Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Tramp turns 100

On February 7, 1914, along with an educational short called Olives and their Oil, a six-minute comedy called Kid Auto Races at Venice played for the first time in theatres. The film bore the imprint of Keystone Studios, known for its manic comic shorts. It featured a strangely attired man interrupting the filming of a motor race by repeatedly walking in front of the camera. In those days, Keystone films had no credits, which meant there was no way of knowing the lead actor’s name. Still, after a few weeks, the studio started getting letters asking for more of that tramp fellow. Years later, some enterprising soul added this legend to a bootleg print of Kid Auto Races: “The first film in which Chaplin appeared in his world-famous costume”.

Kid Auto Races wasn’t the first Chaplin film to play in theatres – Making a Living released on February 2. Nor was it the moment when the Tramp was born. That happy accident happened during the shooting of Mabel’s Strange Predicament, which opened two days after Kid Auto Races. Asked by Keystone head Mack Sennett to put on any costume he could find, Chaplin opted for a shabby-looking coat, loose-fitting trousers, a bowler hat and a cane. “I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large,” he later wrote. Unsure what age he was supposed to be playing, he added a small moustache. The affinity he felt for the character was immediate. As Chaplin recalled, “By the time I walked onto stage, he was fully born.”

Mabel's Strange Predicament
‘Fully born’ may be overstating the case, but it’s worth noting how much of the familiar Tramp persona is visible in those two early films. The shuffling walk, the twirling of the cane, the habit of looking dead into the camera, as if willing the audience to read his thoughts – these habits would stay with Chaplin till the end. It’s also fascinating to note the little tics he ironed out. In his early appearances, the Tramp is somewhat aggressive and louche. Chaplin would replace this belligerence with body language more suited to his five-foot-four frame. The broad grin would make way for a tight-lipped smile. The moustache grew thinner, the movements more frantic. Tiny adjustments – shrugs and simpers, little bits with the hat and shoulders and eyebrows – were made from film to film. The Tramp was being assembled.

Very soon, the parts were in place. The rest is history. The Tramp conquered Hollywood, first in sublime shorts like Dough and Dynamite, The Floorwalker, One A.M and The Immigrant, and later in the classic series of features that began with The Kid and ended with The Great Dictator. Chaplin, who began directing his own films in 1914, realised that comedy might be made more compelling if it were layered with emotions like grief, loss and love. Like Alfred Hitchcock, that other great British import to Hollywood, Chaplin began working his childhood traumas into his films: Easy Street was informed by the tough London neighbourhood he’d grown up in, while the memory of being sent to a workhouse after his mother’s nervous breakdown was referenced in both The Kid and Modern Times. The Russian director Sergei Eisenstein once wrote that Chaplin was able to “see things most terrible, most pitiful, most tragic through the eyes of a laughing child”. While Hitchcock seemed determined to scare the world as he’d once been scared, Chaplin Charlie turned the cinema into a child’s search for reason and beauty. The result was near-universal acclaim. He was loved by the man on the street, by his Hollywood contemporaries, by Nureyev, Picasso, Churchill and Einstein.

Seen simply as an actor’s creation, the Tramp is without parallel. His personality is as rooted in movement as it is in appearance. If someone skidding around a corner or making a hat jump reminds you of the Tramp, it’s because Chaplin reinforced these movements film after film until they became unique to him. In a 1949 article called “Comedy’s Greatest Era”, film critic James Agee stated that the finest silent comedians “combined several of the more difficult accomplishments of the acrobat, the dancer, the clown and the mime”. Chaplin’s greatness lay in his ability to bring all these elements into play almost at once. Look at the scene in Modern Times where he’s a waiter trying to get an order to a customer. Every time he gets near, he’s swept away by a crowd of dancers, yet he still manages to keep the tray aloft. It’s as perfect a display of timing, grace, athleticism and comic clarity as you’ll ever see.

The Gold Rush
Agee wasn’t alone in feeling that no dancer or actor ever bettered Chaplin for “eloquence, variety and poignancy of motion”. In The Gold Rush, Chaplin plays a scene in a giant chicken costume. No Method actor could have conveyed as accurately – or hilariously – the panicked thoughts of a flightless bird facing a loaded gun. Chaplin could also be a startling dramatic actor when the situation demanded. One sees this side of him in the scene where Jackie Coogan is being hauled away by the state in The Kid, and at the end of City Lights, when his face registers the dawning and fading of hope with heartbreaking subtlety. Few actors have been as imitated: aspects of Chaplin’s style can be seen in performers as diverse as Jacques Tati, Jackie Chan, Marcel Marceau and Johnny Depp.

As Chaplin’s art progressed, the Tramp came to represent an evolving set of values. Some things remained constant: he was always enterprising, industrious, inventive; occasionally mischievous, but never malicious. From the beginning, he was a stand-in for the little guy; that’s why he’s forever kicking policemen and challenging bullies. The 1915 short The Tramp suggested for the first time that he might be an unlucky romantic. In Easy Street and The Immigrant, he identified more strongly with the downtrodden. He was assumed to represent communism in Modern Times, pacifism in The Great Director. Perhaps it was this constantly increasing metaphorical weight and its attendant difficulties, rather than the advent of talkies, which finally moved Chaplin to retire his alter ego. Yet, the Tramp lived on, past the intrusions of sound and colour, the fading away of other silent cinema icons and his creator’s death in 1977.

City Lights
Repertories across the world are planning screenings of Kid Auto Races on February 7. If the idea of celebrating the centenary of a short, mildly funny film seems excessive, I’d urge you to try and picture a Tramp-less world. For starters, it would be missing three or four of the greatest movies and a dozen or so of the most sublime shorts ever made. Slapstick and drama would still be kept apart. Walt Disney might never have found the inspiration for Mickey Mouse. Raj Kapoor would have had to come up with some other visual shorthand for enterprising playfulness in Shree 420. Buster Keaton would have been lonely at the top. For these and a hundred other reasons, allow Chaplinites their moment of sentiment. If the spirit moves you, you might even take out six minutes, go online and watch the film yourself.

Wrote this for The Sunday Guardian. You can see their very fetching layout here.

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