November 01, 2014

Charlie Chaplin: The Birth Of The Tramp


A new book of photos reveals Charlie Chaplin’s first screen appearance – and the debut of his Tramp character. BBC Culture looks at the birth of an icon. 

“The little chap I want to show wears the air of romantic hunger, is forever seeking romance, but his feet won’t let him.” Charlie Chaplin adopted his most famous screen persona in the 1915 feature movie The Tramp – but he had developed the character throughout a series of short films in 1914.

A new book celebrates the centenary of a silent era icon with rarely seen photographs discovered in Chaplin’s personal archives. Collected in an album, 794 images show the pratfalls, missed punches and flying kicks of an actor finding his feet. Printed directly from frames of the film rolls, with no negatives, they are a record of Chaplin’s first year in front of the camera.

The images are arranged in rough storyboards for 29 of the 36 shorts Chaplin made for the Keystone Film Company in 1914: they were found in an album about which little was known until recently. “When we first saw the album, when we didn’t know what it was meant for, we thought it was maybe some kind of creative object,” says Carole Sandrin, the curator in charge of the Charles Chaplin Photographic Archive at Lausanne’s Musée de l’Elysée.

“When you have to choose one frame out of hundreds, you start to compose like you’re painting,” she continues. “In some plates, you can see that the author really played with some visual effects."

Tricks of the trade
Experts now believe it was compiled in the 1930s by HD Waley, a technical director at the British Film Institute, who wanted to take an inventory of Chaplin’s early films in case they disappeared. The photos show the range of Chaplin’s facial expressions – and a character stepping out of traditional comedy conventions.

“Throughout the 36 movies, Chaplin is playing characters… in the burlesque, slapstick style. He’s a villain, throwing bricks, or kicking people in the bottom,” says Sandrin. “But Chaplin realises that if he wants to become someone different from the other actors, if he wants his character to be noticed, he has to stay in front of the camera longer – he doesn’t have to run all over the place. He finds little tricks like turning his cane or playing with his hat where he’s not moving, so people will really look at him.”

That slower pace can be seen in Kids Auto Race In Venice, Cal, the first film showing Chaplin as the bumbling down-at-heel figure who aspires to be a gent, twiddling his cane and tipping his bowler hat. His costume was borrowed from other actors – according to the book, “‘Fatty’ Arbuckle’s baggy trousers, skinny Charles Avery’s tight jacket, the ill-fitting bowler hat belonging to Minta Durfee’s father, a scrap of moustache taken from the giant Mack Swain and Ford Sterling’s size-11 shoes” – and he was not yet a defined character, in the early films “alternating between the irreverent gentleman, the pseudo-vagabond and the tipsy drunkard, courteous yet cheeky”.

Yet Kids Auto Race offers a glimpse of who the tramp might become. According to Sandrin: “It tells us a lot about the relationship that Chaplin would have with the camera and the spectators: he started doing mimes and poses in front of the camera that he would develop later.” In the book, she writes: “He had not yet become the penniless vagrant of his later films, but the cast-off clothes were already there as well as certain mannerisms such as thumbing his nose, twirling on one leg and his jaunty gait.”

The photos witness the birth of the Tramp, and follow the character’s development as Chaplin became one of the most famous actors in the world. “You can see details that tell you Chaplin is putting something different in the Keystone slapstick than what they used to have,” says Sandrin. “The album is another way of looking at cinema.”

Charlie Chaplin, The Keystone Album (Musée de l'Elysée / Éditions Xavier Barral, 2014) is published on 13 November, available at Chaplin, between wars and peace (1914-1940), is at the Musée de l'Elysée until January 4 2015.



With thanks to the BBC


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