Charlie’s London: Chaplin’s women – part one

Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard in Modern Times
Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard in Modern Times

This is a guest post by Ayşe Behçet for Silent London.

Welcome to another edition of Charlie’s  London! For this segment and the next I’m going to look at some of the women in Chaplin’s life, showing how influential, important and ultimately empowering some of these women’s roles really were.

A lot has been written about Chaplin’s private life; he was a dashing and charismatic individual whose appeal extended beyond stage and screen. Recently I was talking to a fellow Chaplin fan and friend in Bologna. We both agreed that there was something so beautiful about Charlie, it was no surprise that his private life become front-page news, whether the stories were true or not.  Putting the gossip aside, for me the women who shaped, moulded and even changed Chaplin were his mother Hannah, Mabel Normand, Edna Purviance and of course Oona O’Neill.

This subject will often be debated, with some enthusiasts and historians adding Hetty Kelly, Charlie’s first love, and even Paulette Goddard, his third wife and star of Modern Times and The Great Dictator, to that list. I hope with these two blogs I will explain why I have chosen this group. In this first instalment I will talk about Hannah Chaplin and Mabel Normand.

Hannah Chaplin
Hannah Chaplin

Hannah Hill, Chaplin’s mother, was arguably the most influential woman in his life. Her struggles in order to give Chaplin a decent upbringing, only to suffer such terrible mental health problems, no doubt haunted him for the rest of his days. I have spoken of Hannah before, and I am quite fond of her as a historical character, not only because she is the mother of my hero, but because I feel she is incredibly interesting. Historians have labelled Hannah as everything from a woman of ill repute to an undiscovered music hall genius whose renditions of the era’s classics would ignite her son’s thirst for the art.

The “fallen woman” analysis comes very much from psychologist Dr Stephen Weissman whose book Chaplin: A Life paints Hannah in a very unflattering light. His depiction of her affair with stage star Leo Dryden (the union that would produce Chaplin’s brother Wheeler) and his suggestion that syphilis was the cause of her madness (including references to her working as a prostitute) are seen as very controversial by other Chaplin enthusiasts and historians. David Robinson is quite rightly kinder to Hannah, noting the confirmed ancestral link to mental health dificulties within the Hill women as the roots of her tragic downfall, while also highlighting her faults such as her affair.

Hannah was an artist ahead of her time, mimicking and acting out famous scenes for her sons’ entertainment. Performing under the name of Lily Harley, Hannah was a beautiful woman whose deep-set eyes would stare back at us years later through her son’s heartrending final sequence in City Lights.

In most of Chaplin’s films, that is his features, he shows the plight of the poor and women’s hardship is central to this theme. Could Chaplin be as an unexpected cinematic feminist? He never shows the women in a negative way, he shows their plight and how they overcome it. From the early women in his Keystone films to the moving end of The Great Dictator, each of his leading female characters is downtrodden, their situations are bleak; but ultimately they are redeemed and fight strong, with guts, determination and truth self worth.

Arguably, the most autobiographical film of Chaplin’s career is The Kid. The character of Jackie Coogan baring a sad and true resemblance to how Charlie saw his own childhood self. The Tramp’s desperate protection of this child screams for how he wished someone had protected him in those dark days of his mothers undisguised illness and his own desperate adolescent poverty. The character Edna plays of a woman who gives her child away for a better life only to regret it instantly is reminiscent of Hannah’s own handling of her two sons Sydney and Charlie when the young mother took her young family to the workhouse for their own good. Hannah herself had a child ripped away from her too. Her six-month-old son Wheeler was taken by force by his father abroad. It would be decades before all three were reunited.

Mabel Normand
Mabel Normand

When Charlie found himself in America, on the verge of making cinematic history, he found himself working alongside another strong woman: the American actress and comedienne Mabel Normand. Mabel, synonymous with Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios, is remembered as one of the first female screenwriters, directors and producers. Some historians have claim that it was Normand who invented the tramp, this of course was brought up in our fantastic podcast a couple of weeks ago. My opinion is that his origins lay back at the feet of his mother. Hannah would no doubt have at one time or other sung her son the tales of Burlington Bertie: Chaplin’s tramp is like the character of Bertie, a gentleman tramp who sleeps under the stars. A later version of the song, Burlington Bertie from Bow is always performed by a woman dressed as a man, as Julie Andrews did in the film Star! (1968):

Normand is, however, credited with starting Chaplin’s film career, persuading Sennett to give the young London comedian another try after his first Keystone scenes hit the cutting-room floor. She very soon became his mentor: directing, writing, co-directing and co-writing his pictures.  In 1914 she starred alongside Chaplin and another star Marie Dressler in Tillie’s Punctured Romance, which became the first feature-length comedy. Later that same year, Chaplin first played his Tramp character in Mabel’s Strange Predicament. Normand was a gusty and strong-willed woman who sadly had a troubled private life, dying of alcoholic and drug abuse in a sanitarium from tuberculosis in Monrovia, California at the age of 37.

Both Hannah and Mabel remind me of the strong and determined women I have known all my life, women like my mother and my grandmother whose own adversities helped to shape them, helped to give them their inner strength and ultimately helped to show me the power of being a woman. I watched them go without to help me succeed in life, watched the sleepless nights and the hospital visits when I was sick as a child. I watched my mother’s proud face when I graduated and I felt so proud to be a strong South London woman. Both Mabel and Hannah have qualities that all women can relate to, and their vulnerabilities just add to that. Both women were also cut down in their prime: Hannah by mental illness and poverty; Mabel by excess, scandal and the struggle of living in a male-dominated environment.

Don’t forget everyone, if there is anything else you want to know, or just want to give feedback on anything you see in the blog you can email me at

Ayşe Behçet

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