Charlie Chaplin: The Life and Times of a Tramp

Everyone knows the image. Derby, toothbrush mustache, bamboo cane, tattered tramp clothes, the penguin-like waddle. He was the world’s first “movie star” and the first actor to ever be paid a million dollars. His life was an uneven one, to say the least. The American public fell in love with him in the 1910s, only to blacklist him forty years later. He is arguably the great comic actor of all-time, and he has influence comedy on film ever since.

Charlie Chaplin was born in 1889 in London to a couple of music hall entertainers. Both Charlie, Sr. and Hannah Chaplin were singers and actors and influenced Charlie, Jr.’s decision to join the profession. By the age of three though, Charlie Sr. had bolted and Junior had little contact with him after that. Hannah Chaplin was the great tragic figure of the family, having a nervous breakdown in 1895. She, Charlie, and his younger brother, Sydney ended up in Lambeth Workhouse. The boys were moved to a home for orphans and destitute children weeks later. Hannah suffered a second and final complete mental breakdown in 1898 and Cane Hill Lunatic Asylum in Surrey, where Charlie and Sydney paid out 30 shillings a week for her care there. Once established in Hollywood years later, the brothers had Hannah brought to live with them where she spent the remainder of her life.
Charlie’s debut came when, during a rowdy show, Hannah was booed off stage and hit with a thrown bottle. As she sat backstage crying, five year old Charlie came on stage singing the popular song “Jack Jones” and managed to entertain and win over the crowd. In the early 1910s, Charlie toured with the Karno Theater, and worked alongside Arthur Jefferson aka Stan Laurel. Charlie was discovered by film producer/director Mack Sennett whose Keystone Film Company made comedic shorts. In 1914, the Little Tramp character debuted in a short titled Kid Auto Races at Venice. Something about this very simple clown-like character clicked with the viewing public and Chaplin’s popularity rose, causing the shorts to shift their focus from the Keystone Kops to the Little Tramp.
Chaplin’s creation of this character reveals the complex thought process behind his comedy. He wanted the character to contain as many contradictions as possible and wanted to make him appear somewhat ageless in appearance. He wanted the hat to be to small to fit on his head, but the pants and shoes to be comically over-sized. The mustache was an after thought. While the Sennett comedies traditionally focused on broad, exaggerated gestures, Chaplin’s style of pantomime was much more subtle in its humor. Chaplin would improvise little flourish that served to underscore the sweetness of the Tramp in one moment, then suddenly toss a brick at a rival’s head to completely mess with our perceptions of the character.
In 1917, Chaplin left Keystone and signed with Mutual, where he would have tighter creative control of his projects. It was at mutual where he began to expand his films until releasing his first feature, The Kid. In 1919, he co-founded United Artists with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and DW Griffith. Here he directed his first drama, A Woman in Paris and subsequent comedies (The Gold Rush, The Circus). Despite the arrival of sound to cinema, Chaplin continued his silent pictures with City Lights and Modern Times, before finally giving in and making The Great Dictator. Chaplin’s film output would lessen and lessen.
In the upcoming month, I plan on watching the Chaplin films I haven’t seen and reviewing them, as well as brief reviews of ones that I have and doing small articles on various aspects of Chaplin’s life (the women he was involved with, his political beliefs, his life after film). Below is a tentative schedule of when I will be posting reviews his films not seen by myself as of yet:
April 1st – The Kid
April 8th – A Woman in Paris
April 15th – The Circus
April 22nd – The Great Dictator
April 29th – Limelight
His films that I have seen and will be covered in more capsule reviews are: The Gold Rush, City Lights, and Modern Times.
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