5/10/13 - charlie chaplin and his mother

In today's selection -- Charlie Chaplin reached unimaginable heights of wealth and fame as the brightest comic star of the silent movies. But he started his career in the depths of poverty, the child of music hall performers in England in the late 1800s. His father died of alcoholism at the age of 38, and his mother was committed to an asylum after having three children -- each with a different man -- and supporting her children through music hall singing and prostitution. It was the Victorian era, an age in which the veneer of propriety covered over a world of dislocation, poverty and crime -- not the least of which was rampant child prostitution -- and which all seared itself into Chaplin's young soul and later informed his movies. In his movies, Chaplin often rescued the damsel in distress -- and his own first rescue happened when he saved the act of his own mother at the age of 4:

"[Charlie Chaplin's mother] Hannah appears to have had very few singing engagements during the period [when Charlie was young]. Sometime in 1893 or '94, however, she managed to obtain a booking at one of the 'Canteen' music halls situated in the garrison town of Aldershot, in Hampshire. It is probable that she secured the engagement by responding to an advert in the theatrical press. Several appeared in The Era during the period, with a Canteen agent Fred Williams inviting 'Lady Serios' to wire him with their lowest terms for employment commencing the following week.

Young Chaplin while performing
with "The Eight Lancashire Lads",
c. 1899

"Hannah's willingness to travel 30 miles to appear for minimum salary in a rough establishment patronized by soldiers gives some idea of how desperate her situation had become. Aldershot audiences were notoriously unruly. In 1893 trooper Lee of the 20th Hussars was so savagely beaten by men of the Scottish Rifles at the Red, White and Blue Music Hall that his regiment took up arms and attacked their rival's barracks. Performers booked for the Canteen and other Aldershot halls would have recognized that they were little more than theatrical cannon fodder.

"Hannah was subjected to a psychological rather than a physical assault when her voice broke down at the Canteen. She was given 'the bird', with the audience unleashing a barrage of mocking catcalls and abusive language. In an attempt to defuse the situation the manager led young Charlie onto the stage, announcing that he would sing in place of his mother. Charlie had clearly been well trained. He launched into a version of Gus Elen's current hit ' 'E Dunno Where 'E Are', the story of a costermonger whose small inheritance had caused him to put on 'airs and graces' ...

Chaplin in A Dog's Life (1918) 

"Perhaps the [song's] reference to 'Tommy Dodd', a gambling game which involved tossing coins, struck a chord with the audience, for they started to throw loose change onto the stage. Chaplin halted mid-song and announced that he would stop to collect the money and then continue. Having deposited a handkerchief filled with coins with his mother, the young singer returned to his act.

"[Chaplin recalled that] 'I talked to the audience, danced and did several imitations including one of Mother singing her Irish march song. ... And in repeating the chorus, in all innocence I imitated Mother's voice cracking and was surprised at the impact it had on the audience. There was laughter and cheers, then more money-throwing; and when Mother came on to the stage to carry me off, her presence evoked tremendous applause.'

"Charlie had rescued his first distressed damsel, a scenario that was re-enacted many times in his films."


Barry Anthony


Chaplin's Music Hall


I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd


Copyright 2012 by Barry Anthony


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