Making A Living (2 February 1914)


ChaplinMakingLiving1Released: 2 February 1914, Keystone

Director: Henry Lehrman

Writers: Reed Heustis, Henry Lehrman

Duration: 13 mins (one reel)

Filmed: 5-9 January, 2014

With: Henry Lehrman, Virginia Kirtley, Minta Durfee, Chester Conklin, Alice Davenport

Story: Womanising swindler Edgar English (Chaplin) battles a rival (Lehrman) for a woman’s (Kirtley) favours, then steals his rival’s news scoop photograph of a car accident, so winning the job of reporter.

Production: Making A Living packs an awful lot of incident into its one reel running time. However, the character Chaplin plays in his first released film is not the familiar tramp. Instead, he appears to be a down-on-his luck ‘gentleman’ or a tramp trying to rise above his station. He sports a top hat, instead of the later bowler, and a monocle (as well as a distinctly Jason King epic moustache). He does have the cane, but the rest of his ensemble—including a fetching frock coat—speaks of someone trying to maintain their sartorial dignity in the face of adversity.

The look is redolent of the kind of outfit Chaplin wore as part of the Fred Karno vaudeville troupe, which the comic had joined aged 19 after a tough childhood in London. He was spotted during an American tour with Karno by a Keystone representative and thought of as a possible replacement for their star comedian Fred Mace who was leaving the company. Although Chaplin regarded the Keystone comedies as ‘a crude melange of rough and tumble’ (an accurate description of Making A Living), He saw the possibilities of working in film. Hired in September 2013, he was signed up for a fee of $150 per week. At 24, Chaplin was thought to appear too young for movies by Keystone boss Mack Sennett. Chaplin learned the basics of filmmaking the Keystone way during December and January, before he featured in this one-reeler (which he later professed to dislike intensely). However crude and atypical this short is, it was the beginning of a steep learning curve for Charlie Chaplin.

Director Henry Lehrman was an early film pioneer, having emigrated from Austria and taken up a role at Biograph in 1909. He started as an actor, making a friend in fellow bit player Mack Sennett. He joined Sennett as one of the founders of Keystone, becoming the studio’s head director (he had a relationship with Virginia Rappe, the unfortunate ‘victim’ in the Fatty Arbuckle scandal of 1921). Chaplin complained that Lehrman had cut all his best comedy business from Making A Living as he was jealous of how quickly the newcomer had figured out how best to use the medium of film.

This ‘Farce Comedy’ (as the title card has it) opens with Chaplin begging Lehrman’s passer-by for some money to buy some grub (Chaplin gets all that across through mime, so no intertitles are needed). He next encounters the same man when he proposes to Kirtley and gets into a well-pantomimed brawl with him. A third encounter follows when they both apply for the role of reporter on a newspaper. Lehrman lucks out in capturing a photograph of an automobile crashing off a cliff (a rather spectacular stunt) via his camera. Chaplin comes across the commotion, steals the camera and Lehrman’s notes, thereby getting the scoop and winning the job.

There are some curious ‘real world’ elements that make this early film even more interesting. The compositors at the newspaper (believed to have been filmed at the real offices of the Los Angeles Times) show a by-gone age of hot metal text setting, while the news boys queueing up with their bikes to get the next edition of the paper look authentic. The Los Angeles street scenes (complete with long gone trams, and the Fremont Hotel) provide the backdrop for a short chase (featuring Conklin’s solo Keystone Kop) and show a world not all that removed from today.

Slapstick: The first fight with director Henry Lehrman is amusing, but only Chaplin’s signature swirl recalls his yet-to-appear tramp character. Each encounter gets more ridiculous, including their spat in a strange woman’s room, and their final encounter in front of an approaching LA tram (they end up on the ‘cow catcher’ on front of the tram). At one point in the newspaper office, Chaplin almost sits on his own top hat.

Verdict: From small acorns…, 3/5

Next: Kid Auto Races at Venice (7 Feb 1914)

Available Now!


An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.

Amazon US | Amazon UK


A Woman of Paris (26 September 1923)


Release Date: 26 September 1923

Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin

Duration: 82 minutes

With: Edna Purviance, Adolphe Menjou, Carl Miller, Clarence Geldart, Lydia Knott, Charles K. French

Story: Marie St. Clair, a young rural French woman, moves to Paris becoming the ‘mistress’ of a wealthy Frenchman. Her boyfriend, a young artist, follows her and tries to rekindle their relationship leading to a tragic outcome…

Production: Subtitled ‘A Drama of Fate’, 1923’s A Woman of Paris was 34-year-old Charlie Chaplin’s first proper feature length film (the 1914 Keystone feature Tillie’s Punctured Romance was always more a vehicle for Marie Dressler in which Chaplin—then flavour of the month—guest-starred, although it is counted as a Chaplin flick, as are several Arbuckle and Normand shorts of the same period). It is a film directed by Chaplin—as had been all his shorts and semi-feature length films since his mid-Keystone days—but he doesn’t appear in it, beyond a brief non-Tramp related cameo. It was also a huge failure with the Chaplin-loving public of the 1920s.

paris02The inspiration for A Woman of Paris came from one-time Ziegfeld girl Peggy Hopkins Joyce, an apparently much-married ‘gold digger’ (the term was coined for her by a newspaper reporter) with whom he had a brief two-week affair in the midst of making The Pilgrim. Mary Pickford’s favourite director, Marshall Neilan introduced them during the summer of 1922—Chaplin biographer David Robinson implies Neilan was looking to get her off his hands! During their limited time together, Joyce regaled Chaplin with tales of her raucous adventures in early-1920s Paris, so laying the groundwork for his ‘drama of fate’. Realising that Chaplin would not be an easy conquest as her prospective sixth millionaire husband, Peggy Hopkins Joyce quickly moved on to romance future MGM ‘boy wonder’ Irving Thalberg, then working at Universal with Erich von Stroheim on Foolish Wives (1922). After his dalliance with Joyce, Chaplin moved on to rekindle his relationship with Pola Negri, who was now in Hollywood set to pursue a screen career of her own.

In 1922 Chaplin had finally got around to building himself a permanent home, located at 1085 Summit Drive in Beverly Hills, close to the Pickfair Estate of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. The six-acre site was filled with a self-designed two-storey mansion that included a screening room and a pool shaped like the Tramp’s bowler hat. Known locally as the ‘breakaway house’, Chaplin had used studio carpenters to build parts of it. Used to constructing temporary film sets, their structures were less-than-permanent, so bits had a tendency to fall off. Despite that, the property—where Chaplin stayed for the rest of his period in Hollywood— still stands today, although it was extensively remodelled in 1970. Some lucky purchaser picked it up for a mere $3 million in 1997, according to property records, with the property value having soared to almost $15 million by 2019.

