Baumann to find Chaplin, Keystone had developed into Hollywood's preeminent fun factory of slapstick comedy.

Chaplin traveled to New York in 1913 where he met with Adam Kessel. Kessel offered Chaplin a one year contract at Keystone for $150 per week, double his Karno salary. Chapin even bargained for, and received, an additional $25 per week after the first three months--before he and Sennett had even made personal contact. Chaplin was given until the end of the year to finish his Karno tour, then instructed to report to the Keystone Studios in Los Angeles December 1913.

When Chaplin and Sennett finally met, Sennett was shocked. "What I had seen in New York was a deft, experienced, knockabout, roughneck, middle-aged comedian of the music-hall type. In Los Angeles, I met a boy. Chaplin was only twenty-four years old."

Chaplin with Henry "Pathé" Lehrman in 1914.

By the end of his first month at Keystone, Chaplin was assigned to director Pathé Lehrman for a staring role in his first motion picture appearance. Chaplin's earliest Keystone films display his ability and exuberance. But dressed in excessive make-up and costuming, his inaugural work with Sennett was inauspicious Keystone fare. At Karno Chaplin's reputation was as a back-stage introvert, always reading, and pensively spending quiet moments alone. At Sennett, Chaplin displayed a similar seriousness off-camera, which was not helped by his British mannerisms that contrasted with the brashness of the Keystone comics.

In order to individualize his on-screen character, Chaplin assembled the Tramp costume that quickly attained mythic status. Collecting a miss-match of clothing from several different comics, Chaplin toned down the costume in order to highlight the personality of his new creation. The new character, commonly known as The Little Fellow, or the Tramp, debuted in Chaplin's second Keystone film, the Lehrman-directed Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914). In one masterstroke, Chaplin created the image that would forever be associated with his name. From the earliest appearance, the Tramp would remain fundamentally the same in both appearance and character over the next thirty years, though Chaplin's refinements would allow the character to attain unprecedented acclaim for a screen image.

The high-reconcilability factor of Charlie Chaplin's tramp outfit, allowed his popularity to grow steadily, and begin to eclipse the other Keystone players. Chaplin was not content to survive as actor alone, no matter how popular. Chaplin's desire to be more in control, to become more of a filmmaker than merely an actor, lead to argument's with directors. In one instance, when Mabel Normand was directing, Chaplin refused to appear before the camera after his gag ideas for the film were rejected. Frequently Sennett was called on to intercede.

During the incident with Mabel Normand, Chaplin petitioned Sennett to be elevated to the status of director. The director position at Keystone was exclusive and highly coveted by many of the talented names to come through the studio. Usually the job was reserved by Sennett for only his most trusted and experienced employees, though Normand in whom Sennett had a romantic interest, was only nineteen years old when she was directing. Undeniably Chaplin was a film novice in Sennett's eyes. However, Chaplin's circumstances were also unique. Demand for Chaplin prints (the states' rights barometer of success) were escalating. In only three months time Charlie Chaplin became one of Keystone's most important assets.

Chaplin's bold maneuver was to personally accept financial responsibility for the films he directed. Chaplin offered to deposit his entire savings of $1500 into a bank account as collateral. If the Chaplin-directed picture failed to make a profit, Chaplin's money would cover the balance. Chaplin returned to the set to finish the current Mabel Normand picture, then Sennett allowed Chaplin the privilege of directing his own films. Charlie Chaplin, as he was later accustomed to, began risking his own money when it became necessary to further his career. In this case, it enabled him to take greater control over his filmmaking, and became another step towards his desire to be his own producer.

With four months left to go on his one-year Keystone contract, Chaplin began to renegotiate with Sennett. Chaplin, aware of his rapid rise to prominence, asked for $1000 per week, in other words, more than Mack Sennett himself made. Instead of the inflated salary, Sennett offered to make Chaplin a partner at Keystone. It is not known how sincere Sennett was with the offer of a partnership, or for that matter, if it really was offered to Chaplin. Not mentioned by Chaplin, the offer was likely a Sennett fabrication for his memoirs. Instead Sennett, in discussion with Kessel and Baumann, was unable to make a successful counter offer, and stalled for the remaining four months that Chaplin played at his original salary.

Coming to the end of his contract with Sennett, Chaplin began to worry about his career. While he wanted freedom from the factory-like conditions at Keystone, he was in a vulnerable position as a free-lance comedy actor-director. The careers of several other Keystone graduates took a down-turn after their film failed to appear with the Keystone name. Chaplin and Sennett both knew this, and Sennett hoped this fear would keep Chaplin from leaving Keystone. Carl Laemmle called on Chaplin, making him an offer at twelve cents for each foot of film that Chaplin made for Universal. But Chaplin wanted greater control of his pictures, and more time to improve the quality.

Chaplin began to contemplate forming his own company and becoming an independent producer. But he was concerned about the administrative burden. He tried to interest his brother Sydney Chaplin in a partnership. Sydney's career showed promise, and Charlie valued his skill as a manager. "All we need is a camera and a backlot," Charlie told his brother. But Sydney Chaplin, who had followed Charlie to Keystone, and was still contractually obligated to Sennett.

Essanay Red Letter Photocard No. 4: An early example of Chaplin merchandise. Notice the Essanay Indian logo in the bottom right corner.


