Ça Tramp Énormément

Well, here we are already — THE TRAMP is widely seen as a landmark film in Chaplin’s development. Certainly a film that could never have been made at Keystone. The film where he first tried straight-up pathos, despite friends warning him against this.

Walter Kerr, in The Silent Clowns, rather sides with the friends, saying of this film, “It is in fact, a failure: it solves none of its own problems, answers none of the questions it raises.” Kerr argues this so cogently one is tempted to accept his opinion uncritically. Let’s look at the film and see if he’s right.

One area he may be right is when he points out that Chaplin’s character was not inherently or originally a tramp: he becomes one here, but was back to being gainfully employed in his very next short. When we’ve seen him wandering in parks in previous films, we’ve been inclined (I seem to be using the Kaelian “we” meaning “I”) to assume him to be a few hours away from settling down on those variform park benches, with a newspaper for a bedsheet, but this has rarely been established as a definite fact. He often seems to be on the scrounge for food, admittedly. Films where he has a job often open with him GETTING the job (THE CHAMPION, HIS MUSICAL CAREER, and, as implied by their titles, HIS NEW JOB, HIS NEW CAREER, THE NEW JANITOR, and even HIS PREHISTORIC PAST begins with him arriving, a wandering, tribeless caveman without a cave) so that he at least starts out as rootless and indigent. And I think the costume always indicated poverty. Sometimes Chaplin seems to have considered that it might just mean slovenliness. The Little Fellow was a dirty little fellow. But Chaplin’s own tendency towards gentility and elegance argued against this. His appearance and his acting style combined most neatly to suggest a man trying to hang onto a conception of himself as a gentleman, against impossible odds.

He’s a gentleman of the road here, getting dusted by careless automobiles. He produces an old paintbrush to dust himself off, holding the film up while he bends over to reach between his legs and brush his arse, then straightening up and pulling his baggy pants around sideways so he can do it again, erect. Sideways eyeing us, a little embarrassed, as if challenging us not to laugh at his attempts to maintain dignity.

I sort of already feel something a bit different about this business and the way it’s played, but it’s such a subtle difference I concede it may be my imagination.

Charlie then lays out a picnic, but is robbed by another, nastier tramp. The crucial moment he discovers his bread loaf has been replaced by one of those omnipresent bricks has been, it seems, lost in a historical splice. Charlie miserably munches some handfuls of grass, a meagre sketch for THE GOLD RUSH’s cooked boot.

These two gaglets do two things — they hopefully get some chuckles, but the also position Charlie as a sympathetic underdog. Chaplin could be quite careless about audience sympathy in earlier films, notably the brutish and horrible THE PROPERTY MAN and LAUGHING GAS. As recently as IN THE PARK he seems to have included some closeups of Edna Purviance flirting with him so he wouldn’t come across as a creepy masher, which shows both initial negligence and shrewd awareness of the issue.

The other tramp pursues Edna with apparent sinister intent and Charlie heroically steps in, swinging the guy’s own brick in his bindle to stun him, then propelling him from view with a kick up the arse so powerful it lands Charlie himself on his shoulders, backside up. But now it turns out there are three tramps, rough-looking fellows. (They are Leo White, Lloyd Bacon and Bud Jamison, the backbones of Charlie’s Essanay stock company.)

“He wanted my money!” proclaims Edna, as Charlie gently relieves her of her banknotes. But then he returns the dosh when she’s upset. I think this is good — our man is fundamentally dishonest but also chivalric.

When the other tramps show up, Charlie bests them with a textbook display of bindle-swinging and arse-kicking. There’s a moment that looks forward to THE KID when he shrugs his jacket off his shoulders as if squaring for a fight, and this alone is enough to make an opponent flee in terror. But then his arse goes on fire and he has to run about a bit, you know.

Sweet relief

Walter Kerr does admit that Chaplin experiments not just with tone, but with some beautiful long shots. The bucolic setting is nicely depicted, though this is a very rambunctious vision of rustic life. Unlike THE FATAL MALLET, Chaplin and Sennett’s stupid yokel film, the unit seems to have travelled somewhere worth going to. (Only two miles from Chaplin’s Niles, California base, as it turns out.

