The Little Tramp (1914-1936)

Picture 25

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Producer: Charlie Chaplin (Charles Chaplin, United Artists)

Writer: Charlie Chaplin (screenplays)

Photography: Roland Toheroh, Gordon Pollock, Mark Marklatt

Music: Charlie Chaplin, Max Terr, Jose Padilla, Irah H. Morgan

Casts: Charlie Chaplin, Georgia Hale, Mack Swain, Tom Murray, Henry Bergman, Malcom Waite….Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Harry Myers, Florence Lee, Al Ernest Garcia, Hank Mann…Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman, Tiny Sandford, Chester Conklin, Hank Mann, Stanley Blystone, Al Ernest Garcia, Richard Alexander, Cecil Reynolds, Mira McKinney, Murdock MacQuarrie

Introduction

Legendary figures make for legendary trivia. And my favorite of all movie anecdotes will always be this: Charlie Chaplin once entered a Charlie Chaplin lookalike contest…and finished third. Not only is that great irony, but it’s a tribute to Chaplin’s iconic status. His “Little Tramp” creation, complete with bowler hat, cane and toothbrush mustache, was so well-known that countless people worldwide could do dead-on imitations. Even today, the character remains our most famous fictional human figure, and its most cherished silhoutte. Can you imagine a modern comedian, say, Will Ferrell, being so recognizable a century from now? No way. But that is exactly what Chaplin did. His comic ingenuity made his screen persona universally recognizable some 95 years after its creation.

The Tramp was first seen in the 1914 short Kid Auto Races in Venice. By 1919, Chaplinhad founded his own studio, alongside Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith, called United Artists, a sort of unionized effort to break up the power of the big studios. And by 1921, he had directed his first feature, The Kid (1921), a fine chowcase for the Tramp and an early reminder of Chaplin’s ability as writer, director, producer and star. But when his first United Artists release, the sophisticated A Woman in Paris (1923), flopped at the box office, Chaplin knew he had to go back to his bread and butter. (A) So after 1925, he never went Trampless until he retired the character for good in 1936, in which time he made three of cinema’s pure comedy masterpieces — The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936). Each is good enough to merit its own entry, but seeing as all three feature the same hero, they function almost as sequels (like the Ernest series, only higher quality). Is there a better trio of films featuring the same essential character?

The Gold Rush

Despite being just his second full-length feature, The Gold Rush came at the height of the Tramp’s popularity, thanks to the routine shorts that had audiences in stitches for years. At 96 minutes, it was Chaplin’s first effort over 70 minutes, and for the rest of his life, he called it the film he wanted to be remembered for. (B) Why? Perhaps it’s because The Gold Rush captures everything for which Chaplin became famous. There’s the typical romantic play between a down-and-outer and a beauty, this time the lovely Georgia, played by Georgia Hale. Hale took the role after the original choice, Chaplin’s wife Lita Grey, became pregnant, and according to Hale in the book Unknown Chaplin (1983), she and Chaplin were having an affair throughout The Gold Rush. This added a little extra romantic flare to a film that already featured that perfect Chaplin blend of comedy in the face of tragedy.

Here, the two are never far apart, as Chaplin’s poor loner heads off into the Klondike in search of gold, along with 2,500 real-life vagabonds hired as extras for a day’s pay. (B) The scrawny Tramp, taking the form of Lone Prospector, stands out among these burly men, yet his signature penguin walk appears natural in the snows of Alaska, where the wintery landscapes of Chilkoot Pass create a cold isolation rivaled only by Fargo (1996). In The Gold Rush, the disastrous cold is mined for comedy, as huge gusts of wind blow the Tramp clear out his cabin door, and even send the cabin itself for a ride. The majority of the film actually takes place in this cabin, where the Tramp and his fellow gold-seekers go to get out of the cold. For Chaplin, the prospect of rabid men cooped up in the same isolated shack was the perfect formula for a string of now-classic gags.

Most are simple as can be, be it fighting over a piece of meat or encountering a real American Black Bear. But big laughs from simple means is Chaplin’s fortay. In other words, give Chaplin a boot and watch him carry it to the end zone. I’m referring to the classic scene, where a starving Tramp takes off his leather boot and boils it for dinner. Silverware in hand, he handles the shoestrings like pasta and treats the nails in the sole like fishbones. When a comrade yells for some actual food, Chaplin humorously points to his other boot. For all it’s hilarity, it’s disturbing to think that the gag was inspired by the true story of the Donner Party Disaster of 1846, where a party of immigrants snowbound in the Sierra Nevadas had to eat their own moccasins…and the bodies of those frozen to death (D). Chaplin thankfully leaves the latter part out, but not entirely, as a fellow prospector, Big Jim (Mack Swain), imagines the Tramp served up on a dish as a succulent chicken.

