One of the biggest mysteries in film comedy, is how Chaplin came up with his tramp character. However, contemporary reviews of his early films, suggest that his walk was more important to audiences, rather than who he was, or who he represented. A master-stroke? You bet, and he lived off the back of the walk for decades. In general, we now accept the story of the advent of the flat-footed tramp, as ‘given’ but how did the little guy actually come about? Let’s look at the evidence.
From Music Hall to Keystone Comedies.
The first mystery that we have, is that of how Chaplin came to be at Keystone. Mack Sennett said, in his autobiography, that he’d seen Chaplin in his English Music Hall show and thought he’d be just right for his slapstick outfit. Chaplin, as we all know, was a knockabout comic, who specialised in playing a drunk, although he’d extra’d in ‘proper’ stage shows, and had even appeared with the great American star, Marie Doro (‘The most beautiful girl in the world’). Consequently, Mack asked his bosses, Kessell and Baumann, to locate the limey and sign him up. In her short autobiography of 1924, Mabel Normand said that she could not remember who had seen Chaplin, or who had thought it a good idea to sign him up. Sennett’s story might have seemed plausible, except that we know he had an intense dislike of theatre and vaudeville performers. He preferred to take someone off the street, then train them up to meet his own requirements. Theatricals were swollen-headed and insolent, as, indeed, were some dramatic movie stars, like Mabel. It might have been a casual remark to Kessell and Baumann, after Mack had seen Charlie, that made them think about bringing in Chaplin. Keystone, of course, would have been THE place for a knock-about comic to work, and it could be that Charlie actively set out to get within the, not so grand, gates of Keystone. There is a suspicion that he sought the help of an agent to secure a place for him at the world’s greatest slapstick studio. Another attraction, naturally, was the Keystone Girl. Could he worm his way into Mabel’s affections? Well, he’d had some success in the past, but most actresses had stage mothers that did not like the cut of Chaplin’s jib. Now, Mabel, he knew, had no stage mother. For Mabel’s part, she had a description of Charlie from Mary Pickford, who’d seen him in a restaurant in 1912, and she would have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of this young, toussel-haired bohemian. Beyond this, we must remember that Chaplin was a Kessell and Baumann signing, Kessell and Baumann being the chief shareholders in Keystone Comedies. The pair never really trusted Sennett and would be glad to get ‘their own man’ into the studio. Mabel had been ‘their own woman’ until Sennett signed her directly in 1913. To understand the situation after Charlie’s arrival at Keystone, we need to look at the major players in this saga, starting with Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand.
Mack and Mabel.
To comprehend the relationship between Mack and Mabel, we must forget about the old saga of Mack and Mabel the lovers. This relationship, however, is relevant to the story of Charles Spencer Chaplin. In her seminal book on the early film industry, Mrs Linda Griffith does not mention any amorous connection between Mack and Mabel, although she acknowledges that Mack did become interested in Mabel, after she’d achieved stardom at the Vitagraph studio in 1911. Mack, about to launch his own studio under Kessell and Baumann’s New York Motion Pictures concern, showered Mabel with diamonds, some of which she accepted and some of which she refused. Mabel was fickle, but her name, professional ability and range, encompassing drama, comedy and tragedy, meant that he had to persevere. Mabel’s athleticism and fearlessness were, naturally, well known and made her entirely suited to slapstick, bearing in mind that she rarely fell about the set, and instead concentrated on her diving and other athletic abilities.
How Sennett ever managed to poach Mabel from under the nose of D.W. Griffith is one of the great mysteries of history, but it meant that, for the first and only time, he had a Griffith-trained dramatic star under contract. For ever after, he defended his star against all-comers, until the formidable Sam Goldwyn lured her away in 1917 (although Mack got her back in 1921). At Biograph studios, Mabel had switched effortlessly between Sennett-directed comedies and Griffith dramas, sometimes starring alone, and sometimes with Blanche Sweet or Mary Pickford. It seems likely that Mack promised Mabel drama-based comedies at Keystone, which would have made Mabel amenable to moving west.
The numerous arguments that erupted between the pair between 1913 and 1915, probably arose as Mack reneged on the deal. Throughout 1913, Mabel fought for every bit of drama she could find, but Mack just wanted more and more slapstick, which was, after all, his bread-winning genre. Although some people claim that Mabel was a mere slapsticker, they should note that she rarely indulged in this kind of nonsense. She got physical by doing graceful dives into lakes, falling off cliffs, rampaging on bare horseback, driving race cars, or flying in string-bag aircraft. In her whole career only around four pies ever connected with Mabel’s cute face, although she waved many revolvers in people’s faces. To say Mabel was a precious treasure would be an understatement, and Mack Sennett knew it.
Charlie and The Fun Factory.
In his various interviews and his autobiography, Chaplin was very coy about the way that he discovered his tramp character. The story varied slightly depending on the circumstances, but basically this is what he said happened. He’d been hanging around the studio for weeks, watching the various actors at work, then one day he was grabbed by actor/director and fake Frenchman Henri ‘Pathe’ Lehrman, and thrown into a disreputable film called ‘Making A Living’. He was given no advice about costume or characterisation, and unwisely chose a frock coat, a plug hat and a monocle. The result was a disaster, and he looked completely ridiculous. Charlie knew he could be funny, but now he was totally dejected, and felt like chucking the whole thing in. Mack and Mabel had been away on location, and when they returned Charlie hoped for a better chance, for Mabel had made it clear that she had some interest in him. As he watched Mack and Mabel setting up a hotel lobby scene, Mack asked Charlie to go and put on a funny costume. Charlie combed the prop room and came up with a scruffy tight jacket, voluminous trousers, perched derby hat, and over-sized shoes. When attired in the costume, and swinging a cane, he was imbued with the tramp’s character, and the walk came naturally. Mack threw the tramp into the lobby scene and told him to make like a drunk. Charlie obeyed, and put his Music Hall drunk into action. Mack was impressed, and allowed Charlie the whole 55 second scene to himself. The film was Mabel’s Strange Predicament, which was where the tramp had been born, and Charlie embarked on his movie career.
