One of the films directed by Chaplin during his white-hot streak of comedy shorts for the Mutual Film Corporation, The Vagabond also gestures toward the development of the Tramp persona in such films as The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), and City Lights (1931), and hones Chaplin's considerable skills as a director. After starting out in such primitive slapstick efforts as Henry Lehrman's Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), which many agree is one of the first fully realized manifestations of the Tramp persona for which Chaplin became famous, Chaplin realized that he had to take control of his image, and his films, if he hoped to achieve any real and lasting artistic satisfaction and/or commercial impact. Just two years later, by the time of The Vagabond, Chaplin was already an assured director, even if his visual style remained deeply theatrical. In The Vagabond, Chaplin appears as a down-on-his-luck violinist who travels to the countryside and falls in love with a young woman (the radiant Edna Purviance) who is being held against her will by a group of gypsies led by veteran Chaplin heavy Eric Campbell. Rescuing her from the troupe, the Tramp accompanies the young woman as she has her portrait painted an itinerant artist (played by Lloyd Bacon, who would later go on to become one of Warner Bros.' most important directors in the 1930s and '40s). But, as is usually the case with the Tramp's comedies, there is heartbreak at the core of the work; the young woman falls in love with the artist, and Charlie's affections are once again spurned. Fate takes a hand when the portrait is seen by a older woman (Charlotte Mineau) who recognizes the young woman as her daughter, who had been kidnapped when she was just a child. At the film's end, the girl is reunited with her mother, and she offers Chaplin's character money as a reward, but the Tramp refuses any payment for his "services." Instead, he is content to wander into his next adventure, perpetually in search of romance, success, and a comfortable station in life.
The Vagabond is one of Chaplin's most affecting short comedies, and in his ill-fated romance with Edna Purviance's character, Chaplin prefigures the leading ladies he would work with in his films throughout his long career: unattainable objects of desire who are always interested in some other suitor. But how could the Tramp's fate be otherwise? Destined to roam the back roads of society, continually searching for respectability, Chaplin created a character imbued with the essential paradoxes of human existence: the desire to belong, to be respected by one's peers, and yet remain apart from society, able to function with some degree of freedom. Chaplin was making a fortune with these early films, but he was also astutely paving his way for his later work as a director of feature films for his own studio, as the two-reel comedy format collapsed.