“Of all comedians he worked most deeply and most shrewdly within a realization of what a human being is, and is up against. The Tramp is as centrally representative of humanity, as many-sided and as mysterious, as Hamlet, and it seems unlikely that any dancer or actor can ever have excelled him in eloquence, variety or poignancy of motion.”— James Agee, “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” Life Magazine, September 3, 1949, from Film: An Anthology, edited by Daniel Talbot (1966)
His first appearance onscreen, as a swindler, was all wrong and audiences stayed away. But his boss, Mack Sennett, gave him another chance. Rummaging through the studio’s costume closets, 24-year-old Charlie Chaplin pulled together the accouterments of the character who would make his image among the most famous in history: “Pants baggy, coat tight…hat small, shoes large,” he recalled in his autobiography. The finishing touch was a toothbrush moustache meant to camouflage the character’s age.
When audiences got their first look at The Tramp in Sennett’s Kid Auto Races at Venice on this date 100 years ago, the young actor became famous overnight. The Tramp would make his last appearance on film 26 years later, as a barber, in Chaplin’s first talkie, The Great Dictator, when the other half of the actor's screen time was devoted to satirizing the murderous leader whose moustache (unfortunately) resembled his own, Adolf Hitler's. But for most audiences, the last real time The Tramp was on the screen was in the silent that Chaplin released, stubbornly, nine years after the introduction of sound, Modern Times (1936), as his beloved character wiggled away down the road with Paulette Goddard.
The article by the great film critic (and very fine novelist) James Agee quoted above listed actor-writer-director-producer Chaplin as one of the four great “silent clowns” (the others being Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Harry Langdon). Of the four, Chaplin enjoyed the longest success, became the most controversial (because of his leftist politics and taste in very young women) and endeared himself to posterity most enduringly. When cold, corporate IBM wanted to recast its image in the 1980s with its personal computer, it brought the rights to the image of the Tramp and used it in a series of well-received commercials.
Last month, Susan King wrote a perceptive article for the Los Angeles Times describing “The Evolution of Charlie Chaplin's Tramp”—of how he knew little about film when he came to Sennett’s studios; how the character tended to be rowdy in its initial incarnation; and of how it started to take full shape with the release of The Kid in 1921.