The East Bay’s Premier Magazine of Culture & Commerce

The East Bay’s Premier Magazine of Culture & Commerce

The Birth of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp

The Birth of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp


A cane, a bowler, and a toothbrush moustache that doesn’t quite reach the corners of the mouth. Got it yet? For those who have grown up with any form of communication later than the carrier pigeon, the answer is clear: The Little Tramp, Charlie Chaplin’s lovable drifter who duck-walked his way across the glittering arc of the silent screen era. Chaplin, the world’s first international superstar, is being celebrated this year for his creation of that immortal character, who first popped up fully-outfitted in an 11-minute comedy in 1914. Lauding that birth, groups around the world are holding Chaplin celebrations this year. From Englandto Italy, from Canada to France, from the icy clime of Anchorage to the steamy breeze of Tampa, the tramp is king. Here in the Bay Area, festivals and special Chaplin film showings are being held in San Francisco, Berkeley, and the hidden hamlet of Niles, a small neighborhood on the outskirts of Fremont. In this unlikely spot, the celebration carries a particular resonance. For it is here, in a forgotten film studio in 1915, that a young and little-known Charlie Chaplin made the movie that would establish the Little Tramp’s character for the ages. Chaplin may have found the tramp’s costume elsewhere, but in Niles he found his soul.


Niles Canyon carves through the East Bay Hills, cradling Alameda Creek as it flows from its source in the Diablo Range westward to San Francisco Bay. A lovely umber brushstroke in fall and winter, the canyon is an eight-mile long stretch of sycamore, alder, willow, and live oak that winds through golden-brown hills to connect Niles, on the northern edge of Fremont, to the little community of Sunol. It is a remote area in the East Bay hills, hosting a stream of rush-hour traffic on its two-lane road and a scenic railway line that recalls earlier times. Other than that, the canyon is home to birds, turtles, fish, foxes, the Alameda whipsnake, and the occasional mountain lion.

A century ago, the beauty of Niles Canyon appealed mightily to a young cowboy actor and producer in the brand-new business of moving pictures. Broncho Billy Anderson, a star of the ground-breaking short, The Great Train Robbery, came west to California in 1912 looking for the land of sunshine and natural cowboy scenery for his recently-founded Essanay Film Company. David Kiehn is a film historian at the Niles Silent Film Museum, which commemorates the history of the film-making town and also houses the century old but still operating theater where Chaplin went to see his films post-production. He says that Anderson discovered the small railroad hub with its scenic canyon and immediately settled on it as the western outpost of the Chicago-based Essanay empire.

Anderson quickly built a 200-foot studio across the street from the railroad tracks, plus a row of one-story bungalows to house actors and film crew, and then looked for other add-ons. The most lucrative seemed to be a young comedian from England, Charles Chaplin, who was making waves over at Essanay’s competition, Keystone Studios. Anderson dangled an offer of $10,000 plus a hefty salary, and Chaplin, who had grown up destitute and often homeless in late Victorian London, jumped at the bait. After a brief stint at Essanay’s Chicago headquarters, Chaplin arrived by train in January 1915 to the little four-block village of Niles.

Despite the better salary, Chaplin was dismayed. “The studio was situated in the center of a field, about four miles outside,” Chaplin wrote many years later in his memoir, My Autobiography. “When I saw it, my heart sank, for nothing could have been less inspiring.”

Chaplin was underwhelmed, but under contract. He got to work right away, building a set before he even had a plot. The resulting film, A Night Out, was vintage Keystone slapstick. Chaplin and the cross-eyed comic wonder Ben Turpin play two drunks painting the town. They repeatedly knock each other silly with bricks, bats, or backslaps. Some of the outdoor scenes take place in front of still-existing buildings in Oakland, as shown in the book Silent Traces, by Bay Area Chaplin fan John Bengtson. A drunken Chaplin does one of his signature stumbles down the stairwell of Peralta Apartments on 13th Street, and later paces back and forth in front of the Sierra Apartments on Alice Street, awaiting the next calamity.

