When considering early American film, I find that it is impossible not to think of Charlie Chaplin. From his humble beginnings on the London stage to his record eighty-one films made mostly in the United States, Chaplin is forever remembered as a master of pantomime and comedy. Virginia Cherrill, Chaplin's costar in City Lights, even referred to Chaplin in the December 9, 1935 issue of Picturegoer Magazine as "the greatest artist the cinema has given to the world" (Haining 141). Chaplin used the skills and experience acquired in his youth to develop the internationally beloved Little Tramp, transforming cinema through pantomime and proving that sound is not required to produce quality films.
Chaplin was born in East Lane, Walworth, in 1889 to his parents, Charles and Hannah, both actors. One of two children, money and basic needs were especially limited. In a 1915 article in the magazine Answers, Chaplin remarked that his family nearly starved to death because acting jobs were scarce for his parents. He could not go out with his brother to find work or food because they both shared one pair of shoes (Haining 17). At the age of seven, Chaplin forgot about childhood and began working in music halls for very small wages. He did the best he could to provide for his mother and brother, as his father passed away early on. Chaplin continued this lifestyle career in comedy and specializing in acrobatics, until he was twenty-five. It was at this time that he was discovered by Mack Sennett and signed a contract with the Keystone Film Company for $150 per week (Cook 173).
It was while Chaplin came to work for Keystone in 1914 that the character of the Little Tramp first appeared. However, this beginning tramp was not as audiences would remember him to be for generations to come. On the contrary, the earliest version appeared in Chaplin's second film, Kid Auto Races at Venice, as a comic villain. The invention of the Little Tramp gave Chaplin the opportunity to display his acrobatic abilities and his powers of pantomime. Gerald McDonald describes this beginning in his essay entitled "Charlie: One of Nature's Own Naturals."
The vagrant with the baggy trousers, derby, big shoes, and can was a buffoon, notable at first for his acrobatic skill in falling, skidding, and delivering, in infinite variety, a swift and well-aimed kick. There was precision in his tricks and postures, a great store of invention in the fun he brought to comic villainy. In good time he would become the medium of expression for his creator's ideas and feelings (McDonald 11). The Little Tramp was indeed a medium for Chaplin. As he grew as an actor and began film making, Chaplin was able to use his creation to stress the importance of the human form in interpretation, as well as to pursue social commentary.
As the buzz began over the inclusion of sound in films, Chaplin held firm to his belief that bodily expression was all that was needed. He was heavily criticized when he announced that his 1931 film City Lights would be silent. Most critics agreed that his view was outdated and that the film would be a failure. Chaplin attacked this criticism, saying in his article "Pantomime and Comedy," which appeared in the New York Times in 1931, that silent film was "a universal means of expression" and that "the medium of presentation should also be […]." He argued that silent films incorporated action, which was better understood than words. He said, "The lift of an eyebrow, however faint, may convey more than a hundred words." Chaplin contended that both comedy and drama relied on action, that pantomime "serves to effect the gradual transition from farce of pathos or from comedy to tragedy much more smoothly and with less effort than speech can ever do" (Haining 135, 135, 139). Bodily action was much easier for all audiences to keep track of. Chaplin worried that too many previous audience members were forsaking moving pictures since the incorporation of sound, such as children and those adults who could not comprehend the dialogue. Chaplin felt that action made emotional response quicker and did not slow the film or its comprehension down. Not long after Chaplin argued his case for pantomime, City Lights was released; and, thanks to its universality through silence, it was another huge success for Chaplin.
Chaplin continued his tradition of pantomime throughout most of his career. With it, he was able to entertain without appearing to be deliberately entertaining the audience. Take the 1925 film Gold Rush, for example. Once again, he was portraying the Little Tramp. This time, however, he happened to be on the verge of starvation. He boils his boot and proceeds to eat it, curling what appear to be his shoelaces around his fork like spaghetti. He makes a gourmet meal of his old boot, savoring it, as is seen with his raising of the eyebrow, with satisfaction and dignity. It is a wonderfully comic moment in the film, primarily because of Chaplin's skill of making the entertaining moments seem like common events.
Therefore, Chaplin drew upon his early experiences to develop the Little Tramp. He became a master of pantomiming and an advocate for silent film, transforming the cinema forever. Above all, he made entertainment universal as a means of celebrating the human form in action.
Haining, Peter. The Legend of Charlie Chaplin. Secaucus: Castle, 1982.
McDonald, Gerald D. The Films of Charlie Chaplin. New York: Bonanza Books, 1973.