Promotional photo for Chaplin's The Kid. Chaplin is sitting on a concrete step with a young child to his left.

Chaplin in The Kid (1921). Photo by unknown, restored by Crisco 1492, public domain/CC0.

One century ago, films were bereft of synchronized sound—perhaps a pianist, or in larger theaters, an orchestra would accompany the movie. Sound-on-film technology, where the sound was coded into a strip adjacent to the photographic film, was only developed in the 1920s, and ‘talking’ films only became widespread at the end of that decade.

Many of the films from this era are now lost thanks to the instability and flammability of the nitrate film they were printed on, affecting even some of the largest stars of the era. Of Theda Bara‘s forty films, for instance, only six are now known to exist.

However, one of the most well-known silent film stars even today was far less affected: Charlie Chaplin, born on April 16, 1889, and thought to be one of the most influential individuals in the history of film. By the time he was in his 20s, he was one of the most highly-paid people in the world, and he was so well-known that he was able to make silent films years after they had gone out of vogue.

One film critic wrote decades later that he was “arguably the single most important artist produced by the cinema, certainly its most extraordinary performer and probably still its most universal icon”; a filmmaker similarly has said that Chaplin is “the only person to have gone down into cinematic history without any shadow of a doubt. The films he left behind can never grow old.”

Promotional poster for Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (1936).

Poster by unknown, public domain/CC0.

Wikipedia editors Loeba and TrueHeartSusie3 are well-acquainted with Chaplin, having written his English-language Wikipedia article and shepherded it through the site’s various peer review processes. It is now a ‘featured’ article, meaning that it is “considered to be [one of] the best articles Wikipedia has to offer.” This designation has been given to only one out of every thousand articles on the site.

Both Susie and Loeba have been interested in film for years, but this did not extend to the older silent films until they caught glimpses of Chaplin’s work on television. Susie writes that “like many people, I’d previously ignored silent films as too difficult and boring, even naïve. So I was positively surprised when I realised how modern Chaplin’s films still feel … It’s true that silents differ from sound films in many ways, but that’s part of the attraction; I think watching silent films made me for the first time truly aware of the possibilities of film as a medium of expression. The first decades of film history are also fascinating because film was such a new medium at the time; everything we take granted about films was just being invented through trial and error.”

When it came to Wikipedia, Loeba was the person who kindled the collaboration. She described how she fell down the rabbit hole, a phenomenon many Wikipedia editors can relate to:

I remember seeing a Chaplin short when I was a kid, but didn’t care for it; I think most of my early life I assumed he was silly and annoying! I was closed-minded to any films made before, say, the 1970s. But in my early 20s I started to get really interested in cinema, and realised there’s was loads of talent and charm in the early stuff. … when this was brewing (probably 2010) I caught Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin biopic on TV. It’s not a great film, but it traces his fascinating life and demonstrates his charm. It was enough to spark my interest: I loved his Dickensian childhood, how lefty and political he was, and how completely and passionately he controlled his work.  The first feature of his I watched was The Kid (the first silent I ever watched, in fact) and I was surprised how much I loved it. I watched more, and loved them as well. I decided to order his autobiography, which is such a great read. By then I had caught the Wikipedia bug, and I decided Chaplin would make a great project—I’d genuinely be interested to research and write about his life. I first proposed overhauling the article in November 2011, making a plea for collaborators, but didn’t actually start until April 2012. I think I’d written two or three sections when TrueHeartSusie got in touch to say she’d like to help.

Writing such a big-picture article, however, is not a trivial undertaking—something Susie and Loeba were both keenly aware of, having helped write the articles on Marilyn Monroe and Katharine Hepburn (respectively). The amount of academic writing available on Chaplin is extensive and vast, and for an article to become featured, it’s required to be a “a thorough and representative survey of the relevant literature.” That means a lot of reading; the Chaplin article boasts over thirty books in its bibliography, and Susie estimates that in total it contains about fifty sources when journal articles are included. Loeba owns eight books on Chaplin, all of which are notated on her phone and five of which she has read cover-to-cover. She used online resources to find and read much of the rest: “We knew that for … a figure like Chaplin they’d expect extensive research, so we consciously sought out as much stuff as possible.”

