Archive for tramp

Ten Tramp Comedians

Posted in Clown, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2017 by travsd

This weekend is the National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa. I have always been partial both to the hobo ethic itself (I’ve been working on an essay about that very thing for a while now) and the image of the Tramp Comedian or Clown. The first costume I can recall ever wearing was a tramp/clown get-up for a Halloween parade when I was about four years old. It captures the imagination — the rootless wanderer, riding the rails, hitting the road, no ties, bindlestiff on his shoulder. Samuel Beckett put a core of such characters at the center of his masterpiece Waiting for Godot, the first non-children’s show I ever saw in a theatre. And it’s the theme of one of my favorite terrifically strange movie musicals Hallelujah I’m a Bum

The theme is romantic, sentimental. And, in the hands of the right comedian, it is funny. Here’s a handful of some prominent ones from vaudeville, circus and films (there were scores, maybe hundreds of others besides these). Just click the links below to learn more about the performers.

Charlie Chaplin

Tramp comedians had long been popular in vaudeville and music hall when Chaplin decided to take his screen character in that direction, thus becoming the most popular tramp in the entire world. Not only were there other tramp comics in the world, but there were several that looked like Charlie’s. Chaplin was said (by some) to have taken his took from Billie Ritchie ; in turn Billy West stole his look and act from Chaplin.

Nat M. Wills

Billed as “The Happy Tramp”, Wills may well have been America’s most popular stage tramp from the turn of the century to his untimely death in 1917. He was a star of vaudeville, Broadway, and some of the very first comedy albums.


Harrigan was widely emulated in vaudeville from the late 19th century through the early 20th as the first tramp juggler. 

W.C. Fields

One of the many to emulate Harrigan early in his career was the young W.C. Fields, shown here in his tramp get-up around the turn of the century

Emmett Kelly a.k.a Wearie Willie

Circus performer Emmett Kelly’s sad clown make-up and costume were so much imitated it became a cliche.

Red Skelton as Freddie the Freeloader

Stage and screen Skelton had a repertoire of many characters; his clown “bum” Freddie may have been the most beloved.

Lew Bloom

Bloom was the first of the tramp comedians, preceding even Wills or Harrigan. He was known as “The Society Tramp”.

George Dewey Washington 

African American comedian George Dewey Washington affected a tramp look in Broadway and in films.

To learn more about vaudeville, including specialties like tramp comedians, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.





Kid Auto Races at Venice: The Public’s First Glimpse of Chaplin’s Tramp

Posted in Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 7, 2015 by travsd


Today marks the anniversary of the release of Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), the film which provided the public with its first glimpse of Charlie Chaplin’s “Tramp” character. This was technically his second film as the Tramp, but the first to be released (the first had been Mabel’s Strange Predicament, released a few days later). After floundering a bit in his first film Making a Living, Chaplin found his footing by putting on a derby hat, slapshoes, tiny mustache and carrying a flexible cane. It was an immediate smash with the public.  Kid Auto Races at Venice was shot at an actual soap box derby (the titular “kid auto races”) held on the streets of the seaside suburb of Venice. Thousands of onlookers were on hand, and the plot, such as it is, concerns Charlie’s efforts to get in front of a newsreel camera being operated by an increasingly frustrated Henry “Pathe” Lehrman, who directed the film. They are the only two characters in the movie. Watch it here!


For more on silent and slapstick comedy film history see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc. For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


Charlie Chaplin in “The Tramp”

Posted in Charlie Chaplin, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 12, 2014 by travsd


Today is the anniversary of the release date of Charlie Chaplin’s landmark comedy short The Tramp (1915). Though this was Chaplin’s 38th comedy, this was the first one in which his character was specifically identified and represented as a literal transient tramp. It was also one of the first occasions on which Chaplin attempted moments of his patented pathos in the context of a comedy.

In the film, Charlie rescues a girl (Edna Purviance) from a trio of highway robbers and is rewarded with a job on her father’s farm.

He bumbles along, perpetrating the usual farm gags (pitchforks get a lot of play) until he is called upon to be the hero yet again, this time getting shot in the process. Edna tends him as he recuperates and he makes the mistake of falling for her. But of course she has another beau, a normal, suitable fellow whom Charlie can’t possibly compete with, because he is, well, a tramp. He voluntarily hits the road – the first appearance of this iconic exit on film.


