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Charlie Chaplin as the Tramp: He was the world's most recognisable man in the early 20th century


In 1915, Charlie Chaplin became the most famous man in the world, says Peter Ackroyd in his illuminating and timely new biography. In that year, it was estimated that 300 million people were watching his films. His creation, the Little Tramp, was the most familiar silhouette on earth. A cartoon depicted two newsboys, one asking, "Chimmie, who'd you ruther be — th'president or th'kaiser?" "Aw fudge — I'd ten thousand times ruther be CHARLIE CHAPLIN." Ackroyd observes: "He was the first human being ever to be the object of global adulation far beyond the later cult of ‘celebrity'." The great man himself reflected that "I am known in parts of the world by people who have never heard of Jesus Christ." (John Lennon, another lower-middle-class English boy with a chip on his shoulder, was to say something similar half a century later.

Yet Chaplin was then still only 26 and had been making movies for less than two years since being spotted by the pioneer comedy film producer Mack Sennett as a member of the Fred Karno troupe's New York stage show. Sennett, creator of the Keystone Cops, recalled "a little fellow who could move like a ballet dancer . . . I had seen nothing like it." When the show moved on to Philadelphia, a telegram reached the young English comic: "IS THERE A MAN CALLED CHAFFIN IN YOUR COMPANY OR SOMETHING LIKE THAT." If so, he was asked to contact a firm of Broadway lawyers. The next stop was Sennett's Keystone studio in Hollywood, where the silent movie business was just getting on its feet. Ackroyd remarks: "He, like Shakespeare, had the inestimable advantage of being an instinctive artist in the preliminary years of a new art." The Shakespeare comparison may be a stretch but otherwise the judgment is accurate. After a sticky start, Chaplin came up with the Tramp costume in his third short movie, Mabel's Strange Predicament, and he was on his way.

Chaplin was to supply endless explanations for the origins of the costume but Ackroyd believes it to be "the epitome of all the comic tramps he had seen upon the English stage" during his desperately poor upbringing in the slums of south-east London, above all the great Dan Leno with whom Chaplin performed for 15 weeks at the Tivoli theatre in London when he was only a boy: his first music hall job was as a clog-dancer at the age of nine. As befits a distinguished historian and novelist of the capital city, Ackroyd roots all Chaplin's subsequent success in his London origins. The word that keeps coming to mind as one reads the horrifying details of his childhood, of his alcoholic father and intermittently insane mother, is Dickensian. Like many before him, Ackroyd finds much in common between Dickens and Chaplin (and Dickens, after all, died only 19 years before Chaplin's birth in 1889): deprived childhoods, energy, ambition, thwarted first love which affected them deeply, huge fame in their twenties. Dickens loved the "penny gaffs", predecessors of the music halls where Chaplin learned his trade. "Both men had imbibed what might be called a London vision in which farce and sentiment, melodrama and pantomime, are conflated," comments Ackroyd. Chaplin, indeed, loved reading Dickens.

"Chaplin, like Dickens, was driven, relentless, overwhelming," concludes Ackroyd. This rapidly became apparent when he started directing, soon after his film debut. He had always been a keen observer of stage technique as a performer and he rapidly became absorbed in his new métier. After a year knocking out shorts for Sennett, at the rate of about one a week, he was the most popular comic actor in America: the public couldn't get enough of the Tramp. 

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sd goh
April 2nd, 2014
2:04 PM
He once said this "....procreation is nature's principal occupation, and every man, whether he be young or old, when meeting every woman, measures the potentiality of sex between them. Thus it has always been with me."

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