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Review by: Larry Thomas
Some anniversaries are obvious and celebrated far and wide. Others are less so, and fly under the radar. Especially when the event occurred so long ago that there are few left who remember when it originally happened. Such is the case with today, February 7, 1914.
On that date ninety-five years ago, a revolution of sorts took place in American entertainment. A British vaudeville star who was making short comedy films in America debuted a new character he created, and it took the country…and the world…by storm. The actor was Charlie Chaplin, and today was the release date of the first short film featuring his “Little Tramp” character. Chaplin’s Tramp was an impish looking fellow with a good heart, who managed to get in all sorts of scrapes. He always wore a derby, carried a cane which he twirled, had a small moustache and wore floppy shoes. This character charmed audiences, and the short films became more important to theatre owners than feature attractions. Decades before anyone ever heard of “Barbie,” mass-produced dolls of the Little Tramp were being sold around the globe.
Charles Spencer Chaplin was not only a comedian who created a magical character, he also wrote, produced, directed, and eventually scored his own films. Although Chaplin’s early films were made for Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios, more noted for it’s slapstick, pie-in-the-face style of comedy, Chaplin was attuned to using pantomime that lent itself to romantic and domestic farces. And while Chaplin was more restrained than, say, The Keystone Kops, he was not above including a bit of the rough and tumble physical comedy. Since he did most everything in his routines, he therefore appealed to most everyone. The Tramp was known as “Charlot” in France and much of Europe, “Carlitos” in South America, and “Vagabund” in Germany. Another first for this character is that he was featured in the very first movie trailer…or prevue…ever shown in a theatre.
As Chaplin, and the Tramp’s, fame grew, so did his status in the world and his salary, as well. After a year with Sennett, Chaplin moved to the Essanay Studios for a year, then in 1916 made a most lucrative deal with the Mutual Film Corporation. He was paid $670 thousand dollars, an immense sum in those days, to make a dozen short comedies over an eighteen-month period. He was given almost complete artistic control, and practically every film to come from this package was an influential classic.
As a filmmaker, Chaplin was a perfectionist, known to shoot scenes more than a hundred times until he was happy with the results. He also felt the need to exert complete control over his films, which led to a major event in Hollywood. In 1919, the leading film names of the day were Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith. They banded together to create United Artists. This distribution company was one of the most successful independent distributors in movie history, eventually becoming famous for handling the James Bond and Pink Panther series, the best work of writer-director Billy Wilder, and being the American outlet for dozens of classic foreign films from directors such as Ingmar Bergman and Francois Truffaut.
With the advent of sound, Chaplin was still committed to the art of silent movies. His 1931 classic…and many feel his best film ever… City Lights was a silent film with sound effects, and an original score composed by Chaplin himself. The Little Tramp had graduated from being a comic icon to being a sensational actor in a serious comic film. The final scene in City Lights has been lauded as one of the most impressive pieces of acting ever put on film.
In 1936, the Little Tramp made his final appearance in Modern Times, and for the first time, Chaplin’s voice was heard on the screen. Not in dialogue, but singing a nonsense song in the film’s finale. With the end of Modern Times came the end of an era. Chaplin spoke dialogue in his later films, beginning with 1940’s The Great Dictator. Silent films were officially laid to rest.
But without Chaplin’s Little Tramp, would we have had Laurel and Hardy, or Buster Keaton, or even The Three Stooges? Probably. But what The Little Tramp accomplished, artistically, was to raise the bar for comedy so that those who followed were continually challenged to reach higher in perfecting their craft. And for this, we must offer up three cheers for The Little Tramp, and his creator, Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin.