The Loveable Tramp: Charlie Chaplin and Early Stardom

“Get out of the picture,” are the words any viewer can imagine the cameraman and the audience, by extension, screaming as a disheveled ruffian clamors for the gaze of the lens, disrupting the filming of an automobile race during the silent picture of Kid Auto Races at Venice (Henry Lehrman 1914).

With a runtime barely over six minutes, the cinematic skit is largely experimental, a showcase to the advent of cinema technology. The film’s narrative, if one could call it that, is fairly simplistic, featuring crowds of people watching a race while a seemingly drunken man stumbles, fights, and, for all intents and purposes, gets in the way of the filming. The rather obnoxious buffoon, though uncredited, is none other than the infamous Charlie Chaplin, donning an early incarnation of his enigmatic persona of The Tramp. Chaplin’s iconic performance as the Tramp, whose popularity grew with each role reprisal, allowed viewers a true glimpse of the actor as something beyond a screen image that functioned a nothing more than an instrument of the film apparatus – providing audiences with one of the first examples of stardom.

Despite the prevalence of star culture in contemporary society promulgated by the mass media; film stars were not always the subject of society’s voyeuristic gaze. During the fledgling days of cinema until the emergence of the star system in the early 1900s (Staiger 6), film stars were seen as little more than set pieces, fleshy stage props whose names were not even credited. Such oversight of the actor’s performance can be attributed both to the low status that cinema held in comparison to its stage counterpart (Staiger 8) and, perhaps more importantly, the technology of the medium itself. Early cinema lacked a cohesive narrative as the technology was still very new and the possibilities of film were largely unknown.

Typically, the first films involved a stationary camera, shooting small ten to fifteen-minute skits similar to vaudeville productions which emphasized the spectacle of the performance, not the role of the actor (Jenkins 114). Even with the introduction of narrative elements and the increase in film length, actors remained interchangeable “players” (Musser 54). The advent of the close-up camera angle provided a pivotal shift in the relationship between the actor and the viewer (Hollinger 6). With the distance between the audience and the player bridged, the actor finally began to garnish audience attention. Increased visibility of the actor allowed for charismatic screen personas’ to cultivate fame as demonstrated by the early from obnoxious drunk in Kid Auto Races at Venice to loveable clown in The Gold Rush (Charlie Chaplin 1925) reveals Chaplin’s popularity can be attributed to the actor’s adaptability in a changing medium, to mix narrative cohesion and comedic spectacle.

During the advent of early cinema, silent comedies known as Revue Films, according to Henry Jenkins, prized performance over narrative; thus, the actor focused on gimmicks intended to induce laughter from the audiences rather than characterization (Jenkins 114). While Chaplin’s use of formalized gestures and expressions in Kid Auto Races in Venice as he struggles to keep the camera’s attention illustrates the presentational style of acting typified by the Revue film, the performance provided by Chaplin serves another, more intriguing function. Chaplin’s antics as The Tramp epitomizes the ambiguous relationship between the film actor and the gaze of the camera, demonstrating the plight of the actor.

Early cinema ignored the role of the film actor; in his persistence to stay in-frame, Chaplin calls attention to this phenomenon and seems determined to challenge it. Chaplin is separated from the others in the film, first and foremost, by his apparel; he wears an Edwardian coat, top hat, and cane. No one else featured in the film is dressed this way, and, thus, he immediately stands out to the viewer. Secondly, Chaplin’s obnoxious interference with the director’s attempts to capture the moment of the race on camera serves to further separate him from everyone else. Though he appears like an intoxicated menace, The Tramp’s falls are too graceful (Naremore 12); his movements too poised, and he never loses his hat or cane (Naremore 12).

Chaplin’s ostensive behavior draws the audience’s attention to the fact that he is, indeed, an actor – not simply another bystander in the crowd (Naremore 16). Furthermore, the Tramp is the only person clamoring for the camera’s attention while others stare blatantly at the camera as though paralyzed or shyly turn away. Chaplin, however, wants the attention; like the film actor – he wants to be seen, resorting to violence in his attempt to overthrow the authority of the director. Chaplin succeeds in gaining the attention of the viewer, becoming the subject of the film rather than an object (Kracauer 22).

Chaplin’s performance in Kid Auto Races is fairly characteristic of the Revue Films which featured spectacle over narrative, using the actor as interchangeable prop whose sole purpose was to infuse the audience with laughter. However, this particular style of early comedies was largely abandoned with the advent of sound. As film technology and, by extension, film length increased, more emphasis was placed on narrative cohesion; thus, strong characterization became a focus for the role of the actor. Chaplin, in response, to the changing nature of the medium, infused his presentational acting style, where he clearly plays to the audience, with representational elements (Naremore 114) as demonstrated by the Tramp’s character in The Gold Rush.

Chaplin’s acting style within The Gold Rush is characterized by what Naremore terms as “Expressive anarchy” (Naremore 76), meaning Chaplin’s performance is typified by bodily incoherence as demonstrated in his attempt to maintain proper behavior when greeting Georgia in the saloon (77). Yet Chaplin’s erratic gestures are not his only means of separating himself from other actors. The Tramp never seems to truly speak as the other actors do, their dialogue established by title cards; instead, the Tramp mimes his emotions with easily recognizable gestures. He rubs his stomach when hungry and pulls his arms close to his chest when cold. These gestures, though overt serve two purposes: they provide the audience with humor while also convey meaning for the character.  

The narrative of The Gold Rush is two-fold; the first part of the film follows the Tramp as he is faced with harsh conditions of the territory, illustrating the theme of man against nature. Opening with documentary-style footage of miners trekking across the snow in hopes of finding gold (Naremore 114), the film’s first comedic element is introduced as the Tramp appears behind a line of prospective miners dressed woefully unprepared for the journey ahead of him. As the narrative unfolds, the Tramp is always set apart from the other characters, particularly Big John. Big John’s gregarious size and acting presence serves as a foil for the almost child-like Tramp who boils a shoe for food and runs wild around the cabin. Indeed, after the meeting between the Tramp and Big John, the narrative descends into a series of skits designed to showcase the comedic skills of the two actors; the true humor of the film lies in the contrast of Chaplin’s pantomime versus the almost Delesartian poses of Big John – noticeably seen in the chicken scene.

While the first part of the film is largely centered on humor, the second part of the film focuses on the Tramp’s seemingly doomed courtship of Georgia, a woman who is far above him both financially and socially. This shift in plot turns the narrative into a romantic comedy, allowing Chaplin to display greater emotion than simple comedy. Chaplin, unlike his co-stars, blends moments of comedic spectacle such as the dinner roll scene with moments of great pathos; the scene where the character wakes to find Georgia will not be coming for dinner, for instance, downplays comedic effect in exchange for high narrative significance (Naremore 76). The expressions on the Tramp’s face reveal his inner pain and disappointment. Chaplin is, thus, able to shift from such moments with complete ease, demonstrating his range as an actor.

Due to the narrative established in The Gold Rush, the Tramp is no longer a degenerate buffoon, as shown in Kids Auto Races, but is instead a loveable clown; through his dress and lack of social grace, the Tramp represents a member of the underclass who’s off- the- wall behavior marks him as an outsider to the world around him which gains him sympathy from the audience. The more unlikely his chances of success are, whether it be striking it rich or winning Georgia’s heart, the more the audience wants him to succeed.

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