As if enough laughs couldn’t come from the same dinner table, the Tramp returns to that spot for an even more famous image later. Sitting alone, he imagines several women sitting with him for a New Year’s dinner, and they suddenly appear at the table with him. As the fantasy plays out, the humor lies in the pure absurdity of this guy’s idea of showing off. For him, it involves sticking forks into a pair of dinner rolls and dancing them across the table. The scene, which has affectionally come to be known as the Dance of the Rolls, was so popular in theaters that some projectionists stopped the film and replayed the scene. Not a bad payoff for such a simple gag. But that was Chaplin’s gift. He knew how to take to take ordinary things and apply the right combination of oddity, analogy and desperation to make them hysterical.

The Gold Rush is the first film that truly shows why in a 2002 issue, Movie Magazine ranked Chaplin #8 on the 25 Most Influential Directors of All Time, above the likes of Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Billy Wilder. Such an accolade shows Chaplin’s skill as not only a comedic director, but as director, period. His imagined realities, brought about by dissolves, were completely groundbreaking, predating even Murnau’s Sunrise (1927). And the film’s final scene of the cabin teetering off the edge of a cliff, was one of the first seemless combinations of stop-motion miniatures and real-life actors, done years before King Kong (1933). In the end, the techniques amount to an over-the-top battle in the wilderness, as an avalanche finally sends the cabin tumbling off the mountain, which Chaplin made from timber, chicken wire, burlap, plaster, salt and flour (D).  It’s at this point that The Gold Rush achieves one of Chaplin’s self-described comedic truths: “We must laugh in the face of our helplessness against the forces of nature — or go insane.” (C)

City Lights

After exploring the insanity of The Circus (1928), which won him a special award at the very first Academy Awards, Chaplin would follow up with the film most scholars remember him for. City Lights is perhaps so revered because it marks the moment Chaplin refused to give into industry trends and stuck to his own silent vision during the advent of sound. By 1928, the crappiest talking picture was making more money than the best silent movie, thanks to the overwhelming success of The Jazz Singer (1927). But Chaplin worried that talkies would both taint the visual beauty of cinema and break the mystique of the Tramp, who was such an international star, viewers around the world had already decided what his voice sounded like. (E) So came City Lights, another silent effort, conceding only for sound effects (whistles, bells, mumbled talking like Charlie Brown adults) and his first syncronized score, composed by Chaplin himself and made famous by Chuck Workman’s 100 Years at the Movies montage. It was the film Chaplin worked hardest on, taking two years and eight months to complete, including 179 days of actual shooting. (E) But despite, or perhaps even because of, its silence, the film was a hit, drawing Winston Churchill to visit the set and Albert Einstein and Bernard Shaw to the L.A. and London premieres, respectively.What they witnessed was a masterpiece.

The film begins with the unveiling of a new statue downtown. But when the mayor uncovers it, he also uncovers the sleeping place of the Tramp and forces him to leave. Thus we follow the Tramp’s journey around the city. He first meets a beautiful Blind Girl (Virginia Cherrill) selling flowers on the street, and is instantly taken by her. Soon after, he encounters a suicidal Eccentric Millionaire (Harry Myers), and in saving his life, makes a new friend, albeit one who only recognizes him when he’s drunk. Borrowing cash and car from the millionaire, the Tramp is able to convince the Blind Girl that he is the wealthy one. He devotes his life to her, deciding that he must find work to finance an eye operation and to help her make rent. But after several failed jobs, as a street sweeper and impromptu boxer, he’s falsely sent to jail, suspected of robbing the millionaire. Once released, he returns to find the girl no longer blind, setting up their famous final encounter in which so much is said in just one word: “You?”