Edna takes Charlie to the cheap set she shares with her pop, and there’s some business with Charlie, whose arse is still sore, eating off the mantelpiece because he can’t sit down, but this is cut short by a dodgy splice. (I laughed when Charlie inadvertently slung mash at pops.) IS he Edna’s dad, or just some gink he lives with. He comes in for some rough treatment, but he should know better than to hand Charlie a pitchfork, and anyway, he keeps his money in a sock.

Charlie is hired as a hand, and is brutal to his co-worker (burlesque star Paddy McGuire). Lots of unintentional pitchforking, but quite a bit of purely deliberate forkery too. By the time of MODERN TIMES, this cruelty towards his fellow man would be shifted into the realm of fecklessness — Charlie doesn’t deliberately mistreat Conklin in that one, he just causes the man troubles through incompetence. That’s harder to do because you need to devise ways in which carelessness can translate into mishaps that affect the other guy. Here, Chaplin goes the easiest route, simple sadism.

A pastor (Billy Armstrong) shows up, behaving in a stock pastorly manner — standing in the road reading the bible, making rapturous utterances at the sky — and then sniffing in distaste as Charlie passes by. There’s some business with rotten eggs: Charlie gratuitously shoves one in Paddy’s face, then drops the second in the minister’s bible or hymn book. Closing the book, the guy is assailed by a frightful stench. There’s an anti-clerical streak in Chaplin’s work, where priests are often humbugs, but this moment is startling in its directness and because the guy hasn’t really been given a chance to display corruption or hypocrisy.

More brutal treatment of Edna’s dad. It wasn’t too surprising to see the girl’s father treated shoddily in A JITNEY ELOPEMENT, since he’s the antagonist, the obstacle to true love. But in THE TRAMP, Ernest Van Pelt (also the film’s AD) is a quite unoffending chap. And since he’s connected by blood to our heroine, it’s a little startling to see sacks of flour repeatedly dropped on his poor head. Accused by the victim, Charlie blames Paddy, and laughs satanically as the innocent is about to get beaned. It’s purely gratifying when Charlie the little shit gets accidentally bashed on the noggin.

All this brutal, amoral Keystone stuff seems like the very worst kind of comedy to attempt if you’re planning to drop in some pathos later… maybe Chaplin felt he’d better give the mob a double dose of the violence they loved to make sure the film would succeed with its untried emotional heartstring stuff. Still, it’s a somewhat grotesque combo.

SUDDEN COMPOSITION IN DEPTH: pops is counting his sock bills. The tramps open the door in unison. The close view of pops, wide-angle lens, and the gurning hobos in their stage makeup, creates a whole different world, sort of grotesque mock-melodrama. The bruises inflicted by Charlie earlier have not faded with Tom & Jerry rapidity — I can’t recall an earlier Chaplin film where people show signs of injury after the knockabout. The tramp trio are semi-serious villains, so it’s OK to really hurt them.

Walter Kerr singles out the long shot of Charlie watering trees in the orange grove. “In all of this there is one lovely shot, the first of what I think of as the Chaplin master-images. […] he seems to place himself temporarily in a sympathetic, productive universe, where he is enormously happy.” But I note that he throws down his watering can on the spot when he hears the dinner bell ring.

More interplay with Edna, who, since she’s playing a poor farmgirl not a “lady,” is allowed to dress somewhat attractively. God, those fashions. (“I look a frump,” said Lillian Gish, viewing a photograph of herself in Griffith’s office.)

Charlie toys with the notion of milking a bull, anticipating FREDDY GOT FINGERED by eighty-six years. Instead, he tries to use a cow’s tail as a hand-pump for milk.

Romance! After putting his boot in the milk (and wiping off the sole, flicking the soiled milk back into the bucket), Charlie plucks a daisy and chucks it in Edna’s direction. She doesn’t realise where it came from… (always send a card with flowers). Her ignorance of his romantic feelings has now been established, lightly. There’s a little more craft to this than Kerr allows.

