Charlie Chaplin- The Tramp That Became The King

Author: Dr. Mandar V. Bichu


You can still see him standing- in shops and drawing rooms, exuding his innocent charm as a figurine, as a portrait, as a wall-clock. That short, stubby moustache; that sheepish, timid grin; that silly, tight suit; those loose, baggy pants; that small Derby hat; those oversized, worn- out shoes and that crooked, threaded walking-stick. That’s Charlie Chaplin – the eternal Tramp!

Widely acclaimed as the greatest comedian on silver screen and perhaps the most recognizable face on earth, Charlie Chaplin remains a revered figure in world cinema. His lovable screen-persona and his cinematic art- most of it from the long- by gone silent era; have survived the test of time and have transcended the boundaries.

For me, even as a child watching his screen-antics, Charlie never seemed like a pure, funny guy. He always seemed much deeper. Only later as I delved more into his life and movies, I discovered why.

Humble Beginning:

Charles Spencer Chaplin aka Charlie Chaplin was born in London on April 16, 1889. It was 1894, when a five year old Charlie was brought hastily on the stage to perform in place of his mother- a stage artist, whose voice had broken down in the midst of a song. The boy regaled the audiences by singing popular songs and even peppered the performance by imitating his mother’s broken voice. That was Charlie’s first brush with showbiz.

Deserted by his alcoholic father- who also was a stage artist, Charlie was raised by his mother. Her frequent vocal break-downs soon curtailed her stage- career and from then on life was a hard grind. Abject poverty, hunger, dejection, derision – Charlie had to endure all that and more. Growing up in charity homes, orphanages and work-houses and watching his mother become a mental wreck, this little fellow absorbed a thing or two about the themes that would dominate his movie-making – love, pity, hope and humanity.  

Even while enduring these hardships, Charlie never lost his ultimate aim- becoming an actor. His wish came true when he got recruited as one of the performers in ‘Eight Lancashire Lads’ – a music hall act. He was then nine years old.

Coming to USA:

As an actor, Charlie became famous as Fred Karno’s star performer in ‘London Comedians’. He was twenty-one when Karno’s troupe embarked on US tour. Stan Laurel was Charlie’s understudy. Both these comedians were destined to find name and fame under the bright Hollywood sun.

In Hollywood, Charlie’s ascent was swift and dramatic. Recruited in 1913 by Mack Sennet’s Keystone studios at $ 150 a week, Charlie got to direct his own films, just five months into his job. In another three years time, he was hired by Mutual Film Corp. at $ 6,70,000 a year and was given independent studio to make his films. The very next year, he signed a million dollar contract with First National and set up his own studio. Two years later, in 1919, he formed an independent film banner-‘United Artists’ along with the then fellow superstars- Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W.Griffith.

In a career spanning more than four decades, Charlie acted in 86 films-many of them acclaimed as masterpieces and made an indelible impact on the history of cinema. He was a complete artist – a producer, director, actor, writer, composer, editor- all rolled into one. Not only was he admired by masses but even the great celebrities like Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi were among his fans. Never again the world would see such a genius.

The Tramp: His ultimate creation:

‘The Tramp’ – the poor, tragicomic loner, who survives falls and failures with a never-say-die spirit, was Charlie’s most enduring screen image and his ultimate artistic creation. This Tramp made its first appearance in Kid auto races in Venice (1914) but the emotional layers of that character evolved gradually.

In the last scene of The Tramp (1915), that characterization comes through in totality. There’s Charlie – heart-broken, leaving the girl whom he had valiantly rescued, only to be sidelined by her for a rich and handsome suitor. The camera captures him from the back-side. Charlie is walking dejectedly, his walk is slow, his shoulders hunched. Suddenly he straightens up and resumes his gay, jaunty waddling walk- he has brushed off his disappointment to get on with the life! In that short scene, Charlie says so much without uttering a single sentence- forget that, he does that without even showing his facial expressions!

This exceptional ability to convey the innermost emotions through an outwardly simplistic medium of slapstick pantomime was Charlie’s real genius. That gave him an unbelievable power to reach and touch audiences, who never even had to know his language. That’s why he never really made films for pure humor. His humor was always laced with pathos. His were serious films meant to be taken seriously but he just used humor to lighten up the seriousness of issues. Shoulder Arms (1918) – his humorous take on First World War is perfect example. Through a daydream of a lowly corporal, Charlie subtly shows the horrid conditions of army bunkers, the dehumanization of killing process and the impossibility of ending that deadly war.

Baring his soul:

His own tragic childhood experiences had just served to sharpen up his social awareness and unlike most film-makers, he boldly used his medium to voice his opinions against social ills. It was neither done in a cold, preachy manner, nor in a sleazy commercial style. Through enjoyable, entertaining stories, he almost bared his own sensitive, creative soul to the audiences, making them react to issues bothering him.

Thus The Kid (1921) became a lament for his own lost, orphaned childhood; The Gold Rush (1925) depicted enduring human spirit in extreme hunger and cold; The Circus (1928) showed dilemma of a funny guy who couldn’t be funny at the whim of others; City Lights (1931) portrayed fickleness of love and friendship; Modern Times (1936) brought forth horrors of industrialization; The Great Dictator (1940) championed peace and showed the futility of war and Limelight (1952) pictured the turmoil of a great artist gone into oblivion. No other film-maker ever painted such fascinating portraits- of his own life and of the swiftly changing social scenarios, with such clarity and creativity.

Against War:

War was one thing he detested and throughout his career, he took every opportunity to speak against war-mongers. Even as a mass-murderer in Monsieur Verdoux, Charlie defiantly asks in the court, “Is it (the world) not building weapons of destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing?” and further goes on to say, “As a mass killer, I am an amateur by comparison!”

These anti-war views made him a thorn in the sides of American right-wingers, who practically hounded him out of US in early fifties. Then Charlie settled in Switzerland, where he breathed his last on 25th December 1977. But thankfully, before that he was awarded the Honorary Oscar (1972) by American Motion Picture Academy and also received Knighthood (1975) from the Queen of Britain. It was as if all the honors denied to him early in his life were finally coming to him. That’s why he had said in Limelight, “I am an old weed, the more I am cut down, the more I spring up again!”

A survey conducted by leading film-critics in 1995, voted Charlie Chaplin as the greatest actor in history of cinema. The tramp was voted the king- finally earning his rightful place! 

Charlie Chaplin:  Top 5 Short Films

  1. The tramp (1915)
  2. One a.m. (1916)
  3. The fireman (1916)
  4. The immigrant (1917)
  5. Shoulder arms (1918)

Charlie Chaplin:   Top 5 Feature Films

  1. The Kid (1921)
  2. City Lights (1925)
  3. Modern Times (1936)
  4. The Great Dictator (1940)
  5. Limelight (1952)

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