Tramping with Charlie: Michael Jackson’s walk with Chaplin (part 1)

What would you buy Michael Jackson for his birthday if he was still alive? A ticket to the Charlie Chaplin Museum opening in 2016. The late King of Pop, who would have turned 57 today, loved the Little Tramp with his iconic bowler hat, cane, and oversized shoes. Having studied Chaplin’s work in detail, Jackson befriended the Chaplin family in the late 1980s and recorded a cover of the Chaplin evergreen ‘Smile’. Jackson would have been delighted to see the Chaplin Museum open its doors in the Swiss manor where he once had supper with the Chaplin family, played on the lawn with the Chaplin kids, and explored the treasures of Chaplin’s personal film archive.

Michael Jackson as the Little Tramp (photo: Steven Paul Whitsitt)
Michael Jackson as the Little Tramp, 1994 (photo: Steve Whitsitt)

This article is the prequel to: Tramping with Charlie (part 2).

Chaplin’s World

Chaplin’s World, as the museum celebrating Chaplin’s life and work is to be called, is located in the Swiss village of Corsier-sur-Vevey on the shores of Lake Geneva. Comprising both Chaplin’s former family home – the estate Manoir de Ban – and a number of outbuildings, the museum has found a perfect spot for recreating the illustrious world of Charlie Chaplin.

One of the new buildings, the Hollywood New Exhibition Hall, will showcase a copy of the giant machine Chaplin used in his film Modern Times (1936). Keeping up with such modern times, Chaplin’s World will include state-of-the-art technology, combining the traditional world of cinematography – including recreations of Chaplin’s film sets – with computer animations, special effects, holograms, 3D and HD imagery, and ambiophonic sound. On top of that, the museum has partnered with the French Grévin Museum to add more than 30 wax figures to the exhibition. Chaplin himself will feature, but also wax figures of people who were part of Chaplin’s life or who influenced his work.

A tour of the museum will start at the manor house. Built in 1840, the neoclassical manor is currently being renovated and refurbished to have the same character and ambience as it did when Chaplin lived there. The old vaulted wine cellars – once containing Chaplin’s personal film archive – will be made to look like the dark cobbled streets of Victorian London in which Chaplin grew up. It is bound to form a stark contrast with the elegance of the manor upstairs. But then again, Chaplin came a long way.

Creative impression of the Charlie Chaplin Museum (visual: Chaplin's World)
Creative impression of the Charlie Chaplin Museum (visual: Chaplin’s World)

Chaplin’s life and work

The life of Charles Spencer Chaplin, born on April 16, 1889, followed a rocky road. Before he became an influential figure in the silent film era, Chaplin had it rough. He grew up in the slums of London with an estranged alcoholic father and a mentally ill mother – both music hall artists who descended from Romani gypsies. It wasn’t long before Chaplin made his stage debut at age five. His unmistakable talent eventually brought him to Hollywood, where his iconic character ‘the Little Tramp’ with its distinctive toothbrush mustache, comical shuffle, and shabby look was born.

Being a tireless perfectionist, Chaplin worked hard to become successful in the silent film industry. After co-founding the legendary film company United Artists, Chaplin’s work hit the limelight and crowds flocked to the theatre to see films such as: The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), and The Circus (1928). Soon, Chaplin became a star and a very wealthy man.

In later years, Chaplin became more aware of the many social injustices in the world. Translating his opinions into his art, Chaplin created films such as City Lights (1931), in which he addressed poverty, alcoholism and social ranking, Modern Times (1936), which focused on the constraints of industrialization and modern life, and The Great Dictator (1940), which offered an unforgettable satirical portrayal of Hitler and the rise of fascism.

The Tramp meets a blind girl selling flowers in City Lights (1931)
The Tramp meets a blind girl selling flowers in City Lights (1931)

Exile to Switzerland

Yet not everything that Chaplin touched changed to gold. His unsuccessful marriages, followed by a high-profile paternity suit, did not go down well with the public. Nor did his criticism of the American government during the Cold War. At the height of the McCarthy-era witch hunt, Chaplin was accused of communist sympathies and was denied re-entry into the USA while travelling to Europe in 1952.

