Release Date: 10 July 1916
Writer/Director: Charles Chaplin
Duration: 26 mins
With: Edna Purviance, Lloyd Bacon, Charlotte Mineau, Eric Campbell, Leo White, John Rand, Albert Austin, James T. Kelley
Story: The Tramp, an itinerant musician, rescues a girl (Edna Purviance) from gypsies, but romantic complications ensue.
Production: Charlie Chaplin found his feet at Mutual in the spring of 1916 consolidating his slapstick-driven filmmaking skills with The Floorwalker and The Fireman. With the arrival of summer, he turned his attention to further deepening the character of the Little Tramp in The Vagabond, a short that called back to his break-through Essanay film, The Tramp (1915).
Combining genuine romance and pathos with the traditional slapstick runaround, The Vagabond sees Chaplin play the Tramp as an itinerant musician, playing his violin in bars hoping to earn a few coins to buy a crust of bread. This was the first time that Chaplin featured his violin on screen: playing it had become something of an all-consuming hobby for the comic when he wasn’t making films. Simon Louvish, in Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey, quotes a press report from May 1916 that Chaplin’s ‘chief hobby is found in his violin. Every spare moment away from the studio is devoted to this instrument. He does not play from notes [sheet music] excepting in a very few instances. He can run through selections of popular operas by ear and, if in the humour, he can rattle off the famous Irish jig or some negro [sic] selection with the ease of a vaudeville entertainer.’
So well known is Chaplin’s persona by this stage, after two years of fame, that he feels confident audiences will recognise him from a view of his battered boots alone. The Vagabond opens with a shot of Chaplin’s feet, as he stands outside a saloon door, gathering the courage to enter and attempt to entertain the probably inebriated patrons. When he does strike up (playing left-handed, it is worth noting), he discovers he has competition in the shape of a four-man brass band and drummer combination that all but drown out his soulful violin. Wiley as he is, though, the Tramp manages to make it around the patrons with his hat out collecting tips before the band conductor (Albert Austin) can do the same, thus beating them to the meagre rewards on offer. Needless to say, Keystone-style chaos kicks off as the participants in this farce chase one another around the bar room, in and out of the swing doors (those eternal Chaplin inanimate antagonists). The brilliant conclusion to this opening sequence sees the Tramp momentarily escape the chaos, find the wherewithal to pour himself a calming drink at the bar, and then escape the scene unscathed and unnoticed by the others. It’s a great set-up, but it could fit into almost any Chaplin short of this period: the best of The Vagabond is yet to come.
The scene switches to explore the plight of the ‘gypsy drudge’ (Edna Purviance), a young woman seemingly stolen in childhood and now forced to toil for a gypsy community or feel the wrath of Eric Campbell’s whip hand. Although a cliché of silent movies, the use of gypsy tropes so easily here by Chaplin is a little odd, especially given his own later-expressed desire to have been part of such a community. It is probably no more than easy, melodramatic shorthand, but it still looks slightly dodgy and unthinking to modern eyes. The villainous gypsy was a key figure in early motion pictures, including in D. W. Griffith’s (a filmmaking pioneer much admired by Chaplin) The Adventures of Dolly (1908) and in British director Lewin Fitzhamon’s early film Rescued by Rover (1905). Chaplin was simply buying into the implied ethnic shorthand of the day, and presumably saw no harm as he fancied himself to be part-gypsy anyway.
The set-up for what is likely to happen next is clear. The Tramp enters, wandering down a country road (it would have been easy for the short to have begun here, but perhaps Chaplin didn’t feel entirely confidant in dispensing with the slapstick shenanigans of the opening altogether, at least not yet). He spies the crying ‘drudge’ and again plays his violin in an attempt to cheer her up, before falling into the wash tub. Soon, he’s in a full-on conflict with Campbell’s gypsy chief and his gang, liberating Edna in the process.
There follows a romantic idyll as the pair get to know each other, the Tramp brushes out her tangled hair, and washes her face clean. It’s an intimate, touching scene, the likes of which Chaplin would further develop in subsequent films. Their new life is interrupted, however, with the arrival of a travelling artist (Lloyd Bacon) who is struck with inspiration in Edna’s beauty. Fickle as she seems, Edna is soon making googly eyes at the newcomer, breaking the Tramp’s heart in the process. A close-up of Chaplin’s lovelorn face is all that is needed to convey what a largely redundant intertitle also explains: ‘His romance fading’.
Trying to recover his love’s attention, the Tramp tries his hand at illustration, rather unsuccessfully. Meanwhile, the artist exhibits his painting complete with Edna’s distinctive birthmark, the result of which soon sees her reunited with her long lost family. Initially it appears there is no place in the recreated family unit for the Tramp, but determined to end things on a happy note, Chaplin has Edna have a last minute change of heart, returning to pick him up and take him with them onwards to a new life.
