Charlie Chaplin: The Ingenuine Mind of Hollywood

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Cinema: A Critical Dictionary regarded as an encyclopedia of cinema’s most influential people, marks “Charlie Chaplin [as] arguably the single most important artist produced by cinema, certainly its most extraordinary performer and probably still its most universal icon” (Sarris). With a seemingly unparalleled drive to create films of the utmost perfection that captured audiences through comedy and humor, Charlie Chaplin rose himself—quite literally—from rags to riches. Perhaps one of his most notable comedic contributions to the film industry was his character “The Tramp,” a beloved and widely imitated figure. Chaplin, a man who thrived on innovation, brought comedy to the world of feature films. He was also known for creating the “dramedy,” a genre that weaved drama and comedy to create humorously, yet heartfelt American motion pictures. Chaplin’s ability to pull off “dramedies” was of course due to his talent as a screenwriter. As a director, Chaplin’s techniques enabled his films to reach the audience in a manner not many were able to achieve. Chaplin’s creative use of screenwriting, and his talent both in front of and behind the camera, substantiates his significance as a remarkable entertainer in cinema.

Born on April 16, 1889, in London, England, Charles Spencer Chaplin pulled himself and his younger half-brother, Sydney, through a life of poverty. By the time Chaplin was 10 years old, his father had passed away and his mother had fallen ill; in an attempt to help support the family, the Chaplin brothers put their natural talents as entertainers to use. Chaplin stood out as an “outstanding tap dancer” after his debut as a member of “The Eight Lancashire Lads,” a group of young male dancers (Erickson and Barson). Chaplin continued to pursue his career as an entertainer by continuously touring, performing as a comedian in Vaudeville shows (Seidman). His career in cinema did not begin until late 1913, when he joined Mack Sennett and the Keystone Film Company (Erickson and Barson).

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One of Chaplin’s earliest contributions to the film industry was his widely known character, the Tramp. Because the Tramp was seemingly relatable to both adults and children, he became one of America’s most beloved characters, and it is for this same reason that the Tramp continues to be a relevant icon in contemporary culture. According to documentarian/film preservationist Serge Bromberg, ‘The cinema was not yet 20 years old when he made the first Tramp film,’ meaning, Chaplin’s rise to stardom in cinema began before his hit film The Kid (Charlie Chaplin, 1921) (King). As initially introduced, the Tramp was a mere caricature—a pure artistic rendition of a poor, shameless, child-like man. However, throughout Chaplin’s 35 Keystone films he was able to elevate the Tramp from a one-dimensional figure to the icon of a character the public grew to love (Erickson and Barson). The Tramp’s first appearance was in Kid Auto Races at Venice (Henry Lehrman,1914), a Mark Sennett Keystone Film (Erickson and Barson). In its first film, the Tramp was an “obnoxious spectator who [kept] interrupting the filming of the race,” (King), but by the time the character reappeared in The Kid (1921), less than 10 years later, the Tramp had been reinvented. Still a poor, badly-dressed man, the Tramp was now a humble, kindhearted and selfless character (Chaplin). With his unique wits and take on slapstick, Chaplin created the nationally esteemed “Tramp”, and it is this individuality which remarked Chaplin as an unparalleled artist in film.

Chaplin, a master of comedy, connected with the audience in ways no other figures of entertainment could, but the Tramp was more than a comedic character. Once again, Chaplin’s ingenuity pierced through one of his creations as the Tramp served as commentary purpose. Comedy serves to support “new politics as well as “an attack on the status quo” (Reed), and Chaplin used the Tramp to produce such attacks against social norms in the early 1920s. The Tramp was, in short, a homeless man with a kind heart. Part of what made the character lovable were his child-like tendencies and his empathetic personality, which juxtaposes what one may believe about homeless persons in the 1920s, and even in modern society. Chaplin essentially reinvented the notion of a homeless person and made the Tramp an American Sweetheart. With this, Chaplin commented on the closed-mindedness with which society received anything it deemed “abnormal” through the use of humor and wit. This critique is one that can be carried from the early 20th century into a modern society. It is this which adds to the universal appeal of such a character, the timelessness of, not only its comedic purpose, but its critique, and it is why a century after “[Chaplin’s] debut in movies, his profoundly wistful Little Tramp remains a recognizable image” (Brantley). Chaplin’s inventiveness and creative use of comedy stands apart from many of his peers and reaffirms his key role in cinema.

