American silent comedy was at the height of its popularity in the early 1900s, namely during the 1920s. Being as creative and talented as he was, Charlie Chaplin is often regarded as the pioneer and central figure of this type of film during his time. Chaplin wrote, produced, directed, and acted as the lead role in the majority of his films, and provided inspiration for many other actors and silent comedies that followed. In many of Chaplin’s notable silent comedies from the height of his career, scenes that depict the road in various ways serve as more than just the main location of the films, as they play a much more crucial role in the development of the comedy as a whole and the characters within it. The “Little Tramp” persona that Chaplin created and made iconic is an embodiment of not only the hardships and difficulties associated with the road, but the comedy and adventure that comes along with it. In Chaplin’s The Tramp, The Kid, City Lights, and The Gold Rush, road images, the characters’ close interactions with the road, and the depiction of a vagrant tramp without any set home provide the comedic drama that has been unique and central to this renowned genre of film.
According to his autobiography, Charlie Chaplin was born in London, England on the evening of April 16th in 1889 to two parents who were both involved in performing and in stage life. Chaplin became accustomed to theater and performing in front of others at a young age as he would frequently watch his mother perform in various shows. When his mother began fall ill, Charlie would even often fill in for her if she was not feeling up to the performance. Having a mother who was in and out of mental institutions while also suffering from severe malnourishment, and a father who was an alcoholic, Chaplin had a fairly unstable and unhappy childhood. He spent some time living with his brother in the Hanwell Schools for Orphans and Destitute Children, the Lambeth workhouse, sometimes would reside with his mother, then at times with his father, but he truly lacked a settled home, not unlike the Tramp persona that he popularized in his films did. He reveals in his autobiography that his childhood was like “moving from one back-room to another; it was like a game of draughts” (Chaplin, 33). His older brother, Sydney, took it upon himself to help provide for his economically struggling family, but making ends meet and keeping a steady home was not an easy feat. Their father eventually passed away at the same time that their mother was permanently admitted into an institution for her illnesses, and the two young brothers continued to spend much of their life fending for themselves for survival and stability. Chaplin worked many jobs to make any money he possibly could for food, and he joined dancing and comedy troupes along the way, as he decided early on that he had a dream of being a performer. Chaplin’s mother “imbued [him] with the feeling that [he] had some sort of talent,” and regardless of how difficult life got for the actor and comedian, he did not give up on that (Chaplin, 41). Even at a young age, Chaplin enjoyed the art of dancing a lot, but knew that he eventually wanted to end up in comedy as he was drawn to the idea of being funny and making audiences laugh.
Chaplin’s autobiographical account reveals the bumpy road of his own life that had humble, and not so happy beginnings, but eventually led to fame, success, and stardom. He worked for several production companies and studios, some he liked better than others, and he eventually began directing his own silent films while simultaneously starring in them. During his tough childhood, his mother was and remained to be later in life a key to his success as she “illuminated to [him] a kindliest light this world has ever known, which has endowed literature and the theatre with their greatest and richest themes: love, pity and humanity” (Chaplin, 22). Chaplin often did not have enough to eat, and his family because more impoverished over time as his mother either struggled to find steady jobs or was spending time in institutions. With a father who passed away, a mother who was permanently in the hospital, and a brother who was trying to find work in any way he could to make even the smallest amount of money, Chaplin began to spend a lot of time on his own and resented and was even embarrassed by the fact that he often needed help from others, so “like a fugitive, [he] kept out of everyone’s way” (Chaplin, 71). Chaplin had a hard life, but he never lost sight of his dream of becoming an actor and comedian. He worked as a “newsvendor, printer, toy-maker, glass-blower, doctor’s boy, etc., but during these occupational digressions, like Sydney, [he] never lost sight of [his] ultimate aim to become an actor” (Chaplin, 76). Chaplin finally landed his first acting role in Sherlock Holmes and then got a role in play, and he knew his luck was about to change. He felt like “the world [had] suddenly changed, had taken [him] into its fond embrace and adopted [him]” (Chaplin, 77). From that point on he inevitably had some setbacks and downfalls along the way as each role he he was given and every wage he was promised were not always honorable, but despite this Chaplin kept adapting and moving forward, much like his iconic Tramp character does. Chaplin believed that “one either rises to an occasion or succumbs to it,” and so he always kept going (Chaplin, 100).
The birth of the “Little Tramp” character that Chaplin is known for popularizing and making iconic was a persona that the actor actually saw as embodying a lot of his own characteristics. Chaplin began working for Keystone Studios, the place where the famous Tramp was finally born. Keystone Studios was looking to start a new film, and they wanted Chaplin to play the role of a press reporter. Chaplin disliked the costume that he was supposed to wear for his role, so he decided to take matters into his own hands and create his own costume. When in the wardrobe room, he chose to dress in “baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. [He] wanted everything a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small, and the shoes large” (Chaplin, 145). Remembering that he was told he looked younger than expected, he added “a small moustache, which [he] reasoned, would add age without hiding [his] expression” (Chaplin, 145). The costume of the Tramp came together all at once in one quick moment in the wardrobe room, but Chaplin did not know in that fleeting instant how famous it would soon become. The moment the costume and makeup all came together and the actor walked on stage, the tramp was officially born. Chaplin felt that this character made him “feel the person he was” as he strutted and paraded around with the cane swinging (Chaplin, 145). The studio was instantly captivated and enthused by Chaplin’s humor and the ingenuity of the character he created and his costume. Chaplin explained the persona he had just brought to life as “a tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure. He would have you believe he is a scientist, a musician, a duke, a polo-player. However, he is not above picking up cigarette-butts or robbing a baby of its candy” (Chaplin, 146). In a way, the Tramp was Chaplin. He was a man sometimes down on his luck, moving from place to place without an established home, but still with a good heart as he always moves forward. He was a man who could adapt to any situation as a many-sided figure of determination and persistence; someone who could be something one day and something completely different the next. Chaplin really embodied the role and took it on completely when he regarded himself as “a tramp just wanting a little shelter” (Chaplin, 146). The “Little Tramp” was brought to life just as quickly as Chaplin had created him, and it became the character and role he played in a large number of his silent comedies from then on going forward. The actor and comedian believed the Tramp to be “different and unfamiliar to the American, and even unfamiliar to [himself.] But with the clothes on, [he] felt he was a reality, a living person. In fact, he ignited all sorts of crazy ideas that [he] would have never have dreamt of until [he] was dressed and made up as the Tramp” (Chaplin, 147). Chaplin eventually left Keystone Studios, the official birthplace of the Tramp, worked for various other studios, and eventually worked on making and acting in his own films in which he starred as the infamous comedic and vagrant character.
Chaplin is known for popularizing the “Tramp” persona in not only his short film, The Tramp, but in many of his other films, as well. The tramp and vagrant character that he embodies in these films is one that travels from place to place without any settled home. Often in his comedies Chaplin is searching for work on the streets for survival, without any consistent way of providing income for himself, much as he did during the younger part of his life. In the opening scene of The Tramp, Chaplin depicts this well as he is walking down a dusty dirt road without any clear direction of where he is going as he gets ran down by several cars, and eventually ends up at a farm. In the process of helping a woman fend off thieves who attempt to steal her hard-earned money, Chaplin’s Tramp character is invited into her home, where her father promises to provide him dinner once he earns his right to a meal by working out on the fields (The Tramp). The Tramp character is somewhat of a mischievous beggar, but he is also a man that means well. He proves to be a terrible field worker with little to no work ethic, and finds himself caught up with the thieves from the beginning of the film who try to steal money from the father, and attempts to trick them (The Tramp). The comedy of the film is largely seen through the lives of the vagrant and thievish characters in the film who live on the streets, and have precarious lifestyles that are dependent on the road. After the thieves run away without the stolen money and the woman whom Chaplin helped in the earlier scenes is reunited with her fiancée who returns to her, the tramp realizes it is time to depart and find his way back on the road (The Tramp). The closing scene is much like the opening one as Chaplin embarks again on the open road, most likely in search of more work to provide his next meal (The Tramp). Chaplin’s The Tramp is a silent film that depicts the road as a place of “just passing through,” as Chaplin stops and meets people along the way, has a bit of adventure, and then continues on his journey as a character who keeps moving forward.
One of Chaplin’s first full-length comedies, The Kid, further shows the actor playing the part of the Tramp, but this time he has a sidekick. In the opening scene, a troubled mother is walking down a road carrying a baby that she puts into an abandoned car on the side of the street, as she turns away to continue walking down the road (The Kid). Chaplin finds the baby with a note reading, “Please love and take care of this child,” and despite his unwillingness at first to claim the baby, he eventually decides to keep him and raise him as his own (The Kid). The film flashes forward to five years into the future, and the Tramp and the young orphaned boy have formed quite the camaraderie. The orphan has been accustomed to street life, and seems to much like the freedom that he has. When a fellow street-kid steals a toy dog that a woman, who ends up being his birth mother, gave him as a gift of charity, he begins to fight the boy and the whole neighborhood crowds around to watch (The Kid). The orphaned boy in the comedy reveals the “street-kid” culture that can be attributed to life on the road, as survival on the rough streets create a specific way of life. The most notable road image in the film occurs when the orphan is taken away by authorities and Chaplin watches him being driven away down the road as he stands on the roof of the flophouse that he and the boy have been residing in (The Kid). Chaplin jumps from the roof into the back of the car to retrieve the young boy who has become a son to him, and they walk back down the road together (The Kid). Chaplin was never actually an orphan, but he did spend some time in an orphanage with his brother at a time when his parents were unfit to raise them. The actor was accustomed to a tough life and fending for himself, andthis film reveals a familiarity with that. The road is a place of home and of shelter in this film as the tramp and the orphan both find comfort in each other, and grow to see each other as family.
City Lights is regarded as one of Chaplin’s most famous comedies, and he returns again acting as the tramp and vagrant character that audiences had began to know and love. As the main setting of the silent film, the road provides the means for the characters in the film to meet in unlikely ways, and to affect each other’s lives. City Lights presents the streets as an urban space that connects people in a way that changes the course of each of their lives in a powerful way, while also establishing an atmosphere of comedy. Chaplin meets a blind woman who makes a living by selling flowers on a street corner and immediately falls for her one day when he is aimlessly walking the streets, most likely trying to scheme his way into finding money (City Lights). In another scene, the tramp is again walking the streets without any real sense of where he is going, and crosses paths with a millionaire who is attempting to commit suicide (City Lights). The tramp stops the man and they form a friendship that lasts throughout the duration of the film. The images of the road that are present in City Lights serve as a way in which various and very different lives interconnect with each other as characters begin to affect change among the people that they meet on their journey of life. Chaplin fights in a wrestling match with a man much larger than he is and works on a farm to make money to pay for the blind woman he met on the street to get eye surgery, but ends up getting money from the generous millionaire to pay for it instead (City Lights). Chaplin in numerous situations stops the millionaire from getting drunk and committing suicide, and ends up becoming a highly regarded and trusted friend (City Lights). The tramp seems to find himself in abnormal situations that create an atmosphere of comedy, and despite any setback Chaplin’s character experiences, he perseveres and makes do with what he has, much as the actor had to do in several stages of his life.