Pola Negri would help Chaplin decorate his new home, and as 1923 dawned the pair were an item in real life and in the pages of the Los Angeles gossip columns. Theirs was a tempestuous relationship, with them each accusing the other (with good reason) of repeated infidelity. Their on-and-off engagement served to confuse the press as well as the two participants. By the summer, it was all over with Negri claiming to have walked out on Chaplin. In the Los Angeles Herald Examiner she was quoted as declaring: ‘He is too temperamental, as changing as the wind. He dramatizes everything, he experiments in love!’

paris10Four years on from the incorporation of United Artists, Charlie Chaplin was at last free to begin making movies for the upstart talent-focused studio. Pickford and Fairbanks had already been hard at work producing films for the new venture, and they now expected Chaplin to contribute what would no doubt prove to be a highly successful moneymaking comedy (D. W. Griffith, the fourth founder, would drop out of the company the following year, 1924). The independent distributor had been running at a financial loss during its first three years, so a moneymaking Chaplin feature comedy would be very welcome to United Artists’ principals. Instead, always willing to confound expectations, Chaplin declared his intention to make a non-comedic romantic melodrama in which he would not star, much to the horror of his long-suffering partners.

paris11Chaplin had tired of the Tramp and was determined to move on to pastures new—there had to be more to him and his filmmaking than the comic little character he had created almost by accident getting on for a decade ago… Surely his audience would go with him in whatever new direction he decided to take—they would see that there was more to Charlie Chaplin than the Tramp, wouldn’t they? Chaplin’s Destiny (as the film was first titled) would feature a young woman who travels to Paris and becomes the mistress of a rich gentleman (modelled after the stories Peggy Hopkins Joyce had told Chaplin). Her artist former boyfriend follows her, but upon discovering he has lost her love, he shoots himself (this was yet another personal story from Joyce). As Chaplin refined and focused the emerging story in order to tell it in distinctly visual terms, it became more his own creation and less reliant on the tattle tales of Joyce. It was the baldest of melodramas, but Chaplin hoped through his filmic technique to turn the story into something special. As his leading actor Adolphe Menjou noted: ‘Chaplin’s genius transformed the very ordinary story.’

As Chaplin biographer David Robinson points out, Chaplin had been making moves in this more ‘serious’ direction for a while, most notably in The Kid and the incomplete Essanay film Life. As Robinson states, as far back as 1917 Chaplin had attempted to buy the rights to the play The Prodigal Son by Caine Hall, intending to put himself in the ‘straight’ (i.e. non-comedic) title role. Nothing came of that, but the urge to produce something worthy, of a different quality to his knockabout comedies, had clearly driven Chaplin’s direction of creative travel through Mutual and First National.

parsi12For the leading role of Marie St. Clair, Chaplin reached out to his own ex, 28-year-old Edna Purviance. Her screen career as a comedienne had suffered a wobble, and she’d turned to drink. Chaplin hoped to help her out by offering her the chance to switch to playing straight drama roles, toying at one time of featuring her as Josephine opposite his own Napoleon (a long held ambition he was not to fulfil, something Chaplin had in common with Stanley Kubrick). Adolphe Menjou was cast as the Parisian gentleman Pierre Revel (pretty much setting the path for the rest of his screen career; ironically, it was a role Chaplin had considered playing himself), while Carl Miller played St. Clair’s spurned suitor Jean Millet, with Lydia Knott and Charles K. French as his parents. Chaplin’s oft-favoured co-star Henry Bergman appeared without credit as a waiter, while Chaplin himself made a cameo appearance (out of his Tramp outfit) as a clumsy porter (oddly, a cameo he more or less repeated in his final film A Countess From Hong Kong, 1977).


Chaplin had his staff production designer Arthur Stibolt create elaborate plans for locations that were in the evolving story outline, many of which ultimately failed to appear in the finished film, including a race track, a jewellery retailer, and an art gallery. According to Robinson’s account, plans were drawn up to rent space at Universal Studios for some more elaborate locations that couldn’t be managed at Chaplin’s own studio, including a church and a hotel. A proposed ending set in Canada called for Stibolt to provide a ‘Canadian street’, among other Northern locations. There was even a suggestion that Chaplin might want to shoot some scenes on location in Paris, for verisimilitude. Chaplin also firmly linked the locations of the movie to the characters that would inhabit them, making sure that the environment reflected their social and economic status as well as giving clues to their emotional states. The contrasts between the Paris apartments of the rich Marie and the impoverished Jean illuminate their individual characters through mise-en-scene. The costumes serve a similar function, as does Jean’s portrait of Marie. He paints her in the plain clothes he better recognises rather than the fancy dress she wears when posing for him. Environments and clothes help build the character contrasts.

Among those helping Chaplin realise his ambitions with A Woman of Paris was Edward Sutherland, a failed actor (he’d been a Keystone Cop in Tillie’s Punctured Romance, 1914) who was later briefly married to Louise Brooks (they hooked up in 1926, but divorced in 1928) and who would go on to become a director in his own right, working with Stan Laurel and W. C. Fields (he and Brooks met on It’s the Old Army Game, 1926). As well as serving as Chaplin’s de facto assistant, Sutherland appeared in A Woman of Paris as an uncredited extra. Chaplin also employed two Frenchmen to ensure accuracy: Comte Jean de Limur, an aspiring actor who’d appeared in Fairbanks’ The Three Musketeers (1921), and Argentinian-born Henri d’Abbadie d’Arrast—both would go on to become film directors in their own right, with d’Arrast working with Adolphe Menjou.

paris06A Woman of Paris shot for seven months from the end of November 1922, with Chaplin employing his usual method of working without a script, a situation that confused Menjou. Everything was in Chaplin’s head, and the success of the picture would depend upon him communicating this to his actors. It also depended upon careful notation being taken for continuity purposes between scenes and shots so that the final film would adequately cut together. Where Chaplin has several notions, he would shoot variations upon the scene, allowing him ultimately to pick that which best served his purposes during editing. Only a trio of scenes were shot that did not end up in the final film, although many takes were needed of certain scenes before Chaplin was satisfied that he’d achieved the desired effect. Chaplin also filmed A Woman of Paris in strict story order, a technique that has long fallen by the wayside due to expense and the fact that efficiency can be gained by shooting all the scenes required on one particular set (no matter where they occur in the story) before striking that set and moving on, as films are largely made today (there are, of course, exceptions).

In the scene in which Chaplin appears as the careless porter, the effect of an arriving train was famously faked by Chaplin’s cinematographer Rollie Totheroh by having cut out train windows in plywood drawn across a powerful light shining on Edna Purviance’s face. This was further evidence, alongside his innovations on Pay Day, that Totheroh was becoming more ambitious in photographing Chaplin’s films. Chaplin’s uncredited scene, however, drew such laughter from audiences that he shortened it even further to lessen the undesired disruption to the atmosphere of the drama that his comic interlude seemed to be creating (Chaplin was instantly recognised by audiences despite being in partial disguise and the opening text claim that he did not appear in the picture).

paris04A Woman of Paris was without a definitive ending right through to the summer of 1923. That June Chaplin was still juggling various options, including a happy marriage between the Purviance and Menjou characters, emigration for Marie to America or Canada, or her leaving Menjou to devote herself to charitable works, possibly working at a leper colony! Chaplin was moody at the best of times (Robinson’s account has his staff being able to tell his mood in advance depending upon what colour of suit he was wearing—his green suit was said to be a particularly bad omen). Towards the end of filming on A Woman of Paris, he became particularly put out, picking fights with—among others—both Sutherland and Totheroh. He would often apologise later, but it made for a fraught working atmosphere at the Chaplin studio.

