100 Years of ‘The Tramp’

2014 marks 100 years since the first appearance of one of cinema’s most iconic characters: Charlie Chaplin’s the Tramp (also known as Little Tramp) and retrospective screenings are taking place across the world all year. The comic creation was responsible for making Chaplin a global star and has been credited as sparking the widespread popularity of slapstick comedy that also gave us Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and others. If you want to take part in the global celebration of this star of silent cinema we have five feature films available on the BFFS Booking Scheme.

Chaplin moved from theatre into moving pictures at the end of 1913 and his first film appearance was in Making A Living in February 1914, a film Chaplin was said to have hated. But it was on his second short, Mabel’s Strange Predicament that Chaplin created his most famous character. After the studio head, Mack Sennett, decided that the scene they were filming needed more jokes he sent Chaplin off to find a funny costume. Chaplin decided upon one that was all contradictions: baggy trousers but a tight jacket, big shoes and tiny hat and topped it off with a little moustache that would make him look older but not hide his expressions. Chaplin wrote in his autobiography that though he had no idea what he was doing when he came up with the costume “the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the makeup 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 quickly became hugely popular after a string of short films and by the end of 1914 Chaplin was a big enough star that he was able to move to Essanay Pictures where he was allowed to exert much greater control over his films.  There he set about developing the Tramp into a more romantic and tragicomic character. His 1915 short, The Bank, was one of the earliest examples of a comedy film with a sad ending and was one of films that got Chaplin noticed by critics as well as the general public.

In the following years Chaplin sought to give himself more and more creative freedom and fought against studio contracts that, at the time, prioritized quantity over quality. In 1919 Chaplin co-founded United Artists – the first film studio run by creative artists; though he had to work out the rest of his contract with First National before he could make films with UA. For the next 16 years the Tramp would remain a key part of Chaplin’s success although his refusal to adapt the character to talkies meant that the Tramp last appeared in Modern Times in 1936.

The Tramp on the BFFS Booking Scheme

The Kid (1921)

It is widely believed that the death of Chaplin’s first-born son in 1919 inspired this film that saw the Tramp taking care of an orphaned boy. Chaplin mixed comedy and drama as well as elements from his own upbringing resulting in a deeply personal and touching film. An unwed woman reluctantly leaves her newborn child in the back of an expensive car because she feels she cannot care for him. However the car is stolen and the thieves leave the baby in the street where the Tramp finds him. Reluctantly he begins to care for the boy and as the film jumps forward five years we see that the child, named John, and the Tramp have formed a close-knit bond. The boy falls ill and when the Tramp takes him to a doctor the doctor learns that the Tramp is not the legitimate father and alerts the authorities.
The success of The Kid, even though it was as much drama as comedy, was seen as a turning point for the genre.
In the 70s Chaplin would return to the film, tightening up the edit and composing a soundtrack.

The Gold Rush (1925)

Chaplin declared at numerous times that this was the film for which he wanted to be remembered. Inspired by the gold rushes of the late 19th century the Tramp is an optimistic prospector searching for love and fortune. He finds himself stranded by bad weather in a remote shack with a fugitive, Larson, and Big Jim, an intimidating prospector who’s just found a lucrative gold deposit. As tensions rise between Jim and Larson the Tramp does his best to stay out of harm’s way until a shortage of food, which has already driven Chaplin to cook and eat his own shoe, forces the three to venture out into the blizzard. Described at the time as “the greatest and most elaborate comedy ever made” Gold Rush, like most of Chaplin’s films has stood the test of time and remains a remarkably funny film.

The Circus (1928)

After being pursued by the police who have mistaken him for a pickpocket the Tramp inadvertently runs into the middle of a circus performance where his attempts to elude the police make him the star of the show. The circus owner is eager to hire him but in try outs it transpires that he cannot be funny on purpose. Ever a shrewd businessmen he hires the Tramp as a cleaner instead and conspires to have him inadvertently fall into the circus during the show and cause havoc. The Tramp soon meets and falls in love with the circus owner’s daughter but discovers that she has fallen for Rex, the dashing new tightrope walker, and so the Tramp sets to work on besting him. Chaplin trumps his previous set pieces with an astonishing sequence in which he attempts to walk the tightrope while besieged by a troupe of escaped monkeys.

City Lights (1931)

Although by the 1930s films had wholeheartedly embraced sound Chaplin still wanted to make silent films and thanks to the independence he had achieved through United Artists Chaplin was able to do so. His only concession to sound was adding a soundtrack to the film, which he composed himself. In City Lights the Tramp meets a beautiful flower girl on the streets and while attempting to woo her she comes to believe he is a rich man. The Tramp manages to befriend a drunk millionaire who gives him enough money that he buys all the girl’s flowers and drives her home in a borrowed car. The girl is taken with the idea of a wealthy admirer who can solve her family’s problems so the Tramp visits the millionaire’s home to ask for help; but the sobered up man doesn’t remember him at all. When the mansion is robbed the butler is convinced it must have been the Tramp and soon he’s on the run from the police.

Modern Times (1936)

In the 1930’s Chaplin became increasingly politically engaged and set out to make a satirical film about the decline of the American labour force. Modern Times depicts the Tramp as a factory worker on an assembly line who has to continually work faster and faster to keep up with the pace of the machines. Eventually he cracks and runs riot managing to wreck most of the machinery. Over the next few months he and his sweetheart struggle to get by and the Tramp finds himself in and out of work, and in and out of jail though he always manages to escape.
Although The Tramp never spoke on film Chaplin does perform a song in Modern Times, albeit in gibberish after the Tramp loses the lyrics,  marking the only time the character’s voice is ever heard. After Modern Times Chaplin retired the Tramp as he moved into talkies as he feared that the character’s universal appeal would be diminished if his voice was ever heard. Modern Times is a fitting end to a great character in a film that also marked the end of the silent film era.

And if that’s not enough Chaplin for you we’ve also got The Great Dictator and Limelight available to book!

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