Sir Charles Chaplin was born on this date in 1889. The world of his parents was one of desperate poverty—his father was an alcoholic music hall singer and his mother had been an unsuccessful stage performer, and neither seemed inclined to be parents—and by age seven the boy was living in workhouses, paupers’ schools, and, finally on the streets.
By age 26, he was the most famous movie star—really, the most famous human, on the planet.
In 1914, 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, of that year, 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 six-minute-long 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.)
Here is all six minutes and nine seconds of “Kid Auto Races at Venice” (below the fold):
But the Tramp of these early 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.
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.)
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On this date in 1945, the Soviet Union’s Red Army took the Battle of Berlin to the gates of that city. Almost one million Soviet soldiers faced off against at least 100,000 German soldiers in the final offensive in World War II’s European theater. By the end of it all, Adolf Hitler was dead and Nazi Germany defeated.
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Sir David Lean died 25 years ago today.
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Spike Milligan was born on this date in 1918. Merce Cunningham was born in 1919 on this date. Sir Peter Ustinov was born in 1921 on this date. Sir Kingsley Amis was born on this date in 1922. Henry Mancini was born in 1924 on this date. Edie Adams was born on this date in 1927. Dusty Springfield would be 77.
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Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is 89 today. Bobby Vinton is 81. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is 69 today. Billy West (the voice of Stimpy, and of Fry and others on “Futurama”) is 64. Bill Belichick is 64. Ellen Barkin is 62 today. Both Martin Lawrence and Jon Cryer are 51 today.
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