ALL ARTS Documentary Selects


How Chaplin Became the Tramp

This documentary uses charming archival footage and interviews with experts to delve into Charlie Chaplin's prolific career. They situate him in film history, discussing how he was a bridge from vaudeville performance to the nascent movie industry.

AIRED: March 29, 2021 | 1:00:19

[ Film reel clicking ]

Narrator: When I was a child,

long before video players and DVDs,

my father showed me movies on a small portable projector.

They were silent, of course, and in black and white.

We would pull the curtain, and from the welcome darkness

emerged a dream world whose hero was always the same.


Was it the way he walked, his expression,

his mustache, his hat, or his cane?


Chaplin -- Charlie, the Tramp.

Exactly a century after his first appearance

in front of the camera,

the Tramp remains the icon of motion pictures,

its most famous silhouette,

its greatest star.




Between two bursts of laughter and a jig,

Chaplin ushered movies into the modern world

and put a shine in the eyes of millions of spectators.

From the street urchin of Dickensian London

to the royalty of Hollywood,

this is the incredible but true story of a little man

who became immortal by becoming a tramp.






Early 1918, Charlie Chaplin is 28.

He's one of the most famous men in the world,

receiving letters in the thousands,

even perfumed ones from women.

Though actor, director, and independent producer,

he has yet to make any of his feature masterpieces,

"The Kid," "The Gold Rush,"

"Modern Times," "The Great Dictator."

But what he has invented is much greater.

He has created a character, his double.


And if one day Chaplin became the Tramp,

it wasn't quite by accident.


We don't really understand why Chaplin will still work nowadays

and other very famous stars of the same period don't.

There are many theories,

and I'm sure it is a mixture of everything.

It's he was incredibly talented, obviously,

and he worked really, really hard.

But it's also the fact of where he came from.

Steven Weissman says that people

who come from very unhappy upbringings,

either they turn into adult disasters,

or they end up being really amazing

at what they do.

In psychologist terms,

that's apparently called an invulnerable.

And I think Chapman was one of those invulnerables.

Narrator: Charles Spencer Chaplin was born

on the 16th of April 1889

in one of the poorest quarters of London.

At this time, England was

the world's greatest industrial power

over which Queen Victoria had reigned

for more than half a century,

an austere era that left little place

for leisure and entertainment.


In the late 1880s and 1890s, to be a musical performer

was like being a pop singer today.

It was what every young person dreamed of.

And both his mother and his father

went on the music course.

His father was actually quite successful,

but all sorts of reasons,

one of them being that the artist was supposed to

drink with the patrons --

one of the reasons turned his father into an alcoholic.


His mother never really made it.

She must have had some talent,

but the poor lady lost her reason

and spent the rest of her life in institutions

for insane people.

But before that, she obviously had some talent.

So he had something to inherit, undoubtedly.


What I find fascinating about his childhood is that

when his mother was well, before she became ill,

he must have spent many, many, many evenings

in the wings of music halls

watching other people's acts and hearing songs, music,

watching acrobats, thinking,

"Wow. This is extraordinary. I really want to do that."


[ Singing indistinctly ]




♪ If I find the offender [sings indistinctly] ♪

♪ You bet it won't happen again ♪

♪ Oh, you bet it won't happen again ♪

♪ No, you bet it won't happen again ♪


Narrator: So young Charlie had models for inspiration.

All it would take was a stroke of fate

and a dose of genius to get him underway.

Charlie told this story often, and it never changed,

and I think it must be absolutely true.

He said that when he was about 5,

he was with his mother.

His mother's career was obviously fading,

and she was singing in a military barracks theater.

And Charlie was in the wings,

and his mother's voice broke down.

She couldn't sing anymore.

And how it happened, one doesn't know.

Did she pull him on? Did he go out and volunteer?

But on when this little boy and sang a song

and apparently was a great success.

The audience were very pleased,

and they threw coins onto the stage.

And so he stopped --

very characteristically, he stopped the act

and picked up the coins and then sang them another song.



Chaplin's first years were an extraordinary story.

Most children would simply have given up and died,

but somehow this child survived this.

He saw his mother lose her reason.

He saw his father become an alcoholic.

Very often they were so poor that there was no food,

there were no clothes.

