Almost all of the iconic costumes in cinema history came to life after a long period of planning and perfecting by the most famous costume designers ever. The Little Tramp, according to Chaplin at least, was brought to life quite differently. It all happened in a lonely dressing room, just a couple of minutes before he was needed on the stage. Is it possibly true that one of the most important figures of the movies was born without a moment of planning? Or was Chaplin borrowing elements from fellow comedians and forgot to mention it in his autobiography some 50 years later? Let’s see if we can find out the truth!
‘We need some gags here,’ Mack Sennett said, then turned to me. ‘Put on a comedy make-up. Anything will do.’ I had no idea what 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 wanted everything a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large. I was undecided whether to look old or young, but remembering Sennett had expected me to be a much older man, I added a small moustache, which, I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression.
Chaplin describes the events as nothing more but a strike of inspiration. However, as the saying goes, success has many fathers. Lots of vaudeville comedians, who Chaplin was most probably acquianted with, claimed over the years that they were the true originators of the Chaplin costume. Let’s have a look at them and their – just or not quite just -accusations.
Fred Kitchen was Chaplin’s colleague at Karno’s, a vaudeville company, and helped the young Chaplin find his way in the music hall world. He often appeared in oversized boots and was also the master of the so-called ashtray kick, which consisted of tossing a lit cigarette over his shoulder and kicking it away with his shoes. Chaplin often used this gag in his own movies. Kitchen said in his later years that he had never toured in America because he was sure everyone would have thought he was copying Chaplin. Kitchen was not someone Chaplin forgot about. In 1925 he was suing one of his imitators, and when he was asked on court where his inspiration originally came from, he replied: “A part of the character was inspired by Fred Kitchen, an old fellow-trouper of mine in vaudeville. He had flat feet.”
Will Murray met Chaplin in another vaudeville troupe, called Casey’s Circus, where Chaplin was employed before he joined Karno. Murray was the leading artist and general director of the company and he was instructing Chaplin in many funny acts, Dick Turpin being one of them. He also claimed he played an important part in the Tramp getting one of his major characteristics.
I think I can justly say that I am the man who taught Charlie to turn corners. Yes, that peculiar run, and still more weird one-leg turnings of corners, which seems so simple when you see it carried out in the pictures, is the very same manoeuvre that I taught Chaplin to go through in the burlesque of Dick Turpin. It took many, many weary hours of monotonous rehearsals, but I am sure Chaplie Chaplin, in looking back over those hours of rehearsals, will than me for being so persistent in my instructions as to how I wanted the thing done.
Billie Ritchie was a well-known Chaplin impersonator of the 1910s who was working in Henry Lehrman’s company. Lehrman is famous for directing Chaplin for the very first time and dismissing his abilities. Ritchie claimed in a 1916 interview: “I used this make-up in 1887. I was playing with my three sisters in a vaudville act, and the make-up took so well that I have used it ever since.” It seems Chaplin never took the accusations too seriously. After Ritchie was attacked by an ostrich on set and died from his injuries two years later, Chaplin was happy to hire his wife, Winifred Ritchie as a costume designer in his studio. She was one of those who created Hynkel’s clothes for The Great Dictator.
Dan Leno was a famous vaudeville performer whose act was enjoyed tremendously by Chaplin when he visited Paris in 1909 with Karno and saw him on stage one night. He remembered his fondness for the comedian even in 1921, when he first visited London after a very long period of time. Chaplin wrote in his travel journal, My Wonderful Visit:
I recall an old photographer’s shop in Westminster Bridge Road just before you come to the bridge. I want to see it again. We get out there. I remember having seen a picture framed in that window when I was a boy – a picture of Dan Leno, who was an idol of mine in those days. The picture was still there.
Sometimes when a new costume is applied, a new character is born. But it seems that wearing a toothbrush mustache, a tiny coat, a dirty bowler hat, a pair of baggy trousers and old shoes is not enough for success! You also need something that Chaplin had and his predecessors didn’t – something that’s almost impossible to define!