Chaplin continued on his path of creativity and innovation as a director, producer, and screenwriter in 1921 by pioneering comedy in feature films. Although comedy in film existed before Chaplin came into the picture, it was mainly exhibited in short films that were showcased in Vaudeville shows, or Nickelodeon theaters (Kuntz). The Kid (1921) was not only known as “the longest comedy,” but as “real comedy” due to its well-developed plot and characters who were able to successfully portray slapstick comedy (The Screen). Inevitably, the film became a hit; not only had it—a comedy feature—never been done before, but Chaplin’s ability to capture the audience made it a film worth watching for nearly 60 minutes. With The Kid (1921), Chaplin set a precedent for what a comedy film should look like; by the end of the 1920s, Buster Keaton had premiered comedy features such as The Navigator (1924) and The General (1926), both of which he was involved in directing, producing and writing, and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) which he directed and wrote—he starred in all three. Needless to say, the film industry adored Chaplin’s The Kid (1921) so much that comedy became cinema’s “Next Big Thing.” As a pioneer of comedy in feature films, Chaplin reaffirmed his importance as an entertainer in the cinematic industry.

More than a director, producer, and screenwriter of comedy, Chaplin’s originality as an entertainer led him to create a new genre of film characterized by humor and emotion. Because of his mastery in the genre of comedy and knack for novelty, Chaplin was able to tinker with the rules of comedy to weave in emotion to create the “dramedy”. Drama in film was a familiar concept to many screenwriters, directors, and producers, but “One of the first times a “dramedy” was attempted was with Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid” (George); the concept of using humor to make people feel was something only Chaplin could have spearheaded in the early ages of film. Chaplin “allowed his audiences to see and to feel what is realistically distressing about life through the magnifying glass, and only through the magnifying glass of humor,” something not many in his time were accustomed to doing (Brantley). By juxtaposing struggles of life with humor, Chaplin successfully mixed drama, and oftentimes melancholy, with comedy and properly execute popular “dramedy” films.

It was Chaplin’s remarkable talent as a screenwriter and as a director which enabled him to truly make “dramedy” films. A couple of the best examples of Chaplin’s “dramedy” are within his films The Kid (1921) and City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931). The Kid (1921) features the Tramp and a young boy who form a father-like relationship after the boy is abandoned by his mother and adopted by the Tramp. The tender relationship developed between the two is one that illuminates the joining of drama and comedy, in fact, the way the Tramp prioritizes the kid’s well-being “epitomizes the film’s blend of rich comedy and well-earned pathos” (Erickson and Barson). Chaplin chose to feature the iconic character of comedy in a seemingly heartfelt story with a sentimental plot and therein lies his inventiveness as a screenwriter—it had never been done before, but Chaplin did it and he did it well. Additionally, Chaplin’s ability to be as creative a director as screenwriter rose his film, City Lights (1931), from a simple comedy film as well to one with depth and emotion. The story follows the Tramp as he falls in love with a blind city girl. The plot itself is enough to understand where the comedy meets the drama, but more than the screenplay, it was Chaplin’s ingenuity as a director which elevated the film’s status as a “dramedy”. Towards the end of the film, there is a shot “that cuts back and forth between the flower girl and the Tramp,” which builds up tension and creates intense emotion (Vishnevetsky). Chaplin went beyond what was written in the script and used technical aspects of film to create the atmosphere he envisioned for his feature. More than a pioneer of comedy in feature films, Chaplin was a pioneer of creativity in film genres, yet another reason why he remains one of cinema’s most exceptional artists.

Chaplin is an inarguable figure of inspiration, and his significance as an entertainer in the early 1920s is more than validated, but his influence and legacy goes beyond even the 20th century. As a writer, director, producer, and star of The Kid (1921), Chaplin lead the way for many of his contemporary peers, including Buster Keaton and Hal Roach to do something similar. As previously mentioned, Keaton premiered several feature films after Chaplin debuted The Kid (1931). Roach, inspired by Chaplin, went on to create one of America’s most famous slapstick-comedy duos, Laurel and Hardy, who made their feature debut in 1931(Britannica). Laurel and Hardy had an aesthetic similar to Chaplin’s Tramp: Tight coats, distinctive top hats, Hardy even had the iconic Tramp mustache. Because Chaplin had paved the way for comedy feature films a decade before the debut of Roach’s comedy duo, Roach was able to produce several comedy feature films, including a few starring Laurel and Hardy. Roach went on to produce films such as Safety Last! (Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, 1923) and Pack Up Your Troubles (George Marshall and Raymond McCarey, 1932). By merely introducing comedy to feature films, Chaplin built the foundation for members of the film industry like Keaton and Roach to produce, direct, write and/or star in the films they did; Chaplin was a cinematic leader even in the early ages of cinema.