He spent part of this time in homes for destitute children.

So it was a terrible life.

And then, incredibly, the age of 10, he goes to work.

He gets a job in the music halls

in that troupe of child performers,

the Eight Lancashire Lads.


The Eight Lancashire Lads -- it sounds like an odd thing,

eight little boys clog dancing and singing,

but it was obviously a very popular act,

and they did get good bookings.

It was the great period of the music hall

and the period of some of the greatest artists

of the music hall,

who were very often on the same bill

as the Eight Lancashire Lads.







[ Applause ]

Narrator: The 20th century was only a few hours old

when young Chaplin, who had already left school,

was dividing his time between music hall tours

and small ill-paid jobs.

Poverty and audiences provided the education

for this young artist trying to find his way.

Reminiscing about his childhood, Chaplin would later say,

"You have to believe in yourself.

That's the secret.

Even when I was in the orphanage,

when I was roaming the street trying to find enough to eat,

even then I thought of myself

as the greatest actor in the world."


To survive, he could best count on his half brother, Sydney,

four years his senior.

Himself a performer, Sydney was already beginning

to attract attention as of 1906 when he joined the troupe

of Fred Karno's Speechless Comedians.


Robinson: Fred Karno was a comedy impresario

you can compare, in a way, to Mack Sennett

of the Keystone Studios.

He was a bit of a rascal, and he wasn't very attractive,

and he was a bit sadistic, he was a bit cruel,

but he had a wonderful sense of comedy.

One thing that is obvious

is that everybody who worked for Fred Karno

ended up being completely brilliant

at roller skating, acrobatics, turning themselves 'round.

I mean, just, they learned the most extraordinary skills,

I suppose because they just must have

rehearsed and rehearsed all the time,

and then they were performing all the time.



Narrator: Protective big brother that he was,

Sydney got Charlie into the troupe in February 1908,

despite Karno's reluctance to hire

this pale, scowling young man

whom he considered too shy to make it on stage.

The three years in show after show,

Charlie perfected his pantomimic skills.

His name steadily rose to the top of the bill,

where it finally eclipsed those of his displeased colleagues.

Chaplin was just 19,

and his destiny was now well in hand.


Robinson: The great moment came for Chaplin in 1910.

Every year, Karno sent a company to America

for pretty long tours of the vaudeville circuits there.

And in 1910, Chaplin was chosen to go

as the principal comedian with the tour.

This was a revelation to him.

[ Steam horn blows ]

[ Indistinct talking ]

Narrator: Among the other comedians on the circuit

was the young Stanley Jefferson, who would also find fame

in a few years under the name Stan Laurel.

[ Gulls crying ]




Laurel and Chaplin -- two brilliant young Englishmen

for whom the conquest of the New World began in October 1910.

Laurel would remember,

"We were thrilled at the excitement of New York,

but seeing the whole country mile after mile

was really the way to see America.

I was Charlie's roommate on that tour,

and he was fascinating to watch.

People through the years have talked about

how eccentric he became.

He was a very eccentric person then.

He was very moody and often very shabby in appearance.

We never knew what he was going to do next.

He was unpredictable."

[ Train whistle blows ]

The two American tours that Chaplin did for Karno

in 1910 and 1912

took him from New York to Chicago,

from Salt Lake City to California.

And always the same sketches performed over and over again,

"Skating," "The Wow-Wows,"

"The Right Key but the Wrong Flat,"

and most of all, Karno's biggest hit,

"Mumming Birds,"

which became in its American version,

"A Night in an English Music Hall."


Chaplin was superb in the role of a drunk

who disrupts the show,

a character for whom he would always keep a soft spot.

Every night was another success,

but Charlie began to tire of this undemanding public.

It was time for a change.

Robinson: Chaplin tells a story

that he was with the Karno Company in Philadelphia

when the company manager, Alf Reeves,

received a telegram from a lawyer in New York saying,

"Do you have a man named 'Chafin' in your company?

If so, can you get in touch with such-and-such a lawyer?"

Chaplin was quite excited 'cause he knew

he had a distant aunt in America

and probably she'd died and left him some money.

So when he was able, he went to New York

and met the lawyers, and in fact,

they represented the Keystone Comedy Company,

and they offered him a contract.


