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10 Enduring Facts About Charlie Chaplin

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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.

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Space
On This Day in 1962, NASA Launched and Destroyed Mariner 1
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NASA // Public Domain

On July 22, 1962, NASA launched the Mariner 1 probe, which was intended to fly by Venus and collect data on its temperature and atmosphere. It was intended to be the first interplanetary craft—the first time humans had sent a space probe to another world. Unfortunately, NASA aborted the mission 293 seconds after launch, destroying the probe in the Atlantic. What happened?

First off, a bit of history. Mariner 1 was based on the pre-existing Block 1 craft used in the Ranger program, which was aimed at gathering data on our moon. Those early Ranger probes didn't do so well—both Ranger 1 and Ranger 2 suffered early failures in orbit. Mariner 1 was a modified version of the Ranger design, intended for a much longer mission to another planet. It lacked a camera, but had various radiometers, a cosmic dust detector, and a plasma spectrometer—it would be capable of gathering data about Venus, but not pictures per se.

The two previous Ranger missions had used basically the same launch system, so it was reasonably well-tested. The Ranger probes had made it into orbit, but had been unable to stabilize themselves after that.

Mariner 1 launched on the evening of July 22, 1963. Its Atlas-Agena rocket was aided by two radar systems, designed to track data on velocity (the "Rate System") and distance/angle (the "Track System") and send it to ground-based computers. By combining that data, the computers at Cape Canaveral helped the rocket maintain a trajectory that, when separated, would lead Mariner 1 to Venus.

Part of the problem involved in handling two separate radars was that there was a slight delay—43 milliseconds—between the two radars' data reports. That wasn't a problem by itself. The Cape computer simply had to correct for that difference. But in that correction process, a problem was hiding—a problem that hadn't appeared in either of the previous Ranger launches.

To correct the timing of the data from the Rate System—the radar responsible for measuring velocity of the rocket—the ground computer ran data through a formula. Unfortunately, when that formula had been input into the computer, a crucial element called an overbar was omitted. The overbar indicated that several values in the formula belonged together; leaving it out meant that a slightly different calculation would be made. But that wasn't a problem by itself.

The fate of Mariner 1 was sealed when the Rate System hardware failed on launch. This should not have been a fatal blow, as the Track System was still working, and Ground Control should have been able to compensate. But because that overbar was missing, calculations on the incoming radar data went wonky. The computer incorrectly began compensating for normal movement of the spacecraft, using slightly incorrect math. The craft was moving as normal, but the formula for analyzing that data had a typo—so it began telling Mariner 1 to adjust its trajectory. It was fixing a problem that didn't exist, all because a few symbols in a formula weren't grouped together properly.

Mariner 1's rocket did as it was told, altering its trajectory based on faulty computer instructions. Looking on in horror, the Range Safety Officer at the Cape saw that the Atlas rocket was now headed for a crash-landing, potentially either in shipping lanes or inhabited areas of Earth. It was 293 seconds after launch, and the rocket was about to separate from the probe.

With just 6 seconds remaining before the Mariner 1 probe was scheduled to separate (and ground control would be lost), that officer made the right call—he sent the destruct command, ditching Mariner I in an unpopulated area of the Atlantic.

The incident was one of many early space launch failures, but what made it so notable was the frenzy of reporting about it, mostly centered on what writer Arthur C. Clarke called "the most expensive hyphen in history." The New York Times incorrectly reported that the overbar was a "hyphen" (a reasonable mistake, given that they are both printed horizontal lines) but correctly reported that this programming error, when coupled with the hardware failure of the Rate System, caused the failure. The bug was identified and fixed rapidly, though the failed launch cost $18,500,000 in 1962 dollars—north of $150 million today.

Fortunately for NASA, Mariner 2 was waiting in the wings. An identical craft, it launched just five weeks later on August 27, 1962. And, without the bug and the radar hardware failure, it worked as planned, reaching Venus and becoming the first interplanetary spacecraft in history. It returned valuable data about the temperature and atmosphere of Venus, as well as recording solar wind and interplanetary dust data along the way. There would be 10 Mariner missions in all [PDF], with Mariner 1, 3, and 8 suffering losses during launch.

For further reading, consult this Ars Technica discussion, which includes valuable quotes from Paul E. Ceruzzi's book Beyond The Limits—Flight Enters the Computer Age.

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This Just In
Lincoln’s Famous Letter of Condolence to a Grieving Mother Was Likely Penned by His Secretary
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Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain

Despite his lack of formal schooling, Abraham Lincoln was a famously eloquent writer. One of his most renowned compositions is the so-called “Bixby letter,” a short yet poignant missive the president sent a widow in Boston who was believed to have lost five sons during the Civil War. But as Newsweek reports, new research published in the journal Digital Scholarship in the Humanities [PDF] suggests that Lincoln’s private secretary and assistant, John Hay, actually composed the dispatch.

The letter to Lydia Bixby was written in November 1864 at the request of William Shouler, the adjutant general of Massachusetts, and state governor John Albion Andrew. “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming,” it read. “But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.”

Unknown to Lincoln, Bixby had actually only lost two sons in battle; the others had deserted the army, were honorably discharged, or died a prisoner of war. Nevertheless, word of the compassionate presidential gesture spread when the Boston Evening Transcript reprinted a copy of the 139-word letter for all to read.

Nobody quite knows what happened to Bixby’s original letter—some say she was a Confederate sympathizer and immediately burnt it—but for years, scholars debated whether Hay was its true author.

During Hay’s lifetime, the former secretary-turned-statesman had reportedly told several people in confidence that he—not Lincoln—had written the renowned composition, TIME reports. The rumor spread after Hay's death, but some experts interpreted the admission to mean that Hay had transcribed the letter, or had copied it from a draft.

To answer the question once and for all, a team of forensic linguists in England used a text analysis technique called n-gram tracing, which identifies the frequency of linguistic sequences in a short piece of writing to determine its true author. They tested 500 texts by Hay and 500 by Lincoln before analyzing the Bixby letter, the researchers explained in a statement quoted by Newsweek.

“Nearly 90 percent of the time, the method identified Hay as the author of the letter, with the analysis being inconclusive in the rest of the cases,” the linguists concluded.

According to Atlas Obscura, the team plans to present its findings at the International Corpus Linguistics Conference, which will take place at England’s University of Birmingham from Monday, July 24 to Friday, July 28.

[h/t Newsweek]

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