100th Anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s Screen Debut

100th Anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s Screen Debut

100th Anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s Screen Debut

by Eric Bradley, Heritage Auctions

February 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s screen debut. His career lasted more than 75 years and his “Little Tramp” character would become the stuff of Hollywood legends, but Sir Charles Spencer “Charlie” Chaplin got his start like most in the biz – a supporting actor in a short role.

In Making a Living, his first silent film, Chaplin played a monocle lady-swindling con artist opposite the Keystone Cops, the famous comedy troupe. In the 13 minute film released February 2, 1914, Chaplin plays the villain Edgar English. He tries to woo a young woman with flowers in an attempt to swindle her out of her cash. Later, he robs a newspaper reporter of his camera containing a photograph of a car wreck. It’s the Keystone Cops to the slapstick rescue as they try to stop Chaplin’s character from selling the photo to a newspaper.

Reportedly, the London-born actor despised the debut. The silent, black and white film has Chaplin wearing dingy, oversized clothes and sporting a bushy mustache – a costume he didn’t care for. So it’s not surprising that for his second appearance on film, a 17-minute short released just a week later, Chaplin assembled the costume himself. He picked the elements that would come to be known as one of the most famous movie costumes in the history of motion pictures – the “Little Tramp.”

“I did not like my get-up as the press reporter [in Making a Living],” he wrote in his 1954 autobiography. I wanted everything to be 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 [producer Mack 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.”

In his second film, The Kid Auto Race, Chaplin presented the full “Little Tramp” outfit and the character evolved from there. With each film, Chaplin perfected the costume and used important props, such as a flexible whangee cane, to add personality to scenes whether they were dramatic or comedic. By the end of February 1914 – just one month after his acting debut – Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character claimed top billing on movie posters and lobby cards for his films.

“Chaplin was a huge mega-star in his day and his films played everywhere in this country and around the world yet posters to the earliest short films up to the features of the late twenties are some of the rarest in the vintage poster hobby,” said Grey Smith, Director of Movie Posters at Heritage Auctions. “His popularity has never waned with cinephiles and thus the huge demand and the limited supply have always made them incredibly rare.”

Values for Chaplin movie posters and assorted memorabilia are still on the rise, 36 years after the actor’s death at age 88. In December, Heritage Auctions sold a rare, 18″ Schoenhut Charlie Chaplin doll that had been gifted from the actor to William Morris, owner of the famous talent agency. With a composite face and hand-painted features, the doll is dressed in handmade clothing including a black wool jacket and a straw bowler hat. At the time, the circa 1920s doll was sold at a charity bazaar that benefited the Saranac Lake Day Nursery [in the Adirondacks in upstate New York]. Mrs. William Morris (Emma) attended the bazaar and ended up buying the Chaplin doll herself for $500, equivalent to about $11,000 in today’s dollars. Decades later in the 1970s, Morris, Jr. donated this doll to yet another charity event at Saranac Lake where the former owner bought it before auctioning it with Heritage for $8,125, more than four times its estimate.

The Schoenhut doll is one of many pieces of Chaplin memorabilia Heritage sold in 2013, in addition to the more than 630 posters, autographs and other memorabilia related to his characters and movies it has sold in the past: One of two one-sheet movie posters known to exist for Chaplin’s short titled The Bank sold for $35,850 in late 2012. The one sheet had been restored and actually features an image from the short The Tramp.

A massive six sheet poster, measuring 81″ x 81″ for Modern Times, Chaplin’s final silent film, sold for $33,460.  The poster is one of a kind.

A vest and nine-piece gentleman’s set of cuff links, and three two-piece sets of cuff links worn by Chaplin and gifted to Superman producer Ilya Salkind by his wife, Jane, who was also Chaplin’s sixth daughter, sold for $4,767. Jane had inherited them from her mother Oona who died in 1991 (Charlie died in 1977).

A stout, 36″ wooden cane with metal tip and fleur-de-lis seal on the handle was once the property of an elderly Chaplin, and bears a resemblance to the canes he made famous in his “Little Tramp” persona. It was given by Chaplin to a fan who was seated next to him on flight in 1972, when Chaplin was on his way to the U.S. from Switzerland to receive an honorary Oscar for career achievement, marking the end of his 20-year political exile from the States. The venerable comedian presented his cane to the man after the fellow told him how he had proposed to his wife in 1931 after a screening of City Lights. It fetched $1,434 at auction in 2006.

A set of three Chaplin-related collectibles from the 1920s-1930s sold for $937 in 2013. The set includes a tin wind-up toy, a cardboard figure with articulated legs, and a porcelain sugar caddy with a small figurine of Chaplin resting against three circular containers.

A stunning three sheet movie poster for the 1925 masterpiece The Gold Rush sold for $17,825. Considered by many to be perhaps Chaplin’s greatest masterpiece, The Gold Rush continues to entertain audiences today with the comic timing and genius of the “Little Tramp”. This is perhaps the only known copy of this very rare poster.

This 4-1/4″ x 5″ autograph cutting featuring the inscription “Good luck! Charlie Chaplin/1944”, with a sketch pair of boots, cane, and derby hat added by the silent-era comedian sold for $1,792.

FACTOID: In a story fit for one of his slapstick silent films, nine weeks after its burial in Switzerland, Chaplin’s body was held for ransom by a Polish mechanic who demanded his widow pay upward of $600,000 to get it back. Two criminals were caught and charged in the case and eventually sentenced to prison and probation!

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