By Jeffrey Vance, adapted from his book Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (New York, 2003) © 2009 Roy Export SAS
If the early slapstick of the Keystone comedies represents 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 flesh to the Tramp character that would become his legacy. Chaplin’s Essanay comedies reveal an artist experimenting with his palette and finding his craft.
After the expiration of his one-year contract with the Keystone Film Company, Chaplin was lured to Essanay for the unprecedented salary of $1,250 per week, with a bonus of $10,000 for merely signing with the company. The fourteen films he made for the company were distinctly marked and designated upon release as the “Essanay-Chaplin Brand.” The company’s headquarters were in Chicago, Illinois, and the company had a second studio in Niles, California. The name Essanay was formed from the surname initials, S and A, of its two founders: George K. Spoor, who provided the financing and managed the company, and G.M. Anderson, better known as “Broncho Billy” Anderson, cinema’s first cowboy star.
Essanay began in 1907 and a year later became a member of the powerful Motion Picture Patents Company. Chaplin’s one year with the company was its zenith. The studio foundered after Chaplin left to join the Mutual Film Corporation and finally ceased operations in 1918. Essanay would most likely be largely forgotten were it not for Chaplin’s early association.
While no single Chaplin film for Essanay displays the aggregate transformation to the more complex, subtle filmmaking that characterizes his later work, these comedies contain a collection of wonderful, revelatory moments, foreshadowing the pathos (The Tramp), comedic transposition (A Night Out), fantasy (A Night Out), gag humor (The Champion), and irony (Police), of the mature Chaplin films to come.
The most celebrated of the Essanay comedies, The Tramp is regarded as the first classic Chaplin film. It is noteworthy because of Chaplin’s use of pathos in situations designed to evoke pity or compassion toward the characters, particularly the Tramp. An innovation in comedic filmmaking, The Tramp dares to have a sad ending. Pathos also appears in The Bank, in which Charlie’s heart is broken when the object of his affection throws away the flowers he has given her and tears up the accompanying love note.
Chaplin infuses the Essanay comedies with 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 Essanays films. In A Night Out, as 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 develops in the Essanays, exemplified in The Champion, in which a David-like Tramp receives the assistance of his loyal bulldog to best his Goliath-like boxing opponent. Irony, a hallmark of Chaplin’s mature work, appears for the first time in the Essanays. Irony is conspicuous in Police, in which an evangelist implores the Tramp (who has just been released from jail) “to go straight” but is later revealed to be a pickpocket himself. Finally, Chaplin first utilizes several other devices in the Essanay comedies that will become signature features of his later films: dance (Shanghaied), the equivocal ending (The Bank), and the classic Chaplin fade-out (The Tramp).
Nowhere is the evidence of Chaplin’s growing cinematic maturity more evident than in the subtle evolution of the Tramp’s treatment of women in the Essanay comedies. At Essanay, Chaplin found Edna Purviance, who would remain his leading lady until A Woman of Paris (1923). Born Olga Edna Purviance in Nevada in 1895, she had trained as a secretary and was recommended to Chaplin by an Essanay employee as a beautiful young woman who frequented a popular San Francisco café. Chaplin was instantly captivated by her beauty and charm. The personal chemistry between Chaplin and Purviance served the Tramp’s changing attitudes toward women well, resulting in no small part from the intimate relationship the two enjoyed off screen. In the Keystone comedies, the Tramp was usually at odds with the women in his life, such as his frequent foil Mabel Normand. Purviance was far more demure and refined, and the Tramp’s interplay with her is gentle and often romantic. Although the female characters of the first Essanays are indistinguishable from those of the Keystones (more often than not, objects of desire, derision, or simply unimportant to the plot), beginning with The Champion, there is a softening in the Tramp’s attitude toward women. The romantic longing at the beginning of A Jitney Elopement demonstrates this transformation.
The evolution of the Tramp was undoubtedly fueled by Chaplin’s efforts to seize greater creative control over his films. Unlike the Keystone comedies, which have simple plot and place a primacy on farce humor, Chaplin’s Essanay comedies display more sophisticated plots and involve more textured characters. The maddening pace of producing nearly one new Keystone comedy each week was reflected in the rapid pace and formulaic story lines in the films. However, the pace at Essanay was somewhat slower, allowing Chaplin to take more time and care in creating his films, and 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 slowed the pace of production to one two-reel film per month after that.