For Chaplin it was the final straw. Turning his back on America, he went into exile in the Swiss village of Corsier-sur-Vevey where he created a family home on the 14-hectare estate of Manoir de Ban. Here, Chaplin chose to live a quiet family life with his fourth wife Oona and their eight children. He enjoyed strolling the grounds, playing with his children, writing his autobiography, working on new film projects, and finetuning the music scores to his silent films.

It wasn’t until 1972 – and after some hesitation – that Chaplin briefly returned to America to accept an honorary Academy Award. Although the political climate had changed and he received the longest standing ovation in Oscar history, Switzerland remained Chaplin’s final home. It was at Manoir de Ban where the Little Tramp, 88 years old, died on Christmas morning 1977.

Little Tramp in Jackson’s life

Chaplin’s life and work gripped Jackson at an early age. Eager to learn from artists he considered masters at their trade, Jackson turned to Chaplin’s example to shape and sharpen his own talents. It became a passion that never left him. “If I could work with anybody it would be Charlie Chaplin, who I love so much”, Jackson told Gold Magazine in 2001.

There is no doubt that Jackson deeply admired Chaplin. “I love great talent.  People like Chaplin, I mean, God, how could you not admire his genius? He was the king of pathos. I mean, he knew how to touch your heart, and he knew how to make you laugh and cry at the same time. I mean, he was the master of that. And I find some of that in what I do. I relate to him. I sometimes feel like I am him”, Jackson said in his 2003 Private Home Videos.

In order to study Chaplin’s creative process, Jackson read books, watched films and documentaries, and carefully experimented with style and movement. According to Frank Cascio, who knew Jackson for many years, Jackson based his famous moves at least partly on Chaplin’s craft: “From Charlie Chaplin, Bruce Lee, and Fred Astaire, he learned attitudes, positions, postures – ways of moving that he incorporated into the choreographed stories he wanted to tell and made his own”, Cascio wrote in his book My Friend Michael.

Jackson’s admiration for Chaplin also became evident in the numerous drawings he made of the Little Tramp – drawings that did not just include Chaplin’s film character, but also portrayed Jackson himself as a young entertainer crouched helplessly in a street corner like the Little Tramp did in Modern Times. Needless to say that Jackson’s memories of his childhood in the music industry were not unequivocally positive.

14-year old Michael Jackson sketching the Little Tramp (photo: Jim Britt, 1972)
14-year old Michael Jackson sketching the Little Tramp in 1972 (photo: Jim Britt)
Michael Jackson's drawings of the Little Tramp
Various examples of Jackson’s drawings of the Little Tramp

Dressing up like a tramp

Another way in which Jackson expressed his appreciation of Chaplin was by dressing up like the Little Tramp. In 1978, while recording his solo album Off The Wall at the Allen Zentz Recording studio, photographer Bobby Holland was hired to make casual publicity shots of Jackson and producer Quincy Jones collaborating in the studio. At one point, Jackson walked into the studio dressed up as Chaplin. “From head to toe. Make-up; the whole nine. And he worked like that. Nobody made a big deal of it. Imagine Charlie Chaplin jammin’ to ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough'”, Holland told music journalist Steven Ivory at the time.

One year later, Jackson visited the UK. After an interview at Capital Radio, Jackson invited photographer Tony Prime to join him on a London mini-tour, including the neighbourhood where Chaplin once lived. Rather than simply taking in the sights, Jackson and Prime first went to a shop of theatrical outfitters to buy a Chaplin outfit. Jackson then dressed up and posed in Freemantle Street, which is just around the corner from East Lane where Chaplin grew up. Following the photoshoot, Jackson and Prime went to Madame Tussaud’s, where Jackson had his picture taken beside Chaplin’s wax statue.