With A Woman of Paris, Charlie Chaplin proved to be something of an unsung pioneer in the field of screen acting and directing. He worked closely with the actors, instilling in them a ‘less is more’ approach to screen acting, a counter to the more emotive style (derived from the theatre) that had, up until them, pervaded silent film, especially melodrama. Chaplin had learned through his years of filmmaking, from the broad comic strokes of his Keystone days through to the more subtle work at First National, that the slightest emotion came over well on giant theatre screens. There was no need for extreme hand wringing, swooning, and dramatic gestures to get across the emotions of the characters; the slightest indication of a thought crossing a face would be enough in a close-up to convey the inner anguish the character was feeling. In this way, Chaplin began to lay the foundations of all modern screen acting.

paris00For Chaplin, the direction he offered his actors on A Woman of Paris was instinctual. Although he had years of experience behind him, and repeated viewing of his own work had taught him much in terms of screen technique, this was his first proper ‘straight’ drama. He knew what he didn’t like, but he had no conscious rationale for what he wanted to achieve. He said he just knew that it ‘felt’ right. Adolphe Menjou, once he’d surpassed his own confusion about what Chaplin wanted, came to regard his director as a genius of the screen. ‘The word “genius” is used very carelessly in Hollywood,’ the actor said after his experience on A Woman of Paris, ‘but when it is said of Chaplin, it is always with a special note of sincerity. If Hollywood has ever produced a genius, Chaplin is certainly first choice.’

Chaplin had exhorted Menjou to not ‘sell’ his acting but to be subtle about it. He also worked closely with Purviance on the same approach, often resulting in many takes of a scene until he felt the actors had reached the right level of naturalism in their depiction of the characters. He wanted then to simply ‘be’ rather than to ‘act’. Other directors took notice, with Ernst Lubitsch and Michael Powell in particular pointing to Chaplin’s example on A Woman of Paris as opening up a new style of screen acting, one they were keen to follow in their own work. Powell said, ‘Suddenly, there was a grown-up film with people behaving as they do in real life’.

By the end of June, Chaplin had locked down the conclusion of his film, capturing the moment that Menjou and a friend obliviously drive by Purviance while musing on her fate (and making it clear that Menjou’s Revel was not all that interested). It had been over a year since Chaplin had begun drafting the scenario for the film but it was finally finished, at the cost of 130,000 feet of film (edited down to just 7,500 feet for 82 minutes) and $351,000. Chaplin’s final act was to settle upon a title, working his way through the likes of The Melody of Life, Social Customs, Public Opinion, Time and Destiny, Human Nature, and Love, Ladies, and Life (his motto, perhaps), before settling upon the more descriptive A Woman of Paris.

A Woman of Paris was not what audiences expected from Charlie Chaplin. Where was the Little Tramp? Where were the laughs? What was with the depressing melodrama? Additionally, audiences were not ready for the new approach to acting that Chaplin was pioneering, and many rejected it on that basis. Chaplin’s popularity as a beloved comic, in the character of the Tramp, counted against him in this attempt to break out of that narrow definition and broaden his filmmaking horizons. Although Chaplin had gone to great lengths to prepare the public for the fact that A Woman of Paris would be a different kind of Chaplin film, his efforts appear to have been wasted. At the premiere, he had distributed flyers highlighting how the film diverged from his normal work, but that he hoped audiences would find it enjoyable nonetheless. Largely, they didn’t. An opening on screen declaration that Chaplin would not be featured in the film that followed probably served to put many off before the drama even began to unspool.

Many critics, however, saw what Chaplin was trying to do and rated the film highly. Even Mary Pickford, who had wanted another Tramp comedy from Chaplin as his first film for United Artists was won over by A Woman of Paris. ‘[Chaplin’s film] allows us to think for ourselves and does not constantly underestimate our intelligence,’ she said. ‘It is a gripping human story throughout and the director allows the situations to play themselves [out]. The actors simply react the emotions of the audience. Charlie Chaplin is the greatest director of the screen. He’s a pioneer. How he knows women! Oh, how he knows women! I do not cry easily when seeing a picture, but after seeing Charlie’s A Woman of Paris I was all choked up—I wanted to go out in the garden and have it out by myself.’

While the public did not take to Chaplin’s ‘serious drama’, the critics loved it. In The New York Herald Robert Sherwood wrote ‘There is more real genius in Charlie Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris than in any picture I have ever seen … Chaplin has proved many times that he understand humanity, he has leavened his hilariously broad comedy with elements of poignant tragedy. He has caught and conveyed the contrast between joy and sorrow which makes existence on this terrestrial ball as interesting as it is.’ Exceptional Photoplays noted of A Woman of Paris that it ‘has the one quality almost every motion picture that has been made to date lacks—restraint. The acting is moving without ever being fierce, the story is simple and realistic without ever being inane, the settings are pleasing without ever being colossally stupid. The result is a picture of dignity and intelligence and the effect is startling because it is so unusual.’

Chaplin was, however, downhearted by the wider reception given to A Woman of Paris. Rather than offer Edna Purviance a new career direction, it was the beginning of the end for her on the screen; she would make only two more films before withdrawing from acting altogether. Chaplin withdrew the film shortly after its release, making it unavailable in any form for many decades. Eventually, in the mid-1970s, he would re-edit the movie (cutting it down to 78 minutes, five minutes shorter than the 1923 release), adding a new musical score of his own composition. It is oddly fitting that this film should be the last he worked on for it’s 1976 re-release, just a year before Chaplin died. Just one week after the original 1923 release and disappointing audience reaction to A Woman of Paris, Chaplin declared that ‘unless my feelings undergo a marked change, I am going right back to comedy!’ His next film would be one of his greatest comedies, The Gold Rush (1925).

Trivia: Unthinkable today, but back in the 1920s films would be subject to the whims of local censorship boards or even just easily offended projectionists. While A Woman of Paris passed the New York Board of censors unscathed, the film was not so lucky in Ohio and Maryland. Vernon Rigel, head censor in Ohio admitted the artistic merit of the movie, but insisted upon editing it to make the central characters conduct themselves ‘as a lady and gentleman should conduct themselves towards one another’, by—among other changes—adding a title card to explain that Marie St. Clair inherited her money from a wealthy aunt. Similarly, in Maryland Marie’s opulent lifestyle was not due to her ‘kept woman’ status but instead because of her high earnings as an acclaimed actress! Such changes to a filmmaker’s work today would be unthinkable without the filmmaker’s consent.

