The Little Tramp: Frequently Down, Never Out France called him Charlot, Ecuador called him Carlitos — and audiences the world over knew him as "the Little Tramp." For NPR's ongoing In Character series, Bob Mondello pays homage to the ultimate silent-movie clown.
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The Little Tramp: Frequently Down, Never Out

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The Little Tramp: Frequently Down, Never Out

The Little Tramp: Frequently Down, Never Out

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

It's time for In Character - our series exploring the origins and impact of famous American fictional characters.

BLOCK: Today's character has no catch phrase, no memorable quote, not even a distinctive sound to his voice. Bob Mondello examines the man that France called Charlot, that Ecuador called Carlitos, and that silent film audiences the world over knew as the Little Tramp.

BOB MONDELLO: There were kids' auto races at Venice Beach on the day in 1914 that Keystone Studios gave its newest comedian a second chance. Musical comic Charles Chaplin hadn't been very funny in his first movie short, but the sun was bright and a camera crew was going anyway, and studio head Mack Sennett figured the races would be a lively backdrop even if his comedian flopped again.

As it happens, Chaplin had a good idea for the short that ended up being called "Kid Auto Races in Venice." He would play a camera hog — a guy who kept getting between the film crew and the kids driving their homemade cars.

But how should he look? Rummaging through Keystone's closets, he assembled a grab-bag costume: Fatty Arbuckle's pants, a bamboo cane, a bowler hat. Chaplin wrote in his autobiography that he decided that a look made up of opposites might be funny - pants baggy, coat tight, hat small, shoes large. And when he couldn't decide whether to look old or young, he added a toothbrush moustache, figuring it would add age without hiding his expression.

I had no idea of the character, he wrote, but the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was.

That person, who turned out to be a creature of opposites - shabby but fastidious, unemployed but resourceful — took a while to come fully into focus in Chaplin's mind. But already, in this first appearance, there are hints of the man he would be. The elaborate nonchalance as he shuffles again and again into the camera frame, the politeness with which he tips his hat to the cameramen who keep shooing him away. The persistence, the grace, the sheer skill with which he almost apologetically gets in everybody's way. You can't take your eyes off him. He won't let you.

(Soundbite of music)

MONDELLO: A year and some 40 short comedies later, Chaplin made a picture that he called "The Tramp." By that time, he was famous, but his tramp costume and character was no more identified with him than were the roller skaters, carpenters, and firemen he'd been playing in other films.

Still, this time, something about the Little Tramp caught the audience's attention — perhaps because there was more of Chaplin in him. The comedian had grown up desperately poor, shuttling from workhouse to orphanage to the Central London School for Paupers. And he used that. This time, the Tramp was really shabby - patches on his clothes, holes in his shoes. And that made his insistence on being gentlemanly and dignified all the funnier.

It also made his little masquerades intriguing. Not having a profession, this underdog with no fixed address, no real identity, could pick up any role required of him. Ask him to work a farm, as happens in "The Tramp," and he becomes a farmer on the spot. Put a violin in his hands, and he'll make gypsies weep. Mistake him for a policeman, and he can be that, too.

And because he was always found out, always had to return to being rootless and poor, audiences didn't just laugh at him; they felt for him. That was new. And it pointed Chaplin down a different path than the one traveled by other silent comics, a path he shuffled down at the end of "The Tramp" in a way that would become a trademark - trudging away from the camera dejectedly, and then, just before the image fades, shrugging his shoulders, giving a little kick, and in a lighter, more hopeful mood, sauntering on.

(Soundbite of music)

MONDELLO: In that shrug and that kick was a promise he made to audiences. Life might knock the little guy around, but he'd always pick himself up, ever hopeful, ever resourceful.

And in the longer features that followed, he made good on that promise: as a prospector in "The Gold Rush," who, when starvation threatens, serves a boiled shoe as if it were five-star cuisine. As a clown in "The Circus," who can make audiences howl, but only when he isn't trying. As a boxer, and a street sweeper, and anything else he had to be in "City Lights" to pay for an operation that would let a blind girl see again. That when she could see, she'd see that he was just a tramp? Well, there's always a catch, right?

(Soundbite of music)

MONDELLO: Audience affection for this polite, plucky little hobo exploded worldwide. Chaplin was mobbed on trips to England. Paris declared a public holiday when he arrived for the premiere of "The Kid." He was adored, not just by the immigrants, factory workers and street kids who felt he was one of them, but by politicians, philosophers, sophisticates of every stripe.

But sophistication of a technical sort threatened to undercut the Little Tramp's universality. Silence became old hat when "The Jazz Singer" ushered in talkies in 1927. Chaplin had a perfectly pleasant speaking voice, but he knew that when audiences heard him, the Little Tramp would start being specific.

So he stalled, through "The Circus" in 1928, through "City Lights" in 1931, all the way to "Modern Times" in 1936 — nine years after everyone else on screen was jabbering away.

And when he finally let audiences hear the Little Tramp — at the very end of what is basically a silent comedy with sound effects, it's in a nonsense song, fake Italian lyrics to hide his British accent.

(Soundbite of movie "Modern Times")

Mr. CHARLIE CHAPLIN (Actor): (As factory worker) (Singing in foreign language)

MONDELLO: And with those recorded laughs and that little triumph of nonsense — language that doesn't communicate, while Charlie tells the song's story in gestures — the Little Tramp had to fade away, or he'd become like everyone else. And the character's great unspoken secret is that as much as he wants to be like everyone else, he can't be.

(Soundbite of music)

MONDELLO: In the book "The Silent Clowns," critic Walter Kerr put Tramp's dilemma this way: To be able to play a role, to know the role as a role is to see through it. To be able to play them all is to see through them all. But that leaves nothing. No identity to find rest in. He can only come out of nowhere, open his bag of tricks on demand, pretend to be what is asked of him for a moment or so, and go away again.

And at the end of "Modern Times," that's what he does for the last time. There would be other Charlie Chaplin films, but this was the Little Tramp's last stand. He was silent, and though he'd carried on for nearly a decade after everyone else had given up, silence was finished.

So there he is on that dusty road again, chased out of town for the first and only time with a companion, the girl who convinced him he could sing that song. The shrug-and-a-kick? Well, that would be awkward hand-in-hand, so he does them on a title card. The girl has sobbed, What's the use of trying? And he's replied in words that would surely sound foolish if he said them aloud: Buck up. Never say die. We'll get along.

And then, with his companion by his side, his cane in hand, and an expression of utter confidence that next time things will go better, he fixes his eyes on the horizon and strolls away.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: There's more of Bob Mondello's In Character profile at npr.org including a video of the Little Tramp's first comedy, "Kid Auto Races in Venice."

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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