History of a photograph: Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest, 1921

Posted on Mar 9, 2022      127

Let’s try to figure out once and for all whether Chaplin really lost to his imitators.

Our investigation is complicated because many documents contradict each other, even the date of the photograph varies from source to source. Still, we could put the complete puzzle together!

Charlie Chaplin look-alike contests were indeed held all over the United States. It is known for a fact that Bob Hope, one of America’s leading comedians and almost a regular host of the Oscars, won first place in one of them.

A myth spread around the world that Charlie Chaplin himself took part in a similar competition between 1915 and 1921 and supposedly failed miserably. The tale wandered from newspaper to newspaper and then turned into folklore.

The oldest publication on the subject looks laconic. On July 15, 1915, the Chicago Herald told readers about a conversation between Chaplin and a journalist. Here is a fragment of it:

When he entered a contest held by the theater in San Francisco, he failed even to reach the finals. “I am now drawn to teach Chaplin’s gait lessons,” he told a reporter, “out of pity, and also out of a desire to see a proper performance".

In August 1920, The Straits Times of Singapore issued a more detailed version. It was reported that the famous actress Mary Pickford had blabbed at a society reception in 1918 about the Charlie Chaplin fiasco. To quote the actress:

Charlie Chaplin once attended a fair in the United States, where the highlight was a contest to see who could best replicate Charlie Chaplin’s gait. The real Charlie Chaplin thought he had a chance, so he took part in the show without his famous mustache and boots. He suffered a crushing defeat and took twentieth place".

This story has been reprinted many times, with different dates and original positions allegedly taken by Chaplin in the contest. Still, because Mary Pickford knew Chaplin personally (they even created the United Artists film company together), we can consider this quote almost the official version.

But that’s not all. There were rumors that the artist did not give up this dabbling and regularly attended look-alike contests. Sometimes openly, as a chief guest, sometimes secretly competing. To this day, therefore, he is spotted in group photos like this one, taken at a very massive event at the Liberty Theater.

The authoritative Newsweek testifies that Chaplin, even in his old age, did not let go of his craving for adventure:

“In 1975, a few years before his death, Chaplin entered a self-double competition in France. He must have thought he would win easily, and everyone would laugh heartily at the end. But in the end he came in third place​”.

Chaplin’s look-alike contest at the Liberty Theater, Washington, supposedly 1921