More so than in The Tramp (which served as a model for The Vagabond), Chaplin manages to combine the fun of the opening bar-set sequence with what is more-or-less a straightforward melodrama tinged with moments of slapstick humour in the film’s second section. The romance is played straight, with only the Tramp’s occasional clumsy moments or attempts at misdirection providing the laughs. The gags all work, but almost more importantly at this point in his developing career, the straight (melo)drama works too. In the essentially good-hearted but unlucky figure of the Tramp, as he would play it from now on, Chaplin had finally moved on from the violent, cheeky imp of his Keystone and Essanay days. There was more depth and more emotion to the iconic figure now, and that gave him a whole new appeal to his ever-growing audience.
The Vagabond signalled an important development in Chaplin’s art. Elements seen here for the first time would inform later further developed routines in Chaplin’s mature features, especially in The Circus (1928), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), and Limelight (1952). Never one to throw away a gag or a sequence he knew worked with an audience, Chaplin would mentally file away anything he saw as being a hit and find a way to reuse it later, often taking it further than before, in a more extensive project. Comedy alone was no longer enough for Chaplin: in developing depth of character and a degree of sentimental identification with his characters from his audience he was ploughing a new furrow in the cinematic arts.
Chaplin biographer David Robinson highlights a long-rumoured alternative ending for The Vagabond that Chaplin may have filmed and which would have concluded the short in a far darker way. Before Edna’s waif returns for him, it is evident from Chaplin’s body language that he is taking the rejection hard. He shrugs his shoulders in an admission of defeat and attempts to do his by now expected happy walk away from the camera, but fails to pull it off convincingly, his despair showing through. Instead of the hopelessly romantic (and highly unlikely) ending tacked onto the released version of The Vagabond, Robinson points to a darker conclusion in which the Tramp was to have been seen committing suicide by hopelessly throwing himself into a river. The rumoured footage supposedly saw the Tramp rescued by what Robinson called a ‘hatchet-faced maiden’ (Phyllis Allen), but the prospect of spending time with her sees the Tramp throw himself into the river in despair once more. Whether the idea was merely scripted and rejected or actually shot is unclear. Robinson calls the alternative footage a ‘legend’ and concludes its existence is ‘unsubstantiated by any existing footage’.
Although Chaplin’s music could not be heard, it has been reported that the tune he plays on the violin was ‘The Honeysuckle and the Bee’, a tune he was familiar with from his impoverished South London upbringing and which no doubt helped reinforce the pathos inherent in his performance. Music was becoming ever more important to Chaplin off-screen, with his new fame allowing him to become friends with various famous composers and performers. Stan Laurel recalled Chaplin playing his violin during their days together as part of the Fred Karno troupe: ‘I wouldn’t call him a good violinist,’ John McCabe reports Laurel as having claimed, ‘but he sure as hell wasn’t a bad one’. As Chaplin’s career progressed music would play a larger part, including his own compositions as scores for revised reissues of his movies in the 1930s and 1940s.
Chaplin’s fame was now such that his own past was proving to be of interest not only to journalists fascinated by him, but also to himself. He knew little about his own family beyond his immediate parents, and even then there was some ambiguity about who his father had actually been. In July 1916, just as The Vagabond was released, Chaplin and his half-brother Syd (who was managing his business affairs) discovered that the Bobbs-Merrill publishing house was planning to put out a book entitled ‘Charlie Chaplin’s Own Story’. Rosie Wilder Lane, a feature writer for the San Francisco Bulletin, had written the book. Chaplin recalled she had interviewed him during his time at the Niles studio when he worked for Essanay.
The prospect of the book and the gypsy subject matter of The Vagabond caused Chaplin to ruminate on his own unclear origins. Many had commented that Chaplin, small of stature, dark of countenance and noticeably slim, did not resemble the average Englishman. Was he, in fact, born of more exotic stock, more exotic even than show folk? Motion Picture Magazine had delighted in the fact that in 1916 there was ‘much speculation’ about Chaplin’s ethnic origins.
For his part, Chaplin seemed happy to allow others to make whatever assumptions about him they liked. Early in his Hollywood career, as Chaplin later reported, a producer he’d worked with assumed he was Jewish. ‘I did not disillusion him,’ explained Chaplin. ‘If they wanted me Jewish, they would have me Jewish’. During his time at Essanay, Chaplin had happily spun a few yarns for interviewers and journalists, mainly in the interest of giving them a good story rather than in service of the truth. He’d claimed his mother was half-Irish and half-Spanish, and so by implication of gypsy stock. It was a romantic notion to him that he wanted to be true and perhaps even half believed.
