The little tramp

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 January, 2011, 12:00am

A proper Charlie

Take a scruffy black coat that looks as if it has shrunk in the wash, a pair of baggy trousers, shoes that belong to much bigger feet, a bowler hat, a walking stick and a stupid-looking, square, black moustache. Put these together on a little man and you've got one of the most famous movie characters ever created.

Charlie Chapin (1889-1977) was cinema's first comic superstar. Many film buffs think he is the funniest man ever to appear in movies. He created a character called The Little Tramp that appeared in dozens of short films and feature-length movies between 1914 and 1936.

Chaplin's tramp was popular all over the world during the silent film era, making audiences laugh with his actions and the scrapes he got himself into.

Last word

The Little Tramp didn't need spoken language to make his fans double up with laughter. He didn't tell jokes or say silly things. When movies with sound, or 'talkies', took over from silent films in the 1920s, Chaplin refused to allow his character to speak. As talkies became more popular, Chaplin realised that time was up for The Little Tramp.

The film Modern Times (1936) ends with the tramp walking down an empty street towards the horizon. This was the last time audiences saw The Little Tramp. In the closing moments of the film, Chaplin allows the tramp's voice to be heard for the first and last time. He opens his mouth, sings a bit of a song in a nonsense language and closes it. The end.

Chaplin wrote, directed and appeared in a handful of full-length talkies playing other characters. But he will always be remembered as the silent little tramp.

Silent laughter

Chaplin knew how to create laughter that had nothing to do with time, place or spoken language. You have only to watch his antics for a few moments and a smile will creep onto your face.

The Little Tramp looks odd because his clothes don't fit. His shoes are too big so he has a funny walk. He often finds himself in situations where he doesn't belong. But he never gives up trying to sort things out even when everything goes wrong.

Chaplin once entered a Chaplin lookalike competition. He was awarded third prize. The humour in this ridiculous situation could have come right out of a Chaplin film, but it happened in real life.

That is why the Little Tramp is funny: he is real. We recognise his frustration in a world where the little man often has to struggle to survive. When we laugh at Chaplin, we are often laughing at ourselves. That was Chaplin's genius, and that is why he will always be funny.

Charlie's file

Here are some incomplete facts about Charlie Chaplin. Complete each one with a word or phrase from the article you've just read.

1 Charlie Chaplin was cinema's first ...

2 His character 'The Little Tramp' first appeared in a ... in the year ...

3 The Little Tramp didn't use ... to make people laugh.

4 'Modern Times' was the ... movie to star Chaplin's ...

5 The Little Tramp looks strange because his ... and his ... don't fit.

6 He often finds himself in ... where he should not be.

7 Chaplin's tramp is a ... struggling in the big world.

8 Charlie Chaplin died in ...


Charlie's file: 1. comic superstar, 2. silent film, 1914, 3. spoken language/speech, 4. last/final, little tramp, 5. clothes, shoes, 6. situations, 7. little man, 8. 1977