Of all the Chaplin films, City Lights in the listology king. With the exception of Entertainment Weekly choosing The Gold Rush, most every list that limits itself to just one Chaplin film invariably chooses City Lights, from Rolling Stone’s 100 Maverick Movies to TIME‘s Top 100. And Chaplin’s listology appears to be gaining in stature. On the AFI’s original Top 100 Films in 1997, The Gold Rush, City Lights and Modern Times all placed in the #74-#81 range. But in the 10th Anniversary list, they all got a boost, led by City Lights, which jumped all the way to #11. That’s a serious statement, to place City Lights on the cusp of being one of the 10 greatest films ever made. Such a spot is indicative of the film’s duel effect of comedy and romance, the only Chaplin film to place on both AFI’s 100 Laughs and 100 Passions. What’s more, the AFI named it the #1 Romantic Comedy of All Time, so much of its tenderness riding on that culminating final moment.

The scene is pure bliss, as the Blind Girl finally gets a look at her lover, caresses his hand and realizes he’s not what she expected, while the Tramp, biting his nail, turns the most natural smile in the history of movies. “I’ve had that [magic] once or twice,” Chaplin said. “In City Lights, just the last scene, I’m not acting. Almost apologetic, standing outside myself and looking. It’s a beautiful scene, beautiful, and because it isn’t acted.” Critic James Agee added that it was “the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies” (E). That said, it’s hard to imagine that Chaplin did not actually care for Cherrill, Cary Grant’s future wife, whom he actually considered replacing with Georgia Hale, his co-star in The Gold Rush. Looking back, Cherrill’s performance seems pitch-perfect, as her grace proves the perfect instrument for the film’s theme that “love is blind.” Is there any more beautfiul message than that?

As a director, Chaplin deserves all the credit in the world for constructing this, the most famous two-shot in movie history. Ironically, it was not their last scene, but their first scene together, that Chaplin spent the most time on. It was a simple scene, but one that he took weeks to perfect. In it, he establishes all the key points of the film: the meeting of these two people, the Tramp’s recognition that she’s blind, his instant pity for her and the girl’s misconception that he’s rich (E). The crucial misconception is told with a simple pan left, losing the Blind Girl from the frame and thus visually grouping together the subject of her misinterpretation — the Tramp sharing the frame with a wealthy man who gets into a car and drives off. We pan back to the Blind Girl to stress her misconception, and then pan back left as the Tramp’s head turns in his realization of her misconception. Finally, we pan back right as the Tramp looks directly at the camera and sneaks away to complete the idea.

That is how you visually tell a story, in this case needing only one title card of dialogue: “Wait for your change, sir.” Chaplin’s ability to visually tell his stories is almost unrivaled, and it works for serious moments, like the aforemention misconception scene, as well as for laughter. For example, the scene showing his job as a street sweeper, a.k.a. pooper scooper. We get a tracking shot of the Tramp pushing his cart as a horse and buggy passes by. Disgusted, the Tramp stops and looks off-screen at the horse, then takes out a shovel for a poop scoop. Next, we track with him some more, only for him to stop as a whole row of horses comes riding by. Hands on hips, he’s no doubt thinking, “Look at all this poop I have to scoop!” Then, to top it off, what should pass by but an elephant! Fade out. The genius of a visual series of jokes.

One must stand in awe of Chaplin in this one. Consider the timing of the manhole scene, where the Tramp admires a window sculptre and unknowingly backpeddles toward a rectangular manhole. Or the dinner party scene, complete with dollies through ballroom dancers and yet another comic eating scene, this time with the Tramp confusing confetti for spaghetti. Or most enjoyably, the boxing sequence, in the lockerroom with the good luck charms, in the ring corner with a humorous dissolve and during the fight with the Tramp hiding behind the ref and becoming entangled in the ring bell rope. If you don’t laugh at least once during that scene, something’s wrong with you. The man proved that he could use sound effects for humor while maintaining his overall silent integrity, and people at it up. How much did they eat it up? Check out the DVD bonus material of his arrival in Vienna during his 1931-32 world tour. Look at the people swarming him, carrying him on their shoulders. You’ll be amazed.

Modern Times

It was during this 18-month tour that Chaplin got the idea for his next picture. In traveling the world, he saw first-hand what the Depression had done to the international workforce. “Unemployment is the vital question,” he told a newspaper in 1931. “Machinery should benefit mankind. It should not spell tragedy and throw it out of work.” (F) Thus the idea for Modern Times, a film in which he would confront the Great Depression and its issues of unemployment, strikes and labor rights. For Hollywood, the threat of unemployment loomed just as large. By 1936, talkies had been in existence for nearly a decade, leaving silent films in the dust and the Hollywood star system overturned. The careers of Fairbanks, Pickford and Buster Keaton were dessimated by the coming of sound, and Chaplin was next. Imagine the equivolent today — Denzel Washington, Julia Roberts and Will Smith are forced out of movies because a new technology has replaced real actors entirely with CGI. This was what Chaplin faced by the mid ’30s and what led to his decision to finally, after 22 years, retire the Tramp. Modern Times plays as both his Tramp swan song and his commentary on the end of an era, a way of life lost in what he believed to be a dangerous, new, mechanized world.