The motion picture at that time was a working-class activity,

and when I say working-class,

if you can imagine you went in to the theater,

the first thing that hit you was the smell of disinfectant.

That wasn't just for the body odor.

That was for the insects.

So the middle class/upper class didn't go to.



Guyonvarch: When he first got the famous telegram

from Keystone's lawyers,

he found out that he was gonna work in film,

he thought he was going to be a dramatic actor.

And he thought, "At last! I'm gonna be able to play

Hamlet or tragedy or something like that."

And then he found out it was Keystone,

and he was bitterly disappointed

and thought that it was absolutely

the last thing he wanted to do.


Narrator: The Keystone Film Company,

founded in 1912, was managed by Mack Sennett,

a former Canadian steam fitter

now turned actor, director, producer.

His studio is a veritable gag factory,

the movie equivalent of a vaudeville company.


The Los Angeles police had just changed their uniforms,

and Mack Sennett,

who was never one to pass over an opportunity,

brought up the old uniforms.

Thus was born the inspired frenzy

of the legendary Keystone Cops and their wild chases.



Brownlow: In that era, which was a very straight-laced era,

discipline was the watchword.

People worked through fear a lot of the time,

and if they could see a policeman

being kicked up the rear,

that was something they never even imagined.

And to see it done very amusingly was tremendous.

In the teens, people went to slapstick

just because it was slapstick.

It was the most commercial kind of film made at that time,

[ Indistinct talking ]

Narrator: Sennett comedies mostly followed

the same basic formula.

The films had to keep moving and leave the audience

no time to catch its breath or make any critical comment.

[ Blasting ]



[ Slide whistle plays ]




Stories were elementary.

Starting with a simple idea,

incidents piled up until the final chase.

No sooner was one film in the can

than the next one was underway.

[ Indistinct talking ]

January 1914,

Chaplin prepared to shoot his first film,

"Making a Living,"

a symbolic title if ever there was one,

even if Charlie was still convinced movies

were merely something temporary in his acting career.



Wearing a droopy mustache, a waistcoat, and a top hat,

Chaplin played a fake dandy,

a penniless con man bent on outdoing his rivals.


The film was directed by the Austrian Henry Lehrman,

former streetcar conductor who passed himself off

as a French director to get work at Sennett's.


The result was obviously a disaster,

even though the moving-picture world

mentioned a new actor and first-rank comic.


A few days later, Chaplin began his second movie,

"Mabel's Strange Predicament."

In a few moments, without realizing it,

his destiny would change.

He would later recall,

"I had no idea what makeup to put on.

I did not like my getup as the press reporter.

However, on the way to the wardrobe,

I thought I would dress in baggy pants,

big shoes, a cane, and a derby hat.

I wanted everything a contradiction,

the pants baggy, the coat tight,

the hat small, and the shoes large.

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 mustache,

which I reasoned would add age without hiding my expression.

I had no idea of the character, but the moment I was dressed,

the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was.

I began to know him,

and by the time I walked on the stage,

the Tramp was fully born."



Legend has it that he no sooner arrived on the set

than Chaplin had everyone in stitches.

But the public had to wait a little longer

before discovering these early images of the Tramp,

because even before the film was finished,

Sennett found an occasion to shoot another film on the cheap,

an opportunity not to be missed.

And then on the Saturday, there's a sporting event,

a kid auto races, boys in soapbox cars

racing downhill.

It looked quite dangerous, in fact.

[ Cheering ]

And so they send out a crew there,

and Charlie played this odd character,

not really yet a tramp, but just this funny little guy

who is -- tries to hog the camera.

He's always standing in front of the camera

and sort of driving the poor cameraman crazy.

They chase him off, and then he's avoiding the cars.

And it's improvised.

And this is the most amazing documentary

'cause just think of it --

"Mabel's Strange Predicament" was still in the making.

So nobody had seen that.

And the spectators --

the spectators are not there for the filming.

The spectators are there for the kid auto races.

And it's wonderful to see it

'cause here you have documentary footage

of the first audience that ever saw Charlie Chaplin.

It's thrilling.



Narrator: Chaplin made 35 films

in less than a year for Sennett,

often slapdash, but even the least of them

had moments that anticipated masterpieces to come.

