Origin Story And The Early Days Of The Greatest Comedian, Charlie Chaplin, Explained

How do we see Charlie Chaplin? Why do we often relate to his personality? What image comes to mind when we hear the name “Tramp.”? A hat, a mustache, oversized trousers, a tight-fit coat, a cane, and an outrageously obnoxious pair of shoes. We want to wear the same clothes in order to feel like Charlie Chaplin. But do we ever consider the events that made him the greatest showman ever? We will be conducting a series of articles on the documentary “The Real Charlie Chaplin” to learn more about the person behind the showman, honoring his professional and personal life. In this journey, we will learn about the works of the maestro through the interviews conducted with the man himself, his childhood neighbor, and his wives. We will find out what made Charlie Chaplin “The Tramp” and vice versa. Let’s carry on with the significance of his birth year.


Charlie Chaplin was born on April 16th, 1889. Hardly did anybody know that year was going to change the world. The birth of Chaplin coincides with other marked events. Adolf Hitler was born that year. Even the Eiffel tower was opened to the public, and Nintendo was founded in Kyoto that year. These events changed the whole complexion of the world with their own separate prominence. In the field of cinema, the perception of entertainment changed forever with Charlie Chaplin. Little did the world know that a boy would change their idea of entertainment for good. A 1983 interview by Kevin Brownlow, a film historian, with Effie Wisdom, one of Chaplin’s childhood friends, helped us understand what he was as a boy, growing up in the streets.

The Orphan

According to Effie Wisdom, she used to play with Charlie Chaplin out in the streets. Her aunt lived in Kennington next to Mrs. Chaplin, his mother. Both of Chaplin’s parents were in some sort of business. The father left the mother and ran away with a chorus girl. The authorities sent Chaplin’s mother to a mental home. Charlie Chaplin grew up alone as there was no social security back then, no children’s allowance, and no free milk. Charlie started working in the Lambeth Workhouse, but the pay and the food were never enough. The streets were flooded with children begging for food and money. Charlie Chaplin struggled from the very beginning, but he would always gear up with trousers, a coat, and a cane to behave like a showman. He was part of the group called “The Royal Canterbury,” and there he would do some performances. He was about 15 at that time; everyone clapped for him because he was so funny. His performance did not go unnoticed as Fred Karno, an English theater impresario, saw him on the stage. He offered Chaplin to put him in his “Mumming Birds.” This was the start of Charlie Chaplin, and in 1910 he came to see Effie Wisdom and told her that he was going to America and would not forget her.


The Boy Shouted, “America! I Am Going To Conquer You!”

The Karno Company took 12 days to cross the Atlantic. They started to grow as a theater company by playing three shows daily across the continent. Fred Karno’s comical shows were intensely physical. He even showed his artists how to jump, fall, trip, tumble, and slide. The whole crew was the best in the business, but one performer always stood out wherever they performed. Chaplin’s teammates could never understand him; off stage, he was quiet, moody, and withdrawn. He was usually shabby in appearance, but without bothering anyone, he would dress perfectly. He taught himself the cello, ancient Greek, and yoga, but above all, he swore he would never return poor again. In California, a fortune teller told him he would soon enter a new field in which he would earn a tremendous fortune. America was booming with successful millionaires at that time, and motion pictures were introduced to the people of America. However, Charlie Chaplin was never impressed by motion pictures. As per Mack Sennett, the pioneer of movie comedy and founder of Keystone Studios, the introduction of Charlie Chaplin into the world of motion picture was purely accidental. The comedian working for him during that time named Ford Sterling, who acted as the chief of the Keystone Kops (one of the productions), suddenly quit. Sennett was looking for a comedian in a leading role, and he remembered an English act called “A Night in the London Music Hall.” He then contacted New York to find the guy and was introduced to Charlie Chaplin. He offered Chaplin $150 a week, three times more than Karno Company. Chaplin signed a contract for a year, and there were chances that if Ford Sterling joined Sennett again, Chaplin had to return to England, and they would lose the greatest comedian ever.

The Man With The Tramp Outfit

In a 1966 interview by Richard Meryman with “Life Magazine,” Charlie Chaplin allowed the tape recorder inside his house. He told them that he was very nervous in the beginning, right before he started working for Keystone. Richard Meryman asked him the million-dollar question regarding “The Tramp Outfit.” Now, the tramp outfit attracted much confusion because of its usage. A man dressed like “The Tramp” released a series of knockoff Chaplin films under the name Charles Aplin. Now, Chaplin had sued Aplin, and Aplin claimed that he was not imitating Chaplin as he merely took the idea from another person named Billy West, the famous Chaplin impersonator. So, as it turned out, Aplin’s Chaplin was an imitation of an imitation of Chaplin. Two of Chaplin’s Karno colleagues, Fred Kitchen and Billy Ritchie, claimed that his “Tramp” was an imitation of theirs. But all these comedians were originally inspired by real tramps themselves. Now, who were these real tramps? They were the drifters who traveled through America in search of work. Charlie Chaplin grew up with these homeless people back in the streets of London. But in Chaplin’s own version of the story, the creation of his tramp was spontaneous.


When Chaplin made his screen debut, it did not go well with the audience. They could not take him as the replacement of Ford Sterling, and some of them even commented his act was a “flop!” Chaplin was almost fired, and he didn’t have any clue about his required action. He went to the dressing room with no preconceived ideas. “I will make everything into a contradiction. Baggy trousers, tight coat. Large head, Small hat. A Cane. And a large pair of old shoes.”, he said. In reality, the shoes were Sterling’s, Fatty Arbuckle’s trousers, and the hat belonged to somebody’s father.

The documentary’s narrator says, “the costume isn’t stolen, but it’s assembled, magpie-like, from bits of other costumes.” Chaplin said, “I put them on with no concept of characterization.” Richard Meryman then asked him about his first reaction to the tramp outfit. Chaplin said his first impression was, “It’ll do.” Then, in February 1914 came the moment when he first stepped onto the screen with his tramp outfit. The reviews were fantastic, and the world cheered for his appearance. “The moment I put on those clothes, I felt so free. I could do any crazy thing I like.”, he said. After that, there was no stepping back for Charlie Spencer Chaplin. One after another, blockbusters started to release, and with each release, he became more popular. People around America started imitating his steps, clothes, and styles. Meryman asked him when was the first time he really knew that he was famous. Charlie Chaplin said, “I came to New York. I stopped in New York.” The newspapers headlined, “He Is Here!” But, Chaplin’s popularity was not limited only to  New York; it spread around the world. Charlie Chaplin once shouted that he would conquer America. Well, he conquered beyond.


But why was this Chaplin fever spreading around the world? What made Charlie Chaplin a people’s favorite? How did he make his own production house and create films that are still considered masterpieces? We shall talk more about it in our next article. 

Shovan Roy
Shovan Roy
Shovan Roy is a creative content writer. Formerly he used to write film reviews on an international film festival website named Beyond the Curve International Film Festival. He also interviewed global directors. He also interviewed one of the characters from the show 'Trailer Park Boys', Mr. Bernard Robichaud, platformed in Netflix. Shovan tends to write through the third person narrative and he loves to do psychoanalysis. He can't say that he has mastered it but that is some sort of hobby of his. Film is a platform where he loves to spend most of his time learning.

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