Arise, Sir Charlie Chaplin

by Ray Setterfield


Event Date: March 4, 1975
Location: London, England, United Kingdom

Charlie Chaplin was knighted at Buckingham Palace on this day to become Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin KBE. He was 85 at the time and had to be pushed in a wheelchair to meet the Queen who performed the ceremony.

Fans of the British-born comic actor had been pressing for such recognition over many years, but controversy in his past life kept Charlie off the roll of honour.

Foreign Office papers from 1956, which were kept secret until 2002, revealed that the silent screen star’s knighthood had been shelved partly because he was considered to be a communist sympathiser.

Officials in his adopted home of the United States certainly thought so. Questions about his political allegiances began in the 1940s and continued until 1952 when his US visa was revoked. He then went to live in Switzerland where he spent the rest of his days.

It was his personal life that also raised eyebrows among the Establishment in Britain. Charlie was known to have had affairs with a number of actresses and had twice taken a 16-year-old bride.

After his third marriage ended in 1942, actress Joan Barry launched a paternity suit. Tests proved Chaplin was not the father of her daughter, but he was still ordered to pay child support and the case left a stain on his character.

Chaplin will be forever remembered, though, as the lovable slapstick tramp with a bowler hat and cane who acrobatted his way through a host of silent films, becoming in the process one of the world’s first superstars.

It would all have seemed highly improbable back in the 1880s. Shortly after he was born in London at that time Charlie was abandoned by his hard-drinking father and lived in poverty for much of his childhood, sometimes forced to stay in one of the notorious workhouses.

But he inherited a love of the stage from his mother, a music hall singer, and was to recall years later: “I was a news vendor, printer, toymaker, doctor's boy, etc., but during these occupational digressions, I never lost sight of my ultimate aim to become an actor.

“So, between jobs, I would polish my shoes, brush my clothes, put on a clean collar and make periodic calls at a theatrical agency.”

It led, in 1897, to work with a clog-dancing troupe, then to his acting debut as a pageboy in a production of Sherlock Holmes. In 1908, aged 19, he joined the prestigious Fred Karno pantomime troupe, which took him to America. There he was spotted by film producer Mack Sennett, who signed Chaplin to a contract for $150 a week.

There was no stopping him now and by the age of 26 Chaplin was a superstar earning a massive $670,000 a year.

Twenty years after being thrown out of the United States, forces were at work in Hollywood to recognise his talent and contribution to the film industry. So in 1972 he received an Honorary Academy Award for “the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century”.

It must have given him great satisfaction – but perhaps not as much as the knighthood awarded in 1975. Chaplin said after the ceremony that the Queen had thanked him for what he had done and that his films had helped her a great deal.

He was, he confessed, “dumbfounded” by the occasion.

Within three years Sir Charles was dead. He suffered a stroke on Christmas Day, 1977, while asleep in his Swiss home. He was not, however, allowed to rest in peace. Three months after his death his coffin was dug up and stolen from its grave by two unemployed immigrants.

They demanded $400,000 for its return but were arrested 11 weeks later in a police operation and the coffin was found buried in a field nearby. It was re-interred at its original site, surrounded by reinforced concrete.

Who knows whether the master of slapstick comedy would have seen the funny side of that . . .

Published: January 31, 2017

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