Shortly before the expiration of his Keystone contract, Chaplin accepted a lucrative offer from the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company. Essanay started out as the Peerless Film Manufacturing Company in 1907, and was named Essanay after the initials of the founding partners, a prominent Midwest film exchange-man George K. Spoor and Western star Gilbert M. Anderson. The company was an early Edison licensee, and was the youngest of the founding members of the Motion Picture Patents monopoly. Already a leading producer of Westerns (on-screen Anderson was known as Wild West star "Bronco Billy"), Essanay became the slapstick comedy mainstay before the advent of Keystone. Spoor hoped that Chaplin would help restore Essanay's domination of film comedy, and authorized a company executive Jess Robbins to handle the Chaplin negotiations.

Charlie Chaplin signed with Essanay on January 2, 1915 for a weekly salary of $1250, and a signing bonus of $10,000. Although the power of the Motion Picture patents company was virtually eliminated, Essanay was an important film producer when Chaplin joined. In addition to Essanay's established Chicago studio, the company had a ranch outside San Francisco where a new Bronco Billy westerns was made each week. Also Essanay's promotional capability would be perfected suited for Chaplin's Tramp character.

Producing his first films for Essanay was not pleasant for Chaplin. He was unhappy during brief periods at Chicago and Niles, and requested that he be allowed to film in Los Angeles. Also Essanay delayed his $10,000 bonus. Spoor stalled in an effort to gauge Chaplin's value to the company. Several films into his Essanay contract, Chaplin received his bonus check and was allowed to move his crew to Hollywood. This maneuver put Charlie in proximity to Sydney, whose contract with Keystone was expiring. Sydney relinquished his acting career to become manager and business man for his brother's growing enterprise.

Sydney Chaplin proved to be astute and inventive. Aware of the distribution changes being introduced by Hodkinson at Paramount, Sidney made some recommendations for Essanay. In the spring of 1915, Essanay combined its distribution offices with three other former trust companies, to form VLSE. With Essanay's new distribution leverage, Sydney convinced the studio to scale their film rental terms according to seating capacity. With rentals more clearly reflecting box office receipts, Essanay generated more than $100,000 on each Chaplin comedy short. Sydney helped Charlie renegotiate his contract, which brought in a $10,000 bonus for each film.

Essanay Red Letter Photocard No. 1.

Chaplin Merchandise and Tramp Imitators

During 1915, the Charlie Chaplin craze stormed the United States. Essanay vigorously promoted Chaplin's image, creating merchandise from photocards to books to toys, sheet music, fan cards,. All authorized merchandise stamped with Essanay name, and where possible the studios Indian-head logo. Star system at its most acute: studio being identified by its star. Chaplin ran over) into other media: animated cartoons where alliterative names of cartoon characters followed suit--trend of alliterative cartoon character proliferate throughout animation, Sunday comic strips. Star paraphernalia as an idea was not new, but the body of Chaplin merchandise was unlike anything seen in film before, pointing to a new direction for movie paraphernalia.

Charlie Chaplin amateur contests brought local recognition to a new generation of young talent. Over thirty New York theaters sponsored Chaplin amateur nights in the summer of 1915. Notable teenage participants included Walt Disney in Kansas City, actor Bob Hope in Cleveland, and director Mervyn LeRoy in San Francisco.

Quality Over Quantity

More importantly, this windfall allowed Chaplin to spend more time on writing, directing, and acting -- giving him time to improve quality. He knew that the only way to preserve his career in the long-term would be to continually hone his skills rather than cash in for immediate profit. His film output became less and less frequent, until, as a feature producers, he could would spend years concentrating on each prestige project.

At Essanay, Chaplin continued to develop both as an artist and as a businessman. Liberated from the breakneck studio schedules imposed at Keystone, Chaplin began to display a meticulousness on the set that would accelerate over the years. No longer was a performance suitable; Chaplin always trying to capture a better take. Movies during this time, though many still showing some of the Sennett vulgarity, were more refined, like The Tramp (1915) historically recognized as Chaplin's first masterpiece. Certainly influenced by the success of Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin developed ways to inject heart and intelligence into comic characters. He theorized that the addition of pathos would enhance the comedy--and give the picture more emotional impact. Chaplin was also burned by Essanay when they re-edited one of his movies, after he left the company. Essanay as owners of the copyrights were legally within their limits, but Chaplin said he was crushed for days after the incident. Thereafter he would make all future contracts contingent on his creative control, and would eventually retention the copyrights for all his work. Thus Chaplin displayed one of the hallmarks of the SIMPP independent producers -- their obsession with creative control to the extent that they retain as much ownership of the picture as possible, and willing to make sacrifices to do so.

Chaplin asked Spoor for a half-million dollar contract upon expiration of his current Essanay deal. While Spoor hesitated, Sydney Chaplin went to New York to find another studio that would be interested in sweetening the deal. By the time Charlie joined his brother in the East, Sydney had already closed a deal with Mutual.


The history of the Mutual Company goes back to the days of the united front of independent production companies known as the Sales Company which included Laemmle, Kessel and Baumann, and others. Harry E. Aitken, owner of the Majestic film studio, defected from the Sales Company after a dispute with Carl Laemmle. Aitken formed Mutual in March 1912 as a consortium of independent studios, and interested other independents in joining, including Kessel and Baumann, seriously weakening Laemmle's empire. Mutual remained Universal's chief independent rival during the time the Motion picture Patents trust was unraveling.

D. W. Griffith, photo taken while operating as an independent producer for the Mutual Film Corp. (Aberdeen Collection). To purchase Aberdeen photos for reprint purposes click here.