I first saw this film when I was in high school — I first saw numerous silent films when I was still in high school. I don’t know that I went out of my way to make this happen. There were opportunities to see them and I took them. (For example, I think The Tramp was screened at our local college cinema). Nowadays there are more such opportunities than ever before, by several orders of magnitude, yet the ignorance of such BASIC film history seems just as widespread, again, by several orders of magnitude. All I can suggest is that those of us who care about such things make education our mission, to the point of obnoxiousness.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc. To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


Nat M. Wills: The Famous Tramp Comedian

Posted in Broadway, Clown, Comedy, Music, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 11, 2013 by travsd


Adapted from my liner notes to Nat M. Wills: The Famous Tramp Comedian, available to purchase at Archeophone Records here

Nat M. Wills was one of the most prominent in a long line of a now-extinct breed of performer known as “tramp comedians”. A leading star of vaudeville and musical comedy from the turn of the century until his untimely death in 1917, Wills was also among the first and biggest stars of what we now call comedy albums. A half century before Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby and Lenny Bruce were finding their way to people’s turntables, and 75 years before Weird Al Yankovic, Wills was laying down his distinctive act of funny monologues and song parodies on cylinder and disk, and Americans lapped it up.

The biggest surprise on these tracks for folks who’ve long read about Wills, or seen photos of his silly, toothless visage, is his characterization. One might reasonably expect this kind of character to sound something like America’s most famous modern iteration of the tramp tradition, Red Skelton’s Freddie the Freeloader, an ignorant naïf with little on his mind but the next stolen piece of pie. Tramps of Wills’ own time such as Bill “Old Hoss” Hooey and Bert Williams tended to affect a slow-witted mein that implied that their penury was the result of a deficiency of grey matter. Instead, Wills’ tramp has the air of a gentleman. The contrast between his costume and his manner of speaking must have been especially preposterous to audiences in live performance. Alan Dale, writing in the New York American in 1904, comments on this quirk: “In these days when comedians do dialect and dialect does them, the ‘unique and inimitable’ Mr. Wills is not ungrateful. He tells funny stories in English, as it is spoken, and he has a fund of lively spirits at his command…”

One explanation for the incongruity between the voice and the mask is that, in the welter of niche markets that was vaudeville, tramp garb (much like the less benign blackface) was a convention, a jumping-off-point, allowing for an infinite variety of interpretations. (Other examples included W.C. Fields, who first gained fame as a “tramp juggler”, and Joe Jackson, vaudeville’s top trick cyclist, also dressed as a tramp.) Offstage, Wills cut a dashing figure, not unlike that of Adolph Menjou. Onstage, dressed in the floppy shoes and dirty rags of a Bowery Bum, he kept his real voice. And yet there was a method to that madness.  In 1906, he told the Brooklyn Eagle, “My success as a stage tramp, perhaps, is due to the fact that I do not make this character repulsive, but give to it some of the attributes of humanity.”  In a 1908 interview with the Pittsburgh Leader, he went still further: “Some of the most charming gentlemen it has been my good fortune to meet were tramps…these men have been quick witted humorists, deep thinking philosophers and profound students. The funniest tramps I have seen were off the stage.”

Wills out of make-up

In an odd way, by diverging from the stereotype, Wills may have arrived at a characterization more realistic and more human.

Sadly, Wills was all too happy to embrace stereotype in certain other of his portrayals.

An unfortunate racial tone mars some of this material. Not only was such humor a much cherished staple of those less enlightened times, but Wills himself was a Son of the Reconstruction South, and a former minstrel.** He leans into his “darkie” jokes pretty hard, and the effect can be somewhat jarring to modern ears.

But such material was a small portion of his output. In his eight years of recording, Wills preserved 26 separate routines, some of which he repeated at different times and in different formats. Archeophone’s recent release is essentially the entirety of his available work.

Early Years

Nat M. Wills was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia on July 11, 1873. In an era when facts about the private lives of performing artists are uniformly scarce, details about Wills’ beginnings are especially sketchy. In some places his real name is given as Edward MacGregor, in others it is Louis McGrath Wills. Birth records in Fredericksburg mention neither, although most sources give the latter name, including his hometown paper the Fredricksburg Daily Star, which also confirms that time and place for his birth.

In 1915, Wills told the New York Dramatic Mirror, “Years ago, I was a kid in Washington. The folks had lived in Fredericksburg,VA, and I was born there. But my parents died, and a youngster, I went to Washington to make my way.”

He began his working life in boyhood as a messenger and a printer’s assistant. Then, when still a child, he made his theatrical debut at Ford’s Opera House, with Minnie Palmer (one of the top soubrettes of the day) in a production entitled “My Sweetheart.” In the mid 1880s he appeared with Neil Burgess (brother-in-law of the famous Lotta Crabtree) in a played named “Vim”. Wills, displaying an early knack for broad comical delineations, portrayed a little girl.

