Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush (1925)

Coming up next: Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush (1925). Our next silent movie is the one that Chaplin himself consistently said was the film that he most wanted to be remembered for. Chaplin’s Tramp finds his way up north in search of gold and along the way turns up adventure and heartache. Chaplin’s films are notable for combining comedy and melodrama, a feat he first attempted at feature film length in The Kid (1921). Chaplin makes use of clear stagingbody language, and facial expression to take his audience on an emotional roller coaster from laughter to teary eyed empathy.

Clear Staging

In their 1981 book, The Illusion of Life, Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston list “Staging” as one of the 12 principles of animation.

“Staging” is the most general of the principles because it covers so many areas and goes back so far in the theatre. Its meaning, however, is very precise: it is the presentation of any idea so that it is completely and unmistakably clear. An action is staged so that it is understood, a personality so that it is recognizable, an expression so that it can be seen, a mood so that it will affect the audience. Each is communicating to the fullest extent with the viewers when it is properly staged.

Chaplin was expert in clearly staging his ideas to express action, personality, expression, and mood to advance the story. As an example, let us look at this moment from The Gold Rush: foto4big The setting is the great northern frontier during the Yukon Gold Rush. Chaplin’s Tramp has already been through a number of adventures up to this point in the film and none of them have brought him any success, other than simply surviving. The Tramp wanders into town and finds his way into the dance hall. Chaplin wishes to convey that the Tramp is alone; he has no friends and he does not fit in with the others. gold rush saloon The composition and staging of this moment goes a long way toward establishing the tramp as an outsider. As he slowly shuffles into the saloon, the Tramp is isolated in the foreground while everyone else is situated in the middle or background, dancing and having a good time. The wooden pillars holding up the ceiling serve to divide the space up between the Tramp and the others.

The Costume

The physical attributes of the Tramp include a pair of baggy pants, a tight coat, a small bowler hat, a large pair of shoes, a cane and the famous small mustache. The Tramp walks strangely and uncomfortably because of the ill-fitting clothing; either he is wearing secondhand clothes, or they are originally his but he cannot afford new ones. The Tramp may have seen better days, but he maintains the attitude and demeanor of a high-class individual; as long as he acts like one he can believe that he is one, and is able to keep his hope that some day he actually will be again. -Wikipedia

chaplin costume

In silhouette form, the costume became, in the eyes and minds of early film-going audiences, one of the best-known, most instantly recognisable screen images in the world — up there with Mickey Mouse’s ears… Chaplin designed the costume himself. It lasted on the screen, in numerous shorts and features, for 22 years.

There are several versions of how the Tramp costume came to be invented. One, put out by the Keystone Comedy Studio, where Chaplin worked from December 1913, was that he was passing the time one afternoon in the male dressing room (a converted farm shed) — while waiting for the rain to stop — by trying on various articles belonging to other contracted comedians: Fatty Arbuckle’s trousers, star performer Ford Sterling’s shoes and so on. The stick-on moustache was intended for a villain, but he cut it down to the dimensions of a toothbrush. And it all seemed to work.
Another was that the costume was a collage of elements dating back to late-Victorian music-hall routines — Dan Leno’s ill-fitting jacket, Little Tich’s boots, George Robey’s small hat and umbrella maybe — and that Chaplin could have been more generous in acknowledging this. Chaplin: “I had no idea what make-up to put on… However, on the way to the wardrobe, I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat… I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the make-up made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on to the stage he was fully born… Gags and comedy ideas went racing through my mind.” – From an article by Christopher Frayling for the Telegraph