Charlie Chaplin’s character the Tramp is iconic. People who have never seen a Chaplin film recognise his creation and associate it with him. Conversely, many people would not recognise Chaplin without the costume of his beloved character. The first appearance of the Tramp was in the second film Chaplin appeared in, Mabel’s Strange Predicament,1914.
What an astonishing performance. Not only is this the first time that audiences heard the world-famous Tramp, but he sings nonsense. The gag is that the Tramp is set to sing a French song in a restaurant where he works as a waiter. Not knowing the lyrics, he writes them on his shirt cuffs, which, unfortunately, fly off when he makes his grand entrance. The audience of both the restaurant show and the film are made to wait to hear the Tramp while he first looks for his cuffs then prevaricates.
The Tramp is forced to improvise and comes up with a gibberish mix of French, Italian and Spanish. This use of nonsense came from Chaplin’s fear that if the Tramp spoke in dialogue, the universal appeal of the character could be diminished. Also, the use of half-intelligible words has a comic effect, especially since the original song by Léo Daniderff was known in the US as it featured in the Broadway musical Puzzles,1925, and was recorded by radio star Billy Jones. Here is an early recording
Charlie Chaplin’s next film was The Great Dictator, 1940. This film, which satirises fascism and Hitler, has it’s basis in the physical resemblance between the Tramp and Adolf Hitler. In a similar costume to the Tramp, Chaplin plays a Jewish barber. He also appears as Adenoid Hynkel, a parody of Hitler. Speaking of the film, Chaplin later wrote “I was determined to go ahead, for Hitler must be laughed at.”
Significantly, The Great Dictator was Charlie Chaplin’s first movie with dialogue. By this time, it was pointless resisting sound and, perhaps more importantly, the message Chaplin sought to deliver benefitted from dialogue. The film even ends with a five-minute speech where Chaplin steps out of character and makes an emotional plea against war and fascism.
Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp resonated with audiences around the world. Looking back, it seems remarkable that the voice of the iconic character was only heard once, and that was when the Tramp sang a gibberish version of a popular French song for comic effect.