5 Minute History: Charlie Chaplin and Kid Auto Races
Celebrate one hundred years of Charlie Chaplin with this micro documentary exploring his early life and his earliest appearances as the "Little Tramp". In this five minute history, become a master of Chaplin's early years.
Charlie Chaplin, one of the earliest auteur's, true geniuses, of cinematic comedy was born in 1889 to Charles Chaplin, Senior and Hannah Hill. Â Both of Chaplin's parents were in some way associated with show business, performers on the bustling British music hall scene of the time. Â His father, Charles, Senior, enjoyed some success and was able to build for himself a solid reputation as a reasonably popular singer but his mother, in spite of her best efforts, was unable to get her career off the ground. Â Chaplin's parents separated in 1891, precipitating a childhood which was, at times, calamitous and poverty stricken. Â To make matters worse, Charlie's mother, Hannah, suffered episodes of poor mental health and at numerous points in his childhood, was separated from her sons. Â By 1899, Chaplin had started his own career in show business, joining a clog dancing troop which toured the music halls of his native Britain. Â In 1903 Chaplin began his acting career proper, showing, from an early stage, a knack for comedy. Â By 1912 Chaplin was in the United States, touring the Vaudeville circuit, and, the following year, he had been headhunted to join the Keystone Studios. Â His first appearance on film, Making a Living, followed in 1914 though it was for a picture entitled Mabel's Strange Predicament that he created his iconic "Little Tramp". Â Despite being made first, however, it was this film, Kid Auto Races at Venice, that marked the Tramp's cinematic debut. Â Simple in premise and execution, it was a fine way to introduce the world to Chaplin's comedic chops, a magnificent showcase for the aspiring young actor, and a tremendous first showing for the Tramp.
The film was shot on location, very cleverly taking advantage of a very real event to provide the backdrop for Chaplin's show of buffoonish idiocy. Â It gives the impression of high production values but you shouldn't be fooled by what you see -- those aren't extras, but real spectators and, as David Robinson has pointed out, if you watch carefully, you can see some of them responding, laughing and pointing, at Chaplin as he performs. Â Bear in mind that Chaplin was a, more or less, complete unknown at this point -- the reactions of those spectators are honest. Â People really did respond to his performance, recognising the charming absurdity of the strange little man with the even stranger little moustache. Â The reactions of Chaplin's live audience, then, show us something that is almost always lost to film historians -- an honest audience reaction. Â Chaplin's Tramp was a hit from the first.
Visually speaking, Chaplin's Tramp is more or less fully formed, even at this early stage. Â His costume gently mocks gentile fashion, appearing, perhaps at first glance, normal but, upon closer inspection, deeply absurd. Â The trousers Chaplin wears are huge and baggy whilst the clothing on the upper half of his body is tight and uncomfortable looking. Â He twirls his walking stick, as charming now as it was then, and holds himself with dignity -- or rather, he tries to hold himself with dignity. Â You see, that's the joke in this film. Â Chaplin's character tries to act the part of a gentleman, beholden of a quiet little pride and dignity, but practically everything he does interferes with or undermines the world around him. Â He sees the cameras around him and is drawn to them but is abused and thrust away by the film crew. Â In spite of the reprimand, the physical abuse he suffers, he cannot help himself from getting in the way, sometimes intentionally, but often not. Â Chaplin's tramp is not a malicious character, he's not trying to ruin anyone else's day, but he doesn't seem to be able to help himself. Â He comes across as innocent, naive, and harmless, and, because of that, we as the audience are drawn to him, our hearts swell at the almost child-like enthusiasm the character shows for the world. Â He's a buffoon, the sort of person who might well be deeply annoying if we encountered them in real life, and yet there is something there that appeals, something that makes us sympathise with him. Â As Chaplin would show throughout the rest of his career, he was a master of mime and empathy and even though his later efforts would deepen that formula, the Tramp's debut appearance remains a fantastic little film in its own right. Â At a little over six minutes long there is almost no fat, no excess to complain of, and Chaplin's performance, as we can see by the warming reaction of some of the spectators around him, was an honest one. Â It may be simple, perhaps even crude, but Chaplin makes this little film more than it has any right to be.
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