Film fans (top to bottom): Niles Museum staffers and volunteers pose with silent-era movie cameras from the museum collection. Diana Serra Carey, aka the silent film star Baby Peggy, makes an appearance at The Edison Theater. Photos courtesy David Kiehn, Niles Museum Film Historian.

A Night Out unintentionally caused a stir on Harrison Street when Chaplin and Turpin drove there to get an outdoor cafe shot. As the two staggered about in front of the venerable Hotel Oakland, a local officer of the law, sensing imminent bedlam, approached. As reported in the Jan. 22, 1915, edition of the Oakland Tribune, the policeman stepped in, collared the two miscreants, then froze when he saw the camera. “Good stuff. . . . A real arrest. Keep it up!” the cameraman shouted, as the officer sheepishly retreated.


Between the filming of drunken mayhem with Turpin, Chaplin was searching for a leading lady. He scoured the music halls of San Francisco without success, and then received a suggestion to meet a certain young woman who frequented a certain Sunset District cafe. On Jan 18, historians estimate, the 25-year-old Chaplin met the 19-year-old Edna Purviance. As Chaplin describes her, Purviance had “large, beautiful gray eyes, perfect little teeth, and a sensitive mouth”—and, unexpectedly, a nose for fun. Chaplin added her to A Night Out, where her first acting task was to hide under a bed in pajamas—rather risqué for 1915—and from then on, she was his comic foil. But she also became his friend, and their on-screen affinity is clear as early as their second Essanay film, The Champion. “Chaplin was a shy person who covered his reserve with props,” says Kiehn, whose book, Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company, devotes two chapters to Chaplin’s time in Niles. “He was always on, working on skits, playing with his cane and hat, going over it again and again, something that wasn’t particularly conducive to making friends or even building a profession. Edna changed that—she was able to get beyond the character to the person.”

In addition to films, the two began to appear together publicly. At the beginning of 1915, Chaplin was still a relative unknown, but his star was beginning to rise. Where Chaplin went, newspapers often followed, writing little three-sentence mentions in the next day’s edition. They took notice when a pretty, young woman began to accompany him. Two weeks after they met, Chaplin and Purviance led the Grand March at the Jan. 30, 1915, Celebrities Ball at Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, an event that received wide press coverage.

Like movie stars today, the two lovers-on-screen also began posing for ads. In the February and March automobile sections of the local papers, they hawked the Thomas Flyer (which a few years prior had won the improbable transcontinental Great Race). Lovely Victorian-looking photo spreads of the two clowning around with the car appeared in both the San Francisco Chronicle and the Oakland Enquirer, which may have also served as sly advertisement for their fourth Essanay movie, A Jitney Elopement. The film, a simple boy-gets-girl story, was shot in Golden Gate Park and along the Great Highway, and features one of the first car chase scenes in film history.

But it wasn’t just in public appearances, newspapers, or on the silver screen that Chaplin and Purviance played fluttering lovebirds. In three months of cavorting before a camera around the Bay Area, Chaplin and Purviance had fallen in love and begun to contemplate a future together. Chaplin’s liaison with Purviance was his first serious love affair. Life for The Little Tramp had suddenly taken wing.


By the end of March, Chaplin had wearied of Anderson’s great western outpost—wonderful for cowboys, perhaps, but less suited for films requiring good studio sets and a variety of scenery. Perhaps he had also grown tired of the small-town gossip stirring up like dust around the two unmarried lovers. But before he could leave, Chaplin had one more film to make. It was spring, and he decided to shoot outdoors in nature. The trees were in bud, and the floor of Niles Canyon was dotted with buttercups and baby blue eyes. On a warm day, he, Purviance, and the Essanay film crew piled into Anderson’s Thomas Flyer and headed out. They set up shop about two miles in from the mouth of Niles Canyon.