Chaplin also wanted to gentrify his films, being very much aware of criticisms that attacked his earlier work as vulgar and crude. More refined comedy was familiar territory for Chaplin, who learned his art in the British music halls, where bringing an audience along as character and story were developed was paramount to getting the big laugh. The great French silent-film comedian Max Linder, whom Chaplin admired, 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 classic music-hall acts, 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 brought about a certain degree of tension with his employer. After all, the name of the company was the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, and a factory culture prevailed there. Standardization was actually a goal of the Motion Picture Patents Company, in which Essanay had been participating for seven years by the time Chaplin joined it. Its position in the film industry had been won by series films such as the Broncho Billys, the Alkali Ikes, the Snakevilles, and the George Ade Fables. No doubt its expectation was that Chaplin would provide another successful, if predictable, run of more-or-less standardized product. Alarmed when he was instructed at Essanay’s Chicago studio to pick up his script from Essanay’s head scenario writer, Louella Parsons (who later became a powerful Hollywood gossip columnist), Chaplin snapped, “I don’t use other people’s scripts, I write my own.” (1)
Chaplin had other disagreements with Essanay from the beginning. The company’s co-founder, George K. Spoor, had never heard of Chaplin and was reluctant at first to give him his promised $10,000 signing bonus. Chaplin also refused to allow Essanay’s practice of projecting the original negative when screening rough film footage, which saved the studio the expense of making a positive copy, insisting that viewing prints had to be made. After Chaplin left Essanay, he despised the company’s unscrupulous tactics of re-editing his films using discarded material in various forms. It was perhaps because of this acrimony (and the resulting lawsuits) that Chaplin remained bitter about this period in his career for the rest of his life.
Chaplin’s dismissive treatment of the comedies he created for Essanay is unfortunate. Apart from their revelation of the fascinating and subtle evolution of Chaplin’s comedy, these films demand a prominent place in the history of film for another, simpler reason—they made Chaplin an icon. Adorned with his instantly recognizable makeup, Chaplin became the most famous man in the world when worked for Essanay in 1915. An article in Motion Picture Magazine stated, “The world has Chaplinitis…Any form of expressing Chaplin is what the public wants…Once in every century or so a man is born who is able to color and influence the world…a little Englishman, quiet, unassuming, but surcharged with dynamite is flinching the world right now.” (2)
Essanay exploited Chaplin’s success to the hilt. The Tramp was the pioneer subject of today’s modern multimedia marketing and merchandising tactics, spawning songs as well as toys, postcards, cartoon strips, and statuettes that bore his likeness. Imitation, the sincerest form of flattery, was often upon the Tramp in this period as well, as a host of imitators appeared—from Billie Ritchie to Harold Lloyd’s early Lonesome Luke character.
Chaplin’s Essanay comedies hold another distinction. For the first time in his career, words that would be applied to Chaplin for the rest of his life—comic artistry and genius—were written in praise of his work. Indeed, there are moments in these early films that deserve such accolades. Perhaps the greatest joy in watching them is the discovery of many conceits, themes, and devices that would serve the great clown so well in the creation of his mature films.
His New Job (Released: February 1, 1915)
Chaplin’s first Essanay comedy—and appropriately titled—was the only film he made at Essanay’s Chicago studio. 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 the 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, despite Chaplin’s reputation for static cinematography, which was seldom used in film comedy of the period.
A Night Out (Released: February 15, 1915)
Chaplin’s second film for Essanay was the first of five films shot in and around the company’s Niles studio in northern California. The plot is a variation of the teaming of Chaplin and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in the Keystone film, The Rounders (1914). This time he is paired with Ben Turpin. In the film Chaplin forms an excellent comedy partnership. Chaplin and Turpin are drunks about town, starting at a café and ending in a risqué hotel room mix-up with a pretty girl, similar to the situation in the Keystone comedy Caught in the Rain (1914), yet this time with Edna Purviance, in her first film with Chaplin.