Aitken's most important gambit was luring D. W. Griffith from Biograph. With Mutual's backing, Griffith produced the expensive Birth of a Nation for Mutual, until the studio board became alarmed at Griffith's cost overruns. Mutual ousted its founder from the presidency and forced Aitken to pay $40,000 to cover the Mutual investors interest in Birth of a Nation. As chief investor of one of the most profitable movies of all time, Aitken made a fortune and left behind Mutual, taking Kessel and Baumann with him to form Triangle Pictures.

Aitken, Kessel and Baumann combined their three chief producers (arguably the three most important filmmakers then working in film), Griffith, Ince and Sennett. The Wall Street-funded attempt at vertical integration was auspicious but ultimately unsuccessful. The colorful history of the studio showcased the talents of William S. Hart and early Douglas Fairbanks, but Triangle suffered from mismanagement and overextension. When Triangle collapsed around 1917, most of its high-profile contracts were acquired by the newly integrated Paramount. Artcraft, a prestigious subsidiary of Paramount formed to capitalize on Mary Pickford's success, took in Griffith, Ince, Hart, and Fairbanks. And the Triangle shaped Culver City property belonging to Ince became the home of MGM.

When Chaplin joined Mutual, the company was one of the most impressive distributors in the industry--over fifty distributing offices in the United States, and a tremendous foreign presence that would make Chaplin the most famous individual in the world. Part of Mutual's success rested on the constant reissue of the Keystone Chaplin shorts, until the 1915 power struggle resulted in the loss of Kessel and Baumann who controlled the backlog of early Chaplin films at Sennett. When Aitken left Mutual in 1915, Kessel and Baumann took their collection of Chaplin films away from Mutual. The new president John Freuler sought to replenish his inventory of Chaplin pictures. Freuler also knew that Chaplin would enhance Mutual's status, since Chaplin was the biggest draw in the industry (with the possible exception of Mary Pickford).

Chaplin's half-million dollar deal included a $10,000 weekly salary and $150,000 signing bonus, costing Mutual $670,000 when it signed Chaplin on February 27, 1916. Mutual rented Chaplin a studio in Hollywood and allowed him a great degree of freedom with his own production unit. Recognizing his brother Sydney's role in bringing their mission one step closer to his dream of film independence, Charlie voluntarily ceded half his bonus to his brother. His hard-work, influence and guidance, helped Chaplin realize his vision as an independent artist.

Beginning his tenure at Mutual at age twenty-six, Chaplin embarked on one of the most outstanding creative periods of his career--resulting in probably the most well-conceived and expertly executed comedy shorts of his life, and the most illustrious series of comedy short ever to come out of Hollywood.

His inventive use of set pieces, such as an escalator or revolving door (from The Floorwalker (1916) and The Cure (1917), respectively) were benchmark film comedy. He began to lavish production value, unusual for a two-reel short -- like the gritty sets of Easy Street (1917) reminiscent of his childhood. Chaplin also continued to inject poignancy in films like The Immigrant (1917), and experimented with narrative structure. He seemed to master the chase (his final Mutual film The Adventurer (1917) begins and ends with a chase), but Chaplin envisioned a new direction for screen comedy.

Look magazine advance cover story for Chaplin's "The Dictator" (released as The Great Dictator).

Chaplin Goes Independent

Mutual's terms for contract renewal were excellent, $1 million for his next twelve films, and indeed Chaplin found Mutual artistically conducive ("the happiest period of my career" he later said). However, Chaplin wanted to make longer, more expensive pictures--and fewer of them. Chaplin formed an independent production company, and authorized Sydney to negotiate with one of the major distributors that would give his new company a window for feature film developments and a share of the profits. "Hereafter the Chaplin pictures will take from two to three times longer to produce than they do now," Sydney Chaplin announced to the press. "The settings and stage properties will be the finest. It is quality, not quantity that we are after."

Jesse Lasky matched Mutual's million dollar offer to bring the Charlie Chaplin films to Famous Players-Lasky, and its massive Paramount distribution network. Instead, Zukor's newly-formed rival, First National bid an unprecedented $1.25 million for Chaplin, permitting him to become an independent producer in a vertically integrated distribution-exhibition combine. In the First National agreement reached on June 17, 1917, First National was obligated to pay $125,000 for each two-reel film, plus $115, 000 for each additional reel, thus making feature length comedies economically feasible. As an independent producer, Charlie Chaplin Productions would finance its own filmmaking, retain complete creative control. First National would act as traditional distributor, with a thirty percent distribution fee, and cover all cost of prints and advertising. After cost of film was covered, profits would be divided fifty-fifty between producer and distributor.

At last, Charlie Chaplin could cement his creative vision by becoming an independent producer. He built a production facility from scratch. By financing his own films and controlling al the rights, he proved to be one of the most independent of all Hollywood filmmakers.

Chaplin's bright future was soon interrupted by rumors of massive change in the industry. Signing Chaplin had been one of the greatest steps for First National, bringing instant prestige to a promising Hollywood studio. The company subsequently hired Mary Pickford away from Adolph Zukor, and attracted other producers by offering lucrative and inflated terms in an effort to spite Zukor's Paramount.

That is when Chaplin's independent problems began. Chaplin's first two films for First National cost more than expected. But when Sydney Chaplin went to renegotiate their contract, First National was unexpectedly disinterested. Chaplin personally confronted the First National board to convince them that quality films not only enhanced both their interests, but was also the basis with which Chaplin signed with the distributor in the first place.

