Thursday, February 11, 2016

EUGEN | Feb. 7–Chaplin Debuts as The Little Tramp (Personal Note)

This day in 1914, Charles Spencer (Charlie) Chaplin premiered in vaudeville theaters as "The Little Tramp" in the silent film Kid Auto Races at Venice.

Born in England April 16, 1889, Chaplin was a performer by the age of 10, in 1908 joining a pantomime troupe and playing a drunk. Spotted by a talent scout on a 1913 U.S. tour, Chaplin signed up with Keystone Studios. His first movie, Making a Living, in which he played a swindler, was not a success.

Keystone gave him a second chance and this time Chaplin worked hard on his look. He scoured the  Keystone costume wardrobe to put together the Little Tramp ensemble–“pants baggy, coat tight," "hat small, shoes large”. He added the mustache to look older, he said in his autobiography.

In his first appearance as the Little Tramp (he was also called Charlot, and there is a fine restaurant in NYC named after him), Chaplin interrupts a kids' cart race in Venice, Calif., and gets in the way of the filming in ways both comic and tragic, wherein may lie the secret of why we laugh at him. After this debut, Chaplin became the most famous actor in Hollywood, appearing in 35 Keystone comedies. He then signed with a series of bigger-money contracts before founding the United Artists in 1919 with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and director D.W. Griffith.

Chaplin's characters all had a bit of the Tramp in them, whether he played a waiter (The Rink, 1916), a janitor (Triple Trouble,1918) or a gold prospector (The Gold Rush, 1925). Chaplin gave his Tramp speaking lines in Modern Times (1936); to hide his British accent , he sang in Italian with made-up lyrics–that was the last Little Tramp movie. Chaplin subsequently made The Great Dictator (1940), Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and Limelight (1952).

Personal Note

During the period from 1916 to 1923 (I am still hunting in the historical NYC records for the exact dates), my Dutch great-uncle Eugen Boissevain was working with his brothers Robert and Jan on the successful business of importing coffee from Java when it was still a Dutch colony. He owned a townhouse on St. Luke's Place in the East Village in New York City. Eugen was between two marriages–his first wife Inez Milholland died in 1916, and he married his second wife Edna St. Vincent Millay in 1923. Charlie Chaplin was his tenant on St. Luke's Place when not in Hollywood. Another tenant was Max Eastman, who edited The Masses until the U.S. Post Office refused to distribute the famous magazine in 1917 because it was viewed as disloyal to America when it was at war.

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