Charlie Says: ‘I have been thinking the public wants a little more realism in pictures, whereby a story is pursued to the logical ending. In my first serious drama, A Woman of Paris, I’ve striven for realism, true to life… the beauty, the sadness, the gaiety, all of which are necessary to make life interesting. The story is simple, intimate, and human, presenting a problem as old as the ages, showing it with as much proof as I am allowed to put into it, giving it a treatment as near to realism as I have been able to devise.’—Charlie Chaplin, extract from a Programme Note presented at the New York premiere of A Woman of Paris on 1 October 1923.

‘As I have noticed life in its dramatic climaxes, men and women try to hide their emotions rather than seek to express them. And that is the method I have pursued in an endeavour to become as realistic as possible [in filmmaking].’—Charlie Chaplin, in an interview with a New York newspaper.

Verdict: It may not look as ground-breaking now, almost 100 years later, but there can be no doubt that Charlie Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris was a significant step forward in the art of naturalistic filmmaking. It’s often overlooked as a footnote in Chaplin’s filmography (along with A Countess From Hong Kong) as it doesn’t feature Chaplin nor the Tramp, but it was just the latest attempt by Chaplin to forge his own path in Hollywood (and, later, beyond) and has to be engaged with on its own terms.

—Brian J. Robb

Next: The Gold Rush (1925)



An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the first year of blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.

The Pilgrim (26 February 1923)


Release Date: 26 February 1923

Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin

Duration: 46 minutes

With: Edna Purviance, Sydney Chaplin, Mack Swain, Loyal Underwood, Marion Davies, Henry Bergman, Dean Reisner, Tom Murray

Story: An escaped convict steals a minister’s clothes, only to find he also assumes the man’s life, too…

Production: Several years late, and a couple of films short of the original number promised, Charlie Chaplin finally completed his lucrative First National contract in February 1923 with the release of The Pilgrim, which also served as his final short film. From now on, Chaplin would turn to features, with all but his final two British-based productions being released through United Artists, the mini-studio he’d established back in 1919 with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D. W. Griffith.

Chaplin began work on what would become The Pilgrim the day before the release of Pay Day, his final two-reeler short. As had become the case more recently, he was better prepared prior to shooting than had ever been the case before in his ramshackle filmmaking career. Chaplin wasn’t quite working with a script, yet, but he did compile a series of written notes outlining his ideas for The Pilgrim. This no doubt helped his collaborators immensely in preparing to make the film. As David Robinson notes in Chaplin: His Life and Art, The Pilgrim ‘is the first film for which there survives a quantity of written scenario and gag notes. … Chaplin was moving away from his earlier method of creating and improvising on the set and even on film, towards a greater degree of advance planning on paper.’

Pilgrim02It is no accident that in his final film in what had become an onerous contract from First National Chaplin should choose to depict the Tramp as a convict escaping prison. There was no subtext here. A swimming minister gives the Tramp the opportunity to dump his rather obvious prison garb and don a new identity, that of a preacher. Soon, he’s tied up in the affairs of the local congregation of Devil’s Gultch, Texas (Robinson calls the town Dead Man’s Gultch, both in print and in his video introduction to the DVD release, despite the onscreen evidence; perhaps it was named such in the original notes?) where his somewhat improvised yet energetic sermons prove a hit.

Chaplin’s David and Goliath pantomime is central to The Pilgrim and is certainly one of this short’s funniest moments. He throws himself wholeheartedly into depicting both characters, occasionally stopping to double check the details of the tale in a handy Bible. He depicts the ins-and-outs of the battle between the pair with great wit and physical dexterity, enthralling his congregation and the cinema audience.


This moment almost overshadows the rest of the film in which the faux-minister foils a robbery (by an erstwhile cell mate, no less), but is then found out as being an imposter, and even worse, an escaped convict. A Sheriff has to take him away, but instead of returning him to jail, he lets the Tramp free at the Mexican border. It takes a moment for the truth to dawn upon the Tramp, but he’s just been deported (in a pre-echo of Chaplin’s own exile from America in 1952). Gun-totting bandits on the Mexican side, however, see him hedge his bets as he walks off, straddling the border, one foot in the US and one in Mexico…

He may have had his troubles at First National, but Chaplin had developed as a filmmaker over the extended duration of the contract. His films had grown in both length and complexity, while his characterisation of the Tramp had matured, especially in Shoulder Arms and The Kid. Just as his pace of production had slowed, so too had the frantic nature of his films. They were now more measured, less antic. He’d drawn upon memories of his own younger life in London to make The Kid. Having visited the streets he once called home, and returned to filmmaking in the United States, The Pilgrim revealed a more mature, thoughtful, and deeper Chaplin.

Shot across 42 days, The Pilgrim was the most economic of Chaplin’s longer, near feature-length shorts (it was a four-reeler, coming in at around 46 minutes). First developed as a Western-style comedy (anticipating some aspects of the later The Gold Rush), The Pilgrim originally had Chaplin’s Tramp as one of four escapees who actively mug the minister to steal his clothes (rather than have the Tramp appropriate them while the minister is swimming, as in the finished film). The Tramp sets up in a real rough ‘wild West’ town as the new minister, keen to replace the church organ with a jazz band, and the collection plate with gambling. Instead, Chaplin settled on what Robinson dubbed ‘the hypocrisies of small-town religion’.

Pilgrim09The set-up of The Pilgrim is swift—over just five individual shots, Chaplin rapidly establishes the character and his latest predicament. The shots include the pasting up of the Wanted poster; a close up of Chaplin’s mug on the poster; a shot of a man swimming, who discovers his clothes are missing; a fourth shot shows the clothes have been replaced by a stripy convict outfit; and the fifth and final shot is of Chaplin’s Tramp walking towards the camera, dressed as a preacher. This economy of style was new for Chaplin and perhaps suggests something of the urgency with which he was determined to finally escape the First National contract. Satirising both the church and small town morality, Chaplin also takes aim at the conventions of the Western (already hardened into cliché) in the sequence in which he alters his pilgrim’s garb to pass for a gunfighter of the Old West in his attempt to retrieve the stolen money. It’s a neat switcheroo, perhaps showing a growing interest from Chaplin in the Western, that most American of genres, which he’d follow up (sort of) in The Gold Rush.

Tackling the subject of the church and religion, however obliquely and in pursuit of comedy, brought Chaplin some unwanted attention. The Evangelical Ministers Association of Atlanta demanded the film be withdrawn as it was ‘an insult to the Gospel’, while the South Carolina branch of the Ku Klux Clan objected to the film as they claimed it ridiculed Protestant ministry. Censors had their go at The Pilgrim, too, with the Censor Board of Pennsylvania cutting so much ‘objectionable’ material from the film there was little left worth screening.

Chaplin hoped to persuade First National to accept the four-reel The Pilgrim (unexpectedly longer than the films the contract was for, as with The Kid) as final fulfilment of the terms. In case they did not, he had in mind another two-reeler quickie to see out the contract, to be titled The Professor. David Robinson noted that correspondence between various parties, including Chaplin and Sydney Chaplin, indicates that this film actually existed in 1922, although there are no records of it having been shot (suggesting it was merely a stand-by idea in case of contract difficulties). Sydney makes the suggestion of screening both films for First National, giving Robinson the idea that The Professor must have already existed. Chaplin suggested delivering The Professor to First National in fulfilment of the contract, and then releasing The Pilgrim through United Artists. First National agreed to accept The Pilgrim, so The Professor was apparently quickly forgotten. Robinson also suggests the next most likely theory—it was all a put on as part of the negotiations. ‘The film must have existed,’ he speculated, ‘unless we predicate some outlandish bluff between the two brothers … [on] the existence of a purely imaginary film.’

