A century later, why does Chaplin still matter?

A century later, why does Chaplin still matter?

“Even now, my voice is reaching millions throughout the world. Millions of despairing men, women, and little children…”

Charlie Chaplin was famous in a way that no one had been before; arguably, no one has been as famous since. At the peak of his popularity, his mustachioed screen persona, the Tramp, was said to be the most recognized image in the world. His name came first in discussions of the new medium as popular entertainment, and in defenses of it as a distinct art form—a cultural position occupied afterward only by the Beatles, whose own era-defining popularity never equaled Chaplin’s. He’s the closest thing the 20th century produced to a universal cultural touchstone.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Chaplin’s film debut, and his abrupt rise to stardom. In February of 1914, Chaplin was just another young music-hall comedian who had been lured West by the promise of a larger paycheck and the idea that movies could provide publicity for his touring act. By May, he was a director. Less than 10 months after Mack Sennett’s Silver Lake-based Keystone Pictures released Chaplin’s first film, Making A Living, the studio could no longer afford him. He decamped for Chicago’s Essanay; his first film there was aptly titled His New Job. From there, he would go through a succession of studios and contracts that made him one of the highest-paid people in the world, eventually turning independent. He would spend the next three decades as the medium’s most popular star, and the rest of his life as its defining icon. At the beginning of 1914, he was all of 24 years old.

Film histories—a good chunk of which have an image of Chaplin on the cover—will invariably tell you that Chaplin’s mass popularity was owed to the way in which the Tramp represented a destitute everyman. His films turned hunger, laziness, and the feeling of being unwanted into comedy. He was an ego artist, a performer with an uncanny relationship to the camera who spent the early part of his career refining his screen persona and the latter part of it deconstructing it.

This version of Chaplin’s rise puts the onus of responsibility on the audience, as he’s reflecting their feelings and their sense of humor. This is a common approach, because it’s easier to be authoritative while reporting popular culture than while explaining it. But it’s also misleading, because it substitutes an object’s function for the object itself. 

There’s also the issue of Chaplin’s actual relationship to the zeitgeist—and the fact that his popularity survived several periods of sweeping cultural change. His post-silent films—which include his two most enduringly popular features, Modern Times and The Great Dictator—reflect his own attitudes more than the feelings of American audiences at the time. His mature work is deliberately artificial, set in a never-was world cobbled together from pieces of European and American past, present, and, in the case of Modern Times, future. Even films that do take place in definitive time periods and in real places—like Monsieur Verdoux, a caustic masterpiece set in France in the 1930s—make no attempt at representing a consistent reality. With his delicate features and clean mustache, the Tramp could never be mistaken for a real vagrant, fugitive, or gold prospector. 

Did audiences pack theaters for decades because nothing better reflected their day-to-day lives and concerns than an English pacifist’s bittersweet, episodically plotted architectural fantasies? The answer is a combination of yes and no. 


The earliest mention of Chaplin in any of the major American trade publications comes from an issue of Variety dated October 8, 1910. It’s a review of The Wow-Wows, a half-hour stage show that was then being toured by Fred Karno (real name Westcott), an English musical hall impresario who specialized in dialogue-free slapstick; his shows laid the groundwork for silent comedy, which in turn drove away his audience, leaving the once-wealthy Karno bankrupt. 

At the time, the star of Karno’s company was Syd Chaplin. When it came time to put together an American tour, he convinced Karno to hire his 20-year-old half-brother, Charlie. (One of the other new hires for the tour was Stan Jefferson, who would later change his name to Stan Laurel.)

The Wow-Wows centered on a phony secret society, with the younger Chaplin playing the target of the prank. “His manner is quiet and easy and he goes about his work in a devil-may-care manner,” writes the Variety reviewer, before complaining that the rest of the show “drags the time when Champlin [sic] does not occupy the center of the stage.” (The mangling of Chaplin’s name seems to define his pre-fame career; according to his autobiography, the telegram that led to Keystone’s job offer began: “Is there a man named Chaffin in your company or something like that?”) 

Chaplin stood apart from his contemporaries, most of whom had similarly started in vaudeville and, like Chaplin, had worked with the Irish-Canadian Mack Sennett, founder of Keystone. The other popular comedians of the slapstick were big movers—acrobats, daredevils. Chaplin’s physical comedy, on the other hand, was naturalistic; for the most part, his routines operated within an average person’s range of motion. This helps explain why Chaplin would become the most imitated person of his time. 

One of the great urban legends of the period involves Chaplin entering and losing a Tramp look-alike contest. The original story, embellished over time, cuts to the core of the Tramp character’s appeal. As told by fellow silent star Mary Pickford, the contest Chaplin lost was a “Chaplin walk” contest, which he entered out of costume. All a person had to do was waddle, and everyone knew they were doing an impression of the Tramp; the clothes and mustache were just dressing.