The Champion (Released: March 11, 1915)
Inspired by the Keystone film, The Knockout (1914) and Chaplin’s interest in boxing, this comedy has Charlie finding employment as a sparring partner who fights in the prize ring and wins the championship match, with the help of his pet bulldog. Boxing events were then illegal in most states, and films of boxing matches (including comic takes on them) satisfied a pent-up interest in the subject. The relationship of the Tramp and his dog would be fully developed three years later in A Dog’s Life (1918), and Chaplin’s brilliant choreography in the ring anticipates the boxing match in City Lights (1931). G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson plays a spectator in the boxing sequence.
In the Park (Released: March 18, 1915)
The first of two one-reel shorts Chaplin made for Essanay, the film was hastily made at the request of the company as result of the prolonged production of his previous film, The Champion. The film, which involves Charlie interfering in the lives of two star-crossed lovers, has the same improvisational feel of the simple park comedies made at Keystone, and is nearly a remake of his own Keystone film, Twenty Minutes of Love (1914).
A Jitney Elopement (Released: April 1, 1915)
Charlie must rescue his sweetheart, Edna, from an arranged marriage by posing as Count Chloride de Lime, the man to whom Edna is betrothed but whom neither she nor her father ever seen. The film ends with a car chase, featuring a Ford automobile, a target of contemporary humor. Impersonation/ mistaken identity was a device Chaplin enjoyed. Having used it previously in Her Friend the Bandit (1914) and Caught in a Cabaret (1914), he would return to it in such films as The Count (1916), The Idle Class (1921), and The Great Dictator (1940). Among the wonderful bits of comic transposition in the film is a bit of business Chaplin had performed in Fred Karno’s music hall sketch Jimmy the Fearless: Charlie, attempting to slice a bread roll, continues in a spiral cut, turning the roll into a concertina.
The Tramp (Released: April 11, 1915)
Charlie saves a farmer’s daughter from some thieving toughs and subsequently stops their attempt to rob the farm. He falls in love with the girl, but upon the appearance of her sweetheart, the little fellow realizes the true situation. He departs, leaving behind a note to the girl that reads: “I thort your kindness was love but it aint cause I seen him. Goodbye.” This prototypical Chaplin film is important for its superb characterization and construction, successfully integrating pathos with comedy. The film’s sad ending—new to film comedy—incorporates Chaplin’s first use of the classic fade-out, in which the Tramp shuffles away alone into the distance, with his back to the camera.
By the Sea (Released: April 29, 1915)
The second of two one-reel shorts Chaplin made for Essanay, the film was photographed around the Venice, California amusement pier in Los Angeles in just one day. This extended improvisation includes Chaplin’s first use of the flea routine, which he would develop further for his feature film Limelight (1952).
His Regeneration (Released: May 7, 1915)
Chaplin made a guest appearance in this one-reel G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson drama, as the Tramp in the film’s dance-hall sequence. That the main title states that Anderson was “slightly assisted by Charles Chaplin” suggests that Chaplin may have had a hand in the construction and direction of the film as well. The plot of the drama bears a close resemblance to the story used in Chaplin’s Police.
Work (Released: June 21, 1915)
The havoc created by incompetent laborers had always been prime slapstick material. For example, in 1906 Chaplin had appeared in Wal Pink’s music-hall sketch, Repairs, playing a plumber’s assistant. In this comedy, Chaplin plays a paperhanger’s assistant hired to paper a mansion (the imposing home was the Bradbury Mansion, one of the biggest homes in Los Angeles). Peace is replaced with anarchy, culminating with a massive explosion. The opening sequence—which shows Charlie pulling a work cart down a busy street and up a hill with his boss sitting in the cart’s driver seat, hitting Charlie with a whip—is striking for its symbolic importance regarding the exploitation and degradation of human laborers.
A Woman (Released: July 12, 1915)
Chaplin had twice previously donned female attire at Keystone, in A Busy Day (1914) and The Masquerader. A Woman was Chaplin’s last and finest female impersonation, a then-popular device among comedians (Julian Eltinge built a career and fortune on it). The first half of the film is a typical park comedy, in which the Tramp causes havoc as a result of his mischief with a flirtatious woman, soda bottles, and a nearby lake. The second half requires Charlie to disguise himself as a lady in order to be near Edna, his newfound sweetheart, after her father has forbidden her to see him.
