How Chaplin expanded cinema comedy

Here is some more of what I learned from Rob King’s book on Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studio “The Fun Factory”.

The earliest Keystone comedians brought their characters with them from vaudeville. These were the ethnic caricatures that were popular in their day.

In contrast with the “classical” body of white America, the vaudeville stage elaborated an iconography of ethnic grotesquery. Characteristic elements of costume and makeup drew attention to the orifices and bodily extensions, from the stage Jews exaggerated nose and protruding ears to the red whiskers and ruddy countenances of the Irish performers.

These characters were sometimes created and often enjoyed by the same people that were being lampooned. But over time, as immigrants assimilated into society, they did not want to be differentiated, and no longer found them funny. Middle and upper class audiences often found such performances distasteful and vulgar.  Around this time Chaplin began his climb into the stratosphere of fame.

Such phenomenal popularity could only have emerged at the intersection of several crosscurrents in the development of film comedy during the mid-1910’s, chief among them was the vocal disfavor into which the ethnic character had fallen by this time

While other comedians still pursued their stereotypical types, Chaplin concocted a character who had no recognizable nationality, but was a distinct representation of a social class: A Tramp.

-the tramp was a particularly visible figure with America of the period 1870 – 1920, when, in the wake of the upheavals wrought by the economic crisis of 1873 and the depression of 1893, as many as a fifth of American workers spent some time as transients. Tramping thus formed part of the common work experience of industrial America. But it was also a familiar theme of turn-of-century popular culture, where the tramp was a stock character of newspaper strips, dime novels, vaudeville and early film comedy.

David Carlyon, author of Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You Never Heard Of  has pointed out that circus clowns created comic tramp characters long before Chaplin, and were primarily responsible for it’s success in other forms of popular culture.

It wasn’t just the appearance of the character either. Chaplin moved away from the excessive energy in the acting, and the quick pacing of the shots in favor of a slower more thoughtful presentation.   Most comedians were still trying to push everything faster, with quicker cuts, and Chaplin was taking more and more time in each shot.

Rather than grounding his comedy solely in the expressive possibilities of frenetic action, Chaplin uniquely exploited the intervals between the action that introduced an affective dimension to the performance.

Where “comic” situations invited the spectator to laugh at the clown’s transgression, humor complicates that reaction by opening up a margin for identification. It is precisely that complexity that Chaplin’s lumenproletariat persona provokes inviting a spectatorship that oscillates between the poles of empathy and ridicule.

Chaplin didn’t completely reject the rough and tumble comedy, he was still great at that. But he gave the character some room to be more human. This was the turning point where physical comedy became palatable to higher class audiences, and soon everyone was going to see Charlie Chaplin.

4 thoughts on “How Chaplin expanded cinema comedy

  1. Jonathan, this is an interesting perspective on Chaplin. I believe it describes things in reverse order. Concocting a tramp character, Chaplin was no pioneer, because the tramp was a popular circus character. Circus clowns turned the tramp figure into a comic representation well before it was done newspapers, dime novels, vaudeville, and especially before early films. Chaplin’s major contribution was the second element mentioned, that he slowed the character down.

    • Thanks David. The quote from The Fun Factory could be interpreted as Chaplin having invented the tramp type. I have updated the post to give circus clowns their due credit.

  2. Chaplin’s basic tramp character came from the “Mumming Birds” routine from English Music Hall- right down to the battered shoes and bowler hat and bamboo cane. But when he came to America, the opportunities for broadening the scope of the character and situations came about because of the lack of a rigid social class system. In America, audiences were more apt to look on the tramp with sympathy and identify with him. This is what made it possible for him to dive deeper than just pratfalls and pranks that were the stock in trade in the Music Hall and start focusing on character and his relationship to the world around him.

    At the most basic level, Chaplin’s character was quintessentially British, but the fact that it was 100% American was what made it great.

    • I was thinking of that earlier. How British comedy was probably less about ethnicity and more about class. I don’t think Chaplin set out to create something fresh. The caricatures the other comedians were doing just weren’t in his repertoire, so he brought what he knew.

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