We know there are problems with Charlie’s account, although some of it is undoubtedly true. Let’s look at some facts about Keystone’s early relationship with Chaplin. Sennett was very suspicious of Charlie, from the moment he set eyes on him. He was a young, handsome bohemian kind of guy that might easily turn Mabel’s equally young and passionate head. This little limey might run off with her, in the same way that Mack had run off with her, eighteen months earlier. In a downtown restaurant in L.A. Mack told Charlie he thought he was too young for the studio, but Mabel disagreed. She was of course surrounded by middle-aged and married men, so Charlie appeared to be a breath of fresh air to this red-bloodied and spirited girl. However, Sennett’s comment and the release of a film (Mabel’s Dramatic Career) in which Mack sets out to kill an actor that stole his girl, failed to daunt Charlie, although he does state that he went to the studio twice, but was too afraid to enter. However, he knew he had the support of Kessell and Baumann, so he eventually walked onto the lot. Mack, naturally, ignored the little limey, but he also took pains to prevent Mabel from coming into contact with him. Charlie was only aware of her whereabouts on the lot, by observing the knots of crewmen around the place, and the sudden rush towards certain sets, which indicated The Keystone Girl was on stage. Indeed, Mack and Mabel did go on location, during which they probably filmed the scene of Mabel entering the Hotel Raymond in Pasadena, which was used in Mabel’s Strange Predicament. We might guess that Mabel’s return was the catalyst that secured him a part in the picture. There can be little doubt that the crew and actors were sniggering about the egotistical Chaplin being left to ‘wither on the vine’ and it is possible that Mabel felt sorry for the “poor deeah.” Sorry for him, or not, Mabel seems to have been livid, when she discovered Charlie had been given the 55 second opening scene, and refused to work with him for almost two months. We must conclude that the New York bosses had something to do with the opening scene, and it’s worth remembering that this was exactly what they expected of Charlie.
Now we have to consider if Charlie had thought up the idea of the tramp all on his lonesome. Fact is that the tramp character was not unknown at Keystone. Fact also, is that Sennett’s own Keystone character was a scruffy guy, very tramp like, but more of a country boy–turned American hobo. Chaplin seems to have taken the scruffy Sennett character and turned him into a hybrid of the likeable but wily old English tramp, and the more aggressive American hobo. If Charlie was astute, he might have noticed that, while everyone at Keystone had an identifiable character, they also had their own walk. Sennett had his ungainly, dim country boy walk, and he ensured that all his actors had an appropriate gait – if they didn’t have a walk, he gave them one. Louise Fazenda was given the hop-skip walk of the ingenue, and Vivian Edwards an equally little-girl walk. Roscoe always had to a have an uncoordinated manner about him, even though he was actually quite athletic. Mabel had her own real-life walk, where she glided around as though on wheels. However, Mack gave her a screen walk by simply speeding up the film, although Mabel had her own impetuous screen walk, which said “f..k you” (best seen in He Did and He Didn’t).
There is no reason to suppose that Chaplin had actually invented the tramp, a character already known from the English Music Hall and at Keystone Studios. His stroke of genius was the tramp’s walk, never seen before in the U.S., although, those that have studied the English Music Hall, say that the shuffling gait was already well-established in that branch of the theatre. Nonetheless, the walk struck a chord with the movie-going public. We might say that he was indeed very fortunate, in being taken under the wing of Keystone’s greatest actress, Mabel Normand. Although a handsome guy, at both Keystone and Karno he was regarded as an egotistical, sulky and thoroughly obnoxious little swine. However, Mabel took him in, and he discovered new things about acting. Melancholy and tragedy were then unknown to him, but, being a melancholic fella himself, he soon picked it all up from Mabel, who had trained for drama under the great D.W. Griffith (whose resident tragedienne she was) and for comedy under the equally great John Bunny. In all probability it was Mabel that urged Charlie to get a character and a walk, before Sennett forced one upon him. Charlie’s main character, obviously, was the drunk, and it is noticeable that the tramp is always, always drunk, so the basis of his screen character was ready to go, when he first arrived at Keystone – Mabel filled in the rest.
A quick note: Mabel refused to work with Chaplin for two months after the ‘Strange Predicament’ first scene fiasco. In around March 1914, Mabel began shooting a new film that was very much different to the run of the mill Keystone stuff. It had a strong story, and was partly dramatic in temper. It was called ‘Mabel At The Wheel’ and The Keystone Girl wanted no slapstickers in it. However, big bosses Kessell and Baumann wanted Chaplin in, and Baumann specifically came out to L.A. to keep an eye on things. He didn’t go to the studio, but sent daughter, Ada, to appear in the film, alongside Mabel. Charlie played the villain in the picture, but it was decreed (by Mabel?) that he revert to the subdued costume of ‘Making A Living’. Charlie complied, and used his slapstick as requested. Having bowed to the Queen on this point, his progress was assured.
King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).
Charles Chaplin: My autobiography by Charles Chaplin (1964).
Charles O. Baumann: The Movie-Maker by Jillian Kelly (2015).
Mabel Normand: A Sourcebook of her Life and Films by Wm. Thomas Sherman (2006).
Love, Laughter and tears: My Hollywood Story by Adela Rogers St. Johns (1978).
Mabel Normand’s Own Life Story by Chandler Sprague. Los Angeles Examiner (February 17, 1924).