biography Charlie Chaplin

Chicago International Film Festival Celebrates 100 Years of Chaplin

Friday, October 17, 2014 Rob Samuelson

The Chicago International Film Festival got commemorative last night by bringing Charlie Chaplin biographer David Robinson for a discussion called “Centenary of the Tramp,” about the 100th anniversary of Chaplin's entrance to the filmmaking industry.

Robinson, author of Chaplin: His Life and Art, which formed the basis for the 1992 biopic starring Robert Downey, Jr., gave a collegial lesson, PowerPoint and all, about Chaplin's early life and his first forays into the movies. He showed rare slides of a young Chaplin on the London stage, as a young side character in Sherlock Holmes stage shows, as a prestigious West End actor at the age of 16, and others before he left for America in 1913.

Robinson knew his venue, though, and quickly moved to Chaplin's early film career, with some slides of his first screen appearance in Makinga Living, as a 25-year-old Keystone Comedy Company player in 1914.

As it's impossible to talk about Chaplin without discussing his Little Tramp character, Robinson focused the rest of his talk on a more important anniversary, the 99
th of the Tramp's first screen credit, in Kid Auto Races at Venice, which Robinson screened for the audience.

As a film, Kid Auto Races at Venice is nothing fancy, which Robinson admitted before showing it, but it's a fascinating historical document nonetheless. Chaplin's Tramp look is basically fully formed, but his mannerisms are not quite to where they would be. He's more restrained, less fluid than he would later be, and his antics are subdued, with the entire plot of the six-minute short revolving around Chaplin trying to hog the camera from a group of newsreel cameramen at a children's boxcar race. It's silly but obviously an early attempt at something that would be important without being important in any way beyond historical firsts.

It turns out that first showing of Chaplin's signature creation wasn't a product of months of hard work and character building, but rather something he pulled from the top of his head when asked by the studio to create a comedic character on the fly. He went to the wardrobe department and pulled out the “baggy pants, tight coat, small hat, big shoes” before applying his goofy mustache and eyebrows, Robinson said, which were all an attempt to make the youthful Chaplin look much older.

Robinson said the character wasn't the “lovable” person he would later become in films like the romantic, sentimental City Lights. In his earliest appearances, the Tramp was actually sometimes a villainous man, and oftentimes not even exactly what one would consider a tramp, that poor, ragged vagabond guy.

“Tramps don't usually give tips,” Robinson said after he showed a clip of a drunken Tramp at a country club bar. He also sometimes rode a motorcycle, had upper crust friends, and a comfortable family life, depending on which early short films you watch, Robinson said.

But, Robinson said, one primary theme remained true of virtually all of Chaplin's Tramp pictures: He was “always struggling to belong to conventional society.” Regardless of his starting point in his films, the Tramp was always something of an outsider, a goofball that can't quite crack social norms.

Robinson ended the night with a showing of one of Chaplin's earliest directorial efforts, The Immigrant, which showed off his technical chops and the lovable, destitute version of the Tramp character we recognize. The short mostly takes place on a boat to American shores, and the camera wobbles back and forth as the “waves” hit the boat, nauseating the passengers, including one bearded man who is perpetually on the verge of vomiting on Chaplin. The dining room aboard the boat is a masterful set piece, a possibly hydraulically lifted room – some sort of physical manipulation is being done to it, whether it's mechanical in nature or not – that allows Chaplin to roll all over the floor, toss about atop other passengers, and have a bowl of gruel shift from the Tramp to his nauseated friend and back again. It's a beautiful, vibrant piece of technical filmmaking from a director known more for his acting and sentimentality than anything.

And now we get to be excited every year, because for a long time to come, each calendar shift will mark a new 100th anniversary for the Tramp.

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