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I heard this several times, is it really true or just a joke/rumor?

The claim is, that "Charlie Chaplin once only came second in a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest".

image of Chaplin source

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    Don't you have a photo of the real Charlie Chaplin? May 14 '12 at 0:44
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    I heard a similar story from my father once. A radio show had a Billy Snedden sound-alike competition. One caller was exceptionally good, so they awarded the prize, only for him to reveal he was Billy Snedden. I can't find any other reference, so not notable :-(
    – Oddthinking
    Jul 9 '12 at 6:20
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Update: Possibly?

Thanks to @alan-boisvert the passage that the Association Chaplin referred to in the book My Father, Charlie Chaplin does exist:

Dad told me about one of these that had taken place before I was born. It was at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, and there were thirty or forty people on the stage doing their best to imitate Dad. Dad was one of them. He'd gone up incognito to see how he would fare. He came in third. Dad always thought this one of the funniest jokes imaginable—whether on him or the judges or both, I don't know.

I'd argue that this is still an anecdotal claim, told decades after the fact. But it does have significantly more precise detail than some of the other published examples of the claim. So, whether or not this happened depends on whether or not you believe the story a father told his son.

No.

“Charlie Chaplin Look-Alike Contest” by J. W. Sandison, November 5, 1921“Charlie Chaplin Look-Alike Contest” by J. W. Sandison, November 5, 1921

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. As far as I can tell, Charlie himself never admitted this, and his son didn't mention it in the book he wrote about his father. I emailed the Association Chaplin and got a response:

... The only real reference I have ever seen to this story is in English newspaper clippings from 1918, when Mary Pickford was in London at an Anglo Saxon Club dinner, and told a story to Lord Desborough who repeated it to the press that Charles Chaplin entered a Chaplin walk contest at a fair in the US and came in 20th.

This anecdote told by Lord Desborough, whoever he may have been, was quite widely reported in the British press at the time.

There are no other references to such a competition in any other press clipping albums that I have seen so I can only assume that this is the source of that rumour, urban myth, whatever it is.

However, it may be true.

I also scribbled on a piece of paper a note to myself a while back that Charles Chaplin Jr mentions the competition in his book called My Father... but I have been unable to find the reference again in that book...(!)

Mary Pickford was a popular actor at the time and a good friend of Charlies. Unfortunately this story has an "I know a person who knows a person who says..." smell about it. I managed to track down some newspaper articles which are simple rewordings of the same gossip story:

Singapore's The Straits Times, 10 Aug 1920, "How Charlie Chaplin Failed":

How Charlie Chaplin Failed

And another version of the same story from the Poverty Bay Herald (NZ), also in 1920:

enter image description here

And another from the 23 March 1921 Albany Advertiser (Australia):

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. These early versions of the myth all also share many similarities with the Association Chaplin retelling. I'm unsure of the location of this Anglo-Saxon club based on any of the articles, and they're also sparse on details (in different ways) on Charlie Chaplin's supposed competition loss. I would say that it's unlikely that any of these particular retellings are true in any way.

I have personally read the "My Father" book, while researching this question, and there's no mention of any kind of impersonation or walk contests, even in passing. I paid particular attention to the 1915-1922 period that most of the claims fall into. Edit: The claim from the book has been identified.

It's most likely that this story was completely made up, using Mary Pickford's name to lend credibility ('a friend of Mary Pickford's who is friends with Charlie says that...') and spread through gossip columns the world over throughout the following months and years.

I find it amazing that despite the wildly varying dates and locations that these retellings state, and the lack of specific dates, times and locations ("a fair in the United States") within the claims, the myth has still survived for almost 100 years.

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    +1! Great job researching this! I hope you can find out more. The source for the other answer seems to be wrong, so I will accept this one for now.
    – magnattic
    Jun 11 '12 at 9:34
  • I live not far from Eugene, I'll ask him if I ever bump into him :)
    – Benjol
    Jul 9 '12 at 9:12
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    Inconsistent newspaper articles are not enough to declare something untrue. Almost all newspaper articles are false in one way or another (at least it is true for any topic that I'm competent to judge). They could start from a true event and distort/twist it with each new retelling of the story. So I don't see how you go from "However, it may be true." to the firm "No". The absence of the story in "My Father" adds weight to the "No" version but by itself it is also not enough to discard the possibility.
    – jfs
    Oct 16 '13 at 16:11
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    @jfs In terms of proving something to be true, at the core it does. If it didn’t, we could make all sorts of statements and claim them to be true only by suggesting evidence to the contrary doesn’t exist. Scientific and Historic research MUST work this way. Jan 22 '19 at 12:19
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    That first news clipping was sure right that this story "[would] have an enduring life"!
    – Bobson
    Jun 22 at 21:15
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Snopes has a good page on this:

Chaplin did indeed fare poorly in a Chaplin look-alike contest, but the competition took place in a San Francisco theater. His final standing is not recorded, although it was noted that he "failed even to make the finals." Chaplin told a reporter at this time that he was "tempted to give lessons in the Chaplin walk, out of pity as well as in the desire to see the thing done correctly."