The film unfolds in a four-act structure. In the first, the Tramp is seen as a factory worker, struggling to keep up in the post-Henry Ford industrial age. Eventually he snaps, sabotages the factory and is sent off to a hospital to treat his nervous breakdown. At the start of Act Two, he is released to start anew but inadvertantly gets caught up in a strike and sent to jail as a communist leader. Once released, he runs into a homeless woman (Chaplin’s wife Paulette Goddard), who’s caught trying to steal a loaf of bread. Before long, she and the Tramp are sharing a ride in the same paddywagon, and they escape together. This launches Act Three, where the two fantasize about living in a suburban home and then find an old waterfront shack to live in. Eventually, the Tramp finds a job as a nightwatchman at a department store, allowing the two to stay there overnight. When caught, the Tramp finds another factory job, but promptly loses it. In the final act, the woman lands a job as a singing waitress and helps the Tramp get a job there, too. But after a hysterically successful performance, they learn the cops are hot on their trail, and once again go on the run. Just as all seems lost, the Tramp reminds his lover to “Never say die.”

Modern Times may be his most accessible, because, as Pauline Kael wrote, it is “one of the happiest and most light-hearted of the Chaplin pictures.” (H) There are parts that are just screamingly funny — Chaplin unable to stop his arms from moving even after he’s gone on break; a feeding machine shoving food down Chaplin’s throat and spinning out of control; Chaplin milking a cow out his kitchen door by gently tapping it on its back; or rollerskating blindfolded near the edge of a hole in the department store floor. Modern Times is one of those rare works that doubles as one of the director’s funniest films and one of his deepest satires, where the continued relevance of the film’s themes only strengthen its accessibility.

The themes are not hard to detect. The feeding machine is a scary vision of what could happen should bosses limit worker’s lunch breaks. And at one point, the Tramp is literally and figuratively eaten by a machine, resulting in a marvelous visual of Chaplin’s elongated body cranking through the gears of a machine. Such fears of modernity and mass production recall Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece Metropolis (1927), yet Chaplin hangs in there as best a comic filmmaker can. Right off the bat, note the powerful statement made in juxtaposing an image of a flock of sheep with a shot of workers shuffling into a factory. Note how different the two lead characters are from the rest in the film, as Chaplin said, “the only two live spirits in a world of automatons.” (F) Note how jail is presented as a fine alternative to living homeless on the streets. Try shaking those images of the Tramp approaching “CLOSED” signs on factory gates and fighting through crowds to find work. Most of all, note the appearance of a Big Brother figure a full 13 years before Orwell wrote 1984 (1969).

Such themes obviously reflect Chaplin’s politics and his fear of society’s dehumaniation through industry. But they also reflect his fears of his own industry, namely that of cinema becoming too consolidated and mass produced. There was, in the ’30s, an “assembly line” form of filmmaking taking hold, an industry full of specialists (editors, camermen, etc.) who were plugged into a filmmaking formula. Even directors were at the mercy of their studios, shooting scenes according to the master shot discipline and leaving little wiggle room for individual expression. Chaplin viewed this as the death of the individual artist, and in his mind, it went hand-in-hand with the sound era.

Still, he was himself tempted to make Modern Times a talkie. He considered dialogue, prepared a script, and even did some trial recordings, but in the end thought better of it, and went with only limited sound (F). Note that the few moments of talking come from non-human sources — a radio, a feeding machine — and when the factory boss speaks, we only see it through the filter of a television screen. Subconsciously, we associate this speech with the Big Brother takeover. Very clever. It’s very important that no human directly speak on screen until Chaplin, who promised audiences that this would be the first time to see the Tramp speak. They had heard him on the radio and seen him on newsreel, but they had never heard the Tramp speak. Watch how Chaplin so playfully teases audiences, holding out to the end of the movie before it happens, when the Tramp is tapped as a singing waiter. When the scene arrives, he draws it out even further, forgetting his lines during rehearsal, writing the words down on his cuff, losing his cuff as he prepares to sing, and finally making up his own lyrics of gibberish. At once, he has kept his promise of speaking, but robbed audiences of hearing the Tramp utter one word of English, or any other language for that matter. It’s brilliant.

