Charlie: The Development of an Icon

Mass-mediated icons typically begin with the establishment of a memorable image, then gradually gather related thoughts, symbols, attitudes, and traits until the icon is not simply a remembered picture, but a figure or symbol signifying certain thoughts and ideals. Charlie -- as Charles Chaplin's iconic alter ego was typically known -- in his final form became so real that his personality was simply assumed by the masses to be symbolic of his creator. In some ways, this was good. Kenneth Dean and Brian Massumi have described how there was a "basic equation between [Ronald Reagan's] body and the body politic that was . . . [the] safeguard of his administration's policy across many a scandal" (Dean and Massumi 1992: 105): for many years, Charlie provided Chaplin with the same shield. Through historical analysis, I aim to show how Chaplin turned Charlie from an outline into a real voice: in my other essays, I will analyze the relationship of that voice to its creator and to the public. The construction of Charlie was a process that expanded over many years and grew only through a remarkable give-and-take with Chaplin's audience.

Chaplin's notion of a tramp character, to begin with, evolved from his fondness for such usually-typecast characters as they appeared in comics during his early life in Britain. Peter Haining traces the fictive bums who were popular in the half-penny comics of the day to find figures like Ally Sloper (a Micawber-like optimist whose rascally schemes included snake-oil sales and other such enterprises), Billy Baggs (the star of "Casey's Court Circus," an impudent boy who led his fellows into mischief and had an "uneasy alliance" with girls) and Weary Willie and Tired Tim, a pair of ne'er-do-wells whose escapades included rallying fellow unwashed to join in a militia. "If you want the simple Chaplin truth behind the Chaplin legend," the man behind the Tramp later said, "I started the little tramp to make people laugh because those other old tramps, Weary Willie and Tired Tim, had always made me laugh." (Haining 1989: 30)

There certainly were elements of Ally, Billy, Willie, and Tim in the antiestablishment figure who made his first appearance in Chaplin's second film for Sennett's Keystone Studio, Kid's Auto Race (illustrated at right). The picture simply involved the prototypical Charlie disrupting a soapbox derby in what was actually an impromptu filming session, but one character element -- raffishness -- was there. It took some time for completely seedy elements to leave the character: Chaplin's years at playing drunken eccentrics with Fred Karno's acting troupe, in such plays as "A Night in an English Music Hall" and "The Mumming Birds", had left their mark, as had his actual encounters with a drunk called 'Rummy' Binks at his Uncle Spencer's club years earlier (whose splayfooted stagger led to Charlie's distinctive walk). The early Charlie, who could alternate with other Chaplin personas (a harridan drag performance in A Woman, a villain in Making a Living -- illustrated here -- and Mabel at the Wheel) was the type of character who would throw bricks at women and led an up-and-down, frequently argumentative and obnoxious relationship with them (often, his sweetheart or female rival was played by traditional Mack Sennett favorite Mabel Normand). Charlie was childlike in his utter lack of inhibition. The occasional control and frequent grace (both in calm and storm) which led him to spend weeks choreographing scenes and led the Nazis to call him a "ballerina", grew slowly afterward; as Chaplin quickly became a director of his films, such gems as Caught in the Rain (in which Robinson describes Griffith-like deftness of editing striking a Keystone film for the first time) and Dough and Dynamite (in which camera angles make the most out of a potentially less-than-exciting bakery setting, illustrated below at left) enabled an unrestrained artistic vision to hit the screen.

The entire experience of observing the Tramp involved watching not only a good actor or a good comedian, but a good craftsman who learned quickly how to play a scene for maximum effect, staging, and nuance (particularly prior to the advent of sound). The icon-to-be was highlighted by state-of-the-art techniques that enhanced his inner life visually even in 1914, when Charlie was little deeper than many comics on the screen. And from the start, Chaplin had important physical techniques for gaining audience identification. "Everyone knows that the little fellow in trouble always gets the sympathy of the mob," he said at one time. "I . . . accentuate my helplessness by drawing my shoulders in," and pride, ferocity, and flightiness are indicated by similar torso moves (Kamin 1984: 12). Finally, by tilting his pelvis back in a sexually nonthreatening way, Charlie was able to make himself look less maturely developed "down there" and, as Kamin sees it, make his "flirtations 'safer' in his early films. . . he can suggest a man, a child or a woman" through such bodily movements (ibid).

The technical side of things was quickly matched emotionally first by adding unpredictability, then by adding an enriching emotional quality to Charlie's personality. Parker Tyler points out how "an emotional trompe-l'oeil was once supplied by Charlie in one of his earliest screen comedies when, presumably overcome with grief at his wife's death, his back shaken as with sobs, he turned around to face the audience [shaking] a cocktail shaker . . ." (Tyler 1948: 29) Such mood swings on the part of Charlie worked as laughable surprises when joy suddenly supplanted grief; they were even more important, however, when grief supplanted joy, for real emotion was something new in comic performance.

The pathos of Essanay-released The Tramp (1915) -- illustrated at left, and often called the first film in which Chaplin's direction was given free reign -- involves the simple situation of a vagabond enamored of a country girl, but ill-fated to have her fall, ultimately, for another. The story, to the present author, is the stuff that I imagine was used in countless melodramas filled with cardboard, completely uninteresting characters. But Chaplin's perfection, at this time, of what Tyler calls the "French" kick, or rabbit kick, the moustache wiggle and other simple, choreographed moves broadly expressing a childish enthusiasm enabled Chaplin/Charlie to bond with his audience (Tyler 1948: 74). Now, while remaining in the framework of a comedy, he could make them feel the pain of loss rather than the urge to laugh at a sucker when he was down, the surge of confidence moments later as Charlie, steeling his nerves, saunters off for adventure anew. To Robinson, the fundamental theme was a "projection of [Chaplin's] own childhood," with Chaplin as the eternal outcast, Edna Purviance as woman (nurturing but impossibly, frustratingly incompatible), and "the Tough and the Policeman": forces of authority or bluff at first, now seeming something akin to the forces of nature (Robinson 1985: 107). This is not, of course, to minimize the hundreds of marvelous gags in the films; it is just to say that Charlie had turned from mere icon to a human icon.

Dean and Massumi, discussing recent American politics, point out how "wholeness and wellness was not on Reagan's body; it was not in his body. It was around it, in his wake" (Dean and Massumi 1992: 109). Chaplin's screen character had wellness, enthusiasm in all three of these places: his apparent youth and his physical exuberance were part of it, but his childlike bonding practice meant that, for some period of time, audiences could be energized, rejuvenated by the icon rather than just watching an actor perform. This aspect was crucial, and the breakdown of identification could and would destroy the special 'something' that audiences had in and with Charlie (as seen in their reaction to <The Great Dictator, discussed elsewhere).

The production of an early Chaplin film reveals how the process of fulfilling the icon's potential took place, a meticulous step-by-step, scriptless affair in a day when many studios still turned out Keystone-like comedies like clockwork cookie-cutters. By contrast, Chaplin began The Cure playing the part of a bellboy in a health resort; simple moments of inspiration and even accident on the set first led to the installation of a medicinal well on the set, then the part of a drunk, obsessed with the well. This last seemed such a revelation to Chaplin that he shoehorned the Tramp into that role, negating its planned actor and revising the focal point of the film. At the point where other studios would have had a released picture, Chaplin knew that he had to hone his character's role to its best possibilities and utmost perfection. Whether or not he actually thought like the icon fictionally thought, Chaplin understood where and how the icon worked, and this synergy fueled audience response.

Michel de Certeau has described how one constructs one's own reality through the process of walking about a city; how the "improvisation of walking privilege," or the choice of the road less travelled, marks the struggle of the creative mind to do something new. One can go along with the "spatial 'language,'" actualizing a reality that others know, or "displace [spatial] signifiers through the use" one makes of them. It's no surprise, then, that De Certeau brings Chaplin's Tramp into the picture as an example of the more unique road. "Charlie Chaplin multiplies the possibilities of his cane: he does other things with the same thing and he goes beyond the limits that the determinants of the object set on its utilization" (De Certeau 1984: 98). "He is a tramp because he has no roots," states Timothy Lyons, "but in spirit he is a kind person beset by obstacles . . . [and] masterful in turning the odds around. He is an admirable character." (Lyons 1979: 14) So admirable, in fact, that when prior to City Lights Chaplin thought of casting the Tramp in a straight tragedy -- as a circus Pagliacci who, when blinded, must conceal this from "his frail and nervous little daughter," or as a "wretched tramp" given a night on the town and then hurtled back into squalor (Robinson 1985: 388) -- he could not do it. Even after City Lights, a plan to end Modern Times with a wistful nun scene was discussed; it too was discarded. As he later said in regard to the latter film, for Chaplin the Tramp was a "joyous spirit living by his wits"; anarchic, according to Robinson's interpretation of that description, but the stuff of visual emotion with an accentuated positive, not an accentuated negative (Robinson 1985: 459).

Admirable and emotional, yet childlike and even anarchic. By walking the less travelled road, Chaplin brought Charlie the Tramp to maturity and unique stature among celebrated stars of film. Where other comedic icons stood for slapstick and meaningless physical humor, even if cunningly portrayed, Chaplin was a human icon in a unique way, representing deep feelings for many in his portrayal of a man against the world: and because Charlie represented "his" feelings so openly, what you saw was what you got. The icon functioned as a satisfying release as well as a one-man raconteur: while not a cypher by any means, Charlie allowed a certain modicum of identification nonetheless, by making it simple to identify with and understand his plights (in this case, through visual imagery). The same method occurred in the work of Grecian historian Marcel Detienne, who according to De Certeau "has deliberately chosen to tell stories . . . . [that] say exactly what they do" (De Certeau 1984: 80): I would theorize that this down-to-earth style holds the same satisfaction for listeners that Charlie's filmic foibles did. Charlie wore emotion on his sleeve, carried it (a la Dean and Massumi) in his wake, and his powerful impact consumed (for better or worse) its creator's image as a private man. The icon would often come to odds with the creator when their viewpoints diverged; but at first the creator did a majestic job of bringing the icon to life. And as Charlie matured in later films, "trying to make ends meet and coping with prejudices," as Lyons has it (1979: 15), he stayed alive for quite some time afterward, his struggle for acceptance linked to a tragicomedy that could be brought to mind by his iconic image.

-- David Gerstein

(For Timothy Lyons' breakdown of Charlie's development into several stages, click here.)

(For the nun scene originally planned for Modern Times, click here.)

(More information on Chaplin's relationship and sometime self-expression through the icon is found in my discussions of his views on the Nazis, on children, and on the social order.)

Text (C) 1995 David A. Gerstein