If the early slapstick comedy of the Keystone Film Company represents Charles Chaplin’s cinematic infancy, the films he made for the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company are his adolescence. The Essanays find Chaplin in transition, taking greater time and care with each film, experimenting with new ideas, and adding texture to the Little Tramp character that became his legacy.
After the expiration of his one-year contract with Keystone, Chaplin was lured to Essanay for the unprecedented salary of $1,250 a week, with a bonus of $10,000 for signing with the company. The fourteen films he made for Essanay were designated on release as the “Essanay-Chaplin Brand.” The company’s headquarters were in Chicago, with a second studio in Niles, California. Essanay began in 1907 and a year later became a member of the Motion Picture Patents Company, a consortium of producers popularly known as “The Trust.” (The Trust had an American distribution chain called the General Film Company and was powerful enough to control a majority of American film distribution and quash the efforts of all but the most sharp-witted independent companies.) Chaplin’s only year with Essanay, 1915, was the company’s zenith. The studio foundered after Chaplin left to join the Mutual Film Corporation in 1916 and finally ceased operations in 1918. It would likely have been forgotten were it not for Chaplin’s association with it.
While no one Chaplin film for Essanay displays the more complex, subtle filmmaking that characterizes his later work, these comedies contain a collection of wonderful, revelatory moments, foreshadowing the pathos, comedic transposition, fantasy, gag humor, and irony of the mature Chaplin films to come.
Regarded as the first classic Chaplin film, The Tramp is noteworthy for its use of pathos, situations that evoke pity or compassion, particularly toward Chaplin’s character. The Tramp dares to end with the Little Tramp walking down an open road, alone and unloved, adding poignancy to comedic filmmaking. Chaplin employs pathos again for The Bank, when the object of Charlie’s affection throws away the flowers he has given her and tears up the accompanying love note, breaking the Tramp’s heart.
Chaplin’s Essanay comedies are marked by a number of other innovations. The first is comic transposition. In A Night Out, his second film for Essanay, the Tramp, thoroughly inebriated, gently puts his cane to bed, “pours” himself a glass of water out of a candlestick telephone, and uses toothpaste to polish his boots. Chaplin also employs fantasy for the first time in the Essanay films. In A Night Out, as the cross-eyed comic Ben Turpin pulls the Tramp along the sidewalk, he believes that he is floating among flowers on a river. Chaplin’s own style of gag comedy also develops in the Essanays. In The Champion, a David-like Tramp receives the assistance of his loyal bulldog to best a Goliath-like boxing opponent. Irony, a hallmark of Chaplin’s mature work, appears for the first time in the Essanays. In Police, an evangelist who implores the Tramp, just released from jail, “to go straight” is later revealed to be a pickpocket himself. Finally, Chaplin first uses several other devices that became signature features of his later films: dance (Shanghaied), the equivocal ending (The Bank), and the classic fade-out (The Tramp).
Nowhere is Chaplin’s growing cinematic maturity more evident in the Essanay comedies than in the subtle evolution of the Tramp’s treatment of women. Shortly after arriving on the West Coast, Chaplin discovered Edna Purviance, who first appeared in Chaplin’s A Night Out and remained his leading lady until 1923. Born in Nevada in 1895, Purviance was a beautiful, blonde-haired young woman Chaplin spotted at Tate’s Café in San Francisco. Although she had no motion picture or stage experience, Chaplin was captivated by her looks and charm. The personal chemistry between them and the intimate relationship the two enjoyed offscreen served the Tramp’s changing attitudes toward women well. In the Keystone comedies, the Tramp was usually at odds with his frequent foil Mabel Normand. Purviance was demure and more refined than the slapstick Normand, and the Tramp’s interplay with her is gentle and often romantic. The female characters of the first Essanays are indistinguishable from those of the Keystones, as objects of desire, derision, or simply unimportant to the plot. However, beginning with The Champion, there is a softening in the Tramp’s attitude toward women, as demonstrated in the romantic longing at the beginning of A Jitney Elopement. For the next eight years, Purviance proved to be a capable, dedicated, and loyal partner who appeared in thirty-four Chaplin comedies. In 1923, while at United Artists, Chaplin attempted to launch Purviance as a star in her own right with A Woman of Paris and reportedly kept her on his payroll for the rest of his life.
The evolution of the Tramp was undoubtedly driven by Chaplin’s efforts to have greater creative control over his films. Unlike the Keystone comedies, which have simple plots and place a primacy on farce, Chaplin’s Essanay comedies display more sophisticated plots and involve more textured characters. The maddening demand of producing nearly one new Keystone comedy each week was reflected in the films’ rapid pace and formulaic storylines. However, the pace at Essanay was somewhat slower, allowing Chaplin more time and care in creating his films as well as more room to experiment. The tempered pace shows in the style of the films, which contain more subtle pantomime and character development. Although the first seven films Chaplin made for Essanay were released over three months, Chaplin eased production to one two-reel film a month after that.