No notes or outtake reels survive from the making of The Tramp as they do, exhaustively, for Chaplin’s later films. The initial story playing in Chaplin’s head was probably a simple one—a farmer, a daughter, a bumbling tramp who gets in the way of bad guys wanting to do them harm. Early in the shooting, Chaplin playfully told a reporter that he wanted to “uplift comedy” and add “the subtle stuff,” but gave no further hints of his intent. Maybe it hadn’t occurred to him yet. Perhaps it was the magic of the canyon in spring; perhaps it was the radiant and playful Purviance. But Chaplin’s character in The Tramp underwent a profound change. He was no longer the hard-edged hustler of his Keystone films, or even the slapstick suitor that characterized his initial work with Purviance. Instead, something soft and sentimental entered his screen persona. “It was a magical time for Chaplin,” says Kiehn. “The combination of rural atmosphere and Edna was transformative.” Psychoanalyst Stephen Weissman, author of Chaplin: A Life, concurs. “At Essanay, Chaplin’s formerly shallow screen character matured and developed, thanks in large measure to his love affair with Edna.”

In the final film as we know it today, a tramp is walking along a country road when a young farmer’s daughter, escaping robbers, runs into him. The tramp saves the girl—and her money—from the robbers, and is rewarded with a job back at the farm. The robbers try their luck again at the farm, and the tramp scares them off, but gets shot in the leg. The farmer’s daughter tends to him as he recovers, and he begins to fall in love with her. But just as he is getting better (and making the most of her attentions), the girl’s beau shows up, and the tramp discovers that his affections have been misdirected. He makes his excuses politely, leaves a sad note behind, and, wiping his tears on the kitchen curtain, he returns to the road that is his home.

In the final scenes, Chaplin’s body—always his greatest acting tool—becomes a well of misery with shoulders slumped and head slightly tilted in embarrassed realization of his foolish notion that he could ever win her love. When The Little Tramp looks into the camera, his painted eyes are black holes of grief. “We were meant to feel the tramp’s loss,” says Bengtson, who located the exact site on Niles Canyon Road where the scene was shot. “He is heartbroken. It’s not a joke.” The Tramp was Chaplin’s first movie with a sad ending, and it established for all time the real character of The Little Tramp: not as the silly annoyance first portrayed in the 1914 short, but as an outsider who yearns for love and suffers its loss, then picks himself up to love and lose another day.

Kiehn suggests that the sudden deepening of Chaplin’s Little Tramp character may have been due to an unconscious spark of inspiration, like those that guided so much of Chaplin’s film-making. Chaplin may have first shot The Tramp as a straight slapstick film, then realized how the film needed to end, and gone back, as he often did with later films, to throw out scenes and re-shoot them. The power of bookending the film—ending the film where it begins, out on the road, alone—may have been a late epiphany. Unfortunately, we will probably never know. In researching his book, Kiehn discovered that years after the Niles Essanay studio closed, local kids broke into the abandoned studio shed and stole the celluloid reels, then put a match to them and rolled the wheels of fire down the street for fun. It could have been a scene from a Chaplin short.

However he created it, the effect of Chaplin’s more fully realized character was instantaneous. Audiences fell madly in love with The Little Tramp, a love affair that time has not blunted. The Tramp became both an instant classic and a “watershed moment” in Chaplin’s film-making, portending the magnificent films of his later years. In Niles Canyon that spring of 1915, The Little Tramp was truly born.


In April 1915, Chaplin’s time in Niles was over, and he and Purviance left for Los Angeles. Their final East Bay appearance was at the April 30 grand opening of Oakland’s Municipal Auditorium, the beautiful Beaux-Arts building that sits unused but resplendent on the western edge of Lake Merritt. Before a crowd estimated at 10,000, Chaplin presided over a Chaplin look-alike contest, then marched through the auditorium hall, impersonators in tow, stumbling and clowning their way among the throngs.

Though they never married, the love story of Chaplin and Purviance continued in Hollywood and lasted, on and off, for nearly a decade. The pair made 34 films together, before Chaplin left her for increasingly younger women. In the ’20s and ’30s, Chaplin became something the world had never seen before—an international superstar, whose characteristic hat, cane, and gait were recognized and loved the world over, from major metropolises to remote African villages. But then, in the 1940s, Chaplin’s star fell. His increasingly political movies and outspoken anti-war views drew the wrath of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who initiated a decade-long smear campaign against him: first, for ‘moral turpitude’ in fathering a child out of wedlock with a young would-be actress (the allegations were false), and later, for being a communist (also false). Americans began boycotting his films and calling for Chaplin, who retained his English citizenship, to be kicked out of the country. When Chaplin left for London in 1952 to witness the opening of his newest movie, his re-entry permit was denied. Chaplin’s fall from grace was perhaps “the most dramatic in the history of stardom in America,” according to one Chaplin expert. He abandoned hopes of returning and instead, chose refuge in a beautiful Swiss estate overlooking Lake Geneva, where he lived the rest of his life with his last wife, Oona, and their large family. Chaplin returned only once more to America, in 1972, to accept an honorary Oscar for which he received the longest standing ovation in Academy history.