Bosco01Of course, a five-minute scene found in film cans labelled ‘The Professor’, discovered during the making of Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s groundbreaking Unknown Chaplin documentary series from 1983, helped solve the case. The scene is an early draft of the flea circus sequence eventually reprised in Limelight (1952). The scene appears to have been shot on the sets of The Kid during a break in production. Robinson concluded: ‘Had Chaplin and his cutter [editor] assembled a new film out of rejected scenes, perhaps from the Mutual as well as First National series?’

With the films for First National, Charlie Chaplin had embraced life in America. A Dog’s Life saw him begin the process of moving away from depicting street life as he recalled it from London, setting event in New York’s Lower East Side. Shoulder Arms took him entirely out of his usual urban environment, putting him in the trenches where he recalled Broadway’s lights, not those of the West End of London. Although The Kid drew upon those Lambeth memories rekindled by his trip back to London for the film’s UK premiere, in Jackie Coogan Chaplin presented a uniquely American take on impoverished childhood. The attempts to make Chaplin’s Little Tramp a family man, sometimes with a job—as in A Day’s Pleasure, The Idle Class, and Pay Day—further explored the American milieu that Chaplin had come to embrace over his near-decade living and working in the country. With The Pilgrim, especially through the development of the story, Chaplin had finally gone ‘full Western’ and embraced that most American of all genres.

Perhaps at the same time Chaplin was trying to escape the guise of the Tramp altogether. He had explored and developed the character through his work at four studios—Keystone, Essanay, Mutual, and First National—and at each studio, the Tramp was slightly different. As Chaplin became a better filmmaker, with more control over his productions and greater command of his storytelling and filmmaking skills, so the character of the Tramp grew. Chaplin tried him out in a variety of circumstances, careers, and roles. Now, in depicting the character as an escaped convict, was he not simply escaping First National but also the trap that he was beginning to see the Tramp character as. ‘Bosco’, the character he depicted in the brief extract from The Professor, certainly suggests he was open to exploring new characters. That might also be one explanation for his first choice of feature film for United Artists, A Woman of Paris, a ‘straight’ drama in which the Tramp does not feature and Chaplin himself only makes a brief cameo as well as directing.

In all The Pilgrim breaks no new ground, but it is the culmination of all Charlie Chaplin’s filmic education to this point, a process of almost a decade from 1914. Now he was ready for full-length feature films, although his choice for his debut would be somewhat uncharacteristic…

The Critics: ‘[Chaplin has not] played low to the mob with haphazard slapstick. He has aimed at something in his new work and he has hit it.’—The New York Times

‘[The Pilgrim] is aimless in story and formless in structure.’—The Times (London)

‘[The Pilgrim is] not sensationally funny, not as much as so expected from Chaplin in four reels.’—Variety

Pilgrim04Trivia: The full story is too involved to adequately cover here, but the brief presence of Marion Davies in The Pilgrim opens up the entire Chaplin-Hearst-Ince story. Davies was the mistress of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, and through the 1920s he attempted to establish a movie career for her, going so far as to finance a mini-studio devoted to her often-unsuccessful films. In 1924, the year after the release of The Pilgrim, Chaplin was one of many Hollywood luminaries invited to a party on Hearst’s yacht the Oneida. It was an event that would end in a fatality. Also among the guests was Western director (and another mini-studio mogul of the time) Thomas H. Ince. He, at the age of just 43, would be dead by the end of the cruise. Here fact and fiction get confused—was he shot, as early Hearst newspapers reported, or did he die of a heart attack? If he was shot, who did it? Chaplin biographer Joyce Milton suggested that the culprit was Chaplin, who accidentally shot Ince while toying with a revolver that he was thinking of using on himself. At the time, Chaplin was said to be ‘almost suicidal’ over his marriage to 16-year-old Lita Grey, while there were also suggestions he was also having an affair with Davies. The rumours surrounding the death of Ince and what happened on the yacht formed the basis of the 2001 Peter Bogdanovich movie The Cat’s Meow, a viewing of which is as good a way of any to get to grips with the ins-and-outs of the various stories surrounding that ill-fated November 1924 boat trip…

Pilgrim06More Trivia: The annoying little brat (the opposite of Jackie Coogan in The Kid) who spends most of his scenes slapping Chaplin’s faux-Pastor was played by five year old Dean Rieser, son of Chuck Rieser who plays Chaplin’s former cellmate-turned-thief. Chuck was friends with Chaplin and Buster Keaton, and young Dean regarded both comedians as honorary uncles, making it hard for him to hit Chaplin as required by the scene. Initially billed as ‘Dinky’ Rieser as a child actor, Rieser followed his father into the profession, acting in various roles such as the part of Detective Brody in 1948’s The Cobra Strikes through to his final acting part in B-movie Mesa of Lost Womena (1953). Rieser switched roles, taking up an alternative career as a screenwriter in 1939, and a lot of TV writing (mainly on Western series) would keep him busy right through to the 1970s. He wrote a series of Clint Eastwood movies, including thriller Play Misty For Me (1971), Dirty Harry (1971) and High Plains Drifter (1973), using the name ‘Dean Franklin’, his first names. Weirdly, Rieser was married to Maila Nurmi between 1948 and 1954—if the name doesn’t ring a bell, she’s better known under the moniker of ‘Vampira’, 1950s TV horror host and accidental ‘star’ of Ed Wood’s ‘worst movie of all time’ Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959). Rieser died in 2002, while Nurmi died in 2008.

Pilgrim07Charlie Says: ‘I was now entering the last mile of my contract with First National and looking forward to its termination. They were inconsiderate, unsympathetic, and short-sighted, and I wanted to be rid of them. Moreover, ideas for feature films were nagging at me. Completing the last three pictures seemed an insurmountable task. I worked on Pay Day, a two-reeler, then I had only two more films to go. The Pilgrim, my next comedy, took on the proportions of a feature-length film. This again meant more irksome negotiations with First National. The negotiations terminated satisfactorily. After the phenomenal success of The Kid, I met little resistance to my terms for The Pilgrim: it would take the place of two films… At last, I was free to join my associates in United Artists.’—Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964

Verdict: A slight end to Chaplin’s First National period, notable for his miming of the David and Goliath story, but featuring little else of note…

—Brian J. Robb

Next: A Woman of Pairs (26 September 1923)

Chaplin: Film by Film will return in January 2019!


An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the first year of blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.