Watching them today, we see rough drafts

of Chaplin's character.

But for audiences of the time,

these appearances had the effect of bombs.



Within months,

the Tramp had become Keystone's favorite figure.

The public couldn't get enough of him.

Neither Sennett nor the Keystone owners nor Chaplin himself

had foreseen such success,

But Chaplin's idea of comedy wasn't Sennett's.

He couldn't stand the vulgarity of the chase films,

but it was the Keystone style.

It had to be put up with, for the time being.

Chaplin was well aware of that for now.

He was there to learn movie making.


After a few months, he realized

how interesting the camera work was

and how he could develop his films that way,

and so he didn't so much mind having to do comedy

because he wanted to concentrate on the equipment and the cameras

and see how far he could go with that,

which is quite ironic

when people have always criticized Chaplin

for his lack of camera work

or his lack of technique and stuff.

But at the time, that was what he was interested in.

I think there was certainly no love lost

between Chaplin and his first directors

because they did come from different worlds.

And he wanted time. They wanted speed.

He wasn't very happy working under anybody else's direction.

And the happiness and the real film career

begins when he directs himself.



Narrator: Amazingly, only four months after his arrival,

Chaplin got his chance.

He was now allowed to direct his own pictures.

Seeking inspiration from his experiences at Karno's,

he turned out comedies reprising moments

from his old sketches

perfected on the music hall stage.


September 1914,

Chaplin shot one of his greatest Keystone successes,

"Dough and Dynamite."

Inspired by a baker strike,

the film was shot in nine days as a two-reeler.

A Keystone super production, it cost $1,800,

as opposed to $1,000 for an ordinary film.

Ignoring Sennett's advice to cut and tighten the rhythm,

Chaplin constructed the film as he saw fit.



"Dough and Dynamite" grossed $130,000

during its first release,

unprecedented for a short.


Robinson: The films he made at Keystone are very interesting

'cause in a way, this is his school.

But he was not only learning about filmmaking,

but he was discovering this character.

He and the character were discovering each other.




Narrator: The second act of Chaplin's career

began with a sensational proposal.

In 1907, Charles K. Spoor a businessman,

and "Bronco Billy" Anderson, an actor in Westerns,

had created a production company named after their initials,

"S" and "A" -- Essanay, Spoor and Anderson.

Essanay's proposal was simple.

If Chaplin joined them, he would get $1,250 a week,

plus a bonus of $10,000 on signing

for one year to make 14 films.

He would have creative control, act, and direct,

and the films would be released as Essanay Chaplin Comedies.

It was a fortune.

Chaplin accepted.

This second series would be shot at Niles

outside San Francisco

and later in downtown Los Angeles,

Chaplin having quickly decided

that Essanay's Chicago studios were too cold.





The first Essanay films still bore traces

of the Keystone manner.

But the films and character evolved,

and the marketing was also quite different.

As the posters would have it,

Chaplin's films were no longer mere movies.

They were comic art.

But most of all,

the Chaplin business was becoming a phenomenon.


Guyonvarch: The Essanay company in 1915

started licensing Chaplin merchandise,

and I think this is the oldest things.

We've got a bowl and a cup and a mug.

And it's quite interesting because you can see

the sort of vulgar, nasty-looking Charlie.

He's not a nice, sympathetic Tramp at all.

This says, "Charlie going to the park,"

and he doesn't look very nice.

You wouldn't really want to meet him in the park.

Narrator: The Tramp's image was licensed

for objects and publications,

figurines, songs, poems,

comic strips, cartoons.

The Tramp became a valuable commodity.


Man: ♪ There's a funny man I know ♪

Man #2: ♪ Who gets all the people's dough ♪

♪ He works in the movie show ♪

Both: ♪ Mr. Charlie Chaplin

♪ Dancing in the cabaret

♪ Is a thing of bygone days ♪

♪ Here's the latest and the greatest craze ♪

♪ Those Charlie Chaplin feet, those funny Chaplin feet ♪

♪ When he comes down the street ♪

♪ He makes the cops flop

♪ They chase him 'round the town ♪

♪ An auto knocks him down

♪ Poor Charlie, 20 times a day they spill him ♪

♪ But they never kill him like a bug ♪

♪ He gives the gals a hug

♪ And when he stubs his toe and bangs his nose ♪

♪ You tumble from your seat, whee! ♪

♪ One fat lady that I saw got a dislocated jaw ♪

♪ Laughing at those Charlie Chaplin feet ♪

In the teens, all you had to do if you were an exhibitor

was to put a cardboard cutout photograph of Charlie Chaplin

at the entrance to your theater,

and on the top it said, "He's here."

