There are several occasions in which we’ve seen in a commercial or a movie a scene where a famous singer or artist participates in a contest of imitators of himself and ends up losing.

When we see that, we usually think “But how innocent, who would believe that?” Fortunately, reality often surpasses fiction and such an event took place many decades ago with one of the greatest icons in the history of cinema: Charles Chaplin.

We are talking about one of the most recognized actors of the twentieth century in the history of Hollywood for his role as Charlot, winner of two honorary Oscars, with a Nobel Prize nomination, and was also named Knight of the British Order.

Although we all know him best for wearing a black hat, a tiny mustache, a two-piece suit, and a cane. That was more than enough for this great humorist to make history.

The Story Of When Charlie Chaplin Entered A Charlie Chaplin Look-Alike Contest (And Lost)

During the first decade of the 20th century, Charles Chaplin gained immense popularity, and countless Chaplinists, as his impersonators were popularly known, toured circuses and theaters, as well as countless streets around the world making a living imitating the genius of silent humor. 

Some were so good at imitating him that movies were even made with fake Chaplins, such as The Candy Kid, released in 1917 and starring Billy West, considered the best Chaplin impersonator in history.

The existence of so many imitators led a talent scout to create an annual Chaplinist contest in the United States in which the best imitation of Chaplin’s most famous character, Charlot, also known as “The Tramp”, was awarded.

Charlie Chaplin in a black and white film

Coincidentally, Chaplin was visiting San Francisco when one of these contests was in town, and he could not resist the idea of participating. 

In an interview conducted for the Chicago Herald on July 15, 1915, Chaplin recounts the story with great irony and commented that he was:

“Tempting to give them lessons in the “Chaplin walk,” out of pity and also wishing to see the thing done properly.”

Thus Charles competed with thirteen other men. However, what seemed very easy for him ended in a huge disappointment because the jury was not satisfied with his imitation and he was disqualified, even, though he got the worst score in the group.

The big winner of that contest was the actor and comedian Milton Berle, who apparently could imitate him better than he could imitate himself. Truly unusual.

When you hear this story, it seems like a myth that the well known actor could enter a Chaplin look-alike contest at a fair in the United States, and came in 20th place, although the reason is quite simple to understand.

How Could Chaplin Lose A Charlie Chaplin Look-Alike Contest?

Chaplin was playing himself, while others imitated the character on the movie screens of the first decade of the 20th century. Recall that these were screens for 8 mm tapes at 15 frames per second, which gave the impression that everyone was moving fast.

In other words, while others were replicating that speed of movement as best they could, Chaplin was simply too slow to look like the real Charles Chaplin. On second thought, I take back what I said earlier, the reason is still very unusual, but those were different times.

Although this story is considered an urban legend, its veracity is doubtful.

A picture of what Charlie Chaplin looks like off screen

So Did Charlie Chaplin Lose A Charlie Chaplin Look-Alike Contest?

The truth is that it is difficult to confirm, as there are several versions of this supposed Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest.

At least it is believed that this clipping from the Herald is true according to Snopes, a site dedicated to investigating urban legends, but there are still other stories that change the facts.

For example, in the 1920s, this story was published under the name “How Charlie Chaplin Failed” in several newspaper columns. According to these, the actress Mary Pickford, very famous at the time, was in London at a dinner with representatives of high society to whom she told this story.

On the other hand, according to the Poverty Bay Herald of New Zealand, Chaplin participated in a competition in California, in which he faced 40 participants.

Despite the difference in location and number of participants, Chaplin was not very successful in this version either, coming in 27th place.

Because of so many differences in the evidence, everything indicates that this is a hoax, which nevertheless has endured over time (it has existed for a century) because it is a story that is funny.

In his autobiography, “Chaplin” (1964), the humorist never mentions this anecdote. The news where the matter is mentioned seems to be not very rigorous, quoting undefined sources, or that the journalist has been told it by “a friend of a friend”. They do not seem very reliable.

Moreover, the Chaplin Association also denied these facts, claiming that they were nothing more than street anecdotes following the creation of the competition. And as the last verdict, who better than Chaplin himself? Jeffrey Vance, the head of Chaplin: Genius of Cinema, found an interview of the actor in which he completely denied this legend.

Final Thoughts On The Tale Of The Contest

I’m not going to lie, it’s a bit disappointing that everything indicates that this story never happened, but come on, all of us Chaplin fans will still believe it because it’s highly entertaining and we know that the actor would have been capable of that, and even of losing. 

Be that as it may, real or not, the anecdotes of this legendary actor help to keep his legacy alive, because, without Charles Chaplin, cinema would not be at all as we know it today.