Before the man with the mustache was Ron Burgundy and even before the Tramp was associated with a dog in a Disney flick, there was another. It has been a century since Charlie Chaplin first developed his Tramp character who is arguably one of the most well-known cultural icons of all time. His persona will forever be identified with that hat, that cane, and of course that mustache.
Charles “Charlie” Chaplin developed his most famous incarnation over a period of years as he worked in The Keystone Film Co. as a stock character. Movies were still a very new fad and Hollywood was the home of the infant movie scene.
In his earliest appearances the Tramp was a comical drunk and a troublemaker. However, it would take just a number of years to transform him into a sympathetic bumbler who lit up the silver screen and filled movie halls with uproarious laughter. Chaplin ingeniously developed his character in such a way to elicit a wonderful balance of humor and empathy from audiences.
Many things have become obsolete over the past 100 years. Take Woodrow Wilson, The Model T, and World War I to name a few of the high points. How is it then that the Tramp has seemingly continuously remained in our collective cultural consciousness? I’m not just saying people are still sitting back in theaters to see his antics either. His image pops up everywhere mundane; you can even buy posters of him at Ikea!
Obviously in the film community Chaplin’s Tramp is still highly regarded as well. His films regularly place high on polls by the prestigious Sight & Sound Magazine as well as the American Film Institute. However, perhaps even more important than those accolades is the impact that the Tramp has had on our culture, and I do not just mean America but the entire world.
Maybe not everyone is an acclaimed film critic who has seen everything Chaplin (I certainly have not); however I think most people, no matter what their background, can relate to The Tramp in one way or another. His seemingly harmless vagabond image makes us laugh, smile, and perhaps even feel better about ourselves. We say to ourselves, “Wow, if things were this bad in the 1920s or 30s, I really do not have much to complain about.” Now that might be somewhat of an oversimplification of that time, but I think that is part of the reason he’s still fresh today.
The Tramp is the epitome of those old silent movies, with melodrama, romance, slapstick, and oh yeah, no talking. Ironically, it might be this last point that is the key to Chaplin’s success with the Tramp. No talking means no language barrier; culturally, socially, or even with the passing of the years, even 100 years.
Back then when times were good and bad he was the world’s every man and although times have changed, he still has remained the same every man that each one of us are able to relate to. In this respect he is a mustached, shuffling paradox, because he reflects a bygone era and yet he still relates to us in our modern world. Amazingly, it seems that this little, funny looking man still has the extraordinary power to make us laugh, sympathize, and see ourselves through his humanity; even the most cynical of us.
I would challenge you; nay implore you to try a Chaplin film just once. Before you get too indignant or nervous let me say one thing. Start out with some of his later works like Modern Times or The Great Dictator, which has talking, and work your way back if you like it. Or start out with a short film and work your way up, that’s good too.