Ever met ‘the Tramp’?

Lubna Abdel-Aziz , Tuesday 8 Sep 2020

 Modern Times
Modern Times (1936)

Laughter is not easy, especially nowadays when we need it most. Fear and oppression have wiped away our smiles.

Panic-stricken that Covid-19 shall invade every cell in our body, spooked at the proximity of strangers, perplexed about the use of masks, and loathing this constant hand washing, we are stressed and strained. We need relief, levity, jollity.

With wars and conflicts in 40 per cent of the globe, waged by men consumed with greed, we need ‘the Tramp’ now more than ever.

The Tramp wanted us to be free in a true democracy. Free of those who dictate to us a style of life that would only benefit them. Have we not been reduced to robots following their every instruction? What is next?

You see he was not only a comic, he was a philosopher too.

With eyebrows rising and eyes popping, we assume you have never met the Tramp.

We are referring to a particular tramp who was born in 1914 and has made the world laugh and cry for decades. Now he is considered an iconic character in the history of the movie industry.

His appearance made us laugh, his chivalry, compassion and self-sacrifice made us cry.

He was a sweet little man, dressed in a black suit with pants far too big, a jacket far too small and a tiny little moustache that wiggled. He wore a bowler hat and held a cane. He walked with his feet parted out at 45-degree angles and his buttocks high in the air. His arms fumbled and his eyes blinked with his quirky movements.

He created a unique version of humanity in his gazes, in his movement, in his interactions with society as a whole, but he never uttered a word. He did not need to.

His creator was one of the biggest stars of the 20th century silent film era and beyond. His name is Charlie Chaplin.

His father, Charles Spencer Chaplin, an entertainer and a notorious drunk, abandoned him, his half-brother, Sydney, and his mother, not long after Charlie’s birth.

His mother Hannah, a vaudevillian supported the family but was committed to a mental asylum before his ninth birthday.

Armed with the love of the stage, he found short stints here and there until his big break came when he signed with the Fred Karno Pantomime Group who eventually landed on a three-year gig in the US. Among the eight members was Stan Laurel, later of the Laurel and Hardy comic duo.

In the US Charlie was soon noticed and signed by one movie studio then another, then another. To differentiate himself from other actors, he decided to create a single identifiable character.

The little Tramp was born and audiences got their first taste of the immortal character in the movie The Kid in 1921.

Within a few years and scores of films Charlie became a wealthy man and co-founded United Artists with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D W Griffith.

Chaplin resisted the advent of sound (1927) and continued to make silent pictures, with his own powerful music compositions.

He made landmark films including The Gold Rush (1925), The Circus (1928) and two of his masterpieces City Lights (1931), a critical and commercial success and Modern Times (1936).

Modern Times is a masterpiece of American cinema pointing out the mess the world was in and the group of political elitists who were running the world. A mix of silent and talking cinema he had to act out his ideas for all to see. Chaplin’s genius and comedic physicality was formed to perform thoughts to his audience. Silence is gold. Sadly, it is lost.

Modern Times turned out to be prophetic. The Tramp appears for the last time as a factory worker who is never referred to by name, but by number. Familiar? Names become meaningless. He is forced to keep up with the unrealistic production schedule of the corporation he works for. Chaplin explores the very system where all should prosper, but only the top tier does. The society we think is there to protect us, isn’t?

 People should not be forced to work like machines, for others to benefit.

Conformed to the existence of sound, Chaplin produced eight masterpieces, among them Limelight, 1952, (the borrowed title of this column).

On his return from London after attending the premiere of Limelight, he found his re-entry visa to the US rescinded.

The FBI decided to bow to rumours during the shameful McCarthy period, accusing him of communist leanings, of being Jewish among other personal smears, all untrue.

 He took up residence with his fourth wife Oona O’Neill, daughter of the famous playwright, Eugene O’Neill, who disowned her. She was 18. Chaplin was 54. Their marriage lasted 34 years till his death in 1977. He died at 88.

Hollywood’s feeble attempt to erase the blemish, awarded him an Honorary Life Achievement Award in 1972.

The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire was awarded him by the Queen in 1973.

Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin, KBE, has statues of his Tramp in more than 12 countries and accolades, tributes, festivals, museums, exhibits have continued to honour that unique genius whose Tramp taught us the true meaning of humanity.

With both pathos and humour, our laughter continues.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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