Like his bowler hat and cane, the Tramp’s curly black hair has always been a distinct part of his character. Chaplin was aware of its significance early on and when getting into costume, his hair became just as important as his mustache. For instance, in How To Make Movies he can be seen fluffing up his hair before putting on his derby. He told Lita Grey during the filming of The Kid: “I never brush or comb my hair in the morning when I get up if I’m going to make up as the Tramp. I like the Tramp’s hair to look unkempt under his bowler.”1
Charlie and his unkempt curls in The Kid
Dan Kamin noted that Charlie’s tousled hair “reinforced his head movements such as his frequent gesture of shaking his head after a fall, and nicely counterpoints his carefully trimmed mustache.”2
Chaplin always had an interest in hair. One of his first jobs was as a lather boy at a barber shop perhaps this experience sparked his interest in cutting hair. It’s well-known that Chaplin preferred to cut his own hair, although he did go to barbershops occasionally.
|Charlie’s hairdresser, Gabriele Di Rito, gives him a trim, 1960s.
According to Di Rito, Charlie was a very good tipper.
|Chaplin fixes Paulette Goddard’s hair on the set of Modern Times.|
He also enjoyed cutting and styling the hair of his leading ladies, as well as the coifs of family and friends, but not always with positive results. Some of the victims of his tonsorial experiments include:
“Once he said after tennis–he used to call me Buddy–“Come on up, Buddy, and I’ll give you a haircut.” So I sat on a high stool and he gave me a hair cut. A few weeks later I was down in Los Angeles and I went in the barber shop and the barber said, “Who cut your hair last time?” And quietly I said “Charlie Chaplin.” The barber looked at me and said, “I ask you a civil question. I expect a civil answer.”3
Since he didn’t like my going to the hairdresser, he cut my hair himself, or rather slashed it, so I looked like a village child disfigured by the barber. Chaplin didn’t like long hair; he preferred it almost shaved, like a boy’s, so that one could see the shell at the nape of the neck. He abhorred curls and waves. “Hair should fall naturally,” he lectured me as he made deep notches in mine.
I groaned, “Enough, enough, Charlie! No shorter!” But he cut with such fury that the newspapers the next day would surely proclaim me a refugee from a gypsy camp.4
“Oona had beautiful long hair,” remembered Chaplin’s second cousin Betty Chaplin Tetrick. “After Geraldine [the couple’s second child] was born she couldn’t decide whether or not to cut it. She was young, and like young girls she made a big thing of it. Charlie got the scissors and made the decision for her. He loved to cut hair. He started cutting but couldn’t get it even, so he kept cutting. The poor thing ended up with this short and jagged haircut.”5
Sid Grauman, whose long, bushy locks have been for years the target for many good-natured gibes from friends and columnists, appeared on the scene one day as Charlie was engaged in feather-edging his own neckline. In the mirror, Charlie spied Sid’s long bob. He talked fast to allay any suspicion of the foul intent in his mind, completing his work. Then, jumping down from the chair, he pounced upon the unwary Sid, urging him to let him “trim some of those uneven ends a little.” Sid climbed into the chair, cautioning Charlie to “go easy.” Charlie snatched up the electric clippers and, before Sid could stay his hand, buzzed a neatly mowed path through the forest of Sid’s Fiji-Islanderish locks. Then whirling the chair so Sid could glimpse the havoc, and the picture of penitence, he explained that the clippers had “slipped.” So there was nothing to do but cut the whole head to match. Sid took one despairing look and slumped speechless deeper into the chair, cursing himself silently for a trusting fool. 6
Grauman didn’t speak to Chaplin for months afterward.
The results weren’t always negative, however. Ivor Montagu told Kevin Brownlow that Chaplin gave his wife, Hell, “the most marvelous haircut she’s ever had.”7 And Chaplin seemed to go easy on his daughter Josephine in these photos of a haircut he gave her in the 1960s:
He also put his hair-cutting skills to use in his films. He played a barber in The Great Dictator (1940) as well as in a deleted scene from Sunnyside (1919). He also becomes a barber to a bearskin rug in Behind The Screen (1916).
Since black hair was a well-defined part of his character, when Chaplin’s own hair began going gray in the late 1910s, it became necessary to dye it for the screen. He was touching up his sideburns as early as The Kid 8 and must have been dyeing it all over by 1922, if one compares out-of-costume photos of the same period with the films. There is a long-running myth that Chaplin’s hair went white overnight due to his divorce from Lita Grey in 1927. But this myth can easily be debunked by comparing photos of Chaplin from before his marriage to Lita and after. The difference is far from drastic:
Chaplin in 1924 (left) and in 1928
His changing hair color was so noticeable during his 1921 visit to London that he received a letter from a Liverpool “scalp specialist” offering to restore its color. “I shall be pleased to examine your scalp and give you a candid opinion,” he wrote. “If nothing can be done I will state so frankly.”9 However, Chaplin was never vain about his gray hair. He only dyed it for his films and once the film was over, he allowed his hair to return to its natural gray. In public and in photo shoots he often slicked down his graying curls with pomade. Perhaps this was an effort to distinguish himself from his screen character.
As Chaplin got older and began wearing his hair shorter, so did the Tramp. The tramp hair in later films, such as City Lights and Modern Times, is not as wild and bushy as it was in earlier films. Chaplin also began allowing a little of his gray hair to show through. In The Great Dictator, the barber returns to the ghetto with grayer hair suggesting the passage of time. Similarly, Monsieur Verdoux’s hair is much whiter at the end of the film when he runs into the girl again after the death of his wife and child. The characters in two of his last films, Limelight and A King In New York, were, like their creator, completely white-headed.
To conclude this piece on hair, I’d like to present an article from 1925 in which Chaplin describes a haircutting episode in which he took things a bit too far:
|Gaffney Ledger, Oct. 29, 1925
Click to enlarge
1Lita Grey Chaplin, Wife Of The Life Of The Party 2Dan Kamin, Charlie Chaplin: Artistry In Motion 3Kevin Brownlow, The Search For Charlie Chaplin 4May Reeves, The Intimate Charlie Chaplin 5Jeffrey Vance, Charlie Chaplin: Genius Of The Cinema 6Gerith Von Ulm, Charlie Chaplin: King Of Tragedy 7Brownlow, Search For Charlie Chaplin 8Lita Grey Chaplin, My Life With Chaplin 9Charlie Chaplin, My Trip Abroad