Charles Chaplin Dies at 88, Burial in Switzerland

Funeral services, “private and restricted to the immediate family.” will be held today in Vevey, Switzerland, for Charlie Chaplin, 88, who died peacefully in his sleep early Sunday morning, a few hours before the family’s traditional Christmas celebration was to begin. Although he had been in failing health for a number of years during which he had been confined to a wheelchair and his speech, hearing and sight were impaired, it was only recently he had been put on oxygen because of a deterioration in his breathing.

Family doctor, Henri Perrier, ascribed death to old age. He said, “His death was peaceful and calm.”

Family At Bedside

Chaplin’s wife, Oona, and seven of their children, Michael, Josephine, Victoria, Eugene O’Neill, Jane and Annette-Emilie, were by his bedside when the comedian, who had won the hearts of people all over the world for his comic roles in films, died. Their daughter, Geraldine, was in Madrid making a film, but left for the family home in Corsier-sur-Vevey. Chaplin also had two sons, by his second wife, Lita Grey. Charles Spencer Jr. (deceased) and Sydney, who was walking in the garden of the 18-room villa at the time of his father’s death. Nearby some of the 10 grandchildren were playing with Christmas toys.

Death came to Sir Charles — he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1975 — at 4 a.m. Lady Chaplin said. “All the presents were under the tree. Charlie gave so much happiness and, although he had been ill for a long time, it is so sad that he should have passed away on Christmas Day.”

World Reaction

News of Chaplin’s death brought expressions of sorrow from throughout the world, from Moscow to Los Angeles. The native of England, born April 16, 1889, who was recognized as the greatest comic actor in motion picture history, had settled in Switzerland in 1952 after a bitter rupture with America when the U.S. revoked his British citizen’s entry visa. After 20 years of self-proclaimed exile from the U.S., he returned to receive more honors, causing more controversy.

But even his enemies conceded he was a genius. He was an actor, producer, director, composer and choreographer, and excelled in all fields. He won two Motion Picture Academy awards — In 1928 for “The Orcum” and in 1972 for the sum of his screen achievements through more than 50 years.

Yet the animosity persisted. The ancient (since 1942) allegations that Chaplin was at least sympathetic to communism survived the man. When the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce erected his statue in the Visitors and Information Center at the time of his second Oscar, the action drew angry letters and bomb threats.

The statue was removed.

The honor of knighthood at the end of 1974, when Chaplin was 80, was the last great tribute among many in his life. But he was often denounced. Never having feelings about a performer’s political views — in this instance denied vigorously to the end — been so savage. Never, either, has critical and public judgment of creative work been so unanimously generous. The verdict on Charles Spencer Chaplin, the artist, was that, as the begetter of the Little Tramp, he was the most gifted mime ever to work in motion pictures.

Meanwhile, in reissues the Little Tramp was still entertaining avid audiences. The one-and two-reelers were screening mostly in colleges and art houses along with shorts of Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy and other celebrated comics of the silent films.

Chaplin’s silent features, usually coupled in double bills, had again become big attractions in standard motion picture theatres. There were five: “The Kid” (1920). “The Gold Rush” (1928). “The Circus” (1928), “City Lights” (1931) and “Modem Times” (1936).

Little Tramp’s Farewell

The Little Tramp had no later adventures. He had been hobbled by sound.

An altered portrayal of him showed up as the Jewish barber who doubled for Adenoid Hynckel (Adolf Hitler) in “The Great Dictator” (1940). But the barber talked, and Chaplin himself believed dialog marred the Little Tramp’s glow.

In “Monsieur Verdoux” (1947) he played a bank clerk turned Bluebeard. The central charac ter In “Limelight” (1952) was a stage comedian no longer able to make people laugh. This film was the last Chaplin made in his Hollywood studio, which passed through several hands and for some years now has been occupied by A&M Records. It was also the pic that brought Claire Bloom to the screen.

Chaplin operating a film camera in the early days of his career. photo credit: Keystone/Getty Images

None of the later features drew long lines at the boxoffice — least of all “A Countess From Hong Kong,” which Chaplin produced- directed and In which Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren costarred. Chaplin also made a brief appearance In the film. But the later films made no difference. They will fade into the limbo of historical curiosities and leave the Little Tramp undiminished in his artistic grandeur. For, as the late Alexander Woollcott wrote:

“It must be said of Chaplin that he has created only one character, but that one, in his matchless courtesy, in his unfailing gallantry – his preposterous, innocent gallantry in a world of Goliaths – that character is, I think the finest gentleman of our time.”