Chaplin became suspicious when Mary Pickford (at First National) and Douglas Fairbanks (at Paramount) faced similarly disingenuous attitudes from the two largest film companies.

Charles Chaplin, independent producer and United Artsits founder.

The Merger Conspiracy and the Formation of United Artists

According to the Charlie Chaplin memoirs, Sidney became aware of rumors of a secret Paramount-First National merger, intended to monopolize distribution and exhibition in an effort to swallow up the independent production companies and dominate the industry like no one had since the days of Edison. During the First National Exhibitors Circuit motion picture industry convention at the Alexandria Hotel in January 1919, the Chaplin brothers conferred with Pickford and Fairbanks and decided to hire an attractive young female detective to investigate. Three days later the report delivered to the independents indicated plans for a $40 million dollar merger that would rock the foundation of the industry. Performers salaries would be capped. Furthermore, independent production companies like Chaplin's, already on the wane in the face of consolidation, would be squelched.

The triumvirate planned a surprise of their own for the convention They partnered with D. W. Griffith and William S. Hart, and planned to announce that the five united artists would form an independent distribution combine in an effort to stave off the merger. Indeed, Charlie Chaplin later claimed that he never intended on going through with the proposed company. He intended merely to confuse the exhibitors, and scare the mighty studios into calling off their plans. The independent believed that a show of defiance would prove to the studios that if a massive merger took place, it would be ineffectual without the talent anyway.

The announcement took place at a press conference the night before the start of the Alexandria Convention. The press conference became the dominant event of the convention, and became one of the most significant moments in film history. The reaction convinced Chaplin to take the plan to the next step. Thus United Artists was formed, and Chaplin spent the next several years playing the role of the reluctant studio boss.

Further Difficulties As an Independent Filmmaker

With six films left to go on his First National contract, Chaplin's unfortunate unavailability hindered the early history of United Artists. His strained relationship with First National and troubled first marriage to Mildred Harris, also deteriorated his creativity.

At one of the Goldwyn parties: Samuel Goldwyn, then known as Sam Goldfish (left), and Charlie Chaplin, serving "root beer" (right) to Will Rogers (center).

Chaplin met seventeen year old Mildred Harris at a party given by Sam Goldwyn at his beach house in late 1917. The Chaplin-Harris wedding took place the following year, and their mismatched marriage, only three months old at the time Chaplin co-founded United Artists, was already deteriorating. Chaplin moved out of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, where he taken up a comfortable residence since 1914. He built a house for himself and his wife (and his mother-in-law), only to find himself back at the Athletic Club when he separated from Mildred in 1920.

Problems in his personal life seeped into his film work. During 1919 Chaplin released only two shorts, both unexemplary, Sunnyside and A Day's Pleasure. His restlessness in his First National contract brought hostility between Chaplin and his distributor-exhibitor. First National accused Chaplin of acting like a lame duck producer at First National which had no hope of renewing the Chaplin contract with UA waiting for his services. But Chaplin blamed his slackening creativity on personal problems that broke his focus and made movie making like "pulling teeth." Paying the costs of his own movies and the overhead of a production company with a brand new studio weighed heavily on Chaplin and increased his anxiety.

The Move to Feature Films

His films were getting longer, typically running around three reels, and Chaplin was overdue for a feature film. Rather than delay his ambitions, he planned his first feature while at First National. And out of this bitter personal and professional time, he produced a masterpiece.

The resulting six-reel comedy The Kid (1921) developed out of Chapin's discovery of the talented child-actor Jackie Coogan. Convinced of the necessity of pathos in a film in order to highlight the comedy, Chaplin envisioned a feature staring the child, a combination of slapstick and sympathy that was considered innovative at the time. Though unconventional, the formula became revolutionary, providing comedy features with a breakthrough format.

The original lobby card from the first Charlie Chaplin feature film "The Kid" (distributed by First National): "six reels of joy."

Before the film was completed, the editing process was nearly jeopardized when relations broke down with both First National and his wife. Mildred and Charlie had decided to split amicably, but First National became involved in the separation in an effort to wrestle control of Chaplin's feature film. Chaplin's half-million dollar expenditure alarmed the distributor. Though Chaplin financed the film himself, ultimately, First National would be contractually bound to pay far more than the cost of the negative to release the six-reel feature. Instead they tried to accept the film on the terms of three two-reelers, offering only $405,000. They knew that Chaplin's exit to United Artist was imminent, and they sought to put the screws to The Kid, the first feature film from the world's most famous entertainer. While this would seemingly put Chaplin two films closer to the end of his First National contract, such a deal would relegate him to economically unacceptable terms for a film that took eighteens months of his time and seemed to be a sure-fire box-office event. Chaplin refused.

In desperation First National acted in concert with Chaplin's soon-to-be ex-wife to attach the assets of the Charlie Chaplin Studio, including the raw film negative for The Kid. Operating on instinct, Chaplin secretly took five hundred rolls of film out-of-state with Alf Reeves and trusted cinematographer Rollie Totheroh to complete the film editing. Chaplin, in disguise, holed away in a Salt Lake City hotel room disregarding safety regulation that prohibited the highly inflammable film nitrate. He held a sneak preview for the film in Salt Lake to an enthusiastic test audience. He then completed the editing and traveled to New York to turn the tables on First National.

