The Method Gears



Chaplin comic
"Funny Wonder" cartoon


Setting the Pace : The Early Films

In the films of the teens, Charles Chaplin established a persona with immediate and lasting appeal. The Little Tramp, "Charlie," struck such a chord with audiences the world over that by 1915, one year after the character first appeared, there were Charlie cartoons and poems in newspapers, animated shorts based on the character, dolls, toys, songs and dances created around the distinctive physical mannerisms of the Little Tramp.

Walter Benjamin wrote that

On his endless walks through the streets of London with their black and red houses, Chaplin learned to observe. He has himself told how the idea of bringing this character with the jerky gait, the small cropped moustache and the bamboo cane into the world first came to him when he saw office workers coming from the Strand. To him, this specific demeanor and this clothing expressed the ethos of a man lingering over something (311).
In Chaplin's incarnation, the working man had fallen on hard times. Americans may not have been familiar with the Strand, but they could easily, in the aftermath of the First World War, have identified with the "ethos... of lingering," with the vestiges of a former life clinging to a degraded form and been drawn to the sense that the Little Tramp conveyed of perseverence in spite of it all.

Chaplin first appeared as the Little Tramp in the Keystone short Kid Auto Races at Venice. The setting is a children's soapbox car race taking place on the boardwalk at Venice Beach. Charlie arrives dressed in a derby hat and a suit half too small and half too large. His shoes are on the wrong feet. His clothes are patched, shabby and obviously wrong for the occasion. He is immediately in the way. The Tramp does not belong in this sunny scene, among this crowd of parents and children, but he cannot be chased away. Every attempt to remove him from the causeway merely prompts his reappearance there.

The Little Tramp's outstanding trait was his physicality: his distinctive appearence and the fluidity with which he navigated through a world in which he did not belong. He was a physical rather than a psychological character; his ideas, motives and dreams were always expressed through his body. He was always in motion. That Charlie was at odds with society was clear from his first appearance on a scene. This knowledge was transmitted to the audience through appearance: Charlie never looked like anyone else on the set.

The physicality of the Little Tramp, which required of his audience no special knowledge, coupled with the automatic recognizability of a character whose appearance did not alter no matter his surroundings, effected the ease with which the promulgation of the Little Tramp occurred. But there was more to the Little Tramp than a waddle and a top hat. Chaplin's public appearances as Charlie inspired mass frenzy--police used tear gas against the crowds at the 1931 premiere of City Lights (Robinson 414). He was detested by the Third Reich and his films were banned in Germany. In order to have inspired such a maniacal response, Chaplin must have triggered something more than simply an appreciation for, or dislike of, zany antics.

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