Charlie Chaplin was knighted at Buckingham Palace on this day, March 4 1975, to become Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin KBE. At the time he was 85.
Even though the countless fans of the British-born comic actor had been pressing for such recognition over many years, controversy in his past life kept Charlie off the roll of honour for a long time.
Foreign Office papers from 1956, which were kept secret until 2002, revealed that the silent screen star had been shelved partly because he was considered to be a communist sympathiser and officials in his adopted home of the United States certainly thought so. In fact, questions about his political allegiances began in the 1940s and continued until 1952 when his US visa was revoked. He then went to live in Switzerland where he spent the rest of his days.
His personal life also was controversy. Charlie was known to have had affairs with a number of actresses and had twice taken a 16-year-old bride.
After his third marriage ended in 1942, actress Joan Barry launched a paternity suit. Even if tests proved Charlie was not the father of her daughter, he was still ordered to pay child support and the case left a stain on his character.
In any case, Charlie Chaplin will be forever remembered, as the lovable character with a bowler hat and cane who acrobatted his way through a host of silent films, becoming in the process one of the world’s first superstars.
It would all have seemed highly improbable back in the 1880s: shortly after he was born in London, he was abandoned by his hard-drinking father and lived in poverty for much of his childhood, sometimes forced to stay in one of the notorious workhouses.
However he inherited a love of the stage from his mother, a music hall singer, and was to recall years later: “I was a news vendor, printer, toymaker, doctor’s boy, etc., but during these occupational digressions, I never lost sight of my ultimate aim to become an actor. So, between jobs, I would polish my shoes, brush my clothes, put on a clean collar and make periodic calls at a theatrical agency.”
In 1897, he worked with a clog-dancing troupe, then to his acting debut as a pageboy in a production of Sherlock Holmes. In 1908, aged 19, he joined the prestigious Fred Karno pantomime troupe, which took him to America. There he was spotted by film producer Mack Sennett, who signed him to a contract for $150 a week.
Thus, by the age of 26 Charlie Chaplin was a superstar earning a massive $670,000 a year.
Twenty years after being thrown out of the United States, he received in 1972 an Honorary Academy Award for “the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century”.
It must have given him great satisfaction, but perhaps not as much as the knighthood awarded in 1975: Charlie said after the ceremony that the Queen had thanked him for what he had done and that his films had helped her a great deal. He was, he confessed, “dumbfounded” by the occasion.
Sir Charles died three years later. He suffered a stroke on Christmas Day, 1977, while asleep in his Swiss home.
He was not, however, allowed to rest in peace: three months after his death his coffin was dug up and stolen from its grave by two unemployed immigrants who demanded $400,000 for its return. They were arrested 11 weeks later in a police operation and the coffin was found buried in a field nearby. So, it was re-interred at its original site, in Corsier-sur-Vevey cemetery, Switzerland, surrounded by reinforced concrete.
Who knows whether the master of slapstick comedy would have seen the funny side of that fact!