With his divorce agreement settled, Chaplin insisting on a $1.5 million advance against rentals, with usual terms (fifty percent of the profits, and possession of the film copyright after five years). When First National hesitated, he gave them a one week ultimatum. First National accepted, releasing The Kid early in 1921 to an amazing reception and box office smash hit. The gross has been estimated at around $2.5 million in its initial release.

Eager to fulfill his First National contract, Chaplin concentrated on several short films. First National even allowed Chaplin final four-reel films to be counted at two films. But he learned much from his fight with the studio bosses calling them "inconsiderate, unsympathetic and short-sighted."

Back at United Artists

The First National contract fulfilled, and now past the first of his four marriages, Chaplin planned for his first films with partners Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, the couple whose pictures sustained the company in the early 1920s. Charlie Chaplin took up residence in the neighborhood of his partners, building a new home on a six acre Beverly Hills lot below Pickfair.

United Artists was then weathering its infancy, and with Chaplin aboard, the partners hoped for financial stability. He surprised his partners and the public when his next film, his inaugural feature for United Artists, was a psychological drama The Woman of Paris (1923), which he produced, wrote and directed, but did not star in. Critically acclaimed and cinematically influential, The Woman of Paris was not a box office success, and brought further uncertainty to United Artists financial health.

Chaplin protested many of the management reforms that came when Joseph Schenck was brought in as the new president of United Artists in November 1924. Chaplin reluctantly submitted to an increase in UA's distribution fee -- now at twenty five percent, which was still lower than most major distributors charged. However, Chaplin resisted expansion at United Artists in an effort to avoid the potentially poisonous influence of outside investors. During Schenck's first year, he attempted a merger of United Artists with the newly formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Chaplin was among the most outspoken dissenting voices, egged on by his friend Samuel Goldwyn (who left the studio on bitter terms before it became MGM). Chaplin characterized the merger as a trust, railing against MGM's block booking practice which he, like most of the independents, despised. The merger failed. 

The success of The Gold Rush brought Chas. S. Chaplin to the cover of Time - 6 July 1925.

The Gold Rush

As independent producer, Chaplin frequently considered a variety of unconventional projects. One of his unfulfilled ambitions which he seriously considered at this time was a film about the twenty-six year old Napoleon Bonaparte: Chaplin himself in the starring role. But after the peculiar The Woman of Paris, Chaplin was motivated to produce a comedy to outdo the success of The Kid. His mind drifted to epic settings with a rugged backdrop for the Tramp. During a weekend at Pickfair, he settled on the Klondike gold rush, which evolved into the story for the Tramp and a dance-hall girl to be portrayed by his real-life love-interest Lita Grey. However, after several months of principle photography, Grey was replaced in the starring role after she became pregnant (eventually to give birth to Charlie Chaplin, Jr.). Lita Grey became the second wife of Charlie Chaplin in November 1924 during a break in his filming schedule. The film known as The Gold Rush (1925) became his most successful silent film, grossing $4 million within the first few years.

Unfortunately, his second marriage was even more disastrous than the first.

Trying Times

The attorney for Lita Grey filed a divorce complaint on January 10, 1927. Seeking a great deal of community property against Chaplin's complex finances, the complaint was brought against Chaplin, his studio, Alf Reeves, and United Artists. Devastating details leaked to the press, including Chaplin's miserliness, neglect, and sexual degeneracy. By January 12, mimeographed copies were being sold on the street.

Charlie Chaplin and Lita Grey's mother look on as Lita signs her Chaplin studio contract.

Public fallout was sudden and reactive. National women's organizations denounced Chaplin's failure to support his youthful wife and two small boys. Regional outcry led to a boycott of Chaplin films. Theater owners tried to counteract the boycott without bringing scorn upon their own heads. To avoid further negative publicity, Chaplin quietly wrote to United Artists' legal department not to sue to lift the boycott to avoid generating further publicity.

To add to his difficulties, in January 1927 Chaplin traveled to New York to take part in an injuncture against Pictorial Review magazine which sought to serialize an unauthorized biographical account written by a former Chaplin Studio employee. The injuncture proved unsuccessful, and "Charlie Chaplin: His Real Life Story" was published in February 1927, characterizing Chaplin as a moody, demanding despot, bent on perfection, and subject to insurgent parsimony.

An unrelated predicament during the trip to New York complicated matters even more when federal authorities accused Chaplin of tax avoidance, seeking $1.3 million going back to 1918. The money was placed in receivership, resulting in a lien against United Artists on January 28, 1927, and a lengthy settlement not resolved for over a year.

Dealing with personal difficulties and anti-Chaplin public opinion, Charlie Chaplin suspended studio operations and halted production on his latest feature The Circus (1928). He suffered a nervous breakdown, as reported by doctors in January. His salt-and-pepper hair color turned stark white, to the shock of his staff who observed this occurrence over the course of a very short time.

The final month of principle photography for The Circus resumed in September. The divorce settlement had been reached late that summer. [In fact, a happy accident of the divorce payment and tax difficulty was its compelling Chaplin to sell his vast stock investments at a market high before Black Monday.] Out of this uneasy time, Chaplin produced another memorable comedy. It was successful at the box office ($3 million gross), and it brought industry recognition: The board of the newly formed Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voted unanimously to remove The Circus from competition to bestow a special award, one of the first ever awarded in recognition of lifetime of accomplishment.

