Released: 11 April 1915, Essanay
Director: Charles Chaplin
Writer: Charles Chaplin
Duration: approx. 27 mins
With: Edna Purviance, Bud Jamison, Leo White, Paddy McGuire, Lloyd Bacon, Billy Armstrong, Ernest Van Pelt
Story: The Tramp saves a farmer’s daughter from a ruffian and wins a job on the farm as a handyman. When the ruffian returns with friends, it’s up to the Tramp to save the day, and attempt to win the girl…
Production: The Tramp would be the most significant film in the development of Charlie Chaplin’s filmmaking since he first set foot in front of a camera, but before he could make his first true masterpiece he relocated to Los Angeles, abandoning Essanay’s Niles studio in Northern California. He’d essentially reshaped the studio to his exacting needs, but had inconvenienced others in the process, especially studio co-owner ‘Broncho’ Billy Anderson who was struggling to make his own films when Chaplin was monopolising the facilities. Chaplin had also, according to Peter Ackroyd, complained of Niles’ ‘backwoods atmosphere’ and he longed to get back to the city.
At the start of April 1915, Chaplin decided he would rent his own studio facilities in the Los Angeles area where he would continue to produce his films for Essanay. Initially, he took over the Bradbury Mansion at North Hill Street in Los Angeles (as seen in the later Chaplin short, Work) before settling upon Majestic Studios as his new home. The Hill Street Tunnel, near the Bradbury Mansion, was often used by silent comedians as they were able to construct partial sets of high buildings which, when shot in perspective with the city vista, appeared to show the likes of Harold Lloyd or Laurel and Hardy in great jeopardy. Hal Roach would use the Bradbury Mansion as his base for the Harold Lloyd shorts he produced between 1915 and 1920.
With the Chaplin craze in full swing by the spring of 1915, Essanay were desperate to get more ‘product’ into theatres as they feared that Chaplin’s old studio, Keystone, who had far more shorts circulating than Essanay did, would be the major benefactors of their expensive signing’s growing popularity. The problem was that Chaplin was in fact slowing down his work rate rather than increasing it. He’d produced In The Park as a ‘quickie’ to make up for the extra time he’d spent making The Champion. Similarly, after he lavished time and attention on The Tramp, which would send him off in a new direction altogether, Chaplin rapidly produced the single reel By The Sea to keep his bosses at Essanay happy. There would then be a two month gap before Chaplin had a new film on release.
The Tramp, more than any previous Chaplin short, develops the romance and pathos of the character. Shot in just 10 days, The Tramp was, according to Chaplin biographer David Robinson, ‘a staggering leap forward in its sense of structure, narrative skill, use of location and emotional range’. Set on a farm, the short has Chaplin’s Tramp working as a farm labourer (a role he repeatedly fails at—he attempts to milk a cow by pumping her tail). He fights off a gang who are planning to rob the farm and falls in love with the farmer’s daughter, played by Edna Purviance. His new-found happiness is crushed, however, when the daughter’s fiancé arrives. The Tramp despondently leaves the farm and the short ends with what would soon become Chaplin’s signature sign-off: as he walks away down a country road heading for pastures new, the screen irises in upon him, a solitary figure temporarily defeated but soon sure to bounce back.
Chaplin biographer Simon Louvish points out that the word ‘tramp’ to describe the travelling unemployed—as Chaplin’s character would definitively become from here on—first came into use towards the end of the 19th century. It was interchangeable with ‘hobo’, and in 1885 the New York state ‘Tramp Act’ defined a tramp as ‘persons who rove about from place to place begging… vagrants… who stroll over the country without lawful occupation.’ This would be the core of Chaplin’s Tramp character, moving from place to place, always struggling to do the right thing, but often losing out in both work and love.
In The Tramp, Chaplin expended great energy in getting the details right. He filmed on a real farm in Los Angeles and held extensive rehearsals to work out comedy business, much to the chagrin of his co-stars who were unused to working this way. Stan Laurel recalled Leo White telling him of the making of The Tramp: ‘He said they repeated some gags until the actors felt that if they did it one more time they’d blow their corks. He said the business of the crooks going up the ladder was done so many times and in so many variations that they just couldn’t tell what the hell all the fuss was about. That’s what made Charlie a great creator of comedy. He knew that sometimes you have to do a thing 50 times in slightly different ways until you get the very best. The difference between Charlie and all the rest of us who made comedy was that he absolutely refused to do anything but the best. To get the best he worked harder than anyone I know.’
Supposedly, Chaplin had drawn upon a real-life encounter in his creation of The Tramp. He’d met a genuine tramp on the street and invited him into a saloon for lunch, in return asking the man to tell him his life story and of his experiences on the road. For John McCabe, though, this tale of meeting inspiration upon the streets of America was ‘a little too pat, a bit too press agenty’. Wherever the inspiration came from, the approach to this film was very different from anything the comedian had produced at Keystone or so far in his tenure at Essanay.
In producing a more melancholic work, Chaplin knew he was taking ‘an awful chance’, although he felt his pubic was ready for an expansion and a deepening of the Tramp’s overall character. The slapstick knockabout fun of the past was not enough any more to keep Chaplin interested in making movies. From now on, his films would be more concerned with character and dramatic incident, while still providing plenty of laughs although in a more sophisticated form of comedy. His bosses at Essanay were not prepared for the sudden change of tone. In an article headed ‘Chaplinitis’ in a 1915 edition of Motion Picture World, Charles McGurk noted: ‘Down in the projection room at Essanay, the men who passed on [ie. approved] the picture felt a chill across their backs as the Tramp discarded his humour and became pathetic. That chill was fear.’ The Essanay executives may have felt fear witnessing Chaplin’s change of direction in The Tramp, but it seems the public were ready for it. The film was a box office hit.
