Who Invented Chaplin's Tramp?
April 18, 2012 12:34 PM   Subscribe

Shouldn't we credit the director, the one who decided to shoot 75 feet, for the success of the Tramp? Keystone didn't have writers in those days, but did the director of Mabel's Strange Predicament unleash the Tramp? Doesn't Sergio Leone deserve some credit for Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name? Doesn't the director dictate tempo and decide who gets the camera's attention? Isn't the director's job to seek out the hidden talents of his actors and make sure they end up on screen? Doesn't a good director jump on a happy accident like the Tramp and ride it with a prayer of gratitude?

From the beautiful, newly relaunched LA Review of Books.
posted by latkes (23 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
Yes.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:37 PM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


No! Theatre is not a collaborative art form. Actors create characters out of whole cloth without the slightest bit of help from the director or their co-stars. They owe nothing to their training. They need nothing from the artistic tradition dating back to Aeschylus in which they find themselves.

True artists are not "second-handers." Move primely, little Tramp. Move primely.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:50 PM on April 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Maybe. Different directors employ different degrees of shaping their actors. I always let my actors develop the character independently only demanding change if it didn't fit. And, Chaplin did play other characters later including Adenoid Hynkel and Monsieur Verdoux.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 12:58 PM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Worth it just for "...but Chaplin is mute on the subject."
posted by RogerB at 12:58 PM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Apparently I am not good with choosing the pull quotes.
posted by latkes at 12:59 PM on April 18, 2012


Like.
posted by Melismata at 1:07 PM on April 18, 2012


That is an interesting thesis I'd never contemplated. Thanks for posting this!
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:18 PM on April 18, 2012


Chaplin was an expert mimic and a showoff impromptu performer from almost as soon as he could walk. He was also convinced that he was a uniquely special person -- he saw himself as someone who was "the greatest actor in the world," with the "exuberance that comes from utter confidence in yourself." Both traits -- or talents -- were passed on from his mother. Both qualities persisted into adulthood and informed his transformation into the Tramp. It is surely true that Chaplin was reliant on the efforts of countless unnamed and lost-to-history people both in front of and behind the camera -- and that he shafted Mabel Normand. It is also true that he was a genius and a master at what he did. And he no doubt treated a great many people shittily and left many angry folks in his wake. But you only need to watch a few minutes of "Limelight" to know that Chaplin was perfectly aware of the old adage that pride goeth before a fall.
posted by blucevalo at 1:20 PM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


No! Theatre is not a collaborative art form. But Film is. In fact it is probably the most collaborative of the performing arts.
posted by Gungho at 1:58 PM on April 18, 2012


Theater is as well. I assumed the comment was meant sarcastically.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 2:15 PM on April 18, 2012


The Tramp dressed not to fit a type but to fill out a personal fantasy: formal on top, comfortable down below, self-conscious and oblivious at the same time.

You are now imagining Charlie Chaplin with a mullet.
posted by LogicalDash at 2:23 PM on April 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


Doesn't the director dictate tempo and decide who gets the camera's attention?

No, you're thinking of the editor.
posted by -harlequin- at 2:25 PM on April 18, 2012


Doesn't Sergio Leone deserve some credit for Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name?

I'm pretty sure that Leone gets a whole bunch of credit for that character, yes.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 2:30 PM on April 18, 2012


Of course we should credit the director for the success of a film character. We should also credit the actor, the writer, the cinematographer and the editor, at the very least. Any one of them can wipe out the combined contributions of all the rest by doing a poor job.

It's amazing that any good films make it into the can.
posted by Longtime Listener at 2:38 PM on April 18, 2012


No, you're thinking of the editor.

No, you're thinking of a modern-day editor.

Back in the days we're talking about here, the job of an editor was little more than trimming out bad takes and excess footage, with maybe an occasional cut-away or a reaction shot.

Creative editing itself, as a motion picture tool, was of course already developing, but it would all certainly have been done under the sole discretion of the director.
posted by ShutterBun at 2:54 PM on April 18, 2012


Apparently I am not good with choosing the pull quotes.