The Sound Era

During the Hollywood transition to sound movies, Chaplin's resistance classified him as a silent film aesthetic. Subsequent historical pigeonholing has recognized Chaplin as a cinematic reactionary whose failure to recognize the inevitability of progress left him the only producer of silent films in Hollywood in the 1930s. This sweeping characterization ignores Chaplin's high level of literacy and pre-talkie devotion to sound. Chaplin shared the intrepidation of many silent film purists who knew that advent of talking pictures would undermine the universality of the silent film as an art. But also Chaplin realized this could be devastating from an economic standpoint, for Charlie Chaplin was one of the only producers in Hollywood at this time (as Disney would be later) whose films generated more revenue overseas than domestically.

Chaplin rightly saw his Tramp character as unavoidably non-speaking, and continued making non-talking films. He thought he would be one among a number of several producers who would create films for a niche silent film market. As it turned out, all others either adapted, or after a short time retired, like Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Instead Chaplin's two final Tramp films City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936) became anachronistic anomalies (albeit with great success) in an era dominated by talkies.

The immediate benefit that Chaplin discovered with sound film was his long-cherished idea of marrying musical score with film action. Music, aside from being one of his inherited talents from his early comedy days in London, was also a staple of his full-range of abilities.

CLICK HERE to read about the Charlie Chaplin Music Publishing Company, 1916.

In 1916 his formative musical compositions ("two very bad songs," Chaplin later remarked) became the foundation of his own short-lived music publishing company. Headquartered in Downtown Los Angeles, the Charlie Chaplin Music Publishing Company formed in 1916 sold few of the two thousand copies of sheet music it had printed, and shortly went out business. But, significantly, this musical venture that bore Chaplin's name preceded his own film studio by more than two years. These early independent ventures provide real insight into Charlie Chaplin's natural gravitation toward the business side of his art.

As Chaplin's filmmaking and music skill improved, he regularly included a musical score of his own composition to be played by theater accompanists. With the advent of sound-on-film, Chaplin was able to attach his old music to his old films. Often this triggered successful re-releases of films that even only a decade old, were considered classics. For instance The Gold Rush was playing in theaters as a popular sound film with music and narration around the time that was SIMPP formed in 1942.

Charlie Chaplin's on-screen personna, at the time that he made the transition into the sound era. (Movie still from The Gold Rush)

City Lights

City Lights the first post-silent era Chaplin film proved a difficult shoot. Knowing his subject matter to be well-conceived for silent medium, Chaplin said, "I had worked myself into a neurotic state of wanting perfection." On-set experimentation and incessant retakes delayed production to 534 days of paid working days, only 166 of them actual shooting (as recounted by historians Kevin Brownlow and David Gill in their fascinating documentary The Unknown Chaplin).

The management at United Artists, including Joseph Schenck, treated the film coldly. The idea of a silent film in 1931 raised skepticism, and a wait-and-see attitude among the major chains. So Chaplin, after spending $2 million of his own money to produce the non-talking movie, decided to kick-off the release of the movie on his own in a special road show engagement. In the past the special engagement had been done for prestige and profits, for City Lights it was done out of necessity.

Chaplin rented the George M. Cohan Theatre in New York City, supplied his own theater management and staff. Though principal stockholder of one of Hollywood's Big Eight film distribution companies, Chaplin the independent producer still putting his own money into production, and now overseeing the distribution and exhibition on his own. Even more frustrating was the notoriously weak UA publicity department. When Chaplin became convinced that his distributor dropped the promotional ball, he took out his own advertisements for $30,000 out-of-pocket money.

Exhausted from work and worry, Chaplin slept through opening day February 6, 1931, to discover ticket lines around the block. City Lights completed a lucrative twelve-week run at the Cohan Theatre, grossing over $500,000 at this one situation. He repeated this success in a Los Angeles road show, one of the sole silent film successes during this time. Time magazine wrote that Charlie Chaplin "will be doing business after talkies have been traded in for television."

Encouraged by the City Lights triumph, Chaplin settled on yet another silent movie vehicle as his next project. Chaplin's Modern Times (1936), a satiric commentary on the Industrial Age, provided him a final silent forum for his tramp character, and an opportunity to elaborate on some his celebrated comedy routines from roller-skating to escalator hopping.

The film stared his ambitious and talented third wife Paulette Goddard. The couple first met aboard UA chairman Joe Schenck's yacht in 1932 while Goddard was under contract with independent producer Hal Roach and coming off a minor role for Samuel Goldwyn. Chaplin crafted the lead role of Modern Times around her gifted acting ability, proving well-suited for dramatic performance as well as for pantomime. Following the premiere of the movie, they were allegedly married on a vacation to the Orient under suspiciously undocumented circumstances. Their marriage lasted for several years before they began to drift apart, and a divorce was finalized in 1942.

The Great Dictator

Though Modern Times made money, it was Chaplin's first feature not to attain blockbuster status. Five years elapsed between City Lights and Modern Times; and as Chaplin's film production pace slowed, his enthusiasm also dwindled. He deplored the tangle of machinery and sound equipment that destroyed the free-spirited film production of the silent era. And he bemoaned the new order of business and vertical integration that had matured along with the introduction of sound: "Overnight it had become a cold and serious industry." His brother retired from the Chaplin Studio and went into repose on the French Riviera. Charlie continually waffled between serious consideration of retirement, and his impossible-to-ignore urges to continue in film production. Disinterested in making another silent film, Chaplin desperately awaited a lightening bolt of inspiration.