Lucky Accident

The Little Tramp, curiously, came into existence almost by accident. It was in Mack Sennett’s studio in 1914, when Chaplin was at the beginning of his motion picture career. One day he had nothing to do and, hoping to win the boss’ eye, he moved close to the set.

Sennett was directing. He paused and looked around. “We need some gags here,” he said. Then he noticed Chaplin. “Put on a comedy make-up. Anything will do. “In his autobiography Chaplin tells what happened next.

“I had no idea what make-up to put on…However, on my way to the wardrobe I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. I wanted everything a contradiction: The pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large. I was undecided whether to look old or young, but remembering Sennett had expected me to be a much older man, I added a small mustache, which, I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression. I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the make-up made me feel the person he was.”

When he came back to the set, he told the others there what he had in mind.

“You know,” he said, “this fellow is many-sided — a tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure. He would have you believe he is a scientist, a musician, a duke, a polo player. However, he is not above picking up cigarette butts or robbing a baby of its candy. And of course, if the occasion warrants it, he will kick a lady in the rear — but only in extreme anger!”

Then he went before the camera and gave an exhibition of this character. It was an instant hit. Everybody in the studio drifted toward the set, and soon laughter was exploding all around.

The ready pleasure of that first audience was the sound of prophecy. In the next seven years the Little Tramp turned up in at least 80 short comedies, mostly two-reelers, each enough all by itself to pack theatres everywhere. Chaplin had become a millionaire.

Harsh Childhood

But life often dealt less generously with him. During his childhood he went often without food. He was bom in a slum section of London, of theatrical parents. His father, also named Charles Spencer Chaplin, was a doomed singer of ballads who died at 37 of what the son described as “alcoholic excess.” But long before that he abandoned his family for another woman.

The mother, Hannah — Lily Harley on the stage — was a singer, a pianist and an actress with a comic flair. Like her husband, she played in music halls, the vaudeville houses of England. But she lost her voice, and her career died before she was 30, and poverty descended on the family.

Little Charles and his half-brother, Sydney, who was four years older, lived two years In an orphanage. Afterwards they survived by begging, selling papers, sleeping In doorways. Another half-brother, Wheeler Dryden, son of the other woman, never used the Chaplin name. He went his own way.

Charles and Sydney were both talented. In time they found work on the stage. As a child actor, Charles toured England with a boys’ dancing troupe and played small parts in shows like “The Painful Predicament Of Sherlock Holmes.”

When Sydney landed with Fred Karno at three pounds a week, he won a chance for his brother. Charles did well. This was comedy. Mostly it was slapstick and knockabout farce, but it was a real opportunity because Karno was an Important theatrical figure, with companies touring both England and America.

With Karno then was young Stan Jefferson, later to become a star in American films as Stan Laurel. Hollywood lured him away. It lured many others. Inevitably it would discover a young man named Charles Chaplin. It was Bennett, a director at Keystone Films, who saw him in 1914 playing a drunk in “A Night In An English Music Hall.” Chaplin went overnight from $50 a week to $150.

But a curious timidity almost snuffed out his film career before it started. For two days he walked repeatedly past the studio doors, afraid to go in. Probably If It were not for the encouragement of Mabel Normand and a few other Keystone performers, he would have quit the first week.

Chaplin lifts his hat as he leaves London’s Savoy Hotel to go to Buckingham Palace to receive his knighthood from the Queen. photo credit: David Ashdown/Keystone/Getty Images

But soon Chaplin’s short comedies began screening, with titles like “Time’s Punctured Romance.” Writing, directing and acting, he was to go on with the Little Tramp to larger and larger successes. The shorts became so popular at once that for a second contract he demanded $1000 a week. Bennett balked, so in 1915 Chaplin signed with Essanay, where Louella Parsons was head of the scenario department and Ben Turpin a star. He got his price.

At Essanay he discovered Edna Purviance, who was to be his leading lady for eight years and who, by his own account, enjoyed his bounty through her many obscure latter years, until her death in 1958.