It was in Washington, too, that Wills worked as an end man with the Ideal Minstrels. This was a valuable education. In minstrelsy he would have developed his comic timing, improvisational skills and the ability to convey character through a grotesque costume and mask. End man was the plum role in any minstrel company, requiring the corked up comedian to bounce jokes off “Mr. Interlocutor”, the straight man. Another Washingtonian, Al Jolson honed his own comic chops doing the very same job at around the same time. For better or worse, Wills’ experience as an end man informs many of the characterizations you can hear in these recordings.

Yet Wills’ time spent in the legitimate theater proved just as formative. In the 1890s he was a member of the stock company at San Francisco’s Grand Opera House under the management of Walter Morosco, where he appeared in countless “blood and guts melodramas”.  This, too, would have been exceptional training for the performer, an opportunity to play different roles every week. But even in legit fate decreed that Wills should be a clown. While playing the juvenile in a play called “The Block Game” at Washington’s Globe Theater in 1891, Wills was called upon to switch to a comic part when a performer was injured by a piece of falling equipment. The role called for Wills to outfit himself with blacked out teeth, stubble, and patched clothing. So successful was he in this, his first outing as a tramp that he would ever after be associated exclusively with the role.

The Happy Tramp

Wills discovered his new character at a fortuitous time. By the 1890s, the popularity of old-school melodrama was beginning to wane; the nation was flocking to a brand-new form of theater, one that would flourish for a mere handful of decades before it too went the way of the dinosaur: vaudeville. In the mid 1890s, just as the foundations for what were to become the national vaudeville circuits were being laid, Wills and his partner “Bony Dave” Halpin crisscrossed the country with an act entitled “The Tramp and the Policeman”. The team would engage in the typical two-man crosstalk, then climax the act with footwork: the very skinny Halpin performing a graceful dance which Wills would travesty in his clownish slap shoes. Halpin and Wills seem to have made a hit. When they played Halpin’s hometown of Kansas City in 1896, the Kansas City Star reported “an ovation and a bouquet of roses across the footlights.”

By 1898, Wills had thrown over Halpin to perform with his first wife, Mademoiselle Loretto, known as “The Society Belle”. The partnership proved to be short-lived, however. In 1900, they were booked to play the New York Roof when Loretto fell ill, forcing Wills to go solo as “The Happy Tramp.”  His topical monologue and songs were such a smash that he was held over for six weeks. (Loretto was to pass away four years later.)

On his own, Wills became one of the first headliners in what was only then coalescing into the vaudeville industry. Like all the best vaudevillians, he excelled at more than one skill. His act was an admixture of several elements which combined to create a magical, indefinable whole. A clown in appearance, Wills was also a beguiling story teller, an expert joke teller (quite a different skill), and a comical singer and dancer. The very breadth of such an act meant that you couldn’t lump it into a single category; you had to remember the unique performer with whom it was associated.

Then, in June 1900 Wills joined other headliners like George Fuller Golden and Montgomery and Stone in forming the White Rats, the vaudeville performers union, a precursor to today’s Equity. Wills was not only one of the first members but an officer in this path-breaking organization. In February of the following year, the performers went on strike to protest the creation of the United Box Office (UBO), a syndicate of top vaudeville managers which had begun to charge performers a fee for the privilege of being booked. In a matter of weeks the managers capitulated, only to reinstate the fee piecemeal over the next several months.

Perhaps as an outgrowth of these struggles with vaudeville management, we see Wills concentrating his efforts on musical comedies over the next few years, working with such producers as George Broadhurst and Charles Frohman in the oughts on such long-forgotten shows as A Million Dollars (1900), The Girl from Up There (1900), A Son of Rest (1903), The Duke of Duluth (1905), and A Lucky Dog (1907). He appeared in the latter show with leading lady May Harrison, who became his second wife in 1908. Wills’ performances were frequently the most beloved element in these productions. Alan Dale of the New York American wrote of his performance in A Son of Rest: “Wills is greeted by laughter the instant he appears…it is quite impossible to resist laughing at him.”

In a 1905 interview with the Chicago Sun-American, Wills claimed to have turned down an offer of $1200 to appear in vaudeville by top manager Percy Williams because he preferred to do musical comedy. However, by April of 1907 he succumbed to Williams’ offer with a seven week engagement at the Alhambra Theater in Harlem, followed by numerous tours as a headliner on the Keith-Orpheum circuit, the most important vaudeville chain in the country.