Charles Chaplin (1940) arriving in New York for the premiere of The Great Dictator. (Aberdeen collection). To purchase Aberdeen photos for reprint purposes click here.

In 1937 his United Artists partner, and soon-to-be SIMPP co-founder, Alexander Korda observed the similarity in appearance between the Little Tramp and Hitler. Korda suggested that Chaplin film a story of mistaken identity. Chaplin prepared his production company to make an anti-Nazi satire on political aggression to be called The Dictator. The film presented Chaplin's studio with something of a risk in an atmosphere of American isolationism, where Hollywood studios were frequently called on the carpet for propagating anti-isolationist views. Chaplin began shooting the film before even England declared war on Nazi Germany. The title role gave Chaplin an opportunity to feature the brilliance of his long-concealed verbal comedy skills, while the dual role of a soft-spoken Jewish peasant allowed Chaplin to skillfully and safely adapt his tramp character to sound. The movie retitled The Great Dictator opened in October 1940 to a fantastic reception and a successful release. It grossed $5 million worldwide, the most successful Chaplin film ever, landing on Hollywood's unofficial list of all-time box office hits. His anti-war speech from the end of the movie brought critical acclaim, and speaking engagements for Chaplin.

Why Chaplin's original title for The Great Dictator was changed - CLICK HERE.

Chaplin as United Artists Owner

Whenever possible, Charlie Chaplin had always lavished time on his features. He now became accustomed to long breaks in an effort to find new material. He was also by this time the only United Artists founder still actively producing films (definition of "activity" being relative), and he shared administrative duties with, among others, Mary Pickford. However for years Chaplin had opposed the management reforms of the other producers, and subsequently United Artists fell behind during the corporate amalgamation of the other major studios. He refused to become part of the United Artists Theatre Circuit upon its formation in 1926, then objected when his partners sought to integrate the theater chain with the United Artists distribution company. Pickford complained to Chaplin that because of his protest, this tremendous theater asset went wasted and in the mid-1930s was "turned over to the West Coast Theatres to be used as a stick against the United Artist producers." Chaplin insisted that United Artists was not intended to become a vertical corporation, but was created by the independents as a distributor "for the purpose of exploiting our own pictures without block booking from other sources." Ironically when Sol Lesser, the founder of West Coast Theatres, sold out his West Coast stock in 1927 to become an independent producer, his close friend Charlie Chaplin then became one of the main stockholders in Lesser's independent Progressive Theatres chain. When the business strive engendered by the UA partners became severe, Chaplin became frustratingly reticent, and sometimes his reclusive attitude made him impossible to contact.

Chaplin's Relationship with Other SIMPP Members

In spite of the harrowing UA partnership, Chaplin enjoyed the company of his independent producer peers. The genesis of his later films, as well as several unrealized projects, developed out of his relationships with the other independents, as, for instance, with the suggestion from Korda that lead to The Great Dictator. Chaplin worried that, although that film had proved his adeptness at sound film comedy, he still had not fully retired the tramp character. Essentially he had played no other character in films for years, and he was gradually breaking ties with the Tramp. Chaplin considered producing films for others to star in. One afternoon he invited the fiery young actor James Cagney to his home along with his brother, producer William Cagney, to discuss a staring role in Chaplin's pet project about the life of Napoleon. Cagneys, at the time on a preemptive break from his Warner contract had plans for he and his brother to produce their own films independently, and, not caring much for the title role in Chaplin's film, politely turned him down. Napoleon was never filmed. And the Cagneys were soon back at Warners--later to return to independent production as early members of SIMPP.

Chaplin also established a friendship with newcomer Orson Welles, whose similar political views teamed them on the lecture circuit together. (They shared top billing at the infamous Carnegie Hall meeting in 1942 where the public began to view Chaplin's politics in a more controversial light.) Having a great deal in common with the multi-talented independent producer, Chaplin briefly considered relinquishing his director-producer responsibilities to star in Welles' Mercury film project about the French wife murderer Désiré "Bluebeard" Landru. Chaplin became interested when Orson Welles visited his home in July 1941. So Welles continued his writing and research with Chaplin in mind. Though intrigued by the idea as an excellent departure from the Tramp, Chaplin knew intuitively it would be impossible to submit to the direction of another. So instead, he convinced Welles to sell the story idea to the Chaplin Studio as the basis for a black comedy. The Orson Welles suggestion became Chaplin's next movie, Monsieur Verdoux, which would not be completed for six more years.

Charlie Chaplin also had a prolific relationship with Walt Disney. This is discussed further using the link below.

CLICK HERE for The Disney-Chaplin Connection

When Charles Chaplin cofounded SIMPP in 1942, he was at another high point in his career. The box office for The Great Dictator was stellar. The re-release of The Gold Rush was wildly successful. His move to reach outside his classic Tramp character seemed successful. Unfortunately, within the next few years, a combination of personal and professional difficulties would signal the end of his membership in SIMPP, and later bring about the wane of his filmmaking career in Hollywood.