Posted in Uncategorized Leave a reply

Pay Day (2 April 1922)

Pay Day 00

Release Date: 2 April 1922

Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin

Duration: 28 minutes

With: Edna Purviance, Mack Swain, Syd Chaplin, Phyllis Allen, Albert Austin

Story: The Tramp has to battle with his wife for a share of his pay from his labourer job, and ends with enough to fund a night of drinking…

Production: After the triumph of The Kid, the regulation shorts The Idle Class and Pay Day may have seemed to both Charlie Chaplin and his expectant audiences as a step backwards. They could easily have emerged from his Mutual or late Essanay periods, but they were from his point of view little more than a contractual obligation, films he owed to First National before he could break free and fulfil his obligation to his impatient partners in United Artists.

Pay Day 09Chaplin’s double role as Tramp and rich man in The Idle Class may have been an indicator of the difficulty he was having reconciling himself to his new found wealth and fame. He had been making films for the better part of six years, with fame and its associated riches coming relatively early in that process (Chaplin once admitted: ‘There is nothing like money. It does make life so easy.’) Although money was no object, he still lived something of an itinerant life in hotels, rented houses, and often sleeping at his studio, especially during the period of his troubles with his first wife Mildred Harris. His newest film, Pay Day, was clearly a throwback to earlier times when things were simpler for Chaplin himself and simpler in his filmmaking too. Like his previous short, A Day’s Pleasure, it places the Tramp in an everyday situation, where he has a family (or, in Pay Day at least, a wife).

Production had begun on Pay Day in the summer of 1921, but it wouldn’t see release until the following spring. It started life under the title Come Seven, a film about rich plumbers—to be played by Chaplin and Mack Swain—who would travel to their jobs in a swanky chauffeur-driven limousine. A day or two into filming, Chaplin suddenly abandoned the film and made arrangements to go on a trip to Europe. Seeing him off at the station, Sydney Chaplin called out to Chaplin’s companion on the trip Carlyle Robinson, ‘For God’s sake, don’t let him get married!’ (Syd appears in Pay Day as the owner of the lunch cart.)

Pay Day 11

One of the attractions for Chaplin of the trip was the chance to attend the premiere of The Kid in London. Greeted by enthusiastic crowds everywhere he went, there is little doubt that the entire trip was little more than a grand distraction from filmmaking. Chaplin reconnected with old friends, relations, and acquaintances, as well as with the streets, sights, and sounds of his lamentable childhood. He was aged only 32, so it seems a little early for him to be overwhelmed with nostalgia, although distance through living in Hollywood may have been a factor, as could the arrival of his mother to live in California.

He went to Paris and Berlin (where he briefly met Pola Negri, who would recur in his life a little later), and met H. G. Wells. Chaplin returned to California in October, but did not immediately return to work. He wanted to go fishing in Catalina instead, but discovered the season was already over. Chaplin still owed First National two films (they had agreed to accept one two-reeler and one four-reel film to see out the contract). When he finally knuckled under and made Pay Day, he completed the half-hour film in less than 30 days—it was to be the final two-reeler he would ever make, and reportedly was one of his own personal favourites among his work.

Pay Day 06For once, Chaplin had a solid scenario to work from, so much so that he shot the studio-set second half of the film (dealing with his drunken night out and return home, recalling One A.M.) before the location-based opening sequence (that depicts him at work on the building site, building up to being paid). The opening material was shot in January 1922 on locations at La Brea (close to the Chaplin studio) and De Longpre where a new building was in the process of construction, so giving the film great production values at an economical cost. Trick photography (essentially filming then reversing the film) was used to achieve the Tramp’s uncanny facility with the bricks.

Simon Louvish in Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey labels Pay Day ‘a workman like two-reeler’ and ‘a standard comedy formula’, and he’s not wrong. It is as workman-like as Chaplin’s Tramp is laying bricks, and with the harassing wife and desire to escape into drink, it certainly repeats an old Chaplin/music hall formula. It is, however, a more polished product than produced at any of his preceding studios, including Mutual. Chaplin knows how to put together an entertaining picture, all the elements in the right place at the right time. He could do this easily enough, but he aspired to do so much more. Louvish concludes Laurel and Hardy would better exploit the building site setting in later years in both The Finishing Touch (1928) and Busy Bodies (1933). Once again, he’s not wrong.

Although Pay Day recalls such shorts as Work and A Night Out, it is a more sophisticated film than either of those earlier examples, yet it contains within it more echoes of Chaplin’s origins in vaudeville and British music hall in that it falls back on some of those well-known tried-and-tested comedy staples. Pay Day, though, is of a far higher standard. It is only necessary to view the filmed-in-the-rain night scenes to note that Chaplin’s cameraman (essentially the cinematographer) had at least been developing his lighting techniques while Chaplin was off gallivanting around Europe.

Pay Day 01Trivia: Pay Day was involved in a bizarre collision with modern day pop culture when one scene of the short was connected to one of the more prolific of the Internet’s many memes, the ‘distracted boyfriend’ image. The stock picture showing a man turning his back on his current girlfriend in favour of a passing stranger, the new option, has been adapted to all sorts of situations and became the most shared meme in 2017 and was declared ‘meme of the year’ in April 2018. The image from Pay Day shows Chaplin’s Tramp in a similar scene, as pointed out in June 2018 by filmmaker Peter Goldberg on Twitter. The Chaplin shot in which the Tramp turns his back on his wife to look at a passing woman was then itself quickly adapted as an internet meme, often commenting on the nature of internet memes themselves. Wonder what Chaplin would think of it all? At least it proves he is still relevant almost 100 years after the release of Pay Day.

Charlie Says: In the early 1920s Chaplin had taken up with New York-based bohemian intellectuals around Greenwich Village. Although of uneducated working class background, Chaplin began to adopt a more intellectual air, determined to be seen as more than just a movie clown. That led to some pretentious statements, such as: ‘Solitude is my only relief. The dream-world is then the great reality, the real world an illusion. I go to my library and live with the great abstract thinkers—Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Walter Pater.’ He also expressed a desire to ‘retire to some Italian lake with my beloved violin, my Shelley and Keats, and live under an assumed name a life purely imaginative and intellectual.’

The Critics: ‘If we ever get to the point where Charlie Chaplin fails to make us laugh, we are going right out and order a nice, large, beautifully engraved tombstone. There will be nothing left in life for us. We would blame ourselves, not Charlie. Pay Day made even the ushers laugh in the theatre where we saw it. Ushers see a picture more times than anybody else, excepting the policemen. It had been running almost all week when we saw the ushers laugh. We can never hope to offer a critique as poignant as this. And Charles Spencer’s epitaph could not be more glorious than “He made even ushers chuckle.”’— Photoplay

Pay Day 07

‘A new Chaplin comedy, of course, is an event in the motion picture world, and all that the reviewer has to do is announce it. The rest may as well be silent so far as he is concerned, because nothing can be said about Chaplin that has not been said a dozen times already, and most people are not interested in what is said about him, anyhow. They just go to see him and laugh-and some—of them understand. It may not be entirely futile to report, however, that this new Chaplin comedy is one of his best. It is not to be ranked with The Kid, which was a longer and more penetratingly serious venture, and it has not the significance, perhaps, of Shoulder Arms, but it has enough pure fun, and sufficient satire, too, for anyone. With or without reference to anything else, it is something else; it is something to relish for its own sake. Underlying the picture’s surface buffoonery is that refreshing treatment of the commonplace by which Chaplin has so often exposed the irony of life. He shows the gods grinning at human earnestness, yet he does not join them in mocking it. He is part of humanity, but has the feelings and the aspirations of ordinary men; he is sympathetically one of the crowd. But he sees the fatuity of it all, too, and so is one above the crowd.’—The New York Times

Verdict: A perfectly serviceable if more polished take on a classic Chaplin scenario…

—Brian J. Robb

Next: The Pilgrim (26 February 1923)


An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the first year of blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.

The Idle Class (25 September 1921)


Release Date: 25 September 1921

Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin

Duration: 32 minutes

With: Edna Purviance, Henry Bergman, Mack Swain, John Rand, Lita Grey

Story: The Tramp spends time at a golf resort, then falls in with a rich crowd, a neglected wife, and a rich man who looks just like him…

Production: At the beginning of 1921, Charlie Chaplin still owed First National a trio of films as per his contract, while his partners in United Artists (which had been underway for a couple of years by then) were impatient for a Chaplin film to add to their own productions. Chaplin’s increasingly detailed, and therefore slower, working methods meant there was no quick way out of this situation. He could have—as he had previously threatened—knocked out some careless short quickies simply to fulfil the contract. The problem with that idea is that they would still have the Chaplin name on them, and he was developing into such a perfectionist and ‘control freak’ that he couldn’t think of releasing anything of less than stellar quality. The only thing to do was to keep making films at his own measured pace until the First National contract had been fulfilled.

Whether it was due to him finding a new peace of mind after The Kid, or simply that he knuckled down and got to work, Chaplin produced his next film, a three reel short called The Idle Class, in less than five months and with relatively little difficulty. He feel back on some ideas from his earlier Essanay and Mutual shorts—namely the ‘bogus Count’ concept—and mixed them with the higher production values First National’s money and his own lavish production studio now allowed him.

Idle01Chaplin took on a dual role of the wealthy drunkard trapped in an unhappy marriage with his wife (played by Edna Purviance), and his regular role of the little Tramp. This, of course, was designed to allow for all sorts of mistaken identity hi-jinks, as Edna’s ‘neglected wife’, her father (Mack Swain), and their friends all mistake the Tramp for her delinquent husband. This part of the film was preceded by some comedy business on a golf course, as the Tramp goes about collecting golf balls that don’t belong to him, provoking an altercation between two other players (Mack Swain and John Rand). Biographer John McCabe claimed the entire sequence had been inspired by a trip Chaplin took to his studio’s prop store in search of inspiration, only to come across a set of golf clubs and realize he’d never used them before in a film.

Idle05There’s no getting around the fact that The Idle Class is largely a throwback, an old fashioned style of comedy for Chaplin at this point in his career, something he was striving to move beyond. Perhaps he felt he didn’t want to gift First National with his best efforts, especially as they had rebuffed his latest attempt to escape from his contract, retaining any more ambitious ideas for after he’d completed his obligation and could offer his new work through United Artists, so appeasing Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, the only filmmakers who at that point had released new work through the new distribution entity.

Idle03The dual roles were also something of a hackneyed idea, but it did lead to one of Chaplin’s best gags. Playing the rich drunkard socialite whose wife has threatened to leave him, Chaplin’s sophisticate is seen from behind, apparently sobbing over her photograph. His shoulders are convulsed such is the height of emotion he is feeling—at least, that’s what we’re led to believe, until he turns around and the movement is revealed not to be grief over a broken relationship at all but simply the motions involved in giving a cocktail shaker a thorough work out. It is an inspired moment, and the slightness of the rest of the piece can be forgiven as it gave us that gag.

For McCabe, this short was ‘pleasant but inconsequential’ but did contain some decent political or social content. McCabe goes on: ‘The Idle Class, slight though it is, is a winning film, a farcical Jekyll and Hyde conundrum whose title asks which is the idle class—the idle rich or the idle poor?’

Idle04In his private life, Charlie Chaplin’s recent troubles had come to an end with his November 1920 divorce from Mildred Harris. She received a settlement (or pay off, depending on your view) of $100,000 in cash, plus a share of some community assets the pair had between them. John McCabe offers a rather depressing account of Harris’ further fortunes—bankruptcy, a return to film such as in The Three Stooges’ short Movie Maniacs (1936), and two further marriages, one of which produced a son. According to McCabe, Marion Davies believed that Harris saw Chaplin as her ‘ticket to stardom’ and when that didn’t work out, she turned to alcohol that was to lead to her early death in 1944 of pneumonia following surgery.

Idle02Freed from Mildred Davis, Chaplin was able to turn his attention to other aspects of his life. He had blown hot and cold on his plan to bring his mentally-ailing mother Hannah Chaplin over to America; his previous commitment to do so had been walked back by Chaplin at the last minute. In the spring of 1921, during the making of The Idle Class, he finally decided to commit to rescuing his mother from her London convalescent home. He dispatched his aide Tom Harrington to ferry Hannah to America once all the required paperwork had been completed and permissions received. She came through New York, where the otherwise lucid woman mistook a immigration official for Jesus Christ, and she was (according to David Robinson) ‘settled in a bungalow with a pleasant garden near the sea’ with appropriate staff to look after her, all paid for by her rich and famous son. Her new proximity, however, didn’t make it any easier for Chaplin to spend much time with Hannah. Both seemed uncomfortable in the other’s company, as if they had little to connect them. Hannah, however, enjoyed regaling her caretakers and other visitors with tales of her life in British vaudeville.

It’s possible to think that during this period Chaplin was resolving some of his outstanding personal business, removing Mildred from his life and resolving the status of Hannah, but it is hard to argue that he was so organized or focused. Much of Chaplin’s personal and romantic life appeared during the 1920s to be chaotic. Chaplin picked his partners seemingly on a whim, unless it is to be assumed that he was simply waiting for Lita Grey to become slightly older, perhaps matching the image she projected in The Kid and in The Idle Class, in which she is a guest at the party. She would be his next conquest, and another tale of romantic woe for the world’s most famous comic.

Trivia: Chaplin became fond of the doubles motif; he’d previously used it in his shorts A Night in the Show and The Floorwalker. In other films, he had his Tramp infiltrate the upper classes by pretending to be one of them, as in shorts such as Caught in a Cabaret, A Jitney Elopement, and The Count. It perhaps was reflective of the fact that Chaplin himself had come from extreme poverty to extreme wealth in a short time, and (as the arrival of his mother in Los Angeles served to remind him) he no longer fitted easily in either world. The perfect use of this doubling, however, comes much later in 1940’s The Great Dictator in which he plays both the little Tramp (explicitly Jewish in this film) and buffoonish dictator Adenoid Hynkel. Of course, the Tramp takes the place of the dictator leading to the powerful (and still horribly relevant) speech at the film’s triumphant finale.

