Close your eyes and he appears before you: Slight frame. Bowler hat. Short-but-thick mustache. Big, floppy shoes. Shabby, ill-fitting coat. Baggy pants. Tricky cane. Surprisingly delicate smile.
Charlie Chaplin passed away this week in 1977 -- 25 Christmases ago. But his name lives on and so does his image as "the Little Tramp" of the silent-film era. Again shut your eyes and he starts to walk -- that odd little waddle -- and soon he has slipped or stumbled or tripped. But then in an instant, with that always-amazing grace, he's managed to right himself.
"He's one of those larger-than-life icons," says Matthew Curtis, programming director for Enzian Theater in Maitland, Fla. "He's just entered the fabric of culture."
Considered to be the movies' first superstar, Charles Spencer Chaplin was born in London to parents who were music-hall entertainers. When he was 5, his father died and his mother suffered a nervous breakdown.
Soon, little Charlie was living a Dickensian life on the streets and in charity homes. Eventually, he hooked up with a children's musical troupe and when Chaplin was still in his early 20s, sharp-eyed Keystone Kops producer Mack Sennett signed him up. In 1914, in "Kid Auto Races at Venice," Chaplin introduced the Little Tramp character and there was no stopping him.
It's sad but fitting that the great silent clown died, at age 88, on Christmas Day. The yuletides of his impoverished youth were especially difficult days when even the gift of a single orange could not be counted on.
Long after Chaplin had become a world-famous success, the holiday season remained a sore point. So his family would try to cheer him up by showing one of his comedies. One Christmas he insisted on seeing "The Kid," the film in which his character attempts to raise a street urchin, whom the authorities want to take from him. The thought of a poor child suddenly torn from a parental figure hit too close to home.
"We put 'The Kid' on and he cried," daughter Jane Chaplin once recalled. "It was a very emotional Christmas afternoon."
Many people today may never have seen an entire Chaplin classic such as "The Kid" or "City Lights" or "Modern Times" or "The Gold Rush." So how does the Chaplin legend live on?
To a large extent, he continues to exist through the many imitations of his image in popular culture. A Chaplin character played by Eddie Izzard appeared this year in the murder mystery "The Cat's Meow," and Robert Downey Jr. played him in the 1992 biopic "Chaplin."
In September, the Toronto International Film Festival featured silent Chaplin shorts with music performed by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. "I've enjoyed listening to you," composer-conductor Carl Davis told the audibly appreciative crowd. According to Steve Gravestock, the Toronto festival's programming manager, an impressive number of children showed up for the program, even though it wasn't specifically marketed to kids, and had a great time.
Chaplin understood how to create a character that people could take to heart. "You know, the little man struggling to overcome, in love and work and everything," says Curtis. "I just think people can identify with what he did."
"Everybody felt like they were his friend," says Pat Hanson, a film historian for the American Film Institute. "He was like, 'our Charlie.' "
The Little Tramp might be shabbily dressed, but there is a certain dignity to the way he comports himself -- a dignity, says Gravestock, that "is always being affronted."
"Of all comedians," critic James Agee once observed, Chaplin had the shrewdest and most sensitive understanding "of what a human being is, and is up against."
Another key to Chaplin's appeal may be the mixed emotions he inspires. "He could evoke both comedy and sadness at the same time and really hit all the right buttons for the audience," says Hanson.
In "The Gold Rush" -- "the picture I want to be remembered by," as Chaplin called it -- there's a famous holiday dinner scene in which his starving character is reduced to boiling an old shoe and eating it. The shoe is still steaming as he sets it on a platter and removes the laces with his knife and fork. Then he carefully separates the upper part of the shoe from the sole, which he then chews pensively, as if considering the merits of its texture and flavor.
There are moments during that sequence when his hungry eyes tell a desperate story. But his fastidiousness throughout the entire process -- the dainty way he twirls the laces on his fork, as if they were spaghetti strands -- is hilarious.
"It's like: I'm going to starve with dignity," Hanson says. "We may feel sorry for him, but he doesn't really seem to feel sorry for himself."
Jay Boyar is movie critic at the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune company.