There has been some recent research by film historians, silent movie academics and classic comedy buffs who have explored the idea that Chaplin and his most enduring character and image, “The Tramp” may not have been his own concept. The prevailing theory is that it was, in fact, the brainchild of the most underrated film person in history, silent-movie actress and Hollywood’s first female director and producer, Mabel Normand.
It was true, as it turns out.
Speculation of Mabel’s influence on Chaplin began when she herself insisted that Mack Sennett hire him for Keystone studios. Once on board the unknown thesp never quite hit his stride until he started working with Normand, which makes her instrumental in Chaplin’s development as actor, clearly. She was one of his earliest influences, friends and directors and the first film in which he wore his immortal getup was one in which she directed and co-starred. Thankfully, since some of these early classic films have been preserved actual cinematic proof now exists to give Normand the credit she deserves.
In the 1914 one-reeler “Mabel’s Married Life” (the title alone suggesting who was a bigger star at the time) something very minor is seen. So minor that it has obviously been overlooked, for years. Halfway through “Married Life,” (visit IMDB for more information) whose plot centers on a domestic dispute, Normand, as the wife, attempts to show the viewers without words who is the object of her anger. In doing so she mimics the walk that made Chaplin’s reputation. This may seem like a minor fact but its relevance is nothing short of overwhelming. The reality is Mabel’s interpretation is too good for it to be mere imitation. The fact that Mabel does a better Chaplin than Chaplin proves she had done it before, perhaps as a suggestion or instruction to the young Englishman on how to properly exaggerate the character for comedic effect. At the very least these few precious seconds of film also make Mabel the first Chaplin impersonator.
This on-camera evidence, together with all the other facts assembled, point to one thing. Normand was the personality behind the The Tramp and therefore, by association, Chaplin. What he would later become he owes to Normand, and likewise everyone he later influenced. This alone should help immortalize Normand but ironically it is only a fraction of her accomplishments. She was Mack Sennett’s muse, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s leading lady, an accomplished filmmaker and comedienne who opened doors for everyone from Lucille Ball to Tina Fey. So the next time you see a pratfall, a film directed by a woman or a derby hat, think of Mabel Normand, Tramp-ett.
READ ALSO BY THE SAME AUTHOR: “Mabel Normand: silent-film star deserved to be heard“