- Words by Mr Colin McDowell
It is true to say that for most of the 20th century, and possibly even today, the name Charlie Chaplin was better known around the world than that of any other public figure. Even more tellingly, so was his appearance in the many films he made in the early years of the movies when he was known as the king of comedy. In fact, Sir Charlie was one of the first people in any walk of life to understand the importance of branding. He also knew the dangers of changing, upgrading or modernising the brand. Once he had finalised the elements of his "look", the Tramp was always the same recognisably hard done by, inadequate nonentity whose inability to cope with life and his bewilderment and sadness at getting everything wrong had people across the entire globe laughing and crying with every maladroit movement he made.
As with Mr Johnny Depp's unchanging costume in Pirates of the Caribbean, for Sir Charlie the uniform was as much a character as the actor inside it, which is why he took so much care to get it right. Take his grotesquely oversized shoes, which gave him his characteristic screen walk. The fact is that inside them he was wearing a pair of the correct size for his feet. Interestingly, for someone who as a boy lived in poverty in south London and was twice confined to the workhouse, shoes were one of his obsessions - not surprisingly, perhaps, as for much of his childhood they were a luxury way beyond the grasp of his impoverished mother. And the insecurity affected him throughout his life. He was known to be a compulsive buyer, especially of clothes. At the height of his Hollywood success, a friend recalled that when Sir Charlie's wardrobe was opened it revealed rows of shoes, all identical, with suede shoes on the top row and black ones below, all in immaculate condition. He would never go barefoot again.
A publicity shot circa 1915
Some of the most important things that brought Sir Charlie a sense of order and place in life were good clothes - and plenty of them. He had favourite suits duplicated even to the extent of having many identical ones in his wardrobe, usually grey flannel and always to be worn with a pair of his many high-button shoes. Off the screen, his appearance was always immaculate. He normally wore a natty suit, to use the jargon of the 1920s, although he was equally as elegant in a cashmere sweater and plus fours. It comes as a surprise, however, to learn from his friend, the director Mr King Wallis Vidor, that this most professional of men, when it came to his appearance on or off the set, actually cut his own hair for his role as the little tramp in the very early days - and all his life he took the greatest care with his hair.
Sir Charlie tells in his autobiography how he conceived the most enduring and endearing appearance in cinema history. "I wanted everything a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small, and the shoes large... I added a small moustache which, I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression. I had no idea of the character, but the moment I was dressed... I began to know him." In strong contrast to the care he took over his screen alter ego, Sir Charlie once told a reporter that he didn't care at all about his own appearance, a modest denial we do not need to take too seriously.
He was well aware that although of small stature he was quite a good-looking man - although no Mr Douglas Fairbanks - and had great charisma, or sex appeal as later generations would describe it.
Sir Charlie and Ms Paulette Goddard, 1932
Married four times, always to younger women, Sir Charlie fathered eight children with his last and most famous wife, Ms Oona O'Neill. Holding political opinions that raised the suspicions of the FBI, life, after silent films had given way to the "talkies", was not quite as rosy as it had been for him in the glory days of the silent era, although he continued making films, most of which were critically acclaimed. In fact, Modern Times, The Great Dictator and Limelight, all of which he directed and appeared in, are now staples of film societies the world over. In 1952, while he and his family were in Europe, he was denied re-entry to America by the US government and he spent the rest of his life in exile in Switzerland, where he died in 1977, two years after he had received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II.
But the world's memory of Sir Charlie goes far beyond that. In a career in which he was variously actor, director, writer and producer, a career of some 86 films, he became a legend and he remains so today. Although he always underplayed his immense abilities, he knew his worth and made it pretty clear in statements such as, "All I need to make a comedy is a park, a policeman and a pretty girl". And he was right.
Photos © Roy Export S.A.S. / Roy Export Company Establishment