It’s Been 100 Years Since Charlie Chaplin Started a Filmmaking Career as the Tyler Perry of His Day

By  · Published on May 6th, 2014

Keystone Film Company

Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of the release of A Busy Day, a half-reeler in which Charlie Chaplin plays an angry suffragette (an alternate title was actually A Militant Suffragette) who becomes jealous of her husband during a parade of some kind. It probably isn’t the first instance of a man playing a woman in cinema (there’s no way it took 20 years), but it is the first film that’s really known as the original precursor to something like Tyler Perry’s Madea character and others like it. Note that this isn’t the same as a Tootsie or Mrs. Doubtfire type, though Chaplin would do parts of that sort, playing a man who dresses as a woman, later on. Interestingly enough, he’s much prettier in one of those parts, that of The Masquerader (100 years old this August), than he is in A Busy Day.

When I claim in the headline above that Chaplin began his filmmaking career as the Perry of his time, I am not really just referring to their comparative angry women characters. Chaplin didn’t direct A Busy Day, contrary to some claims, for one thing. However, he did helm a one-reeler around the same time titled Caught in the Rain. That was in fact his directorial debut, and its own 100th anniversary was this past Sunday. The reason I compare it to Perry’s own first film as a director is that both featured the filmmakers on screen as the iconic characters they’re most associated with. For Perry that’s Madea. For Chaplin that’s the Tramp. And for both this was a character they’d originated in films under other directors, yet these subsequent films aren’t exactly sequels. Madea does have a fairly strict continuity and is a singular character more than the Tramp is, though.

Also known more specifically as The Little Tramp or The Little Fellow, Chaplin’s character made its debut only a few months earlier, with two films released in the second weekend of February 1914. Kid Auto Races at Venice hit screens first but was shot after the true first appearance in Mabel’s Strange Predicament. The newbie at Keystone had done one film with the studio prior to these, and between then and Caught in the Rain he was the Tramp six times and other characters (at least one of which who somewhat resembles the Tramp without a mustache) in four. I can’t find exact numbers for his whole career, but I’m sure he was the Tramp for the majority of his works over the next 22 years. When we think of Chaplin we think of that role, enough that some might not even think of it as a character at all. More than that, it’s an iconic personality and alter-ego, like Pee-Wee Herman and Dame Edna.

Madea isn’t quite an alter-ego of Perry, and the character can theoretically be portrayed by anyone else, even though Perry claims nobody ever will (Orlando Jones played an April Fool’s prank last year claiming to be taking over the role, after which Perry said when he’s done with her, she’s done – which is a shame if you wanted to see high school productions of his plays at some point). She could also theoretically appear in movies that are totally unassociated with one other – her films currently have no definite chronological or narrative link as they are – just like the Tramp and Pee-Wee Herman have done. And that is something. We don’t really have much else like that lately, and even less when it’s the director who is also the star. Kevin Smith and Silent Bob are one other, though that’s such a minor character in most of the movies.

To be fair, we don’t even have a whole lot of filmmakers starring in their own films these days, and when they are a seemingly consistent character, that’s more aligned with the director appearing to play him or herself, as in what people tend to think of Woody Allen has been doing – rather, his on screen personality would be like a modern day Chaplin if it weren’t for them having different names, jobs and clothing in each movie. More like the Marx Brothers, although they tended to have uniform costumes throughout their features, or Buster Keaton, who had a fairly similar look in most of his movies but was always a new character. I wonder if any of today’s first-person documentarians could count. Is Michael Moore’s on screen personality more of a caricature than who he really is? What about Morgan Spurlock or Nick Broomfield? I’m afraid not.

I wonder if we could have a new comic personality who makes movies the way Chaplin did, as a recognizable character that isn’t necessarily a franchise character. Would audiences grow tired of it? Would they prefer something where there’s a link between installments, even if not one that’s totally chronological? Think of Robert Downey Jr. (who, of course, played Chaplin) as Tony Stark/Iron Man or Johnny Depp (who also has sort of done Chaplin) as Captain Jack Sparrow. Actually, the latter could do more outside of a serial format than the former. As daunting as it might be to imagine an attempt to be “the next Chaplin,” that’s my next challenge for young filmmakers of tomorrow. You don’t have to be as good, of course, just similar in what you do.

Of course, the fact that there isn’t enough of a parallel to the Tramp today only helps to keep it and Chaplin’s work so distinguished a century after both began. Not that Perry and Madea have diluted their significance a bit.

Related Topics:

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.