He first appears as someone called “the Swindler,” a dappled character scrapping it out with Henry Lehrman’s “Reporter” in the 1914 silent short comedy Making a Living. The struggle is real. Finding work isn’t easy and people are forced to fight it out for whatever employment can be found.
And Charlie Chaplin, clad in big-ass moustache with a cane and top hat, doesn’t help. He’s the deceitful sort, willing to cut corners in order to find a leg up.
The comic, probably born in London, has no issues as the heel of Making a Living. And he has no issues evolving throughout the “crude melange of rough and rumble” comedies of Keystone Studios, the Edendale movie operation helmed by Mack Sennett.
Chaplin inked a contract with Sennett’s studio while he was on tour with Fred Karno’s theatre company. A telegram arrived seeking a “Chaffin” and manager Alfred Reeves did the translation work, passing the note of interest to the twentysomething comic. Chaplin, in turn, assumed he’d been left an inheritance by a great aunt and took off for New York to see what was what.
The Keystone telegram was sent by Adam Kessel Jr. and Charles O. Baumann, who wanted to sign “Chaffin” as the replacement for departing player Ford Sterling, who was on his way to starting his own company. The Keystone people had seen Chaplin on tour and saw his potential, so they threw a large sum of money at him ($150 a week to start, double his theatre salary).
Chaplin signed his first film contract in September of 1913.
He was less than enthused about working for Keystone Studios and had initial designs on starting his own production company. He wanted to purchase motion picture rights to various Karno sketches, but the Keystone opportunity was hard to pass up and he thought he’d put in a “year at that racket” in order to become an international star.
The plan worked.
Chaplin joined an impressive group of Sennett players, including Mabel Normand, Chester Conklin, Mack Swain, and some guy called Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. And he also joined an idiosyncratic style of comedy, with the Keystone Kops a bumbling group of law enforcement losers and brick-throwing a fact of life. The method was madness, with Sennett once telling Chaplin that there was no “scenario” to speak of and everything was designed to follow the “natural sequence of events” until unavoidable chaos.
The aforementioned Making a Living was released on February 2 of 1914 and Chaplin was not a fan. Happily, critics were.
The comic struggled with the shoddy style of Keystone Studios, as he’d worked to refine his comedy with the Karno troupe and often took months to rehearse. The lawlessness of Sennett’s company delivered the goods on the fly, with pictures completed in days and shoved out to the public. Even in the midst of such bedlam, Chaplin sought refinement.
And he sought his own character, introducing the world to “the Tramp” after Sennett instructed him to “put on a comedy makeup. Anything will do.”
Chaplin didn’t like his costume in Making a Living and took things in a self-contradictory direction for Mabel’s Strange Predicament, designing a look that would lay the groundwork for one of the most iconic archetypes in cinematic history.
“I was undecided whether to look old or young, but remembering Sennett had expected me to be a much older man, I added a small moustache, which, I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression,” Chaplin says in his autobiography.
The character drew big laughs on set and the comic explained it to Sennett as such: “You know this fellow is many-sided, a tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure.”
The notion of a character instantly familiar by his aesthetic came from the British music hall tradition, with elements of a circus clown thrown in for good measure. Chaplin’s own creation became a study of contradiction and comic juxtaposition and “the Tramp” reached audiences with the release of Kid Auto Races at Venice, a film shot after Mabel’s Strange Predicament but released beforehand.
And that picture would show audience reactions firsthand, with Chaplin literally nudging his way into film history by hogging the lens. The short has compelling modern implications, with the character wanting to be in front of the camera more than anything else. He primps and preens like a teenager taking a bathroom selfie. Sometimes he even puts himself in danger, wandering into the track during a race just to get his mug in view.
And a star was born. Exhibitors wanted more of the performer and Sennett obliged, dumping Chaplin in more films and giving him more freedom over his work. By the time of Mabel at the Wheel, he clashed with Normand and was nearly canned. But he bounced back, with Sennett granting him full directorial control over Caught in the Rain. (There is some sense that he directed Twenty Minutes of Love, but Joseph Maddern was given ultimate credit).
Caught in the Rain, released in May of 1914, was a success and Chaplin never looked back. He directed many more pictures and introduced a style of comedy to Keystone Studios that made use of the anarchy but added integral elements like plot and feeling. He was energized and excited by the directorial process and took considerable artistic risks, especially with the elegiac The Face on the Bar Room Floor.
He even appeared in Hollywood’s first full length comedy feature, Tillie’s Punctured Romance, and became a highly sought-after star as a result.
By the time the dust settled on 1914, Chaplin had appeared in 36 films for Keystone Studios. His contract came up for renewal and he asked Sennett for a reported thousand bucks a week. He was refused, but the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company was set to give him $1,250 a week – including a $10,000 signing bonus.
The Keystone Studios era, with all its frenzied comedy and slapstick evolution, can be a tricky one. But it’s also fascinating, with a raw sense of emergent humour and an radical value system at play with bricks, pies and firehoses.
Chaplin may not have been the ideal fit for the disorderly chaos of Sennett’s madhouse, but he wouldn’t be the same without it. He developed his technique, cemented his character and found his voice. And, without the benefit of publicity or advertising or sometimes even credit, he became the most popular comedic star in the United States.
“All I need to make comedy is a park, a policeman and a pretty girl,” Chaplin said. Boy, was he right.