As it is such an important film in Charlie Chaplin’s developing art, it is worth looking at The Tramp in some considerable detail. For the first time, Chaplin effectively mixes pathos with his trademark knockabout slapstick. Before Chaplin’s adoption of the character, tramps and vagabonds in American movies were generally the villains. They were the characters who held up trains, mugged people in the street and broke into houses when the occupiers were away. They certainly weren’t leading men, and they certainly weren’t comic characters (even allowing for the occasional comedy drunk). Chaplin was making his Tramp not only sympathetic in general, and the hero of his films, but also a figure of romantic interest for his leading lady, Edna Purviance. It was also his first film with a genuinely tragic ending.
The film opens with the Tramp entering the story alone, just as he would exit it at the film’s end. He’s hitchhiking his way across the country, but it proves a dangerous occupation as his close encounters with a couple of speeding cars demonstrate. Appearance is important to him, despite his reduced circumstances, so much so that after falling into the dirt to avoid being run over, the Tramp proceeds to dust himself down so he is presentable for anyone who might stop and offer him a lift. He even loses his lunch to another tramp as he’s too busy buffing his ragged fingernails to eat it immediately. Even after a substitute meal of grass, he is careful to clean his face and hands, as if he were at a polite society dinner party. There’s an inherent dignity to the character of Chaplin’s Tramp that many other comedy creations before this point clearly lacked. His trousers may not fit and his derby may be less than perfect, but he’s a man simply looking to make his way in the world like any other. Despite that, in each film he is a man with no past.
The first action comes when the Tramp gets his revenge on the lunch thief as he thwarts the attempt to steal money from farmer’s daughter, Edna. Although he’d like the money for himself, he likes Edna more so happily returns it. As the farm comes under a sustained assault, the Tramp—as the new farm hand—provides a haphazard defence, involving a brick wrapped in a blow-softening handkerchief. Mischievousness comes naturally to the Tramp, and he can’t resist using a pitchfork to surprise a fellow farm hand. Whether the business with the bag of flour is deliberate or accident is open to question.
The more focused recipient of the Tramp’s mischievous nature is the local clergyman, played by Billy Armstrong who’d featured in minor roles in the Chaplin shorts since His New Job. Armstrong was born in Bristol in England in 1891 and like Chaplin he started performing in vaudeville and music hall alongside a parent, in Armstrong’s case it was his father. For four years from 1910, Armstrong was part of the Fred Karno troupe touring the UK. This connection brought him straight to Chaplin when he reached the US, with The Tramp providing his first major role. He stayed with Chaplin until the end of the Essanay contract, and in 1916 was working at Keystone and then Rolin. Unfortunately, Armstrong’s film career and life were cut short by a bout of tuberculosis and he died in 1924 at the age of just 33. Armstrong’s minister provides much of the straight-forward comedy in The Tramp. The smell of dung on the Tramp’s shoes interrupts the reverend’s attempt to commune with nature, while a rotten egg spoils his prayer book.
However, there’s as much romance as comedy in The Tramp. As in A Jitney Elopement, Chaplin signifies his character’s softer side when he pulls a flower from a bush and tosses it to Edna. This is enough to signify he’s beginning to fall in love with her. He’s motivated, therefore, to help save the farm from the trio of thugs threatening it, and to do so he pretends to join them. It’s the Tramp’s warning that allows the farmer to get off a couple of early shots, although it is the Tramp who gets wounded when one of the raiders plugs him. These scenes are played out as straight drama, rather than knockabout comedy and the aftermath allows the Tramp’s love for Edna to deepen. Recovering from his leg wound, the Tramp is doted on by a grateful farmer’s daughter. He mistakes this kindness during his convalescence as an expression of love on her part. He samples a lifestyle, complete with aromatic cigar and equally pleasing whisky, that he could no doubt get used to.
There lies the centre of this tragi-comic romance. The Tramp gets a taste of a better, more pleasing life than that on the road, only to have it snatched away when Edna’s fiancé turns up. His leg is healed and Edna’s romantic attentions lie elsewhere. There’s nothing left for the heroic Tramp but to slip away, wishing the couple every happiness while inside his heart is breaking. From now on, romantic disappointment will be a core aspect of Chaplin’s depiction of the ongoing life of his ‘little fellow’. As he hits the road once more, it is with a deep sense of melancholy that is evident in his gait. However, as the familiar road welcomes him, his sagging shoulders straighten up and he gets a new spring in his step. Tomorrow is another day and will no doubt bring new adventure, opportunity and—yes—romance.
Trivia: The scene of the Tramp departing at the end of the film was shot along Niles Canyon Road, with him walking away from the studio at Niles—it would also be the last shot taken in Northern California as after this film Chaplin relocated to Los Angeles once more.
The Contemporary View: ‘When you go to see a Chaplin comedy, you know that you will get your full measure of merriment down to the last foot. [The Tramp] is as good as any of them…’—Bioscope, 1915
Slapstick: After tackling the trio of ruffians, who each have a go at getting the money from Edna, the Tramp sets himself on fire at their camp and has to put himself out at a nearby overflow pipe, much to his relief. Most of the physical abuse comes as the Tramp attempts to get to grips with farm life, using pitchforks, bricks, mallets, watering cans, buckets and other implements in ways they were not intended, causing injury and indignity to farm hands and minsters alike.
Verdict: A breakthrough, but while Chaplin’s moving in the right direction, he hasn’t quite mastered the blending of comedy and pathos, 3/5
Written by Brian J. Robb
Next: By The Sea (29 April 1915)
CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION
An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.