Monday, September 1, 2014
The Tramp at 100
A fine article on Chaplin by Paul Whitington of the Independent
One hundred years ago, a young Charles Chaplin made his movie debut in a comic short called Making a Living. Chaplin had only recently arrived in America as part of Fred Karno's comic troupe, and had been spotted by scouts from the Keystone Studios.
Chaplin had reservations about the Keystone films, which he considered a "crude mélange of rough and tumble", but the lure of Hollywood proved too great. He arrived in California in December of 1913, and within a couple of months was appearing in short comedies. In Making a Living he played a fastidious dandy with a gaucho moustache who steals money from a gullible passer-by. Chaplin hated the film, but his elegant movement marked him out from his co-stars.
Making a Living was released on February 9, 1914, and a week later Chaplin's famous Tramp character was introduced to the world. In later years Charlie Chaplin liked to tell the story of how the Tramp was accidentally invented on a quiet day at the Keystone lot.
He was playing a minor role in a film called Mabel's Strange Predicament when studio boss Mack Sennett decided the movie wasn't funny enough and told Chaplin to go off and put on a silly costume and clown around.
On the way to wardrobe, he had a moment's inspiration. "I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large." The little moustache was added later to make the baby-faced, 24-year-old actor look older, and that, according to Chaplin, was that.
"The moment I was dressed," he wrote in his autobiography, "the clothes and the make-up made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on stage he was fully born."
The Tramp would go on to become perhaps the most celebrated screen persona ever, an impecunious everyman who had cinema-goers the world over rolling in the aisles one minute, and wiping away a tear the next. Chaplin would later use him to bemoan the ills of capitalism but above all, the Tramp was a clown, a prankster and an endless source of joy.
In recent times Chaplin's films have fallen from fashion somewhat, partly because they're silent, perhaps because of their disconcerting sentimentality. But his contribution to cinema is immense - a lot of his films and routines stand up extraordinarily well, and his Tramp is a timeless character, a tragicomic hero who refuses to give up and accept that he is sunk.
Until Chaplin came along, homeless people were almost invariably portrayed in film as vagabonds, drunks and villains. But Chaplin had a real understanding of what poverty and hardship were, having endured a positively Dickensian childhood.
Charles Spencer Chaplin was born in London on April 16, 1889, and both his parents were music hall singers. His father left when he was two, and Hannah Chaplin struggled to make ends meet. Things got so bad at one point that Charles was sent to the workhouse, and his mother was later committed to a mental asylum.
Young Charles survived by taking up performing. In 1899 he joined a music hall dance troupe and later moved on to small parts in West End stage shows. In 1906 he began to specialise in comedy, touring with a juvenile act called Casey's Circus. His half-brother Sydney Chaplin, meanwhile, had joined Fred Karno's celebrated comedy company and he managed to get Charlie an audition.
In 1910, Karno chose Charlie to star in a company tour of the North American vaudeville circuit. With him went one Arthur Jefferson, who briefly served as Chaplin's understudy and would later adopt the stage name of Stan Laurel. Charlie was signed to Keystone in 1913, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Chaplin began turning out short comedies at the rate of one a week for Mack Sennett, and by the end of 1914 he was writing and directing his own films and forming a stock company of players.
The idea of the Tramp, as we have heard, came about by accident, but there was nothing accidental about the way the character was then developed. In early appearances in films like Kid Auto Races, the Tramp didn't appear to be homeless at all. He looked reasonably well dressed, and often had jobs.
He was a tougher, meaner and rowdier character that the one who'd appear in Chaplin's later classics like Modern Times: he was obtuse, obstreperous, anarchical and sometimes violent. But over time Chaplin realised that a marginalised and sympathetic outsider would have much greater audience appeal.
By 1915, his homeless character had been given a heart. The Tramp, which was released in April of that year, is often cited as a major turning point in Charlie's career. In it, Chaplin's baggy-trousered hero was a good-natured drifter who finds work on a family farm.
He falls in love with the farmer's daughter, but is devastated when he finds out she already has a boyfriend. And at the end the Tramp waddles off down a country road, seeming disconsolate at first before visibly recovering his pep.
This was the formula that would make the Tramp the most beloved cultural icon on the planet for more than a decade: the plucky loser who refuses to believe that the world is as cruel a place as it seems. The Tramp went down a bomb in the US, and its successor, The Bank, did even better. By the end of 1915 Chaplin had become a cultural phenomenon, and signed a new movie contract with Mutual that would earn him $670,000 a year.
This new power allowed Chaplin to slow down the hectic pace of filming, and start making longer, more accomplished and finely honed films. A Dog's Life (1918), developed the idea of the Tramp as a Pierrot, or melancholy clown, while Shoulder Arms (1918) celebrated the quiet bravery of troops on the Western Front.
The Kid (1921), his first film to run longer than an hour, portrayed the Tramp as a warm-hearted hero who takes pity on an abandoned child. Chaplin wrote, starred, directed and edited it - he even scored the music.
Back in 1919, he, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and DW Griffith had formed their own studio, United Artists, and in 1923 Chaplin achieved full creative freedom when he started producing all his films through UA. He was now free to create his cinematic masterpieces.
In The Gold Rush (1925), the Tramp sets out for the Klondike with high hopes of striking it rich which are cruelly dashed. The Circus (1928) was full of inspired comic routines and saw our hero become an unlikely star of the big top.
When talking pictures arrived in the late 1920s, Chaplin was resistant. He was convinced that the Tramp's screen appeal would instantly evaporate the moment the public heard him speak. His 1931 masterpiece, City Lights, was filmed without sound, and told the moving story of the Tramp's love for a blind flower girl who assumes that he's a well-heeled gentleman.
As late as 1936, Chaplin was still resisting the pressure to switch to sound. Modern Times, his ambitious satire in which the Tramp character is now a factory worker oppressed by the exigencies of mass production, was originally supposed to be Charlie's first 'talkie', but at the last minute he changed his mind and reverted to the format he trusted.
He finally bowed to the inevitable in 1940 and produced his first talkie, The Great Dictator, an ambitious satire of Nazi Germany.
The film was a big hit, but by now the knives were out for Chaplin and his popularity was on the wane. Private scandals didn't help, including an embarrassing 1944 paternity suit, and his marriage at the age of 54 to playwright Eugene O'Neill's 18-year-old daughter, Oona. They would have eight children together, and stay united until his death, but Hedda Hopper and the Hollywood gossip columnists had a field day.
The FBI, meanwhile, had Charlie under surveillance as a possible communist and in 1952, when he was in London for the premiere of his drama Limelight, the US authorities decided to ban him from re-entering America.
He settled in Switzerland and in his latter years frequently holidayed in Co Kerry with his family. His last two films were serious dramas that dispensed with the Tramp altogether and Charles Chaplin died peacefully at home in Switzerland on Christmas Day, 1977, at the age of 88.
Hollywood had asked him back to receive an honorary Oscar in 1972, but this gesture was small compensation for the shameful treatment he'd endured.