The Tramp: Portraying Real Poverty In Motion Pictures

Born on this day in 1889, Charlie Chaplin’s timeless character The Tramp wouldn’t be conceived for another 25 years. Chaplin based the character, in part, on his own experience with poverty and homelessness. Homelessness can happen to anyone.



The trousers too baggy, the coat too tight, a hat too small, shoes too big and one striking moustache, Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp character is one of the most celebrated screen personas ever.


Chaplin first introduced audiences to this timeless character back in 1914. The story goes that on the set of Mabel’s Strange Predicament, Chaplin was asked by a studio boss to get decked out in comedy makeup and inject some laughs to the scenes they were filming.


On the way to wardrobe, he had a moment's inspiration. "I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large." The little moustache was added later to make the baby-faced, 24-year-old actor look older, and that, according to Chaplin, was that.


"The moment I was dressed," he wrote in his autobiography, "the clothes and the make-up made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on stage he was fully born."


The Tramp became an instant hit. A clown, a prankster and an endless source of joy, he went on to entertain audiences all over the world, making people laugh hysterically in one moment, and in the next, bringing a tear to their eye. The Tramp was both relatable and comedic, using his own suffering as a way of comedy.


The idea for the character may have come about by accident, but there was nothing accidental about the way the character evolved. In early appearances, the Tramp wasn’t impoverished or homeless, he was reasonably well dressed and had many jobs. He was also a tougher, meaner and rowdier character than the one who'd appear in Chaplin's later classics. Over time, Chaplin realized that a marginalized and sympathetic outsider would have much greater audience appeal.


By 1915, his homeless character had evolved to be empathetic and compassionate. The Tramp, which was released in April of that year, is often cited as a major turning point in Charlie's career. In it, Chaplin's baggy-trousered hero was a good-natured drifter who finds work on a family farm.


Until Chaplin came along, homeless people were almost always portrayed in films as villains, criminals or drunks. But Chaplin had a very real understanding of what poverty and hardship were like as he was born into extreme poverty.


As a small child, Chaplin danced on the streets to collect pennies to keep the house going. Later in life when he was only 14, he was forced to sleep on the streets and search for food.


Chaplin brought his real-life harrowing experiences with poverty to the screens, that of which reflected the times.


In the worst days of the Great Depression, Chaplin’s 1931 film City Lights vibrates with economic anxiety. While the Tramp displays heroic resourcefulness, he looks rough by the film’s end— penniless, on the streets, clothes in tatters after a stretch in jail.


Years later, Modern Times found the Tramp facing very different predicaments in the aftermath of the Great Depression, when mass unemployment coincided with the massive rise of industrial automation. The Tramp is now one of the millions coping with the problems of the 1930s—poverty, unemployment, strikes and strike breakers, political intolerance, economic inequalities, the tyranny of the machine, narcotics.


Hollywood studios in large, did not follow Chaplin’s lead to bring authentic stories of poverty and hardship to the big screens. Instead, examinations of poverty became merely sentimental and convenient plot devices, quick and easy rag-to-riches stories solved in the nick of time with stereotypical representations of what it’s like to be impoverished. It was not until decades later, that independent cinema, brought forth honest and unflinching examinations of poverty to their storylines, without showcasing a one-size-fits-all solution.


That is what makes the Tramp’s character so special. He was an underdog for his time, and his struggles, even over 100 years later, are still felt today.

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