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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.