And you'd fill your theater.

[ Bell clanging ]

[ Train whistle blows ]

Narrator: Chaplin was so involved in his work

that he was one of the last

to measure the scope of his popularity.

In his autobiography, he relates how during a train trip,

he saw crowds growing from stop to stop

and thought there must be a celebrity aboard

before realizing it was him they'd come to see.

[ Indistinct talking and cheering ]


Tramp look-alike contests became the rage the world over.

They say they Chaplin took part incognito in one of them

and came in third.

The Tramp now belonged to the popular imagination

like Poirot or [indistinct].

But more than the costume

that could have been worn by a million vagabonds,

what was unique about Chaplin was his walk.



Other producers didn't hesitate to use the formula

that made Chaplin so successful.

Imitators soon appeared,

claiming to be funnier than their model

or simply the funniest man in the world.

Among them, Oliver Hardy sometimes played the heavy.



Guyonvarch: Because the Tramp and Tramp films

were so financially successful,

many people started copying them.

Chaplin started to go to court against these people,

and the judge ended up

by describing perfectly the Little Tramp character.

And interestingly, in the court documents, in the judgment,

there's a portrait of Charlie Chaplin

dressed in his Tramp outfit and the sort of legal document

saying,"This Tramp is Charlie Chaplin's Tramp."

But that didn't stop other people carrying on,

imitating him, obviously,

but perhaps less financially successfully.





Narrator: Chaplin stayed way ahead of these insipid copycats.

His plots had become more layered and subtler.

The films now lasted 25 minutes,

or two reels.

The Tramp, until now directly inspired

by the toughness of the music hall

where a sketch has to register in a few minutes,

also began to become more complex.



I'm sure that his stage experience

and learning about how people laugh on stage

and waiting for the laugh and knowing the timing

was completely essential in his film work

because he must have known -- from performing live,

he must have known in his films when people were gonna laugh,

so he would do a gag and then leave little time

for them to recover from laughing

before the next gag came.

And he must have edited his films

with live laughter in mind.



Narrator: Also during 1915,

he made "A Night in the Show," where for the last time,

he revived the sketch that had made his name with Karno,

"A Night in an English Music Hall."


He played the drunken dandy as he had on stage,

but added a second role, a Tramp in the balcony

who bombards the third-rate vaudeville act

with everything that comes to hand.






Thus, Chaplin said goodbye to theater.

He would now belong entirely to the movies.



A Essanay, Chaplin made a most important discovery

in Edna Purviance, a pretty young secretary

he noticed in a San Francisco cafe.

She knew nothing about movies,

but would become his muse, companion,

and the female lead in all his films

for the decade to come.

Guyonvarch: Edna Purviance is interesting, isn't she,

because she's very different from the Keystone female stars.

Going on to Essanay, he must have realized

the need for his character to develop more sympathetically.

And therefore, he wasn't looking for a skinny little

kicking-in-pants woman.

He was looking for a more romantic woman.

And she really does have the most amazing face, doesn't she?


Robinson: In the early Keystone films,

well, he's just a vulgar little man,

and as you follow through the Essanay films,

then you get wonderful things like the Tramp in "The Bank"

where suddenly there's emotion

and there's love in there's sentiment,

and you're invited to wipe away a tear as well as to laugh.



Narrator: After several months,

Chaplin was bored in Niles.

He missed city life and persuaded his employers

to rent the Majestic Studios on Fairview Avenue in Los Angeles,

where he would complete his contract at the end of the year.

But before leaving Niles,

he made one of his signature films,

"The Tramp."


Here for the first time, Charlie made his classic exit,

waddling away up a country road alone and heartbroken.



[ Clicking ]

In December 1915, the time had come

for Chaplin to leave.

His contract with Essanay was expiring.

His popularity had never been so great,

his enthusiasm and ambition so high.

