100 Years with The Tramp

One hundred years ago this month, Charlie Chaplin developed his most important creation, the Tramp. He started with the costume, and with it came the character, or the beginnings of one. On January 10, 1914, the Tramp, wearing what soon would be his globally recognized outfit of baggy pants, too-small derby hat, bendy cane, and little mustache, made his public debut in front of a crowd at a youth car derby in Venice, California. A film of his antics, “Kid Auto Races in Venice” was released a couple weeks later, in February.

The Tramp came to Chaplin fully formed, it appears. Not only is the costume complete in the movie but his full array of gestures—the twirl of the cane, the dismissive tip of the hat, the flat-footed walk, a kick of the leg to turn his body entirely around—is seen. (There is one prop and one gesture that are unfamiliar to viewers of today, though, and they did not stay with the character: he is seen smoking cigarettes throughout the short.)

“Kid Auto Races in Venice” is merely a series of unrelated scenes of the Tramp interfering with a film “crew” recording the day’s “Junior Vanderbilt Cup” races, an actual event taking place that day; in reality, the crew were actors and the real crew was unseen, giving us a very early example of a film within a film, a fictional documentation of a real event. The Tramp keeps sneaking into the camera frame, as if he wants to be in the movie, any movie, but before he can do more than mouth a “Hi” into the lens or primp himself up, he is pushed to the ground, pulled away, chased off.

(Here is all six minutes and nine seconds of “Kid Auto Races at Venice”):

In one five-second long sequence, he pushes a child out of the way so he can be seen alone on camera, flashes a quick “It’s okay” palm at the off-screen urchin, primps for the lens, and then reacts to a wad of paper thrown at his head by the child by wielding his cane like a spear. The child is spared by two film crew thugs who shove Charlie out of frame. Five seconds. It is sloppy–the child is off camera, after all, and the gestures are wild–but it is slick. A lot happens quickly. The moment is also a little mean, and that can be a surprise for someone whose main association with the Tramp is him holding the Kid in “The Kid,” made in 1921.


Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in “The Kid”

Some of the crowd, there to watch the races on the streets of Venice, California, were confronted by the sight of this one oddly dressed little man and what appeared to be two film crews photographing him (the real one and the “real” one). Onscreen, the spectators frequently ignore the cars zooming by to look at both foreign objects, the actor and those cameras and it often looks like the cameras were winning the attention of the crowd over both the cars and Chaplin.

He and the Mack Sennett crew were filming “Mabel’s Strange Predicament” when the studio decided to send the Tramp out into the world and visit the Venice races, and today, January 10, is the 100th anniversary of that debut. In February 1914, “Kid Auto Races” was released, followed two days later by “Mabel’s Strange Predicament.”

By the end of 1914, Chaplin would make another 33 films and become a national star; by the end of 1915, there were 13 more and his character was an international icon. In all, the Tramp appeared in 65 Chaplin shorts or features, ending with 1936’s “Modern Times.” (In “The Great Dictator,” from 1940, both his Jewish barber and the dictator Adenoid Hynkel certainly bear more than a passing resemblance to the Tramp.)

Chaplin was hired by Sennett at the end of 1913 and only instructed to be funny and look older. (He was 24.) He already had made one film for Sennett, “Making a Living,” in which he wore a walrus mustache and top hat (and complained that his best takes were cut out of the finished movie, forecasting future conflicts), and was making his second, “Mabel’s Strange Predicament,” when he was called to the set. In the rather cinematic version of the story he wrote in his “Autobiography,” published in 1964, Chaplin describes the moment:

I had no idea what makeup to put on. I did not like my get-up as the press reporter [in Making a Living]. However on the way to the wardrobe I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large. I was undecided whether to look old or young, but remembering Sennett had expected me to be a much older man, I added a small mustache, which I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression.I had no idea of the character. But 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.

Chaplin tended to romanticize his life story and he certainly had every right to, fifty years after the moment of his greatest creation. But the Tramp of these first Sennett one-reelers is not yet the plucky Everyman, he is by turns mean and put upon, apoplectic and self-centered. The one element already in place that would remain till the end of his career is the Tramp’s anti-authoritarianism: whoever is in charge–a film crew or the police, most especially the police–is there to be laughed at, evaded, escaped from, ignored, or swung at. Sometimes in a single gesture.

Film lovers would not be laughing at and studying Chaplin’s films one hundred years on if the Tramp had remained the pointlessly vain and strangely gymnastic dolt seen in “Kid Auto Races,” but this short movie shows more than a glimpse of what was to follow, for Chaplin and film. And it was made one hundred years ago today.

Please comment here. Thank you, Mark.

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