The Circus (1928)

In his fascinating book Acting in the Cinema James Naremore analyses the first film in which Charlie Chaplin appeared as the Tramp character that became his trademark, Kid’s Auto Race (1914). Kid’s Auto Race, also known as Kid Auto Races at Venice, is a six-minute Keystone comedy produced by the legendary Mack Sennett, for whom Chaplin went on to perform the Tramp in many more silent films. Naremore focuses on the details of Chaplin’s pantomime, mentioning in passing the contribution of his costume in singling him out from the rest of the crowd at the scene, which stages the filming of an auto race in which the Tramp causes chaos by getting in the way of the camera. For Naremore, this film establishes Chaplin as a celebrity by contrasting his theatricalised acting with the more naturalistic performance and dress of the ‘real’ spectators.

This inspired me to look more closely at the role of costume in building the Tramp’s identity and distinguishing the character as a star. Although this was the Tramp’s first appearance, Chaplin’s distinctive comic performance style was evident in the Keystone comedy Making a Living (1914), in which he played a swindler. The tramp costume was devised for Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914), made just before but released after Kid Auto Races

Kid Auto Races (1914)

In silent cinema the actors often wore their own clothing. According to Chaplin’s autobiography he created the Tramp’s outfit from deliberately contradictory elements: baggy pants, tight jacket, oversized shoes and small derby hat provided by fellow actors and whangee cane owned by himself. Accessories such as the high-collar shirt, check waistcoat and tie are not accounted for, but Chaplin claims to have added a moustache to make himself appear older. In this first manifestation, the Tramp is scruffier and less affecting than he became later. The cigarette adds to his louche appearance and the cane is a parody of gentleman’s attire. Chaplin gives a professional clown’s performance in the tradition of the North American Tramp/Hobo; his costume is based on a collage of mismatched pieces that appear to have been randomly collected from discarded clothing. This contrasts with the dress of the other participants, which is tidy, appropriate and in tune with the setting, indicating their authenticity. While the dissonant parts of the Tramp’s outfit do not cohere into a sartorial whole, their recombination indicates the character’s aspirations to be a dandy.

The Tramp’s clothes draw attention to the social significance of dress as well as to his affectation, which Chaplin developed as a feature of his performance. The collage effect, deriving from popular forms such as the circus and street theatre, resonates with the aesthetic strategies of the Surrealists and others. The pastiche of styles portrays the character as a fabrication, a social type rather than a rounded individual. While the rudiments of psychological motivation are there in the costume’s ridicule of the Tramp’s desire to belong to a higher class, the emphasis on disguise focuses the viewer’s attention on Chaplin’s self-presentation as star performer. He hogs the camera, disrupting the filming of the races by interposing himself in various poses between the film-makers and the event. The Tramp and his costume become the spectacle.

Kid Auto Races (1914)

This is troublesome in several ways. In terms of class, the combination of vagrant and dandy in the Tramp’s costume lampoons the respectable appearance of the rest of the crowd. He overturns the logic of time by sporting clothes from different periods. In the story, the disorderly Tramp erupts into an orderly everyday occasion populated by ordinary middle-class folk on a day out; he is a social menace. He breaks the rules of documentary film-making by giving a theatrical comic turn in stylised gear and make-up that reveals the mechanisms of the staged set-up and drives the director to distraction. The anarchic nature of his garments is reflected in the apparent unpredictability of his actions. Genius. No wonder film-makers such as Sergei Eisenstein celebrated the Tramp’s revolutionary potential. 

© Pam Cook

It’s well known that fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli designed film costume, but her work for British cinema in the 1930s is not widely recognised. She worked on 29 British, French and American productions between 1931 and 1952; below I list the British titles on which she acted as costume designer, which make up a substantial part of her film work. During the 1920s and 1930s there was considerable transnational collaboration between the film industries of Britain and continental Europe, with many European émigrés coming to work in Britain and vice versa. This context may account for Schiaparelli’s involvement in British cinema – the productions to which she contributed were international in flavour. She consistently worked with film studio Gaumont British, based at Shepherd’s Bush, London.

A Gentleman of Paris (1931)

A crime melodrama and courtroom drama set in Paris, this early sound film was directed by Sinclair Hill and produced by Michael Balcon for Gaumont British. It features Sybil Thorndike as a murderess. Arthur Wontner, best known for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, plays the lead role of a morally compromised judge. This seems to have been Schiaparelli’s first credit for costume design. There’s little information available about the film, so the details of how she became involved remain obscure. Following this, she worked on four French titles.

