d. Charles Chaplin / USA / 1915 / 32 mins
Viewed on: Region 2 DVD (UK)
Baggy pants, tight jacket, oversize boots and a crooked bowler hat. Despite what the title suggests, this Chaplin film for the Essanay Studio was not the world’s first introduction to his most enduring creation (that honour went to Kid Auto Races at Venice, 1914). It was, however, the film that cemented The Tramp’s place as the archetypal bumbling idiot with a heart of gold, the gentrified vagrant and slapstick simpleton we know and love.
There are countless articles and books devoted to why it was, exactly, that Charles Chaplin, a poor boy from just South of the Thames, became one of the pre-eminent moving picture stars of the silent era, and why his popularity endures to this day. One theory that occurred to me whilst watching The Tramp recently (and for the first time in quite a while) was Chaplin’s use of direct engagement with the audience, a kind of wordless direct address. I know I’m not the first person to have this theory, but its an interesting one nonetheless.
Direct address was a reasonably common technique among silent comedians, perhaps a hangover from the days of music hall comedy when, having delivered the punchline at the straight man, the comedian would turn his gaze on the audience in an attempt to both share the joke and gain their tacit approval. And yet there is something different about the way that Chaplin utilizes his direct address.
Perhaps it’s in his eyes, or the moments he selects before turning to the audience, but Chaplin’s act of looking straight down the camera and engaging directly with his audience seems to somehow transcend time, space and all manner of photochemical and digital processes. Watching a film like The Tramp, elicits the rather extraordinary feeling that Chaplin is looking through the camera, out of the screen, and gazing straight at YOU. Of course, like other silent film comedians, there is an implicit sense that the viewer is somehow ‘in on the joke’, even if they have no idea what will happen next, but Chaplin’s manner is such that the audience is always engaged, always with him, and always on his side.
Another way to account for Chaplin’s meteoric success might be the fact that he was, in many ways, a proper ‘star’. Rarely is there a scene (let alone a single shot) that doesn’t involve Chaplin. And when you consider that Anthony Hopkins won the Best Actor Oscar in 1991 for The Silence of the Lambs, despite having appeared on screen for less that sixteen minutes, it seems odd that the same prize was never bestowed upon this most brilliant of screen comedians. Then again, you can’t really blame the Academy, after all Chaplin did use his 1929 ‘Special Award’ Oscar as a doorstop.