January 1914: Filming on Mack Sennett’s comedy Mabel’s Strange Predicament wasn’t going well–there weren’t enough laughs, not enough gags, not enough funny Ha-Has to make this two-reeler work. The frustrated Sennett asked one of his young players Charlie Chaplin to put on some “funny make-up” and liven things up. Chaplin was just twenty-four but he already had fourteen years stage experience in London and Broadway and was now desperately trying to save his film career by coming up with something he hoped would make Mabel’s Strange Predicament funny–very, very funny.
Chaplin had no idea what make-up to put on, let alone what costume to wear, or whether his character should be young or old or what. But he had a hunch, a feeling, an inspiration. On the way to wardrobe he decided on donning baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a Derby hat: “I wanted the clothes to be a mass of contradictions, knowing pictorially the figure would be vividly outlined on the screen,” Chaplin later explained in an interview in 1933. “To add a comic touch, I wore a small moustache which would not hide my expression.”
“My appearance got an enthusiastic response from everyone, including Mr. Sennett. The clothes seemed to imbue me with the spirit of the character. He actually became a man with a soul–a point of view. I defined to Mr. Sennett the type of person he was. He wears an air of romantic hunger, forever seeking romance, but his feet won’t let him.”
The moment Chaplin was dressed, the clothes and the makeup told him who he was supposed to be. He started to become this character and by the time he walked onto set, the “Little Tramp” was born.
Mabel’s Strange Predicament may have been Chaplin’s first performance as the “Little Tramp” but it was not to be the public’s first sight of Chaplin’s comic creation–that came in his second outing Kid Auto Races at Venice, which was made after Mabel’s Strange Predicament but was released two days before it in February 1914.
These rare behind on location photographs capture Charlie Chaplin performing and improvising as the “Little Tramp” in Kid Auto Races at Venice–the character that made Chaplin the world’s first movie superstar.
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