Before long, Wills was one of the highest paid “single” acts in vaudeville. The money was not all his to keep, however. To create one of the winningest acts in show business, he had hired early vaudeville’s top jokemeister James Madison (editor and publisher of vaudeville’s premier joke periodical Madison’s Budget) to beef up his topical stories with gags. And Vincent Bryan, a top vaudeville songwriter, penned many of Will’s popular musical parodies. Having these men and others on his payroll was expensive, but it also ensured his success.

“No entertainer on the American stage today is more popular with the public than Nat Wills” crowed the Victor Talking Machine Company when they released his most popular monolog on disk in 1909. Wills’ voice, a harsh but gentlemanly honk somewhat like the actor Joseph Cotten’s (with a little of “Froggy” from Our Gang mixed in), was particularly suited to the crude recording machinery of the time, which was indifferent to subtlety.  Such a star was Wills at the time that Victor crowed: The popularity of his cylinders and disks was such that he was still recording them just a few months before he died.

This is my probably my favorite Wills track

[ADDENDUM: Unlike the rest of the post, this little section isn’t in my liner notes for the record mentioned at the top. I discovered it subsequently and add had to share it. In 1911, Wills starred in a silent movie called Nat Wills as King of Kazam. These two pix are all I got:

We now return you to our regularly scheduled program:]

Highs and Lows

The years of Wills greatest success coincided with a succession of personal woes.  In 1909, Wills’ second wife May Harrison, passed away. The tabloids were soon reporting that his third wife would be plus-sized singer Trixie Friganza, but in May of the following year he married yet another vaudeville star, La Belle Titcomb, who was famous for singing French opera songs perched atop an immaculate white stallion.

Like Wills, Titcomb employed a stage handle. Her real name was either Nellie McNierney and Heloise McCency, depending on each source you believe, making her as French as a pint of Harp. Like Wills, Titcomb was a vaudevillian to the core. It is characteristic of them both that they turned their extended European honeymoon into a working vacation, performing at London’s top music halls before steaming back home.

But the honeymoon waned quickly. As Wills later joked in one of his routines “I should have married the horse”. An anecdote circulated that the morning after their wedding, while sitting at the breakfast table, Wills sat with a newspaper reading the comics page. Enraged, Titcomb heaved a plate of pancakes at his upraised paper, shouting “Say! Have I married one of these here bookworms?” On another occasion, witnesses claimed to have seen her push him through a dressing room door.

More troubles began to pile up. In January of 1914, a fire destroyed much of Wills upper west side home, including several valuable paintings. In May 1914 Titcomb sued Wills for divorce, claiming that he’d had an affair with a woman named May Day, a chorine whom he had met on the stage of the Ziegfeld Follies of 1913. Wills vehemently denied it, a somewhat disingenuous declaration given that a daughter was born to him and May two months later.  Meantime, Titcomb and 26 other creditors forced Wills to sue for bankruptcy. Many were shocked to learn that one of show business’s highest paid entertainers owed $17, 540 to a long list of creditors, one of whom was his estranged wife, from whom he’d borrowed money. As an ex-wife, Titcomb added to his woes by costing him $500 a week alimony – on top of the hundreds more he was said to routinely pay out to his writers.

Somehow, in the midst of all this, Wills managed to shine as a performer, perhaps more than ever. In June 1914, right in the thick of the worst troubles he would ever know, he performed at the Lambs’ Club’s annual star-studded benefit the Gambols, which inspired this account in the New York Dramatic Mirror: “Nat Wills was the real blown in the bottle, dyed in the wool, knock-down and drag-out hit of the ‘million dollar show’”.

In February 1913, the New York Telegraph wrote “As a single, no male entertainer in vaudeville has such a following or has achieved such a degree of success as Nat Wills.”

Wills was one of the very first performers booked for the newly opened Palace, the crown jewel of big time vaudeville theaters, in 1913. His engagement at the Follies occurred just a few months later, where he performed on a bill with Leon ErolFrank Tinney and Ann Pennington and sang If the Table at Rector’s Could Talk. His last three years were spent as the star comedian of revues produced by Charles Dillingham at New York’s most fabulous (and biggest) theater, the Hippodrome. The first of these shows Hip Hip Hooray was called by the New York Star “the greatest spectacle New York has ever seen”. Of his performance in 1917’s Cheer Up!, the New York Times wrote “Nat M. Wills succeeded better than any of his predecessors in defying the space of the Hippodrome.” Wills was no doubt helped in doing so by the box car he emerged from, which was pulled onstage by a real locomotive.