The sources listed on the Snopes page are:

  1. Milton, Joyce. Tramp: The Life of Charlie Chaplin. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. ISBN 0-06-017052-2 (pp. 92-93).

  2. Chicago Herald. 15 July 1915.

The relevant quote from the book is:

Vaudeville houses still showed motion pictures in 1915, and many were promoting the Chaplin vogue by sponsoring amateur Charlie look-alike contests. Among the early winners was Bob Hope, who took first prize in a Chaplin contest in Cleveland. Charlie himself was not so lucky. When he entered a contest run by a theater in San Fransisco, he failed even to make the finals. "I am tempted to give lessons in the Chaplin walk" he told a reporter, "out of pity as well as in the desire to see the thing done correctly".

The only citation listed for this passage in the book is the very same Chicago Herald for July 15, 1915, Vol. 11, RLC.

I am unable to verify the second reference at present, as I am unable to find any archive online for the Chicago Herald, which seemed to only exist under that name for four years. Short of going to a library with access to the archive there does not seem to be a way to verify this reference.

Edit: This answer records that the article could not be found.

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    Yep, please double check the second source because snopes sometimes cites stuff that can't be checked by us.
    – Sklivvz
    May 13 '12 at 16:47
  • Looks like the book itself only cites the newspaper article. Someone in the US should be able to get a photocopy of the original from the Chicago archives for less than 6 dollars, and they can do this from any public library in the US. Can any US-based skeptics volunteer to pop down to their local library and help us out?
    – John Lyon
    May 14 '12 at 1:44
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    One should also remember that just because it's written, on or off the internet, doesn't make it necessarily true. Newspapers, historically, have had a tendency to publish things without verifying the source simply because it would take too much effort, or because the writing was deemed too interesting. Having a single record from an old newspaper doesn't make it inherently true.
    – zzzzBov
    May 14 '12 at 1:46
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    @jozzas Librarians at the Chicago Public Library could not locate the article. As far as I'm concerned, it doesn't exist.
    – Sam I Am
    Jun 9 '12 at 19:59
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    The snopes page about this has been taken down, it now redirects to a page about Charlie Chaplin's remains being stolen.
    – John Lyon
    Nov 24 '15 at 21:39
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I have a copy of the book My Father, Charlie Chaplin by Charles Chaplin Jr. (1925-1968).

In it he describes the incident on page 203:

They held countless Charlie Chaplin contests. Dad told me about one of these that had taken place before I was born. It was at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, and there were thirty or forty people on the stage doing their best to imitate Dad. Dad was one of them. He'd gone up incognito to see how he would fare. He came in third. Dad always thought this one of the funniest jokes imaginable—whether on him or the judges or both, I don't know.

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  • Welcome to Skeptics, we invite you to take our tour and refer to the help center for guidance as to our ways, enjoy the site. Jun 19 at 17:35
  • Thanks for this Alan. Based on your answer I have found this in one of the copies of the book I bought for this question. Not sure how I skimmed right over it!
    – John Lyon
    Jul 11 at 23:01
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There is a note on this in the Wikipedia article for Charlie Chaplin in the Legacy section

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlie_Chaplin#Legacy

Chaplin's "tramp" character is possibly the most imitated on all levels of entertainment. Chaplin once entered a "Chaplin look-alike" competition and did not make the final round.[198][199]

The article also referenced Snopes.com, but they also referenced Howell, Melissa; Howell, Greg; Pierce, Seth (1 August 2010). Fusion: Where You and God Connect. Review and Herald Pub Assoc. p. 275. ISBN 978-0-8280-2547-8. Retrieved 23 March 2011.

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    The "Fusion" book looks like it is a simple rewording of either Snopes or the passage from "The Life Of Charlie Chaplin". Either way, as this "Fusion" book doesn't cite any sources, it unfortunately doesn't help much!
    – John Lyon
    May 14 '12 at 4:10
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    Interesting... it's about time the government allowed public access to the time machine they reconstructed from the debris found at Area 51 (Sorry, 52). Then we could go back and get these things correct for a change! :)
    – signal2013
    May 14 '12 at 4:18
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    Yeah, and we can check out the lady with the cell phone from his film "The Circus".
    – Mr Lister
    May 14 '12 at 7:09

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