CLICK HERE to go to Charlie Chaplin—The SIMPP


The unrealized Chaplin-Reeves film venture from 1907 is described by Alf Reeves in a 1916 letter. Jim Tully, "Charlie Chaplin: The Real Life Story," Pictorial Review, February 1927. Chaplin briefly mentions his idea in Chaplin, My Autobiography.
Sennett at Chapin's American Music Hall performance: Sennett, King of Comedy, pp. 147-148. Chaplin's retelling: Chaplin, My Autobiography, pp.129-130. The variance in dates have led some to speculate that it was not Sennett at all but a talent scout, and possibly Kessel himself, see Balio, United Artists, p. 17; Lynn, Charlie Chaplin and His Times, p. 105. The incident quickly became legend following Chaplin's rise to popularity, see Goldwyn, Behind the Screen, pp. 98-100.
Kessel and Baumann, and the formation of Keystone: Sennett, King of Comedy, pp. 77-85. Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema, pp. 75-76, 80, 181;
Chapin's meeting with Adam Kessel: Chaplin, My Autobiography, pp.129-130. (Chaplin erroneously refers to him as Charles Kessel.)
"What I had seen in New York": Sennett, King of Comedy, p. 152.
Chaplin's gag suggestion refused by Mabel Normand: Chaplin, My Autobiography, pp. 148-149; Brownlow and Kobal, Hollywood: The Pioneers, p. 143.
Chaplin accepts financial responsibility for directorial debut: Chaplin, My Autobiography, p. 150.
Sennett offers Chaplin a one-sixth interest in Keystone: Sennett, King of Comedy, pp. 188-189.
"All we need is a camera": Chaplin trying to interest his brother in a partnership in 1914: Chaplin, My Autobiography, p. 160.
Essanay history: Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, p. 486. Essanay as slapstick comedy force: Essanay launched the career of cross-eyed vaudevillian Ben Turpin, who later became a Keystone mainstay. Editorial appearing in MPW, 4 December 1909, p. 837 classifies "Essanay slap-stick." (see Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema, p. 179.)
Chaplin's deal with Essanay: Maland, Chaplin and American Culture, p. 9.
VLSE: "'Big Four' Feature Combine," New York Dramatic Mirror, 24 March 1915, p. 24. Sydney Chaplin revamping Essanay distribution: Chaplin, My Autobiography, p. 173.
Chaplin amateur contests: In New York City, Maland, Chaplin and American Culture, p. 11; Disney in Kansas City, Schickel, Disney Version, p. 59 and Thomas, Building A Company, p. 31; Hope in Cleveland, Maland, p. 10; and LeRoy in San Francisco, LeRoy, Mervyn LeRoy: Take One, p. 29.
Aitken, the Mutual Film Company, and Triangle Pictures: Koszarski, An Evening's Entertainment, pp. 66-69, and Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema, pp. 221-222.
"Fulfilling the Mutual contract was the happiest period of my career. I was light and unencumbered, with fabulous prospects and a friendly, glamorous world before me." Chaplin, My Life in Pictures, p. 154. Also see Chaplin, My Autobiography, p. 188.
"Hereafter the Chaplin pictures": see Robinson, Chaplin: His Life and Art, p. 221.
Rumored Paramount-First National merger, and the formation of United Artists: Chaplin, My Autobiography, pp. 222-223; Balio, United Artists, pp. 3, 12-13.
Sam Goldwyn (then Goldfish) beach party: Chaplin, My Autobiography, p. 227.
"Pulling teeth": Chaplin, My Autobiography, p. 231.
Fist National as "inconsiderate, unsympathetic and short-sighted": Chaplin, My Life in Pictures, p. 156.
Joseph Schenck reforms at UA: Balio, United Artists, pp. 54-56, 62-63; Chaplin, My Autobiography, pp. 295-296.
Chaplin's unrealized Napoleon project: Chaplin, My Autobiography, p. 297.
Genesis of The Gold Rush: Chaplin, My Autobiography, p. 303.
Lita Grey divorce complaint excerpt and divorce proceedings detailed in Lita Grey Chaplin, My Life With Chaplin, pp. 250-263. "Cleverly, shockingly enlarged upon or distorted": Ibid, p. 252.
The anti-Chaplin movement of 1927 and Chaplin's public defenders summarized in Maland, Chaplin and American Culture, pp. 98-105. Chaplin's letter to United Artist's legal department: Ibid, p. 99, 387. Nervous breakdown: NYT, January 16, 1927, p. 5. White hair color: McCabe, Charlie Chaplin, p. 165.
"I had worked myself": Chaplin, My Autobiography, p. 326.
Road show release for City Lights: Chaplin, My Autobiography, pp. 329-333.
"Doing business after talkies have been traded in for television." Time, February 9, 1931.
"Overnight it had become": Chaplin, My Autobiography, p. 380.
Alexander Korda and The Dictator: Chaplin, My Autobiography, pp. 391-392.
The Great Dictator box-office figures: Balio, United Artists, p. 64.
Pickford-Chaplin debate - transcript from UA Stockholders Meeting: Balio, United Artists, p. 194-197. Chaplin as stockholder in Sol Lesser's Progressive Theatres: Daily Variety Forty-Sixth Anniversary Issue (1979), p. 238.
Cagney meeting with Chaplin: McCabe, Cagney, pp. 154-155.
Chaplin-Welles lecture: "ARTISTS FRONT TO WIN THE WAR" Advertisement for the Carnegie Hall "Win The War Meeting," October 16, 1942.
Origin of Monsieur Verdoux: Conflicting accounts given in Welles and Bogdanovich, This Is Orson Welles, pp. 134-136, and Chaplin, My Autobiography, pp. 418-419.

See Bibliography.


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