When he made his astonishing deal with Mutual, interest in Chaplin and his background shot up. The New York Telegraph tracked down his mother’s sister, Kate Mowbray, and queried her about her nephew’s earlier life. ‘Outwardly he is the image of his father,’ Kate told enquiring journalists. She talked of his musical abilities, focusing on his long-standing fondness for the violin, as seen in The Vagabond. She put this musical skill down to an inheritance from his talented mother.
Repeatedly asked about his background, Chaplin began to spin yarns for his own entertainment. He told one journalist he was French, having been born in a hotel in Fontainbleau, France when his itinerant performing parents were on tour. It was perhaps his conflicting public stories that caused complete strangers to come forward claiming to be long-lost relatives of the Chaplin family, who might think themselves in line for a slice of the film star’s ever-growing fortune. Chaplin once claimed to have heard from at least 671 English Chaplins (a very precise number!) who had all claimed to be close relatives—nine of them said they were actually his mother.
Joyce Milton, in her biography of Chaplin entitled Tramp, highlighted what she described as ‘the most exotic story about his parentage’ that Chaplin was told as a result of his ever-increasing fame. A train porter claimed he was related to Chaplin through an acclaimed mixed-African and American descended painter called John Gwynne Chaplin from Pennsylvania. A painter of Biblical subjects, Gwynne Chaplin was light-skinned enough to pass for white, despite this (according to Milton) he was professionally classed as a ‘race artist’. He spent time in Europe from 1850 and may have had a child with a woman in England. It was easy enough to see how the story that Charlie Chaplin somehow fitted into this lineage could be made plausible. The story was important because of the cultural and political context of race in America in 1916. The previous year Chaplin had much admired D. W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation for its filmmaking technique, but that movie had a darker legacy in a rebirth of the Klu Klux Klan and anti-black activism among some of America’s white population. As Milton puts it: ‘…even a suspicion of “negro” blood would very likely have ended Chaplin’s American career.’ For that reason alone, it is easy to see why Charlie Chaplin didn’t add this particular tale to his fanciful repertoire of exotic origin stories for the press.
Rose Wilder Lane in preparing her ‘Charlie Chaplin’s Own Story’ had turned her notes, enhanced with a good deal of invention, into a first person narrative purportedly telling of Chaplin’s own true rise to fame and fortune. Much was accurate—the author had obviously encountered Chaplin at a point when he was happy to be more chatty about his early life than he became in later years—but much more was simply inaccurate or, even worse, pure invention. It was, essentially, an enhanced work of fiction written as if to be in Chaplin’s own voice: the book was billed as an ‘as told to’ story. Syd objected strongly and set Chaplin’s lawyer onto the publisher and this was enough to convince them to withdraw the book from sale.
In all probability, Chaplin’s ancestry is exactly as we believe it to be today. For the man himself, though, these other possibilities gave him the opportunity to believe that his father may have been someone other than a drunken music hall performer who’d died young and impoverished. He already feared he might inherit the mental instability his mother Hannah had already shown, it would be doubly worse if he were to also inherit his father’s fondness for alcohol (although Prohibition was on the horizon in American—it would begin in 1919 and run until 1933—it actually did little to temper the availability of alcohol). These other fantasy-driven stories of his parentage allowed the nervous, anxious and slight figure of Charlie Chaplin to imagine that his father had actually been a well-educated man, perhaps someone of society or in the respectable arts (as compared to the lowbrow vaudeville). It was the kind of figure he aspired to be (and would, by and large, become). It is clear to see in The Vagabond that Charlie Chaplin was taking the opportunity that filmmaking allowed him to safely explore the fantasy autobiography that sometimes ran through his troubled mind. — Brian J. Robb
Trivia: Eric Campbell’s “wife” in The Vagabond, the harridan who leads the gypsy clan, is actually actor Leo White in drag. Born in 1882 in Manchester, White’s filmography stretched from roles in early Chaplin shorts at Essanay through to a bit part in 1944’s Arsenic and Old Lace. He died in Glendale, California in 1948.
The Contemporary View: ‘The latter part of the story shows Chaplin in a new role, and he handles it well in spite of the necessity of being as funny as possible. He would make an interesting lead in almost any story if it were possible for him to divest himself of the little tricks which have made him famous. Those little tricks still go, and they pay, but it would be a novelty to see Chaplin free to do without them…’—Motion Picture World, July 1916.
Verdict: A solid leap forward, building on The Tramp and setting a new direction for Chaplin with deeper character development and better control over the drama.
Next: One A.M. (7 August 1916)
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.
Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.