While the character he loved to play hopped freight trains, Wills’ offstage passion was automobiles.  It was this hobby which killed him on December 9, 1917. While working on his car in an enclosed garage on a freezing cold day, Wills suffocated from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Without any real evidence, some have succumbed to the temptation of claiming that the performer known as “the Happy Tramp” (whose last show was called Cheer Up!) was a suicide. And with his many problems – alimony, debt, an expensive act – Wills did have plenty of reasons for despondency.  In photos taken out of make-up in the months before he died, Wills looks a mighty old 44.  Yet, while his personal woes were great, there were thousands of  positive factors to buoy Wills’ spirits: his legions of fans. At the time of his death, he’d been a star for almost two decades. More than one obituary referred to him as “America’s Foremost Comedian.” Present at his funeral party were the show business royalty of the day, among them Charles Dillingham, Bert Williams, the Dolly Sisters, Mr. and Mrs. Pat Rooney and Fred Niblo. None of the dozens of obituaries published upon his death even suggests suicide. And while self-inflicted death by this means is fairly common nowadays, this was not the case in 1917, when automobiles were new and few people had ever heard of carbon monoxide poisoning. There is every reason to believe that his untimely demise was no more than what commentators called it at the time: “a tragic accident.”

At any rate, the loss was great. Not only to his friends, family and fans, but to posterity.

Wills was still young when he passed away. If he had lived out his natural life he might have participated in radio or talkies, in which case we’d have more to measure to him by, and Wills today might be as well known today as Al Jolson, Marie Dressler, or the Barrymores, all of whom were his contemporaries.

As it is, we must content ourselves with the extant early recordings, and the testimony of those who remembered him, as in this encomium published in the New York Journal American in 1938: “I wonder if I would roar today as I used to at Nat Wills, with his ridiculous tramp outfit and blacked-out teeth. He had me on the edge of hysteria several times—especially when he would look about furtively, edge over slowly, talking swiftly all the while, and reach down for what seemed a lost coin. And then, in utter disgust, quickly wipe his fingers on his trouser leg.”

It is this latter account which may help to explain Wills’ subsequent obscurity, for it sounds like nothing so much as the pantomime shenanigans of the most famous gentleman tramp of all, Charlie Chaplin. Whether the fame and fortune enjoyed by the little clown during the last four years of Wills’ life added to his despondency, we cannot know. But what is plain that in the public’s mind, Chaplin’s tramp has eclipsed all others for close to a century, Wills included. On the other hand, Wills’ art was as verbal as it was visual. While we can’t see for ourselves whether Wills bore any similarity to Chaplin we can observe a relationship with another rustic monologist who was just coming into his own at around the time Wills passed away: Will Rogers, who would then pass the torch to generations of joketellers. As for song parodyists, the legacy is smaller, but a close listen to the recordings will show the art of Alan Sherman and Weird Al Yankovic in embryo. How to order them? Go here. 

To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And for on clowning and tramp comedians like Nat M. Wills check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

Forging the Comedy Film: The Screen Career of Charlie Chaplin

Posted in British Music Hall, Charlie Chaplin, Clown, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Romani (Gypsy), Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 16, 2013 by travsd

3. Charlie, Mabel, Roscoe0001

Continued from our previous post on Chaplin’s early stage years. 

When he started at Keystone Studios in December 1913, Charlie Chaplin  faced a number of the same hurdles he had encountered during his time on the stage with Fred Karno. His colleagues regarded him as an outsider, “not a team player”. His comedy style was regarded as “too slow”. But, as at Karno, his methods were rapidly validated (and his personality quickly tolerated) when the audience fell for him in a big way. Within weeks of his starting, there was a national craze for Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character, with his too-tight clothes, oversized shoes, little moustache, and derby hat and cane. There were songs about Charlie Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin dolls, and Charlie Chaplin “contests” with prizes for the best Charlie Chaplin imitation (which is how both Milton Berle and Bob Hope both got their start). Everyone else at Keystone (even stars like Mabel Normand and Fatty Arbuckle) quickly became a supporting player for Charlie.

After 35 shorts with the Keystone company, Chaplin was made an offer at the Essanay company, at a substantially higher salary than Sennet was willing to pay.  Chaplin’s artistry continued to develop during his year at Essanay, turning out fifteen shorts, with a sixteenth patched together from studio out-takes after he had left, a sure sign of his box-office wizardry.