Chaplin’s legacy, however, is not constrained to entertainers in the 1920s and 1930s. In an interview with MovieMaker Magazine, Lloyd Kauffman—actor, director, and producer—says, “I could write a book about how Chaplin has influenced my movies, scripts, characters and themes” (Wood). Needless to say, Kauffman is amongst many who admire and look up to Chaplin, such as Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, and Johnny Depp. Allen, in particular, has never shied away from voicing his opinion regarding Chaplin’s genius comic mind. In the documentary, Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin (Richard Schickel, 2003), Allen discussed a scene in one of Chaplin’s films and deemed it universally funny, as well as timelessly humorous (Schickel). Aside from open admiration, various of Allen’s films echo the comedic styles of Chaplin; it is evident Chaplin influenced Allen’s success as a director, writer, actor, and comedian. Mel Brooks—actor, comedian, and filmmaker—deemed Chaplin one of his mentors, remarking that he “felt a closeness,” to him. Additionally, actor and producer, Johnny Depp remarks Chaplin’s individuality while attempting to recreate the famous roll-dance from Gold Rush (Charlie Chaplin, 1925), and falling short of a satisfactory, successful execution; Chaplin’s talent is seemingly unparalleled (O’malley). Even in the 21st century, Chaplin continues to significantly impact entertainers in the film industry.

From tap dancing to performing in vaudeville shows and starring in Keystone comedy shorts, to writing, producing and directing his own feature films, Charlie Chaplin made of his name a long living legacy. Chaplin gave cinema its most recognizable character, the Tramp, as well as comedy and “dramedy” feature films which were a product of his ingenuity in screenwriting and directing. Chaplin, still a strong figure of inspiration to entertainers in the industry today, remains a strong legacy—and will continue to be regarded as such—because of that same ingenuity which rose him to stardom. As a pioneer of comedy in cinema, a creative comic genius, and a beloved household name, Charlie Chaplin is regarded as one of cinema’s superlative entertainers.

Works Cited

  1. Brantley, Ben. “The Tramp, Beyond Limelight.” The New York Times, 2012.
  2. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Laurel and Hardy.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 29 Oct. 2018,
  3. Chaplin, Charlie, and Charlie Chaplin. The Kid. Associated First National Pictures, 1921.
  4. Erickson, Harold L., and Michael Barson. “Charlie Chaplin.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 11 Jan. 2019,
  5. George, Susan. “What Is a Dramedy? – Times of India.” The Times of India, Business, 26 Dec. 2010,
  6. King, Susan. “The Evolution of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 24 Jan. 2014,
  7. Kuntz, Jonathan. “The Feature Film and Hollywood.” FILM 6A: Lecture, Week 2. FILM 6A: Lecture, Week 2, 2019, Los Angeles.
  8. O’malley, Sheila. “Why Actors Still Talk about Charlie Chaplin, and What He Teaches Them about Not Acting Funny.” POLITICO, POLITICO, 21 Dec. 2011,
  9. Reed, Joseph W. American Scenarios: the Uses of Film Genre. Wesleyan University Press, 1989.
  10. Sarris, Andrew. “Charlie Chaplin.” Cinema: a Critical Dictionary, by Richard Roud, Secker & Warburg, 1980, pp. 201–212.
  11. Seidman, Steve. Comedian Comedy: a Tradition in Hollywood Film. UMI Research Press, 1981.
  12. Schickel, Richard, director. Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin. Warner Bros., 2003.
  13. “THE SCREEN.” The New York Times, 22 Jan. 1921.
  14. Vishnevetsky, Ignatiy. “A Century Later, Why Does Chaplin Still Matter?” Film,, 23 June 2014,
  15. Wood, Jennifer M. “The 25 Most Influential Directors of All Time.” MovieMaker Magazine, 7 July 2007,


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