CLOSE
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

10 Enduring Facts About Charlie Chaplin

Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Best known for his tragicomic character The Little Tramp, Charlie Chaplin revolutionized cinema, both during the silent era and the talkies. Almost a century later, The Gold Rush, Modern Times, The Kid, and The Great Dictator are still considered essential cinematic works. His writing, producing, directing, acting, and scoring of his own films received just as much attention as his controversial personal life. The London-born Chaplin had a penchant for marrying teenage women, and ended up fathering 11 children. Though his outspoken political views would eventually force him out of America for good in 1952, Chaplin’s Hollywood legacy still burns brightly. On what would be his 128th birthday, here are 10 facts about the legendary filmmaker.

1. HE COLLABORATED WITH A FEMALE FILMMAKER (WHICH WAS A RARITY IN THOSE DAYS).

Mabel Normand was a silent film actress as well as a writer, producer, and director—which was unusual for the mid-1900s. She starred in 12 films with Charlie Chaplin, including 1914’s Mabel’s Strange Predicament, which marked the onscreen debut of Chaplin’s The Tramp character (though Mabel’s Strange Predicament was filmed first and technically was his first Tramp appearance, it was released two days after Kid Auto Races at Venice, the actual film debut of the character). She also directed Chaplin in 1914’s Caught in a Cabaret and the pair co-directed and starred in Her Friend the Bandit, which was released the same year.

2. HE CO-FOUNDED A BIG TIME MOVIE STUDIO.

In 1919, Chaplin and fellow filmmakers Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith formed United Artists as a means to finance their own movies so that they could retain creative control. The first film released under the new studio was 1919’s His Majesty, the American, starring Fairbanks. The studio took off and eventually branched out to build a chain of movie theaters. But in 1955, with movie attendance at a new low, Chaplin sold his shares. UA released the first James Bond movie in 1963. Today, MGM is UA’s parent company.

3. HE COMPOSED THE MUSIC FOR MANY OF HIS FILMS.

Beginning with 1931’s City Lights, Chaplin composed scores for his films’ soundtracks. His song “Smile,” used in Modern Times, became a classic. In 1954, Nat King Cole’s version—now with lyrics—peaked at number 10 on the Billboard charts. Michael Jackson also recorded a cover. Chaplin won his only competitive Oscar in 1973 for composing the theme to his 1952 film Limelight (the film wasn’t released in the U.S. until 1972).

4. HE WAS A PERFECTIONIST.

There was a reason Chaplin did everything himself: perfectionism. When he worked on his short film The Immigrant, Chaplin shot 40,000 feet of film, which was a lot for a 20-minute short. Chaplin cast actress Virginia Cherrill in City Lights to say just two words, “Flower, sir,” but he forced her to repeat them for 342 takes. “He knew exactly what he wanted and he would have preferred not to have any other actors in his films—he even tried making a film once where he was the only person in it,” Hooman Mehran, author of Chaplin's Limelight and the Music Hall Tradition, told CNN.

5. HE WAS EMBROILED IN A NASTY—AND GROUNDBREAKING—PATERNITY SUIT.

In the 1940s, actress Joan Berry was allegedly having an affair with Chaplin. At one point, he invited Berry to travel from L.A. to New York City. While in New York, she spent time with Chaplin and claimed that the director “made her available to other individuals for immoral purposes.” This violated the Mann Act, in which a person isn’t allowed to cross state lines for depraved behavior.

When, in 1943, Berry gave birth to a daughter, she stated that Chaplin was the father—a charge he adamantly denied. Though blood tests confirmed that Chaplin was not the father, because the tests weren’t admissible in California courts, he had to endure two separate trials. Despite the blood evidence saying otherwise, the jury concluded that Chaplin was the father. Not only was his reputation ruined, but he also had to pay child support. On the bright side, the ruling helped reform state paternity laws.

6. HE ACCEPTED HIS 1972 HONORARY OSCAR IN PERSON.

In 1952, because of his alleged Communist politics, the U.S. denied Chaplin re-entry to the United States after he traveled to London for the premiere of his film Limelight. Incensed, he moved his family to Switzerland and vowed he’d never return to Hollywood. But 20 years later, possibly to make up for his exile, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored the 82-year-old Chaplin with an honorary Oscar (his second of three). Chaplin attended the ceremony and received an enthusiastic standing ovation. When he finally spoke, he said, “Thank you for the honor of inviting me here. You’re all wonderful, sweet people.”

7. A RUSSIAN NAMED A MINOR PLANET AFTER HIM.

In 1981, Russian astronomer Lyudmila Georgievna Karachkina, who has discovered more than 100 minor planets, named one of them after the legendary director: 3623 Chaplin.

8. THERE’S AN ANNUAL CHARLIE CHAPLIN FILM FESTIVAL.

In the 1960s, Chaplin and his family enjoyed spending summers in the village of Waterville, located on the Ring of Kerry in Ireland. In 2011 the town founded the Charlie Chaplin Comedy Film Festival, which is held each August. (A bronze statue of him resides in town.) The festival features a short film competition with categories like Chaplins of the Future. Last year the fest tried to break the Guinness World Record of the largest gathering of people dressed as Chaplin.

9. HIS FORMER HOME IN SWITZERLAND WAS CONVERTED INTO A MUSEUM.

On April 16, 2016—what would’ve been his 127 birthday—Chaplin’s World, a museum dedicated to the filmmaker’s life and work, opened in his former home in Switzerland. The museum has welcomed around 300,000 visitors in the past year. Visitors can see his home, the Manoir de Ban, at Corsier-sur-Vevey, by Lake Geneva. The estate also houses a studio where his movies are screened, wax figures, recreations of some of his film set pieces, and a restaurant named The Tramp.

10. THIEVES GRAVEROBBED CHAPLIN’S BODY AND HELD IT FOR RANSOM.

Even in death, Chaplin created controversy. Chaplin died on Christmas Day 1977 and was interred near his home in Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland. Almost three months after his death, on March 2, 1978, his widow, Oona Chaplin, received a call from the police saying, “somebody dug up the grave and he’s gone,” Eugene Chaplin told The Independent.

The thieves demanded $600,000 to return the body. Oona tapped the phone lines, which led authorities to the two men, Roman Wardas and Gantscho Ganev. They confessed to the crime and showed the police Chaplin’s body, which they buried in a cornfield near his original gravesite. The men went to jail, but not before writing “I’m sorry” letters to Oona, who forgave them.

arrow
History
A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

Some of the oldest chamber pots found by archeologists have been discovered in ancient Greece, but portable toilets have come a long way since then. Whether referred to as "the Jordan" (possibly a reference to the river), "Oliver's Skull" (maybe a nod to Oliver Cromwell's perambulating cranium), or "the Looking Glass" (because doctors would examine urine for diagnosis), they were an essential fact of life in houses and on the road for centuries. In this video from the Wellcome Collection, Visitor Experience Assistant Rob Bidder discusses two 19th century chamber pots in the museum while offering a brief survey of the use of chamber pots in Britain (including why they were particularly useful in wartime).

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
arrow
History
Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios