Cinema was just emerging from its infancy when Charlie Chaplin created his comic character the Tramp a century ago. With his bowler hat, baggy pants, endearing little mustache, exaggerated shuffling walk and cane, the Little Tramp was an instant star.
"The cinema was not yet 20 years old when he made the first Tramp film," said documentarian/film preservationist Serge Bromberg, whose Paris-based Lobster Films teamed with Flicker Alley three years ago to restore and release the "Chaplin at Keystone" DVD set. "What is so amazing is that 100 years later, he remains the absolute icon for cinema."
The reason the character has remained a part of culture is straightforward, according to Bromberg. "We are all the Tramp. He has no nationality. When a kid watches Chaplin, it's simple. He doesn't speak, he just shows. He shares the most common values of generosity."
That's just a part of it, noted Ohio University professor and Chaplin historian Lisa Stein Haven, who said, "He's not above kicking somebody in the pants and making the authority figure look bad."
The Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax Avenue is amid a two-month celebration, "The Tramp at 100: A Charlie Chaplin Centennial." Besides presenting an evening of classic Chaplin shorts, Cinefamily will also be screening Chaplin's feature-length films such as "The Circus" (1928), "Modern Times" (1936), "The Kid" (1921) and "City Lights" (1931).
When Chaplin arrived at Mack Sennett's Keystone Film Co. in 1913, the British comedian was touring the U.S. with Fred Karno's theatrical company. At 24, he was already a seasoned veteran of the British music hall, having joined the Karno troupe in 1908. At Keystone, Chaplin became a member of the stock company of comedic actors such as Sennett, Mabel Normand and Fatty Arbuckle.
Chaplin, though, didn't have a clue about movies. "He wasn't at all a cinema creature," said Bromberg. "He thought the films were to be shot in chronological order."
Movie audiences got their first look at Chaplin in the short comedy "Making a Living," released in early 1914; he played a swindler — replete with top hat and a villainous mustache.
The Tramp was born with his second film — "Mabel's Strange Predicament," staring Normand. As Chaplin related in "My Autobiography," Sennett told him, "'We need some gags here,' he said, then turned to me. 'Put on a comedy make-up. Anything will do.'"
On his way to wardrobe, Chaplin thought: "I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. I wanted everything a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large. I was undecided whether to look old or young, but remembering Sennett had expected me to be a much older man, I added a small mustache, which, I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression."
The moment Chaplin put on the clothes and makeup, "I began to know him, and by the time I walked on to the stage he was fully born." And Sennett, said Chaplin, "stood and giggled until his body began to shake."
"Mabel's Strange Predicament," which opened Feb. 9, 1914, was actually the second Tramp film released. Two days earlier, Keystone brought out "Kid Auto Races at Venice."
Chaplin is riotously funny in both comedies and demonstrates his brilliant comic timing and athleticism. But the early Tramp was quite different than the sweetly sentimental fellow who took care of a little boy in "The Kid" and earned money for a blind woman to regain her sight in "City Lights."
In "Mabel's Strange Predicament," he's a slapstick happy drunk whose flask is his best friend. And in "Kid Auto Races," the Tramp is an obnoxious spectator who keeps interrupting the filming of the race.
"What we have is a character of some vulgarity, a bit violent, very funny, but very slapstick," said Bromberg.
But then Chaplin took charge of his films by mid-1914. The character was so popular, he went to Sennett and told him, "If you want me to stay, I want to do the films myself," said Bromberg.
The Tramp continued to evolve by the time he got to the Mutual Film Co. in 1916, where over the course of two years he made 12 films, including such early masterpieces as "The Immigrant" and "The Vagabond."
'"Chaplin is still so funny but there is some romance going on, and all of a sudden you have tears and laughs in the same film," said Bromberg.
With the release in 1921 of his first feature-length film, "The Kid," Chaplin's evolution from a wastrel to the funny little man who wore his heart and emotions on his sleeve was complete. The Tramp had fully arrived, and movies were never the same.