Charlie’s material and artistic progress were rapid.  In 1916, he inked a deal with the Mutual Company at the unprecedented salary of  $10,000 a week. (consider: at the time, this sum would have been a good middle-class salary for an entire year’s work). The year 1916-17 was to be his most creative period, with the greatest output. Over the course of this contract, Charlie executed twelve perfect comedy shorts, as remarkable to watch today as they were revolutionary then. These films (The Floorwalker, The Rink, The PawnshopThe CureOne a.m.The FiremanThe Vagabond, The AdventurerEasy StreetThe Immigrant, Behind the Screen) remain unsurpassed classics of the silent short comedy form.


His ambition and his price tag grew apace. With each new contract, he set a new record. His 1917 deal was for 8 pictures over 18 months for a total of $1 million. A lesser artist would have taken the money and ran, pumping out the product on schedule and moved on to the next juicy deal. As it turns out, such a policy would have been penny-wise but pound foolish. Chaplin took five years to finish this contract, and while some of them were flops, some were hits on an unprecedented scale, becoming cinematic classics which are no doubt continuing to enrich his estate. The First National films tended to be longer than the previous ones, but the better stories justified the length. With A Dog’s Life (1917) he established the template for most of his features—the Little Tramp meets a buddy (in this case a pooch) with whom he shares a series of life’s ups and downs. The next film Shoulder Arms (1917) was groundbreaking for being the first war comedy. Daring for its time, it was an instant hit, and a popular favorite for the soldiers overseas.

1919 was characterized by growing pains for Chaplin, each of his releases flopping for different reasons, although both of the films are charming in retrospect. In Sunnyside his artistic ambition erred on the side of self-consciousness. The film found the Little Tramp cavorting with fauns and fairies in a fantasy sequence closer in spirit to an amateur ballet company’s conception of “art” than the output of a master comedian. In A Day’s Pleasure, the pendulum swung the other way, casting Charlie in a highly conventional situation comedy of the sort Harold Lloyd was much better at. He hit his stride again with his next picture by revisiting the formula he had worked so successfully in A Dog’s LifeThe Kid is in many ways his best movie – revolutionary for its successful use of high pathos in contrast to his comedy, and broke all sorts of box office records when it was released in 1921. It was also his first “feature length” film, although somewhat short by today’s standards.


By now, he was years late to finish his First National contract and was eager to start making films for United Artists, which he had founded in 1919 with Douglas FairbanksMary Pickford and D.W. Griffith. In rapid order, he released The Idle ClassPay Day and The Pilgrim a series of straightforward comedy shorts,to finish out the contract.

Chaplin astonished audiences yet again with his first United Artists feature. A Woman of Paris (1923) broke new ground in three ways: it was a drama; Chaplin was not the star (in fact he only made a cameo appearance); and it employed a much more realistic style of acting than any previous Hollywood dramatic film. In its day it was considered a great screen achievement—one of the greatest films up until that point. Its melodramatic story was a sort of cross between the real life story of gold-digging party girl Peggy Hopkins Joyce and Our Lady of the Camillias. Charlie’s return to the screen as the tramp (after a four year absence) was equally innovative.


In The Gold Rush (1925), he created an “epic” comedy set against the backdrop of the Alaska gold rush, and suggested by the real life story of the ill-fated Donner Party, who, snowed in the Sierra Nevada mountains in 1847, resorted to cannibalism. The grim subject matter, unprecedented in a comedy, made for a rich movie-going experience, and it is among Chaplin’s best films.

The Circus (1928) is sort of a “lame duck” film, released in the last year silence was to dominate cinemas. It broke little new ground. By the following year, talkies were king, and suddenly cinemas were full of…well, nearly every other vaudevillians in this book. Silents didn’t have much use for the Marx Brothers, Jolson, Clark & McCuloughEddie Cantor, Bill Robinson, Paul Whiteman, Mae West, W.C. Fields, Joe E. Brown, etc etc etc, but the talkies sure did. Suddenly, after 15 years on top, Chaplin was at a disadvantage. Keaton, Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy all made the plunge into talkies, with varying degrees of success. Chaplin didn’t take his artistry as a pantomime so lightly. He believed in the craft he had learned at the hand of Fred Karno, the age-old art of English pantomime. It was his special field of endeavor, in which he was king, in the same way that Houdini was king of escapes, and Bill Robinson the king of tap, and Will Rogers the lariat king. He therefore stuck to his guns.

city lights

City Lights (1931) may be regarded as the first “neo-classical” silent film. It is a silent film (with music and sound effects by Chaplin) released three years after the death of silence. Audiences were enchanted by his story of the blind flower girl and the tramp who loves her. Chaplin had triumphed by maintaining his integrity in the face of radical change. Even more astoundingly, he achieved the same feat again with the release of Modern Times (1936), nearly a decade after the advent of sound. With this film, he demonstrated a higher degree of social engagement, clearly critiquing certain aspects of life in America at the height of the depression – poverty, soul deadening work on an assembly line, repressive police, etc. This film, too, was a hit, as was the song that came from it, appropriate for the times, though characteristically Victorian in its sentimentalism.

