The Everyman Archetype: Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp
Way back in 1914, comedic genius and cinematic pioneer Charlie Chaplin’s choice of wardrobe begat one of the most recognizable and iconic film characters of all time, The Little Tramp.
Chaplin described his ensemble in his autobiography: “pants baggy, coat tight … hat small, shoes large.” He went on to say, “I had no idea of the character, but the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was.”
They say that clothes make the man, but for Chaplin’s Little Tramp, the wardrobe (though aesthetically brilliant) is only a small part of the character’s appeal.
Chaplin’s choice of accouterments draws us in visually. But his unerring ability to persuade us to invest emotionally in the Little Tramp’s travails — without the aid of language — is the true measure of Chaplin’s greatness. Even after a century, the Little Tramp still gets you “right here.”
If you’re not crying like a little bitch during “The Kid” or “City Lights,” I don’t think we can be friends because you’re obviously an emotionally devoid cyborg.
But I digress.
Chaplin’s Little Tramp is a study in contrast. He is shabbily dressed, but never slovenly, of the lowest social order but has impeccable manners, incredibly unluckily but externally optimistic. Charlie grew up desperately poor in London. He knew a thing or two about being destitute and was no sentimentalist.
His films were quick to highlight the arrogance of the wealthy and the hypocrisy of the middle class. Through the eyes of the Little Tramp, the audience sees how dismissive, and even cruel, the elites can be to those they deem unworthy of their consideration.
For example, in Chaplin’s 1925 film “The Gold Rush,” the Little Tramp develops a crush on an upper-class girl and her friends catch wind of it. They encourage the Tramp to throw a New Years Party, assuring him that they, and his crush, of course, will all be in attendance.
Naturally, these malevolent bitches have no intention of spending New Year’s Eve at some poor schmuck’s cabin. It’s just a big goof to them. Whether the Little Tramp’s feelings will be hurt doesn’t cross their minds. And even if it did, they’d think he had it coming for crushing on someone so far out of his league.
Chaplin with Georgia Hale, “The Gold Rush,” 1925
Many of Chaplin’s films followed this underlying theme, which still resonates today. More than one hundred years later and the gap between the haves and the have-nots is still growing. People across the globe still find Chaplin’s downtrodden alter-ego completely relatable. How sad.
In the end, the Little Tramp never got the girl, or the job, or whatever it was he was hoping to acquire. The film ends with him walking away, shoulders slumped dejectedly, as the picture begins to fade to black.
But, just before it does, our hero stands a little taller, shrugs off his latest defeat, and kicks his heels. With newly regenerated confidence, he struts off with “just wait ’til next time!” inherent in every step.
The Little Tramp will be back, still fighting, and even over a century later, movie goers will still be rooting for him.
Photo by T.V.Tropes