Hugh Williams and Vanda Gréville in A Gentleman of Paris

Little Friend (1934)

Also made for Gaumont British, this film deals with the harrowing psychological effects on a young girl of her parents’ divorce. British child actress Nova Pilbeam plays Felicity, the girl from a wealthy family whose unhappiness leads her to harm herself. Scripted by Christopher Isherwood and Margaret Kennedy, directed by Austrian émigré Berthold Viertel with production design by Alfred Junge, another European émigré, the film opens with a surreal nightmare sequence that visualises Felicity’s disturbed state of mind. The glittering line-up of international creative talent suggests a stylish and upmarket production.

Poster for Little Friend

Brewster’s Millions (1935)

Directed by Thornton Freeland for Herbert Wilcox Productions, this musical comedy, a remake of the 1921 US silent film, stars dapper Jack Buchanan as a penniless young man Jack Brewster, who inherits a fortune but in order to receive it must spend a huge sum within 60 days. He is helped in this task by glamorous European import Lili Damita as chorus girl Rosalie La Rue.

Cigarette card featuring Lili Damita and Jack Buchanan

The Tunnel (1935)

Another Gaumont British production, this ambitious futuristic film deals with plans to build a transatlantic tunnel between Britain and the US. Adapted by Kurt Siodmak from a 1913 German novel, directed by Maurice Elvey and produced by Michael Balcon, the film reflected current political and cultural concerns and represented an attempt by Gaumont British to break into the American market. As part of this project it starred US actors Richard Dix and Walter Huston, but it also featured an impressive roster of European talent, including Siodmak, cinematographer Günther Krampf and art director Ernö Metzner – and, of course, Schiaparelli.

The Tunnel

King of the Damned (1935)

Directed by Walter Forde, co-scripted by Sidney Gilliat and produced by Michael Balcon for Gaumont British, this film starred German actor Conrad Veidt as Convict 83, who leads a prison revolt to set up a more humane regime at an island penal colony.

Conrad Veidt (left) in King of the Damned

Love in Exile (1936)

Directed by US-born Alfred L. Werker, produced by Hungarian émigré Max Schach for Capitol Film, this film stars Clive Brook as abdicated King Regis VI, who outwits two oil magnates and stages a return to his throne. After this, Schiaparelli worked on two US titles.

Clive Brook and Mary Carlisle in Love in Exile

The Beloved Vagabond (1936)

Directed and co-scripted by German émigré Curtis Bernhardt, produced by Italian Ludovico Toeplitz for Toeplitz Productions and starring Maurice Chevalier, this period musical drama is set in England and France. Chevalier plays the itinerant Paragot opposite a young Margaret Lockwood as the singer Blanquette, who offers to help him sort out his financial problems. Schiaparelli contributed to the costume design. A French-language version was also made: Le Vagabond bien-aimé (1937).

Poster for The Beloved Vagabond

Jump for Glory (1937)

You might be forgiven for thinking this is an American film. It was directed by Raoul Walsh and co-produced by its star Douglas Fairbanks Jr. for British company Criterion Productions. A crime caper set in New Orleans and England, scripted by the British Harold French and American John Meehan Jr., it had an Anglo-American cast that included Valerie Hobson in a starring role as socialite Glory Fane, who helps thief Fairbanks to redeem himself after they fall in love. The costume design is credited to Schiaparelli and Norman Hartnell.

Poster for Jump for Glory, aka When Thief Meets Thief

Pygmalion (1938) (uncredited)

This stylish adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play about a dialect expert who bets that he can teach a working-class flower girl to pass as a lady starred Leslie Howard as Professor Henry Higgins and Wendy Hiller as Eliza Doolittle. It was directed by Anthony Asquith and produced by Gabriel Pascal for Gabriel Pascal Productions. Costume design is by Ladislaw Czettel; Schiaparelli is reputed to have designed the hats, though she is not credited.

Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller in Pygmalion

Ten Days in Paris (1940)

Schiaparelli’s last British production was a comedy mystery drama in which the urbane Rex Harrison plays a tourist in Paris who turns out to be the double of a German spy operating in the French capital. It was directed by Tim Whelan and produced by Irving Asher for Irving Asher Productions, with art direction by Frederick Pusey. Schiaparelli is credited with costume design.

Poster for Ten Days in Paris, aka Missing Ten Days


© Pam Cook