It was the moment for a new adventure.

Chaplin fever was only just beginning.








In February 1916, Chaplin and his brother Sydney

were in New York to study proposals

that were pouring in from movie companies all over the country.

None came anywhere close to the offer

from the Mutual Film Corporation,

which hired the greatest movie star

for the unheard of salary of $10,000 a week

with a $150,000 bonus at signing.

No artist had ever earned so much.

Chaplin was now the embodiment of the American Dream.


Guyonvarch: When Mutual paid his salary,

they actually reproduced the checks they were paying him

and published them in the newspapers

and stated, "Apart from the war,

Chaplin is the most expensive thing in history."

Then they also advertised that he was worth it

and they knew they would get their money back,

which, of course, they did.

[ Birds chirping ]

Narrator: Mutual provided Chaplin

with his own staff and studio,

the Lone Star Studio,

which included an open air stage lit by the California sun,

a film processing lab, a projection room,

offices, and some dressing rooms for the actors.

Among them was a newcomer, Eric Campbell,

a 6-foot-4 giant who became the ideal Goliath.

As Alfred Hitchcock would say,

"The better the villain, the better the film."









Chaplin regarded the Mutual period as his happiest years.

He was now virtually independent in the sense

that he had his own studio, his own staff.

Everybody on the lot was working on what he was working on.

There was nothing else happening.

At the same time, he wasn't working for himself.

He was responsible to Mutual.

They were producers, after all,

but they were utterly dependent on Chaplin.

And if Chaplin ran out of ideas

and stayed home for a few days, there was nothing they could do.



Narrator: Chaplin was expected to deliver a film a month,

which didn't seem impossible considering his pace

at Keystone and Essanay.

But Chaplin's work method was now entirely different.

Charlie was not part of the commercial world

that produced film by the foot

without being concerned what was going on in the audience.

He knew what his public liked.

He knew the sound of its laughter.

He was going to take his time

and give the best that was in him.

Brownlow: In the film industry,

the worst thing you can say about somebody

is he doesn't know what he's doing.

It couldn't possibly apply to the most successful

comic in history, could it?

But in fact, it did.

When he started a comedy, he didn't have a script.

He didn't know what he was going to do.

In other words, he went on until it worked

and then later on decided

whether it was going to be in the film or not.


And in the case of "The Immigrant,"

that began as a "La Bohème" cafe comedy,

nothing to do with immigration or anything else.

It is said that "The Immigrant" alone used up as much film

as Griffith shot on "Intolerance,"

which lasts three and a half hours.

[ Film reel clicking ]


Narrator: Abandoning the idea of "La Bohème,"

Chaplin thought up a new situation.

The setting was the same, only this time he had to deal

with an irascible waiter played by Henry Bergman...

...a waiter who knew how to command respect

when the customer couldn't pay.



The waiter realizes that Charlie's coin is a fake.

The troubles begin.

The scenes are perfect, yet something doesn't click.

Once more, they have to start from scratch.


This time, Eric Campbell plays the waiter.

Clearly, he's the ideal menace the film needs,

capable of inspiring fear by his mere presence

and thus enriching the plot with new gags.



Perfectionist that he was, Charlie would reshoot a scene

as many times as he thought necessary,

refining the gags in front of the camera

until he got the perfect result.

Film stock was cheap. Good ideas were not.


In the end, hours with a crew,

endless improvisations, and miles of rushes

provides several minutes of grace and sheer genius.




Guyonvarch: He has this way of moving on the stage

and on the screen that is unique

and probably because he was so small, as well.

I mean, he wouldn't have been the same

if he'd been 6 foot tall, would it, and sort of hunky?

He wouldn't have had the same grace or the same agility

or the same capacity to do what he did.

And all women fell madly in love with him.

Robinson: He could not help moving marvelously.

He couldn't help doing things with grace.

I think it was quite a moment for him when he met Nijinsky.

Nijinsky was in Los Angeles and visited the studio,

and he sat there watching him make --

actually making "Easy Street"

and watching him with great solemnity.

And at the end, he said, "You're a dancer."

[ Laughs ] Thrilling for Chaplin.



Narrator: The Chaplin studio was now a fashionable place

where one hurried to see the genius at work

and to be seen in his company.

