The Tramp

Modern Times

The Tramp (also known as ‘Charlot’ in several languages) was British actor Charlie Chaplin’s most memorable on-screen character and an icon in world cinema during the era of silent film. ‘The Tramp’ is also the title of a silent film starring Chaplin, which he wrote and directed in 1915.

The Tramp, as portrayed by Chaplin, is a childlike, bumbling but generally good-hearted character who is most famously portrayed as a vagrant who endeavors to behave with the manners and dignity of a gentleman despite his actual social status. However, while he is ready to take what paying work is available, he also uses his cunning to get what he needs to survive and escape the authority figures who will not tolerate his antics.

Chaplin’s films did not always portray the Tramp as a vagrant. The character (‘the little fellow,’ as Chaplin called him) was rarely referred to by any names on-screen, although he was sometimes identified as ‘Charlie’ and rarely, as in the original silent version of ‘The Gold Rush,’ ‘The little funny tramp.’

The character of the Tramp was originally created by accident while Chaplin was working at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios, when dressing up for the short film ‘Mabel’s Strange Predicament’ starring Mabel Normand and Chaplin. That was actually the first film featuring the Tramp but a different film, shot later but with the same character, happened to be released two days earlier. The Tramp debuted to the public in the Keystone comedy ‘Kid Auto Races at Venice’ in 1914. Chaplin, with his Little Tramp character, quickly became the most popular star in Keystone director Mack Sennett’s company of players. Chaplin continued to play the Tramp through dozens of short films and, later, feature-length productions. (In only a handful of other productions did he play characters other than the Tramp).

The Tramp was closely identified with the silent era, and was considered an international character. When the sound era began in the late 1920s, Chaplin refused to make a talkie featuring the character, partly due to how the character was supposed to be American, and Chaplin himself had a strong and obvious British accent. The 1931 production ‘City Lights’ featured no dialogue. Chaplin officially retired the character in the film ‘Modern Times’ in 1936), which appropriately ended with the Tramp walking down an endless highway toward the horizon. The film was only a partial talkie and is often called the last silent film. The Tramp remains silent until near the end of the film when, for the first time, his voice is finally heard, albeit only as part of a French/Italian-derived gibberish song. This allowed the Tramp to finally be given a voice but not tarnish his association with the silent era.

In ‘The Great Dictator,’ Chaplin’s first film after ‘Modern Times,’ Chaplin plays the dual role of a Hitler-esque dictator, and a Jewish barber. Although Chaplin emphatically stated that the barber was not the Tramp, he retains the Tramp’s moustache, hat, and general appearance. Despite a few silent scenes, including one where the barber is wearing the Tramp’s coat and bowler hat and carrying his cane, the barber speaks throughout the film (using Chaplin’s own British accent), including the passionate plea for peace that has been widely interpreted as Chaplin speaking as himself.

Two films Chaplin made in 1915, ‘The Tramp’ and ‘The Bank,’ created the characteristics of his screen persona. While in the end the Tramp manages to shake off his disappointment and resume his carefree ways, the pathos lies in the Tramp’s having a hope for a more permanent transformation through love, and his failure to achieve this. A vaudeville performer named Lew Bloom created a similar tramp character which inspired Chaplin. According to Bloom, he was ‘the first stage tramp in the business.’

The physical attributes of the Tramp include a pair of baggy pants, a tight coat, a small bowler hat, a large pair of shoes, a springy and flexible cane and the famous small mustache. The Tramp walks strangely and uncomfortably because of the ill-fitting clothing; either he is wearing secondhand clothes, or they are originally his but he cannot afford new ones. The character may have seen better days, but he maintains the attitude and demeanor of a high-class individual; as long as he acts like one he can believe that he is one, and is able to keep his hope that some day he actually will be again.

The Tramp was usually the victim of circumstance and coincidence, but sometimes the results worked in his favor. In ‘Modern Times,’ he picks up a red flag that falls off a truck and starts to wave it at the truck in an attempt to return it, and by doing so, unknowingly and inadvertently becomes the leader of a group of protesting workers and ends up in jail. While in jail he accidentally eats ‘nose powder’ (i.e., cocaine) and fights off some jailbreakers attempting to escape, thus saving the life of the warden who offers to let him go. But the Tramp chooses to stay in jail because it is better than the outside world.

