The Tramp (1915)
This is my contribution to the Shorts Blogathon being hosted by Movies Silently. Take a look at what the other bloggers have contributed to this event, especially if you enjoy shorter movies. (Ironically, at over 26 minutes, this is the longest movie I’ve written about in a week – but it still counts!)
I will begin with a hazy anecdote. If I remember correctly, this was the first silent movie I ever saw. I remember a friend’s birthday party, a 16mm projector, and an adult who was very excited about showing Charlie Chaplin films to small children. Funny enough, I don’t remember whether we laughed out loud or sat in confused silence. I do remember feeling sad at the ending.
And that, at least, was an appropriate reaction, because “The Tramp,” famously, is where Chaplin’s famous character began to show some sympathetic traits, and to represent the “little man” in his struggle to survive in a world he doesn’t fit in to. Previous Chaplins often made the Little Tramp out to be more aggressive, somewhat less appealing, or drunkenly foolish. There would sometimes be moments of sympathy, but these would often be undercut by the motives of revenge or the general chaos of the slapstick situation. The Little Tramp we see in “The Tramp” is far more human and easier to identify with, even if one wonders how long it’s been since he showered and whether inviting him into the house is such a good idea.
The story begins with Charlie walking along a roadside, being knocked over as some cars go by, then pulling out a whisk broom from his pocket to dust himself off, to good comedic effect. Already, we get the sense of a man who is a) homeless and b) eccentric, as well as his inability to cope with the modern world, in the form of the automobiles. Soon, he encounters Edna Purviance, a farmer’s daughter, who is being set upon by a robber, who wants to take the money she got from her father to go to market. Charlie, wielding his hobo’s bindle, is able to drive the man off and protect her. But, it turns out that there are two other robbers nearby, each a bit taller and meaner-looking than the last. Charlie takes them out one at a time, then accidentally sits in their campfire, and must run about in search of water to put out his flaming pants. The slapstick here is fast and thick, with only one intertitle interrupting the action, to make sure we know that the robbers’ motive is money, not something more salacious.
Purviance and Chaplin were said to be romantically involved at the time (they never married, which may have been the best thing all around, given how Charlie’s marriages tended to go badly). Their apparent attraction for each other, particularly his for her, helps drive the movie forward. The Little Tramp likes this girl, and is more interested in her than her money. That’s the only motivation we need to understand his actions for the duration of the film, and it’s entirely believable. We see them at mid-shot as each is introduced, giving us a chance to feel close to them, but most of the acting is broad and farcical, so we don’t need, or get, intense close-ups on faces. This is not high drama, but pure comedy.
Chaplin returns with the girl to the farm, and her father offers him a job. It’s clear that Charlie isn’t used to physical labor, and knows nothing about farms or farm animals, but he takes the job to be close to the girl. He is a menace to the father and the farm-hand, especially when he has dangerous devices like pitchforks, candles, or heavy bags of flour in his hand. He is completely clueless how to milk a cow (and it does take a bit of expertise, speaking as a city-kid who has learned the skill), and has a tendency to break chicken eggs so that they run down his leg, or someone else’s face.
This sequence, which I’ll call the “Second Act” for the sake of simple shorthand, is pure slapstick. We only have a brief scene with Charlie and the girl together, and she seems to want him to succeed, but doesn’t offer more than encouragement. He is lucky not to get fired or beaten up with all the times he inadvertently injures his boss and his co-worker. The camera has moved out to a standard stage distance, generally showing the full body of the actor and some space to either side, but, as with the old Keystones, the different sets would interact, so that a bag of flour thrown from one set is bound to crash into someone in the set next door or below. The editing is critical here, and I think Charlie, or his editor at Essanay, improves the on pacing that Keystone had established. Things are just fast enough to be funny, and they come thick and fast enough to keep the funny building, pausing only when the audience needs a break from laughing so much.
In the “Third Act,” the robbers show up on the farm and hold Charlie up with a gun, insisting that he help with their planned heist of the joint. Charlie agrees. He’s no hero, at least not to the point that he’ll get shot to prove a point. Once he’s in his bedroom, he sees to it that there’s a ladder up to his window, and he finds a large mallet to fight the robbers. After some more erroneous comedy pratfalls with the farmer and the farmhand, the fight begins in earnest. Charlie saves the farm and the farmer gets his shotgun and drives off the terrified robbers. This sequence follows the standards now established, and we don’t see the girl again until after it’s all over. Note that, although Charlie and his co-worker are going to bed (and carrying a candle), there’s no effort to show night time through the lighting. It was all shot in broad daylight, which makes it possible for the audience to see everything that happens and keep track of who hits who, even though the characters are often confused about this.
The final piece, which I’ll call an “Epilogue” rather than a 4th Act, is where the girl’s handsome boyfriend shows up, and Charlie’s heart is broken. He writes a tearful and poorly-spelled note, and goes off to seek his fortune elsewhere. Once on the road, however, he breaks into a jaunty walk that suggests he’s already gotten over her and accepted his lot in life, and the freedom that comes with it. This is where he belongs.
Every source I’ve read online and off identifies the character who shows up at the end as “Edna’s fiancé,” so I guess he is, but it struck me as I watched that no character ever confirms this. It could be the classic comedy situation of the long-lost brother or cousin who is mistaken for a boyfriend. Just a personal observation, I don’t know that it changes anything about the movie.
By the end of 1914, Charlie Chaplin was known in Nickelodeons all over the US and was becoming a major star. The year 1915, though, was what really made him. This is the year that his name and image became known all over the world, and people wanted all the Chaplin they could get. He was so popular that people started imitating him, with various degrees of success, and certain shadier distributors started duping and re-editing his old movies with new titles to try to get in on the profit. Soon the concept of a “genuine Chaplin” was important to exhibitors, who wanted to keep their Chaplin-obsessed patrons happy. This movie was a big part of starting the craze.
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Camera: Harry Ensign
Run Time: 26 Min, 40 seconds