Chaplin’s The Gold Rush is a silent comedy that focuses on the Tramp’s travels across the snowy Sierra Nevada mountains to prospect for gold in the Klondike Gold Rush. The opening scene shows Chaplin waddling through the snow in an almost balletic way as his shoes that are too big for his feet overpower him (The Gold Rush). Due to the inclement weather and blizzard, the Tramp ends up trapped in a cabin with a fellow gold prospector and a fugitive and a quarrel ensues among the three men, and eventually the fugitive is thrown out of the cabin, into the storm (The Gold Rush). In one of the most iconic scenes of the film, Chaplin’s character tries to cook a Thanksgiving meal for himself and his fellow prospector despite the fact that sources for food have been lacking in such extreme weather conditions. Considering the imagination of the Tramp, however, this does not stop him. He proceeds to boil his boot in a pot, set it on a plate on the table between him and the other man, serve the shoelace as if it were a spaghetti noodle, and cut the boot in half vertically (The Gold Rush). The man gets the top half of the boot, and Chaplin eats the other, acting as if the needles that held the shoe together are bones from meat (The Gold Rush). The Tramp is a character that adapts quickly to any situation around him and does not let any inconvenience get in his way. The scene is partially iconic due to its blatant humor and the fact that both prospectors take bites from the boot, but also because of the fact that the Tramp’s shoes are so important to his character as a whole. The shoes that are too large for his feet are what allow him to walk in the distinct way that he does, much like a duck-like waddle. His shoes are also the means for which he directly interacts with the road as they are what carry him forward and keep him moving from place to place, like vagrants do. Another iconic scene from the silent comedy is the one that takes place when Chaplin’s character asks the saloon girl whom he has fallen for to dinner at his cabin. She brings some of her friends along, and in an attempt to impress them, he takes two bread rolls and stabs each with a fork (The Gold Rush). He has the rolls dance, making them appear as shoes and the fork handles as legs (The Gold Rush). The film ends with both prospectors finding gold in their cabin and becoming richer than they ever could have imagined, however, all the Tramp can think about is finding his saloon girl (The Gold Rush). On a ship back to the states, he ends up finding her and they rekindle (The Gold Rush). Chaplin’s The Gold Rush displays the hardships associated with travelling across the Alaskan mountains and specifically the Chilkoot Pass. With the blizzard and dangerous weather conditions, the journey can prove to be somewhat hazardous, but Chaplin as the Tramp brings an atmosphere of comedy to it. The road gives the Tramp adventure, and he would not be the comedic character that he is if he did not venture on it.
In American silent comedies, and in Chaplin films in particular, the road operates as much more than just a location for the drama to take place. In highly regarded films such as The Tramp, The Kid, City Lights, and The Gold Rush, road images are extremely prevalent as a theme as they reveal in many different scenes the way in which paths cross on the road of life. In all four of the films, Chaplin plays the role of a tramp and vagrant who relies on the road for survival, as he really has no established home nor source of income. Chaplin spends the majority of his days wandering on the road, and in turn his life intersects with the lives of many others. In The Tramp, he crosses paths with a woman who needs help as thievish men are trying to steal money from her farm. Chaplin helps the woman and spends the day working in the fields, but knows when it is time for him to return once again to the road, which is where he feels he belongs. In The Kid, the road provides a way in which his life interconnects with that of the orphan, and also the way in which the orphan’s life reconnects with his birth mother’s at the end. Once an orphan and once a lonely tramp, the two become family and home to each other. In City Lights, a life on the streets makes it possible for the tramp’s life to cross with that of the blind woman who sells flowers on the road, and the millionaire who attempts suicide, and they all change each other’s lives for the better. The Gold Rush depicts characters who are connected through the prospect for gold and their journey across the Sierra Nevada mountains. In each of the four films, the interconnectedness of the road and of the streets is a means for lives to cross and to be changed. The comedy that comes from the Tramp character who travels from place to place and makes do with what he has regardless of his lack of having a settled home also contributes to the adventure associated with the road.
Charlie Chaplin. City Lights. 1931. Film.
Charlie Chaplin. The Gold Rush. 1925. Film.
Charlie Chaplin. The Kid. 1921. Film.
Charlie Chaplin. My Autobiography. Melville House Publishing. London. 1964. Print
Charlie Chaplin. The Tramp. 1915. Film.