TREADING WATER IN OUR MEDIA OCEAN it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine the frenzy that surrounded Charlie Chaplin in his early years, when movies were all there was, and Chaplin had become, in critic Gilbert Seldes's words, "the universal symbol for laughter." In 1921, when he finally came home to London, crowds camped out for two nights to watch him drive from Waterloo station to the Ritz, and when he cruised by, they greeted him with more enthusiasm than their heroes marching home from war.
It wasn't Chaplin they cheered, of course; it was the Tramp. From his first pictures for producer Mack Sennett, who didn't credit actors, in a Los Angeles where the Times didn't take movie ads, the Tramp was an instant sensation. As Seldes remembers, he leapt to fame as a splay-foot cardboard cutout hung outside the theaters, beckoning young and old, first in America, but soon around the world.
Chaplin look-alike contest: J.W. Sandison Collection, Whatcom Museum of History and Art
Once Charlie found the Tramp, he only played the Tramp. Why not? Who'd have let him play anything else? This "many sided fellow," as Chaplin put it, "a tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure," freed him to explore his complicated talent, and bound him to his audience. The Tramp touched his followers in a way only movie stars could when movies were new. Splashed huge on the screen, he was bigger than they were but they knew him like a brother. Their modest emotions, projected on the silver Tramp, expanded into passions deeper, subtler, and seemingly more important. Chaplin rubbed together greed and generosity, lust and love, triumph and disappointment, igniting a hotter, brighter laughter than they'd known before. They loved the Tramp with a superhuman love.
Sennett admitted he didn't see much potential in Chaplin when he hired him. As he wrote, "Charlie revealed most of the trade skills of the music-hall people. He could fall, trip, stumble, summersault, slap, and make faces. These were stock in trade items we could use. I did not see then, and I do not know anyone who claims to have seen then, the subtleties and the pathos of the small, hard-pressed man in a dilemma which a few years later were known as the genius marks of Chaplin's art." In his first film, Making a Living, Chaplin played his music-hall persona, the burlesque dude, in the role of con man and aspiring reporter.