Even if you’ve never seen a silent movie, you know Charlie Chaplin’s The Tramp. His too-big trousers and too-tight jacket, his bowler hat, his toothbrush mustache, his cane, his too-big shoes pointed at right angles to his body: you can recognize him from his silhouette. Samuel Beckett doodled him in his manuscripts, and Pam on The Office dressed up as him for Halloween. You can buy a poster of the Tramp in every pop-up poster shop in the world. He is the most iconic figure in classic cinema, one of the most iconic figures in any visual art, and was certainly one of the most beloved.
A hundred years or so later, it’s fascinating to consider that The Tramp was a character living in extreme poverty and frequently homeless—that is, the kind of character who has almost no place in the biggest, most popular movies of our time, even as homelessness and extreme poverty are as endemic as ever.
I wrote about Charlie Chaplin for Current Affairs! You can read it here.