True Classics reminds us that today is the one hundredth anniversary of the debut of Charlie Chaplin's Tramp.
Believe it or not, I've written about Chaplin before. This is what I had to say about that magical moment:
It was while filming the otherwise forgettable Kid Auto Races at Venice that Chaplin stumbled upon an idea for what would become the most memorable character of the entire silent era.
"[O]n the way to the wardrobe," he wrote in his autobiography, "I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large. I was undecided whether to look old or young, but remembering Sennett had expected me to be a much older man, I added a small moustache, which I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression. I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on stage he was fully born."
Chaplin exaggerates—the Tramp's debut here may have been the most inauspicious of a legendary character in movie history—but he built on the idea over the course of several shorts and in later years rarely played anything else.
The turning point in Chaplin's stint at Keystone came during the filming of his eleventh short, Mabel At The Wheel. Directed by Normand herself, she and Chaplin had a terrific argument about a gag he had worked out.
"We were on location in the suburbs of Los Angeles and in one scene Mabel wanted me to stand with a hose and water down the road so that the villain's car would skid over it. I suggested standing on the hose so that the water can't come out, and when I look down the nozzle I unconsciously step off the hose and the water squirts in my face. But she shut me up quickly: 'We have no time! We have no time! Do what you're told.'
"That was enough. I could not take it—and from such a pretty girl. 'I'm sorry, Miss Normand. I will not do what I'm told. I don't think you are competent to tell me about what to do.'"
Normand won the argument, but Chaplin won the war. Putting his money where his mouth was—in the form of his life savings as a surety that the resulting film would be worth releasing—Chaplin made his directing debut with his very next film, Twenty Minutes Of Love (April 20, 1914). The film was a success and Chaplin rarely thereafter worked for anyone but himself. (You can see the best of his Keystone efforts, The Rounders, here.)
While at Keystone, Chaplin played the usual assortment of drunks, mashers and incompetent waiters—by then already stock film characters—but he had, especially when directing himself, a sense of rhythm that turned comedy into a dance, and a gift for finding an unexpected twist in any comedic situation, subverting expectations, delaying or denying the expected payoff and giving us something we would have never thought of instead.
Indeed, seeing Chaplin in the context of his times, it's clear to me now he was to film comedy what D.W. Griffith was to film drama, establishing the rules and raising the bar. Even when he's just doing variations on Mack Sennett's everybody-fall-down brand of comedy, the internal logic of the characters' actions creates a sense of anticipation that makes the payoff so much more satisfying than one based on pure surprise and absurdity.
"That Chaplin exploded the boundaries of film comedy with each successive phase in his career," Rick Levinson wrote in Ranking the Silent Comedians, "much like Picasso exploded the boundaries of art with each successive phase of his career, is either known too well or too often taken for granted. You have to have a sense of what film comedy was like before, during and after Chaplin's career to get an inkling of the immense impact he made on 20th century culture."
This is not just a case of pretending to see something in retrospect that no one saw at the time. Audiences immediately recognized that Chaplin was something special and during the silent era, only his future business partners, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, would rival him in terms of box office appeal.
And now here it is, not the most auspicious debut in movie history, but possibly the most significant. Better things would follow in short order.