That was just the start. Susie estimates that completing the article took a full year, as the workload was enough that she doubts whether she or Loeba could have taken it on alone. Both of them spoke extensively to the blog on the process required to get it to featured status:

Susie: With someone like Chaplin, there are so many sources that just reading through those takes a lot of time. Then there’s the issue of deciding what should go in the article when there are so many interesting things to write about. Once the first version is up, some serious editing needs to be done for the article to not be too long and exhausting for the casual reader—this is perhaps the longest and trickiest part of the process. The most frustrating part is the endless edit warring and talk page ‘discussing’ with editors who have strong and inflexible personal opinions on the subject without actually having done that much (academic) research.

Loeba: Writing a featured article on a core topic is, in short, hard work. With these major figures there’s always loads to talk about, and so much literature out there, that the articles are inevitably very long (even when you consciously try and be succinct, and choose things to leave out). You don’t want to deprive readers of key information! Alongside the life story, there’s also “analytical” sections to write (artistry, legacy) if you want to be comprehensive. These are quite tricky and require loads of research.

You’re aware of how many people will be reading the article, so there’s real pressure to produce high-quality stuff. I’d decided from the start that I’d like to get the article to featured status, which meant paying close attention that everything is referenced [to a reliable source] … always written entirely in my own words, following Wikipedia’s manual of style, and mentioning numerous sources. On a personal level, writing actually doesn’t come naturally to me, so I work pretty damn slowly. Add all these factors together, and it takes a long time. Then once you’re “finished,” you still need to go through the whole thing to trim excess detail (I cut about 1000 words from Chaplin), copy edit, and make sure the sources are perfectly formatted.

Even once all this is done you still need to go through several reviews before getting featured status, and make changes based on those, which adds on more time. Thank god Susie was able to work on it as well—we split the sections between us, or it just wouldn’t have happened. Some people seem able to write huge featured articles on their own, which I find crazy and admirable, but I think I’d still be finishing Chaplin now! I’ll tell you one thing: it’s essential to have a passionate interest in the subject if you’re going to take on an article like this.

The Great Dictator (1940).

The Great Dictator (1940). Trailer screenshot, public domain/CC0.

Last, we asked Susie to tell us why Chaplin was and remains so popular. Many people, for instance, are at least aware of The Great DictatorChaplin’s satire of Adolf Hitler, so much so that it is sometimes dropped into major films like Iron Sky. She told us:

Chaplin was one of the first to popularize feature-length comedy films, and was also a pioneer in making himself and his most famous film character into a recognizable brand. He was one of the founders of United Artists, thus being able to remain independent during the studio era. I think he also came to symbolize the early twentieth century in general, as he personifies the American Dream—a poor immigrant who becomes a millionaire by sheer talent and perseverance.

As for why he is still so popular—that’s a very good question. I don’t think it’s purely because of his superstar status during his lifetime, as many big stars of the silent era have become names known only by the relatively small group of people interested in silent film. I think it’s probably a combination of things. Since his big breakthrough in the 1910s, Chaplin never returned to obscurity, even when he became subject to public hate. Furthermore, because he was perceived as an artist already during his lifetime, he has always attracted more interest in comparison to those film stars who were simply seen as entertainers or studio products. Chaplin was also very smart about preserving his films, ensuring that they can be seen by people almost a century after they were made. Most importantly though, I think Chaplin’s films are simultaneously very accessible and profound. Although they naturally reflect the time they were made in, their themes are timeless and the character of the Little Tramp is still very relatable—especially in these times of economic recession. They’re simply very good films!

Ed Erhart, Editorial Associate
Wikimedia Foundation

You can see more photos and imagery from Chaplin’s life and career on Wikimedia Commons.

Chaplin and Gandhi, 1931. Photo by O Malho, public domain/CC0.

Chaplin and Gandhi, 1931. Photo by O Malho, public domain/CC0.