The story of how Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp was born.
On a Hollywood back lot in 1914, a 25-year-old English actor named Charlie Chaplin was working on a short film when a studio boss blurted out, “We need some gags here! Put on a comedy makeup. Anything will do.” Chaplin ran to the costume room and started grabbing stuff. “I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane, and a derby hat,” he later wrote. “I wanted everything a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large. The clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on to the stage he was fully born.”
“While Chaplin’s origin story…is a beautiful piece of movie myth-making,” wrote the Guardian in 2014, “it took much longer for the little fellow to grow into the Tramp, and longer still for the Tramp to become a hero.”
The character actually started taking shape when Chaplin was a boy living in extreme poverty in London in the 1890s. His parents were both popular stage performers, but his father died from alcoholism when Charlie was only 12, and then his mother was committed to a mental asylum. But a few of their mannerisms lived on:
- The Tramp places his hands on his hips the same way Chaplin’s dad did on stage.
- The Tramp puts his finger over his mouth when he laughs, just like Chaplin’s mom.
- The big shoes: “I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t trying to follow in my father’s footsteps.”
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Chaplin added the moustache and cane simply because he thought the character was supposed to be older. (He made the moustache small so it wouldn’t hide his facial expressions.) The waddle came from an old man who tended the horses at Chaplin’s uncle’s tavern.
Those elements gave the Tramp his look, but in his first few films, he was more mean-spirited, and he often had a job. It wasn’t until 1915’s The Tramp that Chaplin finally put it all together: the “little fellow” was perpetually unemployed and always very sweet. Audiences ate it up. All of a sudden, Chaplin was making $14,000 per week (more than $200,000 today) and his Little Tramp was the most recognized image in the world. “All I need to make comedy,” he once boasted, “is a park, a policeman, and a pretty girl.”