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April 16, 2021

Charlie Chaplin Once Entered a Chaplin Look-Alike Contest and Lost

According to legend, somewhere between 1915 and 1921, Charlie Chaplin decided to enter a Chaplin look-alike contest, and lost. This is a myth that has been around for a long time, but there is no direct record of it happening, and all of the claims are anecdotal. Charlie himself never admitted this, and his son didn’t mention it in the book he wrote about his father.

Charlie Chaplin Look-Alike Contest, November 5, 1921. (Photo by by J. W. Sandison)

A short article called “How Charlie Chaplin Failed,” appearing in The Straits Times of Singapore in August of 1920, read like this:

Lord Desborough, presiding at a dinner of the Anglo-Saxon club told a story which will have an enduring life. It comes from Miss Mary Pickford who told it to Lady Desborough, “Charlie Chaplin was one day at a fair in the United States, where a principal attraction was a competition as to who could best imitate the Charlie Chaplin walk. The real Charlie Chaplin thought there might be a chance for him so he entered for the performance, minus his celebrated moustache and his boots. He was a frightful failure and came in twentieth.”

A similar story appeared in New Zealand’s Poverty Bay Herald, also in 1920:

Mary Pickford confided a new Charlie Chaplin story to Lady Desborough during her week-end visit, and Lord Desborough retailed it with much gusto to guests at the Anglo-Saxon Club dinner. Charlie Chaplin, so the story went, was one day at a fair in the United States where the principal attraction was a competition as to who could best inmate the “Charlie. Chaplin walk.” Thinking there might be a chance, the real “Charlie” entered the contest, but was handicapped by the absence of his celebrated moustache and boots. He was a most frightful failure (said Mary as quoted ay Lord Desborough) and only came in twentieth! 

Another story in the Australian newspaper, the Albany Advertiser, in March, 1921:
A competition in Charlie Chaplin impersonations was held in California recently. There was something like 40 competitors, and Charlie Chaplin, as a joke, entered the contest under an assumed name. He impersonated his well known film self. But he did not win; he was 27th in the competition.

These examples are all of 1920s gossip columns, simple retellings of a story that was spreading virally at the time. Did Chaplin come in 20th place? 27th place? Did he enter a contest at all? It’s fun to imagine that he did. But, a century later, many consider the story the stuff of urban legend.


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