One of the most popular comedians ever; today decades after his passing, all over the world many millions of people enjoy Charlie’s “The Tramp,” a
character that captures their hearts.
His little Tramp, a vagrant with a heart of gold, wearing a white shirt and tie, a tightly fitting black jacket, black trousers several sizes too big,
oversized shoes, a small black bowler hat and a cane at his side, would rescue himself and others from peril.
Because there was no sound in the early days of film, Charlie entertained audiences with physical movements and facial expressions as he spoke a universal
language of pantomime and slapstick.
Charlie’s tramp, always a man of dignity regardless of his difficult circumstances, would confront evil doers in some amazing slapstick routines. All the
while the tramp made facial expressions at the camera, while wiggling his small black mustache and twisting his skinny body.
At the end of his movies, an orphan or a family or a woman down on her luck, or sometimes The Tramp himself was saved in a feel good happy ending,
uplifting the audience, which had laughed away many of its own problems as they watched the movie.
But real life had not been so kind to Charlie. He was born on April 16th, 1889 to actress Hannah Chaplin and actor/singer Charles Chaplin, Sr. in South
London. Four years earlier, Hannah had a son Sydney born out of wedlock but Charles Sr. made Sydney his son and gave him the Chaplin name.
In 1891, the Chaplins separated and one year later, Hannah had a third son, George fathered by Leo Dryden, also an entertainer. Dryden kept the child with
him and George would not be a part of Charlie’s life for another three decades.
As time passed, Hannah went broke, able to only occasionally get work as a seamstress or to do some nursing, as Charles Sr. contributed nothing to support
his children. Eventually Charlie and Sydney wound up in a home for destitute children, living what Charlie called “a forlorn existence.”
When Charlie was nine, Hannah briefly took them back, but soon he and Sydney were again put into a home for destitute children. Later that year, Hannah was
committed to a mental institution.
For a time, Charlie and Sydney moved in with Charles Sr., a man they hardly knew. But by then Chaplin Sr. was deeply alcoholic, and treated the boys so
badly, the government monitored their care. Two years later, Chaplin Sr. died from cirrhosis of the liver. He was 37.
For a brief period, Hannah left the mental institution, but was institutionalized again and Charlie was homeless, desperate for food and shelter, until his
brother Sydney returned from the British Navy to care for him.
After eight months, Hannah was released from the mental institution, but in March, 1905, when Charlie was 15, she was committed again and was
institutionalized for the rest of her life.
Meanwhile, Charlie landed stage work as an actor and dancer. It was the beginning of his career as Charlie began to develop his skills. By the age of 13,
he dropped out of school.
Charlie auditioned for and joined touring entertainment companies, as did his brother Sydney, the two of them sometimes working together. Charlie focused
on comedy and by the age of 18, had become an accomplished and popular comedian.
Meanwhile, Sydney became a star of Fred Karno’s preeminent British comedy company and asked Karno to audition Charlie. To please Sydney, Karno hired
Charlie, but cast him only in small roles. But as Charlie’s talent developed, by the age of 21 he was a star.
In 1910, Karno sent part of his comedy company to perform before U.S. audiences, with Charlie heading the show. The show became so popular; it toured for
nearly two years. Several months later, Karno’s company launched a second American tour starring Charlie.
Audiences loved Charlie’s comedy and he was invited to Hollywood where Keystone Studios run by Mack Sennett signed him to a contract on September 25th,
1913. His first movie appeared on screen in January, 1914, but his big break came the next month, when he starred in “Kid Auto Races at Venice,” his second
It was in that film Charlie introduced the world to “The Tramp,” and soon fame and fortune were his, as audiences the world over loved The Tramp, one movie
after the next, and he became one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
But never could Charlie have become a star, nor would The Tramp have existed without Charlie having lived such a horrific childhood. For his Tramp embodied
that childhood, often no love, no home, no money, no friends and confronted by life’s severe and sometimes relentless problems.
Yet those terrible times instilled in Charlie an understanding of the needs and hopes of mankind, especially those down on their luck, and in The Tramp, he
embodied those needs and hopes and he always triumphed in the end, as the good hearted and loveable Tramp.