Four years later, in 1983, Jackson again donned a Chaplin outfit. In honour of Chaplin’s birthday, Jackson had invited pantomime artist and Chaplin impersonator Samir Kamoun to the Jackson family home in Encino. Both dressed up as the Little Tramp, the two had their pictures taken “…in memory of a great man who has touched the hearts of the world with his art of making people laugh and cry. You will always be in my heart. I love you, Charlie Chaplin”.

Michael Jackson dressed up as Charlie Chaplin
Jackson dressed up as Chaplin in 1978 with Quincy Jones (left, photo: Bobby Holland), in 1979 in London (middle, photo: Tony Prime), and in 1983 with Samir Kamoun (left).

Identifying with Chaplin

Yet drawing the Little Tramp and dressing up like Chaplin was still a long way from visiting the screen legend’s home. Jackson, however, found a way. In May 1988, when Jackson performed in Rome, Italy during his Bad World Tour, actress Sophia Loren was in the audience. Knowing that Loren was a friend of Chaplin’s widow Oona, Jackson asked her if she could arrange a meeting. “He (ed. Jackson) went to the Manoir and was given a tour of the estate by Oona. At one point she told him that he and Charlie ‘had a lot in common: you were born poor and had to strive to achieve all that you have’”, according to the Oona Chaplin biography Oona: Living in the Shadows.

Oona Chaplin had observed rightly. Jackson strongly identified with Chaplin, not only because they both spent their troubled childhoods on stage, but also because their young sorrows influenced their later artistic expressions. Talking to USA Today in 2001, Jackson reflected on music as a means to escape from his childhood worries: “We sang constantly in the house. We sang group harmony while washing dishes. We’d make up songs as we worked. That’s what makes greatness. You have to have that tragedy, that pain to pull from. That’s what makes a clown great. You can see he’s hurting behind the masquerade. He’s something else externally. Chaplin did that so beautifully, better than anyone. I can play off those moments, too. I’ve been through the fire many times.”

A few years after the interview, Jackson was put through the fire again. In 2005 his life began to reflect much of what Chaplin had endured before becoming an exile in 1952. Jackson came under investigation by the FBI for alleged child abuse while simultaneously being branded by the media as a child predator, much like Chaplin, when he was age 54, was investigated by the FBI for his political sympathies while being publicly condemned for marrying 18-year old Oona O’Neill. Following these controversies, both Chaplin and Jackson left America. There was a difference, however. Chaplin retreated to Switzerland to live a peaceful and stable family life, but Jackson turned into a restless vagabond without a lasting place to call home, due to his financial difficulties.

Other similarities can be found in Chaplin’s and Jackson’s work. Chaplin’s magnificent speech in The Great Dictator includes much of the philosophy that Jackson later expressed in songs such as ‘They Don’t Really Care About Us’ and ‘Heal The World’. Both artists had a relentless drive for perfectionism and worked non-stop to become successful in the entertainment industry. Whereas Jackson exalted in music and dance – while also trying his hand at cinematography by means of his music videos which he preferred to call ‘short films’ – Chaplin became a legendary actor and filmmaker, while also composing his own music scores.

Jackson was aware of these similarities, and not all of them were a coincidence. Jackson’s recording of his famous charity song ‘We Are The World’ (1985) at the site that was once home to the Charlie Chaplin Studios, was not by chance. He must have been well aware of the history of the studio complex built in 1917 near the corner of La Brea and Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Additionally, it’s not a mere coincidence that both Jackson’s Encino home and his Neverland Ranch ressemble the Tudor-style cottages lining the perimeter of Chaplin’s studio lot. Jackson, after all, was one of Chaplin’s greatest fans and had a keen eye for detail.

Postcard of the Charlie Chaplin studio in Hollywood
Old postcard showing the original Charlie Chaplin Studios in Hollywood (photo: public domain)

© Annemarie Latour

Here you can read the second part of this blog post:
Tramping with Charlie (part 2).


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