In February 1914, an English music hall comedian who was tired of touring America and of live audiences and of small paydays walked onto the set of Max Sennett’s Keystone Studios in Los Angeles in a new costume. He had joined Sennett’s company a month before at $150 a week; and even as a top-hatted dude in his first film Making a Living had attracted favourable trade press attention. But his new costume immediately suggested a different character – a character close to his own brooding and mercurial nature. It was built on contradictions: small derby and large shoes, swank cane and threadbare coat. ‘Charlie’ was a tramp whose anarchy and pathos took revenge on Charles Chaplin’s own bitter South London childhood and called society into question. With Chaplin, vaudeville would throw up to American democracy its first enduring theatrical genius: a man whose clowning fulfilled de Tocqueville’s prediction that one day the pit would make laws for the boxes.
‘Another longing was to be a romantic actor, but he was too small and his diction too uncultured,’ Chaplin wrote, reflecting on his early years in the ‘novel’ for Limelight (1952). ‘Necessity made him turn to comedy which he loathed because it demanded of him an intimacy with his audience