The first Tramp movie to be released was Kid Auto Races At Venice—known by a variety of alternate titles, including KidsAuto Races, Kid Auto Races In Venice Beach, and The Pest. Chaplin’s third film, it was released on February 7, 1914—just five days after Making A Living. The industry moved quickly in those days. 

Kid Auto Races is a prankish found-footage comedy, presented as a newsreel of the Junior Vanderbilt Cup, a real soapbox derby held on January 10th of that year. While the camera crew attempts to capture the race from different angles, a local gawker—the Tramp—keeps trying to get on-camera. The whole thing was improvised on location, with Chaplin staying in character; he narrowly dodges real racers, gets shooed by a real cop (the first of the Tramp’s many un-amicable encounters with police), and gets disapproving glares from real onlookers. 

There’s a tidy poetry to the fact that the Tramp should begin his “career” by crashing reality. He jumps awkwardly into the scene, follows the camera as it pans, and repeatedly pretends to casually wander into frame. He is literally begging to be filmed. 

Technically, Kid Auto Races marked the character’s second appearance; Chaplin first used him for Mabel’s Strange Predicament, which was filmed earlier, but released a few days later. The Tramp’s iconic mustache was used to make Chaplin look older; he was slightly built and smooth-cheeked, and without make-up, he looked about 19. In the early films, his face was painted with artificial wrinkles, but as Chaplin refined the character, he smoothed out his complexion. As a result, the Tramp seems to age in reverse. Early on, he looks like he could be in his late 30s; by the time Chaplin started making features, the character took on a deliberately indeterminate appearance—a kind of agelessness that mirrors the deliberately indeterminate settings of his later films. It also fits neatly with Chaplin’ use of gibberish in place of speech in his first three sound-era films, from the kazoos used to represent voices in City Lights, to the faux-German speeches in The Great Dictator, his first dialogue-heavy film. 

In other words, Chaplin’s Tramp films (which, for our purposes, includes The Great Dictator; Chaplin doesn’t play the character in the film, but invokes his appearance) are designed to penetrate and cross cultural boundaries. There is a graceful directness to Chaplin’s sense of design, which runs from the elemental persona of the Tramp to the actual filmmaking. 

Take, for instance, the Tramp’s first meeting with the blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) in City Lights, which is one of the most elegantly constructed scenes in film history. Spotting a motorcycle cop, the Tramp steps through an idling luxury car, emerging on the sidewalk on the other side. The girl hears the car door open, and, assuming that the Tramp is its passenger, offers to sell him a flower for his lapel. As she reaches to hand him the flower, he accidentally knocks it out of her hand. He picks it up, notices her still searching on the ground, and realizes that she is blind. He hands the flower back. She gently sets it into the buttonhole of his lapel. He pays her with his last coin, but, before she can hand him back his change, the passenger of the luxury car returns. The door slams, the car drives off, and the Tramp is left standing next to the flower girl, who believes that her customer has left in a hurry. Rather than shatter the illusion, he remains silent. For just a moment, in someone’s imagination, he was a respectable man.

The sequence moves fluidly and effortlessly from one moment to the next. Its production, however, was far from effortless. The one-reelers Chaplin made in the mid-1910s were quickies, largely improvised on set, and he carried over these working methods into his mature work. Until 1947’s Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin was a studio artist, never working from a conventional script, but instead developing scenes on location—an arduous, unpredictable process. He would spend days just rehearsing the extras. Production on City Lights took about two years, and, over this period, he shot five versions of the Tramp’s first meeting with the flower girl. The first version of the scene—which is only three minutes long—took up the first two months of production. The 16mm behind-the-scenes footage, shot by caricaturist Ralph Barton during a set visit, survives, showing Chaplin struggling through a later version, trying to come up with a way for the blind girl to mistake the Tramp for a rich man. Luxury cars, instructed to circle the set to create the illusion of traffic, pass by auspiciously.

Chaplin was an unconventional perfectionist whose meticulousness was wholly focused on creating and sustaining an emotional pitch. The best example comes at the end of City Lights, a sublime shot/reverse shot that cuts back and forth between the flower girl and the Tramp. It’s a testament to what critic Dave Kehr once called Chaplin’s ability to turn “fragments into emotional wholes.” The scene is engrossing and deeply moving—and yet there’s zero continuity between the two angles. In the hands of most filmmakers, it would be disjointed, but the way in which Chaplin’s reaction—a slow, half-embarrassed smile, which he covers up with his hand—plays off of Cherrill’s creates a sense of emotional continuity that makes technical continuity irrelevant. 

Chaplin used film and comedy to create something that transcended both. His best gags move; they operate at a level that’s deeper than humor. The Gold Rush’s iconic “Oceana Roll” endures not only because it’s funny and, like much of Chaplin’s comedy, easy to replicate, but also because his face—which is concentrated during the performance, but breaks into a boyish laugh when he’s done—captures the feeling of wanting to perform. It lasts, because it was built to.

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