In 1914, while he was still a beginner at Keystone,

the French cinema dominated the international market,

and comedian Max Linder was its greatest star,

producing success after success for Pathé Frères.

While shooting his last film for Mutual,

Chaplin received a visit from Linder,

whom he considered one of his mentors,

a meeting that, more than anything else,

symbolized his incredible success.

Only three years on from 1914,

the picture had entirely changed.

Europe was still at war,

and Hollywood was now the world capital of the movies.

Linder, whose career was in freefall,

had just been hired by Essanay

to replace a certain Charlie Chaplin.

The student had surpassed the master.




Chaplin said in his autobiography

that his time at Mutual was the happiest of his life.

The 12 films he made there

showed Charlie at his most accomplished

and earned incomparable international success.



Of course, some whiners were to be expected,

as witnessed a letter addressed to the heads of Mutual

by an Ohio exhibitor.

"Sirs, last night we screened your film

'The Rink' with Charlie Chaplin.

The uninterrupted laughter

and the hilarity and shouts of the audience

literally destroyed part of our theater.

Your film is a menace to cinemas and to real estate in general.


Other storm clouds of a more serious kind cast a shadow

on Chaplin's star in this year, 1917.

[ Marching band playing ]

The United States had just entered the war,

and the good souls could not understand why Chaplin,

a British subject, had not enlisted.

Charlie responded that he was prepared

to answer his country's call

and that he had solicited no exemptions or favors,

which his embassy confirmed, adding,

"Chaplin can volunteer when he wishes,

but he is just as useful for England

when he raises lots of money for the war effort

rather than serve in the trenches."

[ No audio ]

So with his friends, among them

Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks,

Chaplin committed himself to promoting the war effort,

selling the famous Liberty Bonds.

[ Cheering ]

[ Marching band playing ]



[ Man singing in foreign language ]

The image of the Tramp on screens

also provided comfort to the troops.

The light and joy he brought them meant more

than if he had swapped his worn outfit for a uniform.

[ Singing continues ]

Charlie knew his most powerful weapon was laughter.

[ Singing continues ]




1914, 1918 -- chance or fate?

It was during these years of war and darkness

that Charlie's character took form.

The jovial and carefree little tramp

had become a committed figure,

a universal icon of the struggle against injustice.

Chaplin was now free and independent.

The apprenticeship years were over.

Now 28, he would go on to write some of the greatest pages

in the history of cinema.


[ Film reel clicking ]

What became of Chaplin's early comedies,

which were so innovative

and which made the whole world laugh?

Whether as home movies or in countless reissues,

they have never totally disappeared from screens,

but Chaplin didn't produce these films

and had no control over their distribution.

Without anyone to preserve them and oversee their condition,

they seem to have lost quality with each reprinting.

Most prints are now mediocre,

sometimes out of focus, shortened, reedited.

Often the soundtracks are hardly more flattering.


Brownlow: In the motion picture business,

if a film is successful, it's run to death,

and the projectors were not kind,

nor were the projectionists.

Consequently, it's covered in scratches.

Bits are missing, and the more you show it, the worse it gets.

So Chaplin films survive in all sorts of...quality,

but only recently have people taken the trouble

to try and get back to something approaching

the original photographic quality.


Narrator: Among the countless thousands of mediocre prints

circulating around the world,

restorers have had to track down the unique original elements

made directly from the camera negatives.


Of first-rate quality, they've been repaired, treated,

digitized, then compared, completed, stabilized,

and restored frame by frame

at titanic labor to erase the ravages of time.




[ Indistinct talking ]

Here we are on the Piazza Maggiore in Bologna

for the world premiere of the restored

Charlie Chaplin's "Burlesque on Carmen."

For the first time since 1915,

the film is resurrected and shown as Chaplin conceived it...

[ Orchestra tuning ]

...except that this time, the screening is digital.

[ Tuning continues ]

[ Orchestra playing "Carmen: Les Toreadors" ]

[ Slower music playing ]

[ Laughter ]



100 years after the birth of the Tramp,

each new screening of his earliest comedies

is nothing less than a resurrection.

The emotion is potent, timeless, universal.

We are better because Chaplin is within us.

And laughter is forever.









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