In that ceremony, Academy of Motion Pictures President Daniel Taradash looked back to the tramp of Chaplin’s early years, the little fellow with the over-sized shoes who startled the world when he first shuffled into our still-picture lives a century ago. Taradash paid tribute to Chaplin’s genius in creating a character of “humor and humanity,” a figure who, in Chaplin’s own words, was “a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow always in search of romance and adventure.” The Little Tramp made people laugh, of course; that was always the easy part. But what made him immortal is the pathos that lay beneath the endless stream of improbable gags, the tragic soul he found so long ago in a canyon in the East Bay Hills.

Born in Oakland, raised in New Jersey, an now happily back home again, Anne Leslie Davis enjoys exploring Bay Area history and culture.

Chaplin Mania

Centenary celebrations of The Little Tramp’s birth are planned on both sides of San Francisco Bay in 2014. Veteran Chaplin fans as well as neophytes can celebrate the happy event at the following locations:

The Little Tramp at 100: A Charlie Chaplin Centennial Celebration
Hosted by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Castro Theatre (429 Castro St., San Francisco) holds a daylong celebration of Chaplin’s film wizardry on Jan. 11:
1 p.m.: Our Mutual Friend: Three Chaplin Shorts—The Vagabond (1916), The Cure (1917), and Easy Street (1917), piano accompaniment by Jon Mirsalis.
4 p.m.: Charlie Chaplin Look-Alike Contest, Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), The Kid (1921), accompanied by San Francisco Chamber Orchestra playing Chaplin’s film score.
7:30 p.m.: The Gold Rush, accompanied by the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra playing Chaplin’s film score.
For more information, go to or call 415-621-6120.

Charles Chaplin celebrations at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum and Edison Theater
Located down the block from where Chaplin made his five films while working in Niles, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum (37417 Niles Blvd, Fremont)—which contains the theater where Chaplin came to watch his films—hosts celebrations throughout the year.
January to May: Saturday Night at the Movies: Chaplin at Keystone—The museum will hold a special showing of Charlie Chaplin’s first movies, made at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios. Beginning with Chaplin’s first release, Making a Living, the movies will be shown every Saturday night at 7:30 p.m., with live piano accompaniment.
June 7–8: Chaplin Days—Daytime showings of Chaplin’s five films made at the Niles Essanay studio in 1915. On Saturday night at 7:30 p.m., the museum will show the Chaplin feature City Lights (1931). Sunday’s events include a Chaplin look-alike contest.
June 28: Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival—The festival, celebrating Niles Essanay co-owner and film’s first cowboy actor Broncho Billy Anderson (who hired Chaplin), will include a showing of the Chaplin feature, The Circus (1928).
Watch for other Chaplin silent features on Saturday nights during the year. For more information, go to or call 510-494-1411.

Berkeley Underground Film Society

The Berkeley Underground Film Society plans a series of Chaplin films throughout 2014, closing the centennial year with a retrospective of all 12 Chaplin films produced between 1916–1917 at the Mutual Film Corporation. The all-ages shows will be at 708 Gilman St. at The Tannery in Berkeley; doors open at 7 p.m., and the films start at 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 19: Monsieur Verdoux
April 13: Modern Times
July: The Kid (date TBA)
November: Tille’s Punctured Romance (date TBA), Shoulder Arms (date TBA)
December: Charlie Chaplin Mutual Retrospective (date TBA) with films including The Floorwalker, The Fireman, The Vagabond, One A.M., The Count, The Pawnshop, Behind the Screen, The Rink, Easy Street, The Cure, The Immigrant, and The Adventurer.
For more information, visit or

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