The Tramp (1915)

*. In 1915 Charlie Chaplin became “the most famous man in the world.” It was an achievement both rapid (just over a year earlier his name would have been unknown outside the music hall circuit) and well prepared for. The Tramp, for example, wasn’t his first appearance as a tramp character. He’d been in development for years. But this film is often said to be the first where the Little Tramp was fully formed, and as such it marked (in the words of Peter Ackroyd) “the apotheosis of Chaplin’s early style” and “a defining moment in his career.” He’d just signed on with Essanay Studios, with a deal whereby he would have creative control and his films would be released as an “Essanay-Chaplin Brand.”
*. That paradox of hard-won, overnight success is also reflective of how Chaplin’s early films were made. They were both improvised and driven by inspiration as well as the product of endless rehearsal. Ever a perfectionist, some of the gags in this film had to be repeated as many as forty or fifty times before Chaplin was satisfied. This was tightly controlled chaos.
*. I’ve said before that I’m not a real big fan of Chaplin, but in a work like The Tramp you can see what made him so successful. There’s pathos at the end, but not as overdone as his late, major works. Instead we get a basic set-up (the dude on the farm, unaware of how cows give milk) and a standard repertoire of gags: a funny walk, lots of pratfalls, the sort of broad physical humour that was made for silent film. This simple stuff still charms, where the more involved set pieces in later films leave me cold. David Thomson: “Their jokes [those in the early shorts] are corny and repetitive, but Chaplin’s attempt to charm the viewer is masterly.”
*. What also works, and what was a revelation for me seeing a nicely restored version of this film, is Chaplin’s face. I don’t think I’d ever seen it as clearly before in one of these early pictures, and seeing it really makes a difference. Without Chaplin’s play of expressions the Tramp would remain a sadistic imp (he’s even armed with a pitchfork this time out!). But there’s more going on than just that. He has the face of a man in pain, even when he’s the one dishing it out.
*. All of which is to say I’d rather watch this movie than Modern Times or The Great Dictator again any day. Work like this showed Chaplin at or approaching his best, while at the same time indicating his limits. Already he seems about to overplay his hand, particularly in his direct appeals to the camera. Maybe the Little Tramp is a figure I can only handle in small doses. He’s an iconic figure, but you can only take so much of an icon. There are times I think he might have played better as someone’s sidekick. It worked for Sancho Panza and Falstaff, after all. But Chaplin was always a — or the — star.

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