The Bank (Released: August 9, 1915)
Charlie the janitor loves Edna, the pretty bank secretary, but her sweetheart is another Charles, the cashier. One of the best of the Chaplin Essanay comedies, the film’s plot is a reworking of his Keystone film, The New Janitor(1914), incorporating a dream sequence inspired by Fred Karno’s Jimmy the Fearless. Just as in the Karno sketch—in which Chaplin starred as Jimmy, a downtrodden young man who becomes a hero in his dreams—in The Bank Charlie dreams he saves Edna in an attempted bank robbery, only to wake up and discover it was a dream. The film’s equivocal ending was new to film comedy. Such endings became a signature of the Chaplin films. The memorable close-up of Chaplin in The Bank, when his note and gift of a few flowers to Edna are rejected, anticipates the ending of City Lights.
Shanghaied (Released: October 4, 1915)
Chaplin rented a boat, the Vaquero, to inspire the plot of this comedy gem. Charlie is hired to shanghai a crew, only to be shanghaied himself as well. He has to save himself and his sweetheart, who has stowed away, before the boat is sabotaged for the insurance. The film contains some of Chaplin’s early playful dancing (dance would be an important part of his mature films), seasickness (one of Chaplin’s favorite routines), and a curious homosexual situation with Chaplin and the cabin boy, highly unusual in mainstream cinema for its time.
A Night in the Show (Released: November 20, 1915)
This exceptional comedy was adapted from Fred Karno’s sketch, Mumming Birds. Chaplin plays dual roles in the film: his old stage success of Mr. Pest, and Mr. Rowdy, a dissipated working man, both of whom are attending a vaudeville performance. Mr. Pest manages to cause as much disorder in the orchestra stall as does Mr. Rowdy in the gallery.
Police (Released: March 27, 1916)
Police uses comedy to make pointed—if glancing—social statements which over the years became central to Chaplin’s work. The film is arguably the most mature in the series and anticipates such later films as Modern Times (1936). The Tramp, released from prison, is “once again in the cruel, cruel world” where he meets a former cell-mate and sets about to rob the home occupied by a young woman. Police was altered by Essanay after Chaplin had edited the film, removing an extended doss-house sequence that appeared two years later in Triple Trouble.
Burlesque On Carmen (Released: April 10, 1916)
Chaplin’s burlesque of Cecil B. DeMille’s popular film version of Carmen (1915), starring the great opera diva Geraldine Farrar, as well as a rival version of Carmen (1915) starring Theda Bara, was originally intended as a two-reel comedy. In Chaplin’s version Don José becomes Darn Hosiery (Chaplin), with Edna Purviance as the seductress Carmen. However, after Chaplin left Essanay, the company inserted discarded material and created new scenes, extending the film to four reels when it was given a general release in April 1916. The altered version of the film sent Chaplin to bed for two days. He later put forward an unprecedented claim of the moral rights of artists, suing Essanay on the grounds that the expanded version would damage his reputation with the public. Although Chaplin lost the court battle, he later wrote that Essanay’s dishonest act “rendered a service, for thereafter I had it stipulated in every contract that there should be no mutilating, extending or interfering with my finished work.” (3)
Triple Trouble (Released: August 11, 1918)
This film, which Essanay claimed was a “new” Chaplin comedy, was released nearly three years after the conclusion of Chaplin’s contract with the company. The film was assembled from the discarded portions of Police, the ending of Work, and an abandoned feature-length production entitled Life, along with some new footage directed by Leo White in 1918. The plot has Charlie working in the home of an eccentric inventor from whom some German spies are attempting to obtain a formula. Triple Trouble, however, is best seen as an opportunity to view portions of the abandoned Life, Chaplin’s first attempt to direct himself in a feature-length film, and the doss-house sequence intended for Police.
- Chaplin, My Autobiography (London, 1964), p. 176
- Charles J. McGuirk, “Chaplinitis,” Motion Picture Magazine, 9 no 6 (July 1915): 121-124.
- Chaplin, My Autobiography, 186.
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