Aww. But yeah. Good article so far though.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 3:01 PM on April 18, 2012


Of course we should credit the director for the success of a film character. We should also credit the actor, the writer, the cinematographer and the editor, at the very least. Any one of them can wipe out the combined contributions of all the rest by doing a poor job.

To me that's a bit like saying that Pavarotti was a popular singer thanks to the great orchestras and conductors he performed with.

The people this article is attempting to give credit for the creation and success of The Tramp spent less than a year with him, or about 3% of the Tramp's career. I'm sure Sennett and Normand had plenty of helpful mentoring for Chaplin about the art of filmmaking during those difficult 10 weeks until he became a full-time director, but their greatest contribution was probably simply "knowing a good thing when they saw it," and giving Chaplin an opportunity.
posted by ShutterBun at 3:10 PM on April 18, 2012


I assumed the comment was meant sarcastically.

I'd kind of hoped that the bombast and Ayn Rand reference would make that obvious but Poe's law is a powerful thing.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:40 PM on April 18, 2012


To me that's a bit like saying that Pavarotti was a popular singer thanks to the great orchestras and conductors he performed with.

I don't say all the participants deserve equal credit. But imagine a young Pavarotti with his great voice in a duet with Carol Channing, singing music by Neil Diamond, backed by the Baja Marimba Band. It probably wouldn't have boosted his career.

It takes nothing away from Chaplin's genius to acknowledge the helpful mentoring that he got at the start, or the quality of Rollie Totheroh's camera work later on, or any of the other contributors who too often get overlooked.
posted by Longtime Listener at 4:28 PM on April 18, 2012


Thanks for the post, and I hope the pull quote doesn't put people off or put them in a surly mood—it really is a fascinating article.
posted by languagehat at 4:31 PM on April 18, 2012


>But imagine a young Pavarotti with his great voice in a duet with Carol Channing, singing music by Neil Diamond, backed by the Baja Marimba Band.

I KEEP THROWING MONEY AT THE SCREEN BUT NOTHING'S HAPPENING
posted by KChasm at 6:49 PM on April 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


But imagine a young Pavarotti with his great voice in a duet with Carol Channing, singing music by Neil Diamond, backed by the Baja Marimba Band.

"you don't bring me flowers ..."
posted by pyramid termite at 7:13 PM on April 18, 2012


I certainly agree that it's an interesting article and provides a lot of backstory to the creation of "The Tramp," whose legacy in film can't be overstated. But let's be fair: the main thrust of the essay seems intent on pinning the genesis and success of The Tramp on anyone but Chaplin, presumably because he was a sexist womanizer or something.

The article goes out of its way to state that Normand directed "Mabel's Strange Predicament," even though this is far from clear. Various reputable sources attribute the direction to either Normand, Lehrmand, Sennett, or some combination of them. At best it seems that Normand's influence extended about as far as "give Chaplin a chance," but to go from that to "she helped create The Tramp" strikes me as a bit overgenerous. Certainly "taking a chance on an idea" is an important part of filmmaking, but how much credit can we give to directors (especially in light of what their true role in filmmaking was at the time) for the creation of a character that defied and outlived ALL who surrounded him?

Were Sennett, Normand, et al. somehow able to assist Chaplin in creating such an indelible icon in the few weeks that they worked with him? Did he learn so much from these geniuses in such a short time that somehow he was able to convey what they taught him after only a few short weeks, and for decades onward, under any number of studio bosses?

I doubt it.

No doubt Chaplin learned a lot of the craft of filmmaking (as it existed at the time) under Sennett and Normand's mentoring. How to react to offscreen actions, how to adjust one's timing for a cinematic audience, etc. But the mere fact that Normand (or whoever actually directed The Tramp's first screen appearance) chose to introduce him via a long static shot of 44 seconds, suggests to me that they simply recognized an existing talent that needed screen time to develop, and simply gave it a chance.

Recognizing and assisting genius is, of course, an admirable deed. It's not the same as contributing to it, or taking partial credit for its creation, though. (the owners of various comic book publishing companies may of course see things differently)
posted by ShutterBun at 11:58 PM on April 18, 2012


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