With that gimmick so gracefully and intelligently handled, Chaplin was ready for his final curtian call. For it, he originally had the two lovers separate, the Tramp suffering a nervous breakdown and the girl becoming a nun. We’re all lucky he opted instead to leave the two together in an ending similar to that in his short The Tramp (1915). Here, Chaplin and Goddard walk arm-and-arm down a dirt road toward the horizon. They walk into an uncertain future, for sure, but they walk into it together. A poetic ending for the guy who rarely gets the girl.

After the Tramp

With the Tramp retired, Chaplin looked elsewhere for comic social satire, but he was under increasing fire by the political right who resented the deep liberal views expressed in Modern Times. Chaplin redeemed himself in their eyes by poking fun at Adolph Hitler in The Great Dictator (1940), where his toothbrush mustache made him the perfect parody. In 1942, he re-edited The Gold Rush with narration and music, and the film earned two Oscar nominations for sound and music.

In 1947, he paid Orson Welles for the right to make Monsier Verdoux, a film about economic depression driving a French man to murder wealthy widows, his justification being: “One murder makes a villain—millions a hero. Numbers sanctify.” (D) The return to deep liberal sentiments brought more heat from the House on Unamerican Activities Committee, which was now labeling him a Communist. So in 1952, he went into exile in Switzerland, and slowly regained respect in the U.S. over the next several decades. (A)

Legacy

Somewhere along the way, scholarly opinion shifted from Chaplin toward Keaton, possibly because his work seemed less egotistical. But such a shift did not diminish the importance of Chaplin, nor did it lessen the impact when Chaplin finally returned to Hollywood in 1972 to accept an Honorary Academy Award, stealing the entire Oscar ceremony in the process. After a five-minute standing ovation, Chaplin took the stage and comedy star Jack Lemmon handed him his signature hat and cane and said, “Words are so futile, so feeble” (A). This is the same Lemmon that choked up on the AFI’s 100 Films broadcast while describing the beauty of that last scene in City Lights.

For someone of my generation, I feel saddened to think that the only ones watching Chaplin these days are those in film school. No doubt it requires much more patience to sit through a silent film than the many comedies sitting in their Netflix queues. But I’m encouraged by the fact that a handful of Chaplin films remain in the IMDB Top 250, indicating that perhaps more of my mainstream contemporaries are watching Chaplin than I suspect. If not, they should be, because they’ve been watching him their whole lives. They just don’t know it.

What I mean is that directly, or indirectly, we’ve all witnessed countless references to Chaplin’s Tramp. He was imitated by Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950). Lucille Ball nailed Modern Times in her own hilarious  conveyer belt scene on I Love Lucy. Walt Disney used Chaplin as a blueprint for Mickey Mouse. (G) Legendary choreographer Michael Kidd (The Band Wagon, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) cites Chaplin as a major influence for his own development of pathos between performer and audience.

The City Lights gags of swallowing a whistle and swallowing soap were revived by Frosty the Snowman (1969) and The Little Rascals (1994), respectively. TV’s Muppet Babies (1984) regularly featured clips of Chaplin’s antics. His life was portrayed by Robert Downey Jr. in the 1992 biopic Chaplin. The Gold Rush gags of his foot-on-fire and an object jolting him around a dancefloor were recycled by Dumb and Dumber (1994) and Saving Silverman (2001), respectively. A young Chaplin was featured in the Jackie Chan-Owen Wilson comedy Shanghai Knights (2003). And my favorite, the Chaplin-as-chicken bit from The Gold Rush returned as Kramer-as-turkey in an episode of Seinfeld.

These contemporary comedians, hillarious in their own right, all owe a certain amount of debt to Chaplin. Thanks to their constant references and parodies, the Little Tramp has been a mainstay in pop culture lore and listology standards. It’s up to our generation to keep him there.

Citations: 

CITE A: Piazza and Kinn, The Academy Awards: The Complete Unofficial History
CITE B: William Everson, The Gold Rush laserdisc back cover
CITE C: Chaplin’s My Autobiography
CITE D: 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
CITE E: City Lights DVD introduction by David Robinson
CITE F: Modern Times DVD introduction by David Robinson
CITE G: Neal Gabler, biography Walt Disney, p. 153
CITE H: Modern Times DVD back cover

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