Loretta Barnard details the life and times of the incomparable Charlie Chaplin and how he couldn’t be further away from his famous “Tramp” character.
The Tramp – one of the most recognisable of all cinematic figures – first appeared on the big screen in way back in 1914.
The lovable klutz wears a tight jacket, ill-fitting trousers, the wrong size shoes, a bowler hat and that famous little moustache. He carries a cane and has an awkward gait. He’s down on his luck and a dreamer; in the words of his creator, he’s a gentleman who is not above “robbing a baby of its candy.”
The Tramp is Everyman, dealing with life’s ups and downs, always maintaining his equilibrium in spite of what’s thrown his way. He was hugely popular with audiences.
His creator, London-born actor and vaudevillian Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977) moved to the US in 1910, and quickly found work with Mack Sennett’s Keystone Films. The time was ripe for him.
The early American motion picture comedies relied on slapstick: pies in faces, general ineptitude and crazy chases. Think of the bumbling goings-on of the Keystone Cops. This was right up Charlie Chaplin’s alley and his comic genius was soon in high demand among Hollywood studios.
His Tramp was a masterstroke of creativity and, by 1918, Chaplin was famous the world over.
The Kid (1921), Chaplin’s first full-length film and a movie masterpiece, was a massive hit. The Tramp takes in an abandoned baby; when he is old enough they perpetrate a scam – the Kid breaks windows and the Tramp fortuitously arrives in time to repair them. The easy rapport between the Tramp and the Kid (played superbly by Jackie Coogan, later known for playing Uncle Fester in The Addams Family television show) made it a winner. At its heart, the film explores poverty, parenthood and the role of social services.
For all its drama and pathos, it’s a first-rate comedy:
Other great films from the 1920s and 1930s include A Woman of Paris (1923), The Gold Rush (1925), The Circus (1928), City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936). Modern Times marked the last appearance of the Tramp.
Look out for the “nose powder” scene:
The Great Dictator (1940) was a spoof on Hitler, although it also contains a wonderful humanitarian speech. Chaplin plays two roles – the titular dictator and the main character, the Jewish barber. (Editor’s note: After learning that Hitler watched it twice, Chaplin stated “I’d give anything to know what he thought of it.”)
Of all his films, Chaplin considered Monsieur Verdoux (1947) his most brilliant. His character acquires rich wives, then murders them for their money. Set in the Depression, it’s a black comedy with plenty of social commentary.
Yet by the 1940s, Chaplin’s popularity was waning. He’d been involved in paternity suits and was widely condemned for marrying much younger women. His first three marriages were short and anything but sweet.
He finally found happiness with Oona O’Neill, daughter of renowned playwright Eugene O’Neill. Oona was 18 and he was 54 when they married in 1943. They had eight children and stayed together until Chaplin’s death in 1977.
Chaplin made almost 90 films. He was a writer, actor, director, editor, producer and even a composer. A man of immense talent and appeal, he was awarded two honorary Oscars, and shared the Best Music Oscar for Limelight in 1973, twenty years after the film was made. Why the wait?
Limelight was boycotted in the US because Chaplin was accused of being a communist sympathiser. He took the film to London for its première, and in a very shabby move, the US refused him re-entry. He lived in Europe for the next two decades.
It wasn’t until he was offered an honorary Oscar for “the incalculable effect” he’d on the motion picture industry that he returned to the US, his adopted home.
You know the song Smile? First heard in Modern Times, it was later recorded by both Nat King Cole and Michael Jackson. Well, Charlie Chaplin wrote the music. Who knew?
Cinematic legend, gifted storyteller, filmmaker, composer, all-round fascinating man.
Well worth Googling.