Smile though your heart is aching,

Smile, even though it’s breaking.

When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by.

If you smile through your far and sorrow

Smile and then maybe tomorrow

You’ll see the sun come shining through for you.


For years, Chaplin had toyed with the idea of doing a film on Napoleon, but the French director Abel Gance had beat him to it with the definitive film in 1928. Fortunately for Chaplin (and unfortunately for the world) there was a contemporary tyrant running amuck in the 1930s who conveniently sported a Charlie Chaplin moustache. In the naïve world of the 1930s, laughter seemed an effective weapon against Hitler. What was he but a big dope, a boor with idiotic theories and preposterous plans to take over the world? This was what much of the civilized world thought of him in the 30s, but by 1941, when The Great Dictator was released, Hitler had taken over almost all of Europe (including Abel Gance’s France) and was daily raining bombs and terror on the last remaining unconquered European territory: England. In retrospect, Chaplin’s Hitler satire seems too mild in the face of the Nazis’ unimaginable atrocities. But, when it was released, the great fear was that it would be too controversial —  a substantial portion of the country had no qualms with Nazism. Nevertheless, The Great Dictator ended up being Chaplin’s biggest grossing film up until that point. A lot of the box office may have been driven by curiosity; it was Chaplin’s first talkie. Ironically, the most eloquent portion of the film, and the most characteristic of Chaplin was completely silent. Chaplin, as Adenoid Hinkel, the demented dictator, does a beautiful, romantic dance with a globe, which was ingeniously painted on a balloon so that it could sail high into the air, and then float slowly back to his waiting arms. Based on this sequence it is impossible not to come to the conclusion that if Chaplin had wanted to, he could have continued to make silent films.

Unfortunately, the tide began to turn against Chaplin shortly thereafter. His anti-Nazism was unfortunately tied to a pro-Soviet tendency. Just prior to the war he spoke at many rallies, urging American  involvement to relieve the Russians who were heroically fighting Germany at that point. Throughout the war, he vociferously defended them as our allies, and, after the war, when the Soviets drew their iron curtain across Europe, he was unable to see the writing on the wall.


In 1947 he broke new ground for the last time. Having realized too late his naiveté in The Great Dictator he appeared to attempt to make up for it in Monsieur Verdoux, the first black comedy ever to be produced in Hollywood. The tale is a sort of modern retelling of the Bluebeard legend, which Charlie adapted at the suggestion of Orson Welles. The allusions to Nazi atrocities in the film (in particular, the depiction of a crematorium) are unmistakable. American audiences hated the film. Charlie’s lovable tramp is nowhere in evidence in the film; instead “Charles Chaplin” plays a serial killer – one who very eloquently defends his bloodthirsty crimes. This was not the sort of thing moms could take their children to. Adding fuel to the flame was Charlie’s dismal record as a husband. Over the years he had deflowered, married and divorced a seemingly endless parade of teenage girls (and been involved with god knows how many others). A blind eye could be turned toward this tendency so long as he kept America laughing in an old-fashioned, wholesome way. Now, however, it seemed to occur America all at once that Charlie was a pervert, a red, and a sicko. His star fell very fast indeed.


He had one more American film, the 1952 Limelight which revisited his music hall origins, and co-starred Buster Keaton, but unfortunately dwelt again on the issues of death and suicide. Having recently married the 18-old Oona O’Neill (against her father Eugene O’Neill’s wishes), Charlie was a true anathema in the U.S. After a trip abroad in 1952, he was informed to gain re-entry into the country he would have to undergo an interrogation by the Immigration Department to “answer charges of a political nature and of moral turpitude.” Charlie refused on principle and selected instead a life in exile. He was to live the remainder of his life with Oona and his large brood of children in Switzerland. Cut off from the audience that had formerly sustained him, he made only two more movies, both fairly atrocious: A King in New York (1957) and A Countess from Hong Kong (1967). Charlie passed away in 1977. Like something out one of his own black comedies, grave robbers stole his remains shortly thereafter,though they were later caught.

