Modern times: why the UK’s only Charlie Chaplin museum needs to be saved

Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp. PA/PA Archive/PA Images

It should come as no surprise that the family of Charlie Chaplin have joined in the fight to save London’s Cinema Museum. The former Lambeth workhouse where the actor spent his early childhood is the nearest thing the UK has to a Chaplin museum and it is on the brink of being sold off. This sorry situation begs two questions: why is a jewel in the crown of the UK’s film heritage in such danger and why does an iconic figure like Chaplin still not have his own museum or permanent tribute in his home country?

There are few enough museums in the UK dedicated to film and media as it is – Bradford’s excellent National Science and Media Museum is the only other one that comes readily to mind. This is a strange state of affairs. Although cinema came about in the last decade or so of the 19th century, the 20th century can be thought of as the century of cinema.

Film is both a document for recording events (momentous or otherwise) and a way of telling stories. Thus far in human history, the 20th century is the only one recorded by the moving image and we 21st century humans are completely immersed in film and TV. But although there are museums dedicated to art, industry, cars, natural history and science, there are just a few dedicated to film and media.

Charlie Chaplin and Lita Grey, who he reportedly married after getting her pregnant before she was 16. PA/PA Archive/PA Images

On these grounds alone, the Cinema Museum should be preserved. But its link to Chaplin gives it an even more pressing raison d’etre. Although there is a Chaplin museum in Switzerland, housed in the property he lived in for the last 25 years of his life, The Cinema Museum is the only UK museum dedicated to the memory of Chaplin, a man who changed the way people thought about film.

The dark side

But Chaplin had a darker side that has tainted his legacy. He had a well-known preference for young girls. This – especially now as Hollywood takes a serious look at how it treats women – has been a cause of controversy ever since. This darker side to his personality is indeed disturbing and it also contributed to his knighthood being blocked for years. But there is no dismissing the importance of Chaplin’s work, its impact on the art form and how his early poverty informed his movies.

Charles Spencer Chaplin was born into a performing family in 1889. His feckless and largely absent father, Charles Senior, was a singer in the music halls, where his mother Hannah also had a brief career as a singer. Poverty was a constant threat for Hannah, Charlie and his older brother Syd. By the time Charlie was nine, conditions had worsened to the point where he and Syd had twice been sent to the workhouse, in Lambeth and later to Norwood. These stays in the workhouse coloured his worldview and later his films.

In 1916, he signed a contract with the Mutual Film Corporation worth the astronomical sum of $10,000 per week with an additional bonus of $150,000, making Chaplin the highest paid entertainer in the world (and incidentally completely at odds with his Little Tramp character).

The first global megastar

His fame was already widespread and, coupled with the Mutual contract, by 1916 Chaplin was arguably the most famous man in the world. Chaplin was the first of the global megastars: an icon that could be reduced to a bowler hat and cane and still be recognisable across the world. He was the pioneer of global stardom, a prototype for all those that followed him.

It was also about this time that Chaplin began to introduce something more than comedy into his films. Chaplin’s introduction of pathos began to give the films a dimension beyond simple clowning. This idea of pathos would reach its height in films such as The Kid (1921) in which the Little Tramp adopts an abandoned child, and City Lights (1931) in which The Tramp raises money for an operation to save the sight of a blind flower girl.

Although these films can seem overly sentimental to modern viewers, at the time they were incredibly popular. Indeed, not only were they popular, they were also revolutionary. Film had only existed since the last decade of the 19th century and was often seen as a simple novelty, a sideshow attraction. Although critics agreed that films by directors such as D W Griffith or G W Pabst might be seen as “art”, it was Chaplin who first gained recognition for comedy films as works of art.

Although Chaplin left England in 1912 and returned only for brief visits, his childhood experiences had left an indelible mark on him that would profoundly affect him for the rest of his life. The former Lambeth workhouse turned museum serves as a direct link to what were undoubtedly Chaplin’s formative years.

As his family have written in a letter of support for the museum, the workhouse was “not a celebratory piece of family history by any means, but we now recognise that this painful experience did much to mould our father’s unique creative gift”. As the nearest thing we have to a Chaplin museum, the museum should certainly be saved.