Chaplin was very much aware of the criticism of his earlier work as vulgar. “Never anything dirtier was place upon the screen than Chaplin’s ‘Tramp,’” groused Sime Silverman in his review of Work for the industry trade paper Variety. “But since the audience will laugh there is no real cause for complaint.” At Essanay, Chaplin began to refine the comedy. It was familiar territory for Chaplin, who learned his art in the British music halls where character and story development were crucial for getting the big laugh. (He also admired the great French silent-film comedian Max Linder who pioneered this method of acting in film.) The Tramp’s drunken mannerisms in A Night Out and A Night in the Show borrow heavily from Chaplin’s famed music-hall act, and his female impersonation in A Woman reflects the style of masquerade comedy found in many music-hall sketches.
Chaplin’s early efforts to pull Essanay in the direction of character-based comedy caused tension with the studio where a factory culture prevailed. Standardization was a goal of the Trust, in which Essanay had been participating for seven years by the time Chaplin joined. Essanay’s position in the film industry had been earned by the Broncho Billy westerns and the Alkali Ike, Snakeville, and George Ade Fables comedies. No doubt Essanay’s expectation was that Chaplin would provide another successful, if predictable, product. When he was instructed to pick up his script from the studio’s head scenario writer (and future gossip columnist) Louella Parsons, an alarmed Chaplin snapped, “I don’t use other people’s scripts, I write my own.”
Chaplin had other disagreements with Essanay from the beginning. The company’s cofounder, George K. Spoor, had never heard of Chaplin and was reluctant at first to hand over the promised $10,0000 signing bonus. Chaplin insisted that viewing prints be developed for screening rough footage, refusing to abide by Essanay’s practice of projecting the original camera negative to save the studio the expense of making a positive copy. After Chaplin left Essanay, he despised the company’s unscrupulous tactic of re-editing his films using discard material in various forms. Triple Trouble, released in 1918, three years after Chaplin left the company, was assembled without Chaplin’s approval from portions of Police, the ending of Work, and an autobiographical feature-length production Chaplin had abandoned entitled Life, along with some new footage directed by Leo White. Perhaps because of this acrimony (and the resulting lawsuits) Chaplin remained bitter about this period in his career for the rest of his life. The tension with Essanay did not, however, distract Chaplin from his art.
In early 1915, as he embarked on his first Essanay comedy, Chaplin described his working method to Motion Picture magazine as largely improvisational. “I lay out my plot and study my character thoroughly … I go before the camera without the slightest notion of what I’m going to do. I try and lose myself.” Yet he paid meticulous attention to detail, even at this early stage of his career. Stan Laurel, who had accompanied Chaplin on the Fred Karno tours of America in 1910 and 1912 as actor and Chaplin’s understudy, recalled his friend Leo White’s experience performing in The Tramp. “He said they repeated some gags until the actors felt that if they did it one more time they’d blow their corks.” But that’s what made Chaplin so great, Laurel went on to explain: “He knew that sometimes you have to do a thing fifty times in slightly different ways until you get the very best. The difference between Chaplin and all the rest of us who made comedy—with one exception, Buster Keaton—was that he just absolutely refused to do anything but the best. To get the best he worked harder than anyone I know.”
Chaplin was considered a somewhat solitary figure during his Essanay period and his appearance was not very different than his shabby alter ego. Chaplin’s future cinematographer Rollie Totheroh trained at Essanay, where he first met Chaplin. Many years later Totheroh described Chaplin’s arrival at the Niles studio and unpacking of the new comedian’s belongings: “We opened up his bag to take some things out. All that he had in it was a pair of socks with the heels worn out and a couple dirty undershirts, an old messed shirt and an old worn out toothbrush—that’s all … But he talked like he was used to luxury, commanding this and commanding that. It wasn’t like him; later I could see he was very shy.”
In examining Chaplin’s surviving personal papers and photographs of the Keystone and Essanay periods, it is somewhat jarring to see how unsure Chaplin’s writing and spelling were during this time in his life. The inscriptions are a stark contrast to the urbane and sophisticated personal image he cultivated after many years of self-education and improvement. The photographs in particular, with their misspelled notations, are a testament to the phenomenal effort and ambition it took to rise above his impoverished Cockney beginnings.
