On February 7, 1914, one of the most iconic characters in the history of film made his first appearance onscreen: an odd, unnamed figure who was initially introduced to the world in the Mack Sennett-produced Keystone comedy Kid Auto Races at Venice.
The creator of the “Tramp” persona, Charlie Chaplin, was as green a film performer as they come at this point; he’d appeared in only one other short before this one, a Keystone Cops feature called Making a Living, which had premiered a mere week earlier (and which Chaplin himself later admitted that he loathed). However, this new character, the Tramp, was not created specifically for Kid Auto Races. That moment of improvised brilliance came a few days earlier, as Chaplin was filming his second picture for Keystone, a comedy with established star Mabel Normand called Mabel’s Strange Predicament (which premiered two days after Kid Auto Races).
In his 1964 autobiography, Chaplin recalls the moment the character’s personality and look crystallized for him:
“[O]n the way to the wardrobe, 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 added a small mustache, 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 to the stage he was fully born.”
That last bit is not entirely accurate; the Tramp character continued to evolve from that first raid of the Keystone wardrobe, as Chaplin tweaked elements of the character’s look and personality. Indeed, the Tramp in Mabel’s Strange Predicament is not precisely the one with which silent film fans are generally familiar. He’s not so much destitute as he is dissolute; instead of the grasping and yearning romantic of Chaplin’s later films, this early version of the Tramp is somewhat narcissistic and crude (though still amusing in his antics). Still, even in these earliest incarnations, Chaplin brings a sense of almost childlike wonder to the character (particularly in the Tramp’s fascination with the movie camera in Kid Auto Races) that deeply resonates in later films like The Kid (1921) and City Lights (1931). And as the persona of the Tramp continued to evolve in later years, the elements of pathos and romance that Chaplin later added to the character elevated his seemingly simple comedies to the sublime.
One hundred years after his debut, the Tramp remains an iconic figure, one whose innate charm has never wavered. For Chaplin’s genius lay not only in his adeptness at slapstick and his inspired use of props, but in the way he made the Tramp so appealingly human. He is an effective blend of darkness and light, loneliness and hope, dignity and ignominy; he’s both helpless and self-sufficient in the face of a sometimes cruel Fate. And all the while, we root for this odd little man, identifying with his struggles and taking pleasure in his rare successes. We may laugh at him, but we feel him, too.
Like I said–sublime.