Into Production

By 1917 he thought It was time to produce his own films. His brother Sydney arranged this through a contract with First National Exhibitors Circuit. Chaplin got $1,000,000 for signing and a guarantee of half the profits. He also got his own studio. Since First National had none, he built one at La Brea and Sunset in Hollywood.

These were busy years. America was at war, and he toured the country with Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, selling Liberty Bonds. He brought his mother, now ill, to California and provided a house and a full-time nurse. He took his first young bride, Mildred Harris. And through all this he went on making films.

U.A. Formed

Chaplin and Fairbanks and Pickford became very warm friends. This was to bring about an important development in the Industry: The emergence of the truly independent actor-producer. When,In 1919, reports circulated that the studios were talking merger and planning to cut actors’ salaries, the three, along with William B. Hart and director D. W. Griffith, formed their own distributing firm, United Artists. By 1923 Chaplin was releasing all his films through that company.

He also took time out to seek the pleasures of life. He went yachting, became an ardent tennis player, lived in luxurious homes, traveled all over the world, enjoyed friendships with Winston Churchill, Somerset Maugham, H. G. Wells, Lady Astor, J. M. Barrie. Beautiful women were grateful for his attentions — Pola Negri, Peggy Hopkins Joyce and many others.

But some experiences were full of extreme pain. His marriage to Lita Grey, for Instance, ended with recriminations and scandal, and their conflict interrupted the making of “The Circus.” His property was padlocked. A government tax lien blocked Chaplin from his own studio.

Always, though, he emerged from these adversities to keener days and more shining artistic triumphs. He produced his masterpieces now, features like “The Kid,” in which he brought to the screen the extraordinary appeal of Jackie Coogan as a child actor. For over 20 years Chaplin enjoyed perhaps the most profitable boxoffice in motion pictures.

Then came World War II and disaster.

By the early 1950s a campaign of vilification, led by patriotic and religious forces and nourished by his own political and personal indiscretions, left his career a shambles. The later pictures were, by Chaplin standards, humiliating failures. “Verdoux” drew sign-carrying pickets instead of throngs of patrons. “A King In New York,” which opened in the U.S. In 1973 — 16 years after its London premiere — stirred neither critical nor public enthusiasm.

Many Hollywood historians believe Chaplin’s troubles started with a public appearance during World War II when he demanded a second front against Germany. The meeting was called by the American Committee for Russian War Relief. Patriots of that day said the organization was a communist front. Soon Chaplin was the center of a devastating, If abortive, investigation by the House Committee on un-American Activities, then chaired by Rep. Martin Dies.

Other developments fed the swelling public antipathy. In 1944 Chaplin fought Mann Act charges. Not long afterward he went to court twice to defend himself in paternity cases brought by Joan Barry, whose theatrical ambitions he had once encouraged.

By the 1950s, when red-baiting had burgeoned into a political bonanza, attacks on him were in high fashion. His enemies clamored that he had leftist friends. In the satirical “Verdoux” his character made excuses for murder, ridiculed the law, railed at big business. Chaplin had never become an American national, calling himself a citizen of the world, but, his foes pointed out, he remained a British subject. To them such heresies were proof enough of treason.

Even his marriages became fodder for reproach. No matter how old he was, his bride always was a teenager. His first, at 27, was a beautiful blonde extra, Mildred Harris. But she made, as he said, “a union that had no vital basis,” and in two years it was over. Then, in 1924, came Lita Grey (Lillita McMurray), who hoped he would make her a star, and in 1938, Paulette Goddard, the only Chaplin wife to become one.

.Oona O’Neil also went to Hollywood dreaming about a career in films. But after the wedding in 1943 she said at a press conference that she had left such notions behind. She also left behind the affections of her father, who would have nothing to do with her because he disapproved of the match.

Chaplin implies in his autobiography that a vast conspiracy had formed against him. The U.S. government provided some curious documentation. While he was aboard ship bound for England In 1952, Attorney General James P. McGranery rescinded his American re-entry permit. About a year later the Chaplins settled In Vevey.

Now, banished from the creative center of filmmaking in this country, Chaplin, the artist, was through. But the truth is probably that neither his enemies nor his follies destroyed him. The real culprits, as he foresaw from the beginning, were his own voice and the technology that made him use it. Even so, it was only the career of Charles Chaplin that foundered.

The career of the Little Tramp will live on.

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