Comic Greats: The eternal tramp

What more fitting way to end randor guy’s series on the silent era comedians than with the greatest of them all, Charlie Chaplin

Updated - May 23, 2016 05:31 pm IST

Published - October 11, 2014 07:11 pm IST

Charlie Chaplin in City Lights

Charlie Chaplin in City Lights

Never in the history of cinema was so much laughter created by a single man. It was actor, comedian, filmmaker, music composer and more — Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977). This international icon of humour created and made his own the character of the ‘tramp’. Interestingly, it was by accident that the iconic character bestowed immortality on Chaplin. Here is the back story. Chaplin was doing a film for Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914), who largely left him to his own devices. Chaplin went into the costume and prop room and picked up whatever caught his fancy — loose pants, oversize shoes, a walking stick, a hat which had seen better days, and a moustache. He decided to develop a peculiar walk and it became his signature style till the end of his career. Interestingly, though he developed this costume for this film, it was released a few days after Kid Auto Races at Venice (short film) in which too he adopted the same costume. If you see the film today (shot without a script) you can see the race spectators bursting into laughter at the antics of the Kid (Chaplin) who tries endlessly to get into the shooting range of the camera and plays hell with the oncoming racing cars. The film was a raving hit, as was Mabel’s Strange Predicament . Thus was born the immortal tramp.

However, Chaplin’s first appearance on screen was in the film appropriately named Making a Living , where he plays a man struggling to make a living and becomes a newspaper reporter on false pretences. He is slickly dressed here; he had not yet invented the tramp costume.

Sir Charles Spencer ‘Charlie’ Chaplin was born in England in 1889. His childhood in London was filled with grinding poverty and hardship. His father had left home, and his mother struggled financially. Charlie was sent to a workhouse twice before he turned nine. When he was 14, his mother was sent to a mental asylum. Soon, Chaplin began performing, touring music halls and later working as a stage actor and comedian. At 19, he was signed by the prestigious Fred Karno Company, which took him to the U.S.

In 1919, Chaplin co-founded the distribution company United Artists with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith. A Hollywood executive wisecracked ‘I see the lunatics have taken over the asylum!’

This company gave Chaplin complete control over his films. His first full feature film was The Kid (1921), followed by A Woman of Paris (1923), The Gold Rush (1925), which has the immortal sequence where Chaplin cooks his shoes and laces because he has nothing else to eat, and The Circus (1928). When movies began to talk with The Jazz Singer in 1927, he did not bother to migrate and produced City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936) without dialogue. (The ‘eating machine’ scene is a classic spoof on mechanisation of the human being.) Chaplin became increasingly political and his next film, The Great Dictator (1940), was a stinging satire on Adolf Hitler.

Chaplin was the first film star to be featured on the cover of Time in July 1925, a signal honour indeed.

He was an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi though Gandhiji never saw his films. However, the 1940s were marked by controversy and Chaplin’s popularity declined rapidly. He was accused of Communist sympathies, while his involvement in a paternity suit and marriages to much younger women caused scandal. An FBI investigation was opened, and Chaplin was forced to leave the U.S. and settle in Switzerland. He abandoned the tramp in his later films, which include Monsieur Verdoux (1947), based on an idea given to him by Orson Welles about the sensational French Henri Landru Murder Case; Limelight (1952); A King in New York (1957); and A Countess from Hong Kong (1967) with Sophia Loren.

Chaplin wrote, directed, produced, edited, starred in, and composed the music for most of his films. He was a perfectionist, and his financial independence enabled him to spend years on the development and production of a movie. In one of his films, he shot a single shot over sixty times.

His films are characterised by slapstick combined with pathos, humour and humanity typified in the tramp’s struggles against adversity. Many have social and political themes as well as autobiographical elements. In 1972, as part of a renewed appreciation of his work, Chaplin received an Honorary Academy Award for “the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century”.

Chaplin was married four times, including to Hollywood star Paulette Goddard and Oona, daughter of famed American writer Eugene O’Neill, with whom he was happiest and had eight children.

Chaplin's health declined and he passed away on the morning of Christmas Day in 1977, after suffering a stroke in his sleep. The funeral was a small and private Anglican ceremony, as per his wishes, and he was interred in the Corsier-sur-Vevey cemetery in Switzerland.

On March 1, 1978, Chaplin's coffin was stolen from its grave by two unemployed immigrants from Bulgaria. The body was held for ransom in an attempt to extort money from Oona Chaplin. The two were caught and Chaplin's coffin found buried in a field in the nearby village of Noville. It was re-interred in the Corsier cemetery and protected by reinforced concrete.

About Chaplin, the famed French director René Clair wrote, “He was a monument of cinema, of all countries and all times... the most beautiful gift cinema made to us.” Hollywood star Bob Hope remarked, “We were lucky to have lived in his time.”

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