For more on Charlie Chaplin and silent screen comedy  please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc. To find out about  the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


A Clown Since Birth: The Early Stage Career of Charlie Chaplin

Posted in British Music Hall, Charlie Chaplin, Clown, Hollywood (History), Romani (Gypsy), Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 16, 2010 by travsd


Born into unimaginable poverty and obscurity, by his mid-twenties Charlie Chaplin was one of the richest and most famous men in the world. One of capitalism’s great success stories, he was ejected from the United States (forty years after his arrival) for being a communist sympathizer. This was gross myopia on the part of the government, for, as his old colleague Stan Laurel liked to point out (a little too shrilly sometimes) Charlie was never anything more than a clown.

He was born to be in music hall. Both of his parents were performers, and there is evidence to support the theory that both were at least part Gypsy. His father, Charles Chaplin, Sr., had the most success, having reached the status of headliner and even touring the U.S. in 1890. His mother, performing under the name Lily Harley, had almost no success at all. Unfortunately for Charlie and his half brother Sydney, Charles Chaplin, Sr. was a drunkard and philanderer and he ran out on Lily when the boys were quite young. Lily gradually went insane, leaving the two boys to fend for themselves.


Fortunately, Charlie was a prodigy. He could jig, sing and do impressions almost as soon as he was out of diapers. He claimed to have made his debut in an amateur night, singing “Jack Jones’ and being showered with coins. With Charles Senior’s help, he was hired by William Jackson for an act called 8 Lancashire Lads that had him doing clog dancing and mimicry in exchange for room and board and a tiny pittance. He was with this act for 2 ½ half years, until his mother pulled him out (for “health reasons”), evidence of her growing insanity. She had no other plan for feeding him.


As his mother was placed in and out of institutions, and his brother went abroad for several months, Charlie learned to fend for himself on the streets. (In 1903 Mrs. Chaplin was permanently committed; she never regained even the brief periods of lucidity she had displayed in her declining years.) Between the ages of twelve and fourteen, Charlie worked full time in factories. When Sydney returned and discovered this pitiful state of affairs, he set to work managing Charlie, securing work for him in a play called Giddy Ostend at the London Hippodrome in 1900. Other boy parts followed. He played the lead in Horatio Alger’s From Rags to Riches. For three years he toured with a major production of  Sherlock Holmes.

Charlie in "Sherlock Holmes"

Charlie in “Sherlock Holmes”

Following a show with the promising title A Romance of Cockayne, Charlie began to be too old to play the childs’ roles. Out of necessity, he began to work burlesque, which was a bit of a comedown from the West End productions he had been in throughout his late childhood. Here he did his first sketch and solo comedy. With a group called The Ten Loonies, he played an inept plumber’s assistant in a sketch called “Repairs”. With a combination of naiveté and ingrained anti-Semitism, he amassed fake whiskers, “Jewish” clothes and jokes from Madison’s Budget and presented himself as “Sam Cohen, the Jewish Comedian”. Having no idea that the act was offensive, he proceeded to debut the act in a Jewish neighborhood, where he rapidly learned. With a group called Casey’s Court Circus, he performed an impersonation of famous electrical charlatan Dr. Walford Bodie.

Chaplin as Dr. Bodie

Chaplin as Dr. Bodie

At age 17, Sidney got a job with Fred Karno doing slapstick, mime, tumbling, juggling, singing, and dancing. He immediately set about trying to get Charlie hired as well, being aware of his rare gifts. Karno didn’t want to hire Charlie at first. He seemed to be too shy and “worthless for comedy”. When he was finally hired, no one in the troop liked him. He kept to himself most of the time, never socializing with the other performers. In his off hours, he preferred to endlessly practice the violin. But his gifts rapidly elevated him to the status of the company’s star, a state of affairs his fellow performers no doubt resented. As Stan Laurel once characterized him  “He was a shy, timid man who kept getting up the courage to do the most wonderful, adventurous things.”

Roy Export Ltd.

Roy Export Ltd.

By 1910 they had achieved such success that Karno essayed a tour of the U.S. “Mumming Birds” was renamed “A Night in an English Music Hall” for the benefit of American audiences. By the Karno troupe’s 2nd U.S. tour in 1912, Chaplin had become something of a sensation. Groucho Marx, for one recalls seeing him at this time and identifying him as the funniest comedian he had ever seen. In 1913, a scout for silent comedy film producer Mack Sennett, caught the act and an offer was made to Chaplin to join the Keystone company. The film industry was so young at this stage that Chaplin regarded the move as risky and deliberated for quite some time before finally giving his ascent. He joined Keystone in December 1913. For more on the next phase of Chaplin’s career go here. 

To find out more about Charlie Chaplin and vaudeville past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.  For Chaplin’s screen career don’t miss  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,

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