Charlie would flirt more, but he gets an egg (which he’s stolen) broken in his trouser pocket, and has to go stuff his pants with leaves to soak up the yolk. Then he bumps into the holey trinity, the hobos, who try to enlist him into their nefarious plans. He plays along.

Don’t know if the night scenes would have been shown with a blue filter originally, but Harry Ensign’s photography seems to need something to help it get to day-for-night.

Not a particularly clever joke, but I like it — Charlie, burning a candle at one end, as approved, sets light to pops’ newspaper. It’s the prolonged obliviousness of Van Pelt that tickles me, plus this is a positive instance of Charlie causing people angst UNINTENTIONALLY, which is the profitable and ironic terrain he will mine in future, once his character and comedy are fully developed.

Retiring to the double bed he’s to share with Paddy, Charlie arms himself with a FATAL MALLET, which he tests on his strange bedfellow a few times. After accidentally bopping pops, he explains about the imminent threat. There’s no logical reason he couldn’t have done so earlier, but I guess to the extent there’s a strategy in this, maybe Chaplin wanted the audience to be unsure of his hero’s intentions?

Charlie sees the thugs off with skull-fracturing hammer blows, but gets shot in the flurry, seemingly by pops himself. Charlie clutching his shin and looking sincerely stricken must have come as a shock to audiences in 1915 — unless they were thrown by the gear-shift and kept laughing, with increasing uncertainty, for a few moments too long. Pops and Paddy run to his assistance — he tries a cocky laugh, but it’s the wan ghost of his previous boisterousness.

There’s blood, and a bullet-hole. It’s hardly Peckinpah, but a blast of realism has been shot into the film.

Iris in, then fade up to see Charlie thoroughly enjoying his convalescence, with Edna reading to him while he smokes and drinks.

Suddenly, Lloyd Bacon shows up again, this time as Edna’s beau. The double-casting, which we’re not meant to notice and largely don’t, seems apt, since this is another enemy for Charlie, but one he can’t defeat with concussion, for this is an eminently fine-looking fellow and Edna is all for him.

Charlie shakes the chap’s hand a couple of times then goes inside, sensing he’s a third wheel. Suddenly self-conscious, he examines his ragged form. He pens a childish note: “I thort your kindness was love but it aint cause I seen him XX’ Good bye” (This scene is missing from at least one Youtube version.)

Tearful, he takes up his bindle and, wiping his face on whatever’s handy, leaves. Which is interesting, because in the depths of his pathos, he’s still remembering to include a little comedy. So I feel Walter Kerr is not quite right to say that “the single character whose silhouette embraces both sentiment and comedy, and both at the same time, has not yet been born.” But he’s about 75% right. Chaplin hasn’t set up any serious dimension to his character — the tossed flower is a gesture in that direction, but not sufficient to broaden the tonal church in time for this turnabout.

But a lot of this works, or shows signs of working, especially the end shot: after lingering on the happy trio at the farm up until they find the note — and Chaplin’s not overmuch interested in their reaction — we cut to the solitary figure limping down a country lane — he needs that can now. Then he stops, kicks up his heels as if to arse-kick himself, and sets off at a brisk and determined pace, as the image irises in around him, forever.

I thought that was a superb ending when I was ten. I still do.

2 Responses to “Ça Tramp Énormément”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    Always intrigued by not-quite-there beginnings: Lloyd hit on the glasses look before he had the eager young man to go with it; Keaton experimented (at Arbuckle’s urging?) with laughing and crying in his earliest appearances; solo Stan Laurel was aggressive and obnoxious; Jack Benny was a bit sleazy until he discovered fastidious vanity and stinginess. Even Mickey Mouse had to evolve his genuinely boyish personality.

  2. With Chaplin, it seems to be partly a case of getting Keystone out of his system so he can become properly himself. His humour remains quite cruel, but his character becomes enormously less so. And laughing at the unintended outcomes of mistakes allows the audience to feel less cruel, as opposed to laughing at genuine malice.

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