Unfortunately Chaplin later adopted a dismissive attitude toward his Essanay comedies, when in fact they reveal a fascinating and subtle evolution of his art. They demand a prominent place in the history of film for another, simpler reason—they turned Chaplin into an icon. Donning his instantly recognizable getup, Chaplin became the most famous man in the world. Charles J. McGuirk stated in the July 1915 issue of Motion Picture: “A little Englishman, quiet, unassuming, but surcharged with dynamite, is influencing the world right now … To be Chaplinesque is to be funny … Any form of expressing Chaplin is what the public wants … The world has Chaplinitis.”
Essanay exploited Chaplin’s success to the hilt, marketing toys, postcards, cartoons, comic strips, and statuettes bearing his likeness. Among the many songs recorded were “The Charlie Chaplin Glide,” “The Charlie Chaplin Walk,” and, most famously, a parody of the 1907 song “Red Wing” titled, “The Moon Shines Bright on Charlie Chaplin,” popular with soldiers during the First World War:
When the moon shines bright on Charlie Chaplin,
His boots are cracking
For want of blacking,
And his little baggy trousers
They want mending
Before we send him
To the Dardanelles.
Chaplin later told journalist and broadcaster Alistair Cook that his initial reaction to the song was one of fear. “I was certain they were out to get me.” Chaplin, a British subject, should have enlisted in August 1914 when the Great War erupted in Europe. For a time, “Chaplin the slacker” was a topic in the British press. However, both British and American audiences continued to love his films. A British trade paper reported in May 1915 that “so strong is the grip of the Chaplin comedies that last week numerous halls in the Liverpool district adopted the expediency of giving special performances at which the films exhibited consisted exclusively of the Chaplin productions.”
The Little Tramp had his imitators during this period, from Billy Ritchie to Harold Lloyd’s early Lonesome Luke character. “By the autumn of 1915,” wrote Terry Ramsaye in his 1926 book A Million and One Nights: A History of the Motion Picture, “Charles Chaplin had become the biggest single fact of the motion pictures.”
Chaplin’s Essanay comedies hold another distinction. For the first time in his career, “comic artistry” and “genius” were used in praise of his work, words applied to Chaplin for the rest of his life. There are moments in these early films that merit such accolades but these Essanay films mainly serve as a crucial step toward his more mature films.
HIS NEW JOB
(Released February 1, 1915)
Chaplin’s first Essanay comedy was the only film he made in Chicago. As with his Keystone films, A Film Johnnie (1914) and The Masquerader (1914), Chaplin chose to set the action in a film studio. Charlie is hired as a prop man and is soon demoted to a carpenter’s assistant at Lockstone studio (a play on his former employer, Keystone) before given the chance to act, which ends in disaster. The film was Chaplin’s first pairing with cross-eyed comedian Ben Turpin and features an early appearance by Gloria Swanson as a secretary. It is also notable for several tracking shots (the work of cinematographer Jackson Rose) seldom used in film comedy of the period. After completing work on the film in January, Chaplin escaped the harsh winter and primitive working conditions of Chicago for California, taking comedians Ben Turpin and Leo White with him.
(Released March 11, 1915)
Inspired by Chaplin’s interest in boxing, as well as his 1914 Keystone two-reeler with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, The Knockout, this comedy has Charlie finding employment as a sparring partner who ends up in a prizefight, along with his pet bulldog. In 1915, boxing events were illegal in most states and films of boxing matches (including comic takes on them) satisfied a pent-up interest in the subject. Chaplin had already featured a relationship between the Tramp and a dog in the Keystone two-reeler from the previous year, Caught in a Cabaret, and further developed it in 1918’s A Dog’s Life. Chaplin’s brilliant choreography and hilarious antics in the ring anticipate the famous boxing match in City Lights (1931). “Broncho Billy” Anderson and Jesse T. Robbins (Chaplin’s producer for the Essanay comedies) play spectators in the boxing sequence.
A NIGHT IN THE SHOW
(Released November 15, 1915)
This exceptional comedy owes its existence to the Fred Karno sketch, Mumming Birds, a burlesque of a music-hall performance with terrible acts and ill-behaved patrons, in which Chaplin had found his great theatrical success playing the Inebriated Swell. Chaplin plays dual roles in the film: a version of another stage success, the well-to-do-drunk Mr. Pest, and Mr. Rowdy, a dissipated working man, both of whom attend a vaudeville performance. Mr. Pest manages to cause as much disorder in the stalls as Mr. Rowdy does in the gallery. Although it differs significantly from Mumming Birds to avoid claims of plagiarism, the film carefully reflects the Karno style. The litigious Karno had some success prosecuting unauthorized stage performances. However, he lost his 1908 suit against film company Pathé Frères and its film At the Show in English court. Chaplin returned to the idea of dual roles in The Idle Class (1921) and The Great Dictator (1940).
Essay and film descriptions by Jeffrey Vance, adapted from his 2003 book, Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema
Presented at A Day of Silents 2016 with live music by Donald Sosin and Lance Dresser