Chaplin’s social commentary, while critical of the faults and excesses created by industrialization, also shows support and belief in the ‘American Dream.’ In Modern Times, Chaplin creates a ‘portrayal consistent with popular leftist stereotypes of wealthy union leaders and oppressed workers in the 1930s.’ While the Tramp and his fellow workers sweat on the assembly line, the president of the Electro Steel Company works on a puzzle and reads the funnies in the newspaper. The company’s obsession with work efficiency and assembly-line productivity ultimately drives the Tramp mad. This could be seen as ‘an attack on the capitalist rationalization of production.’ However, ‘the film also guardedly affirms American middle-class, particularly its optimism.’ For example, one sequence depicts the Tramp’s dream in which he and the gamine (an orphaned girl he partners with) live a traditional middle-class lifestyle.

The Tramp and the gamine find a rundown shack to live in. The gamine cooks a cheap breakfast, and then the Tramp is off to work, while the gamine stays to maintain the home—an allusion to a middle-class setting. By the ending of ‘Modern Times,’ ‘the film seems tailored to please the middle-class optimist.’ Due to all of their failings the final scene had the gamine stating, ‘What’s the use of trying?,’ and the Tramp replying ‘Buck up—never say die.’ In his silent films, Chaplin uniquely deployed critical social commentary. ‘What makes ‘Modern Times’ decidedly different from Chaplin’s previous three films are the political references and social realism that keep intruding into Charlie’s world.’ Commentators have said that he devoted his career to portraying immigrants and urban workers and depicted their lives lovingly and with great humanity. Numerous works cite the Tramp as an icon of the Great Depression, of Charlie Chaplin himself, and of the downtrodden hero, from Chaplin’s own movies with similar characters (such as The Great Dictator), to the dapper, silent penguin rescued by Bugs Bunny.

In 1940, Chaplin used not one but two similar-looking characters to the Tramp in ‘The Great Dictator.’ The film was inspired by the noted similarity between Chaplin’s Tramp (most notably his small mustache) and that of German dictator Adolf Hitler. Chaplin used this similarity to create a dark version of the Tramp character in parody of the dictator. (In his book ‘My Autobiography,’ Chaplin stated that he was unaware of the Holocaust when he made the film; if he had been, he writes, he wouldn’t have been able to make a comedy satirizing Hitler). The ‘barber,’ while having many similarities to the Tramp, is not considered a version of that character, although he does engage in several Tramp-like comedy sequences. A noticeable difference is that the barber has a streak of grey in his hair, whereas the Tramp had always been depicted as having dark hair. Also, the barber lacks the ill-fitting clothes of the Tramp, and is clearly portrayed as having a profession. His character does share much of The Tramp’s character, notably his idealism and anger on seeing unfairness.

Chaplin explained how he came up with the look of the Tramp in a 1933 interview: ‘A hotel set was built for (fellow Keystone comic) Mabel Normand’s picture ‘Mabel’s Strange Predicament’ and I was hurriedly told to put on a funny make-up. This time I went to the wardrobe and got a pair of baggy pants, a tight coat, a small derby hat and a large pair of shoes. I wanted the clothes to be a mass of contradictions, knowing pictorially the figure would be vividly outlined on the screen. To add a comic touch, I wore a small mustache which would not hide my expression. My appearance got an enthusiastic response from everyone, including Mr. Sennett. The clothes seemed to imbue me with the spirit of the character. He actually became a man with a soul—a point of view. I defined to Mr. Sennett the type of person he was. He wears an air of romantic hunger, forever seeking romance, but his feet won’t let him.’ In 1959, having been editing ‘The Chaplin Revue,’ Chaplin commented to a reporter (regarding the character): ‘I was wrong to kill him. There was room for the Little Man in the atomic age.’

The Tramp is also a short film starring Chaplin as the titular main character. In the film, a hobo exchanges the Tramp’s sandwich for a brick, so the Tramp must eat grass. The same hobo later bothers a farmer’s daughter, and the Tramp comes to her aid with the help of the brick. When two more hobos show up, the Tramp throws all three into a lake. The grateful girl takes the Tramp home, where he fails as a farmhand. He again helps drive off the hobos (who are now trying to break into the house). The girl’s fiancé arrives. Though a hero, Charlie—knowing he must go—writes a farewell note and leaves again for the open road.


One Comment to “The Tramp”

  1. Like him, or not, he was a genius. His autobiograpy, I couldn’t put it down.

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