The Birth of the Tramp
The Tramp was born, so to speak, in 1914 with the release of a pair of comedic shorts from Keystone Studios, the stomping grounds of comic pioneer Mack Sennett. Before filming the Mabel Normand production "Mabel's Strange Predicament," Chaplin accepted the direction for funny makeup by assembling the now iconic collection of clothes and won the approval of Sennett himself. He retained the costume for another comedy short, "Kid Auto Races at Venice," which proved to be the public's first glimpse of the character.
A star was born immediately, and Chaplin became a worldwide box office draw as the character evolved through many refined performances into the character we know today. The Tramp (also known as The Little Tramp) never spoke a word even in the sound era (though he did sing fleetingly), but his commercial and critical immortality was ensured through numerous short films and such features as The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), The Circus (1928), City Lights (1931), and his swan song, Modern Times (1936).
The Tramp became a pop culture phenomenon outside of movie theaters as well, inspiring countless cartoons, paintings, and other artistic tributes. Even famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud offered his take on the character after meeting Chaplin in Vienna in 1931 with a letter outlining his own take: "He always plays only himself as he was in his early dismal youth. He cannot get away from those impressions and to this day he obtains for himself the compensation for the frustrations and humiliations of that past period of his life. He is, so-to-speak, an exceptionally simple and transparent case."
The actual personality of the Tramp remains endearing as he rails against social injustice, clings to an unassuming and romantic ideal, harbors a mischievous streak, and behaves as civilized as possible despite his economic situation. The "lovable tramp" persona started as a whimsical depiction of noble poverty (and offered much-needed comic relief during World War I) but proved to be potent well into the Great Depression as vast numbers of Americans found themselves in dire financial straits.
Though he hasn't appeared in an original feature since 1936, the Tramp has remained ubiquitous in society as a symbol of classic moviemaking alongside such other staples as Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. He even served as the official representative ("spokesperson" wouldn't really apply in this case!) for IBM in the early '80s for their line of microcomputers, a perfect encapsulation of the everyman they wanted to court for the next technological generation. Just as the Tramp had to contend with the industrialized wheels of Modern Times, now people can still identify with a likable, warmly identifiable underdog who approaches the often frightening advances of the modern world with grace and good humor.
By Nathaniel Thompson