The Tramp turns 100
He changed not just the idea of what was funny, but the way that comedy was filmed.
As the war began, 100 years ago, Charles Chaplin was making his first movies in Hollywood. While Europe tore itself apart, he became the biggest star the world had ever seen, the first truly international star. He changed not just the idea of what was funny, but the way that comedy was filmed. His talent as a director matched his talent as an actor, almost from the start.
His first film, Making a Living, premiered on February 2, 1914. He was working for Mack Sennett at Keystone for $150 a week. By March 1916, Chaplin was making a better living than almost anyone on earth – $US670,000 a year for the Mutual Film Corporation. His films were used to cheer up the wounded in Britain. In one hospital they rigged projectors to throw the image onto the ceiling for soldiers who could not sit up. An American neurologist wrote asking for signed photographs. They were to be used for soldiers with brain damage. If they could recognise his face, there might be a chance of recovery. That’s how well-known he had become in two years.
He was also controversial, because neither he nor his brother Sydney – also working in Hollywood – had volunteered for the British Army. Lord Northcliffe’s Weekly Despatch singled Charlie out in 1917: ‘…until he has undergone medical examination he is under the suspicion of regarding himself as specially privileged to escape the common responsibilities of British citizenship’. Charlie responded with a statement that he was ready to answer the call, once the British Embassy advised that he should go. The embassy supported him: ‘He is of as much use to Great Britain now making big money and subscribing to war loans as he would be in the trenches…’.
Chaplin continued to receive white feathers even after it was reported that he had gone to a recruiting office and been turned down as underweight. As his authorised biographer David Robinson writes, these attacks did not come from servicemen: the Tramp was the soldier’s favourite. His films were even cited as having miraculous powers. A theatre owner in Lancashire wrote that ‘a wounded soldier laughed so much he got up and walked to the end of the hall, and quite forgot that he had left his crutches behind’.
Chaplin invented the Tramp just before the war, but he was the right character at the right time. Small but pugnacious, he had both virtue and vice. The troops saw someone who wouldn’t back down in the face of bullies and policemen; a man who always got up after a knockdown, and usually gave more than he got; a man of indomitable spirit, but down on his luck. If ever there was a character to make a soldier feel better, this was he, but where did he come from?
Early biographies claim the Tramp made his debut in Kid’s Auto Races at Venice, Chaplin’s second film at Keystone. In fact, David Robinson points out that it was in Mabel’s Strange Predicament, shot before Kid’s Auto Races, but released two days after. Robinson quotes the legend of how the costume was created ‘spontaneously, without fore-thought’ one rainy afternoon in the communal male dressing room at Keystone. ‘Chaplin borrowed Fatty Arbuckle’s voluminous trousers, tiny Charles Avery’s jacket, Ford Sterling’s size fourteen shoes, worn on the wrong feet to keep them from falling off, a too-small derby (bowler) belonging to Arbuckle’s father-in-law, and a moustache intended for Mack Swain’s use, which Chaplin trimmed to toothbrush size’. That was the Keystone publicity version. In fact, Chaplin set out to create ‘an ensemble on contrasts – tiny hat and huge shoes, baggy pants and pinched jacket’. Most of it was straight from the music hall, in which he had been performing since the age of nine. He had used elements of the character in his stage career, particularly the drunk act.
In his first films, the Tramp is almost always drunk. That makes him amorous, leading him to make a fool of himself chasing ladies. It makes him aggressive towards other men, who are always his rivals. It makes him fall down a lot, always with his legs at full inversion; and it makes him resentful of authority, willing to buck it, without thinking of consequences. That makes him childlike, which blunts the edge of malice.
The costume is fully formed in Mabel’s Strange Predicament, but it’s also there in nascent form in Making a Living, before he has invented the tramp. He plays a toff-like chancer who’s broke but cunning. He wears a top hat instead of a bowler; his moustache has handle bars, like a stage villain, which is what he is. He carries a cane, wears a tight-fitting long coat and knotted tie. The only things missing are the voluminous pants and big shoes. Between the first and second films, Chaplin turned this man from villain to tramp, taking him down the socio-economic ladder. A toff doesn’t evoke the audience’s sympathy; the tramp does, because he’s from the gutter, which is where Chaplin had spent his childhood. His alcoholic father abandoned the family when he was a child, and his mother went insane by the time he was nine, probably because of syphilis. Chaplin knew much more about being a tramp than being a toff, even if his later life became increasingly genteel. From that one decision, came comic immortality. Happy centenary, Charlie. Thank God you didn’t enlist.