A Musician-Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) leaves town following a chase to find himself in a gypsy camp. There he finds a poor abducted girl (Edna Purviance) who he attempts to cheer up with his music. Having witnessed a savage beating of the girl by the gypsy chieftain (Eric Campbell), the Tramp goes about saving the girl and setting her free. While attempting to woo her, a handsome artist chances by and has Edna sit for a portrait. The portrait attracts the attention of Edna’s estranged family who attempt to take her away from the Tramp for good.
I honestly can’t think of a single Chaplin film during which I’ve laughed so little but on this occasion that is not a negative statement. Here Chaplin provides plenty of his trademark pathos and creates a film which is much more of a romantic drama than romantic comedy or slapstick comedy.
The film drives to depths of sadness which I simply wasn’t prepared for and around a minute before the end I was starring dumbfounded at the screen. Charlie’s attempts to maintain the romance are endearing but you always get the feeling that they are futile. There is a level of romantic lyricism which I haven’t found in any Chaplin release prior to this one. For the most part Chaplin foregoes comedy in favour of letting the story unfold and only finds time for the odd knock to the head or spitting of water. To me this film really shows the development of Chaplin from the slapstick comedian of his Keystone and early Essanay days, towards the kind of romantic pathos that he became renowned for by the early 1930s.
Another obvious link between his early and latter career are the themes of the film. For me there is a link between this film and 1915s The Tramp and the idea of a beaten and brutalised gypsy girl is explored in even greater detail in 1928s The Circus. Both of those films end with the iconic footage of the Tramp walking away into the distance, happy and content, despite not getting the girl. The ending of The Vagabond seems to be heading down that line but thankfully takes a sharp turn. Given the sadness of the previous five or so minutes I don’t think I could have taken any other ending! With The Vagabond Chaplin takes a clear decision to move away from being the cheeky bum kicking Tramp of his Essanay films to being a character that one can really care about.
A slight problem for modern audiences might arise in the characterisation of the Gypsies as girl snatching fiends. Leo White's character 'Old Jew' is also something which doesn't sit well in a politically correct age. These indiscretions are unusual for Chaplin whose non US background and left leaning politics usually meant that he steered clear of the sort of trouble that befell the likes of D.W. Griffith.
One interesting point about this film is the Tramp’s entrance. The opening shot is of two saloon doors. After a few seconds some feet can be seen approaching the doors from the other side. After just a couple of frames it is obvious that it is the Tramp character from his distinctive walk, shoes and cane. Only those three things are visible until the doors open to reveal the whole man and it shows great confidence in the character’s fame. I can think of no other screen character in history that could enter a scene with only their feet showing and the audience would know exactly who they are.
Although The Vagabond is certainly not a film I’d recommend to someone unfamiliar with Chaplin’s work, for those with an understanding of his history it is a momentous film. Despite very little actual comedy, Chaplin still plays with his audience’s emotions and creates a memorable and poignant film that includes two outstanding performances from himself and frequent co-star Edna Purviance.