What the Critics Said: ‘Brevity is something else beside the soul of wit. It is sometimes a great relief and a rare treat. [This] is the case of Charles Chaplin’s latest contribution to the silent drama, The Idle Class. The story was written and the picture was directed by Charlie himself, and instead of going for a five-reel affair, he has returned to his first short love. But what there is of The Idle Class is so good and so funny that one realizes how much better is it to be entertained by two reels than bored in five. Charlie is too clever to prolong an idea unless it is really worth it, and his latest picture is just long enough. Charlie assumes two roles [in the film] since everybody is doing it. He is seen as an absent-minded husband and as a tramp, and it is difficult to say in which guise he is more winning.’—Helen Rockwell, The New York Telegraph, December 1921

Idle06‘We must admit our disappointment in Charlie Chaplin’s latest film effort, The Idle Class (First National), which, after all, turned out to be only a routine two-reel program farce. True, it is better than the average two-reeler since it has flashes of the Chaplin genius here and there, but, on the whole, it isn’t what we expect of the comedian these days. Charlie plays two roles: one an absent-minded man of wealth; the other, the typical Chaplinesque derelict. There are several humorous interludes, as a comic golf match and the complications ensuing when a man gets locked in a suit of armour. The real things of The Idle Class are the subtle shadings, given by Chaplin now and then, as the moment where the tattered adventurer sees the beautiful society girl pass him on horseback. The class tragedy of all the ages is caught in his eyes for just the fraction of a second.’—Motion Picture Classic, December 1921

‘[The] new Chaplin release [is] a characteristic bit of slapstick and irony called The Idle Class. It is only three reels, but they make up in rapidity what they lack in length. These years of eight-reel Chaplin pictures have spoiled his audiences. The Idle Class is a social satire which traces the adventures of a happy tramp and a blasé man about town. Charlie plays them both with such evident enjoyment that you feel he is not worrying about the moral. For undoubtedly he has a moral, though its exact point is lost in the rapid-fire action. At least he shows us that the life of the idler is not as simple as it looks, for his tramp is persecuted by cops and stray dogs, and the society chap is henpecked and harassed by the demands of fashion. In the end the tramp wins; at least he has the last word and casts the last stone.’—Picture Play, December 1921

Charlie Says: ‘Having rid myself of the burden of domestic and business affairs, I felt like I was stepping on air … now a free and unencumbered, wonderful life began again. I had work to do in California. I intended to hurry through my contract with First National, for I was anxious to get started with United Artists. … News came that Mother’s health had improved and now that the war had ended we could bring her safely to California. I sent Tom to England to accompany her on the boat trip over. … I had not seen her since I was last in England, a period of ten years, so I was somewhat shocked when a little old lady stepped off the train at Pasadena. … I still had four pictures to supply to First National. In a state of quite desperation, I wandered through the property room in the hope of finding an old prop that might give me an idea: remnants of old sets, a jail door, a piano, or a mangle. My eye caught a set of old golf clubs. That’s it! The Tramp plays golf—The Idle Class!’— Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964

Verdict: A 30-minute piece of knockabout nonsense that nonetheless contains some of Chaplin’s great themes, and few great gags.—Brian J. Robb

Next: Pay Day (2 April 1922)


An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the first year of blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.

The Kid (6 February 1921)


The Kid (6 February 1921)

Release Date: 6 February 1921

Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin

Duration: 68 minutes (53 minutes, 1971 re-issue)

With: Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Coogan, Edna Purviance, Carl Miller, Henry Bergman

Story: The Tramp finds an abandoned baby and reluctantly raises the child. As he grows into a useful ally, the Tramp develops a bond with the boy, one he struggles to maintain over the interference of well-meaning authorities.

Production: Charlie Chaplin’s big discovery, going into the 1920s, was Jackie Coogan. The young actor had first appeared in A Day’s Pleasure, but it was during the making of that short that Chaplin began developing what would eventually become The Kid, one of his best and most acclaimed films. As well as offering a showcase to Coogan, The Kid also saw a new maturity in Chaplin’s growing narrative confidence—at last, he’d found the film with which he could mesh his comedy incidents with a proper story and a hefty dollop of emotion. As the title card warns (or, perhaps, threatens) The Kid is ‘a picture with a smile—and perhaps, a tear’.


It was while auditioning children to appear in what would become A Day’s Pleasure (the working title was ‘Charlie’s Picnic’) that Chaplin first came across Jackie Coogan. During this period, and in the wake of his own new-born son, Chaplin conceived of a film he was tentatively calling The Waif. A visit to the Orpheum theatre had offered Chaplin the opportunity to see Jack Coogan’s act. He was largely a dancer who, for the finale of his piece, brought onto the stage his then four-year-old son, Jackie. The younger Coogan immediately entranced Chaplin, delighting the experienced comic with his ability to easily mimic his father’s dance moves. Chaplin biographer David Robinson speculates that in the young Coogan’s stage appearance, Chaplin could see something of his own stage debut so long ago during his mother’s act in vaudeville on the British stage.

Both Jackie Coogan’s parents had been in American vaudeville, his mother having once been a child performer known as ‘Baby Lillian’. It seemed that Jackie Coogan was being lined up to follow in her footsteps. However, there was something about the young performer that struck a chord in Chaplin, whether as a result of his recent loss (or his mental preparations for forthcoming, then thwarted, fatherhood) or as a recollection of his own childhood. It was just that, right at that point in 1919, Chaplin did not have a role for the young performer. When the senior Coogan signed to work in films with Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, Chaplin decided to strike, signing up the youngster even though he had no firm role or film in mind for him, yet…

Kid01In a burst of inspired activity that August and September, Chaplin shot with Coogan and Purviance what would essentially become the early sequences of The Kid, a film that would not be released for the better part of two years, in February 1921. The project would, at six reels (about an hour), turn out to be Chaplin’s true feature-length directorial debut. Purviance is seen leaving hospital carrying a new born baby, apparently born out of wedlock (as the intertitle ‘The woman—whose sin was motherhood’ might suggest). She leaves the baby in a parked car (the vehicle actually belonged to film director D. W. Griffith!) and heads off, possibly to kill herself. Fate intervenes when two ruffians steal the unattended car. Upon finding the unwanted baby, they promptly dump the little fellow in a back alley and make off with the car.

This provided an excellent narrative set-up. More than in most of his various films to this point, many of which were simply over elaborated incidents, Chaplin was now thinking in terms of a longer story, one with a beginning, a middle, and an end, one which allowed for development of both incident and character, one that might open the door to a certain amount of emotional involvement both for Chaplin’s Tramp and for Chaplin’s audience.

Working with a young performer known as Baby Hathaway, Chaplin spent four days shooting on a cramped attic set built at his studios by Charles D. Hall. It was the kind of room in which Chaplin had himself grown up, impoverished, run-down, and barely watertight. Here, the Tramp having found the unwanted baby begins to fulfill the roles of both mother and father to the child. He has to figure out a feeding regime, provide a sleeping space, and improvise a potty from an old chair with a hole in it and a spittoon. The following week, Chaplin continued filming on this set, swapping out Baby Hathaway for Jackie Coogan, with time having jumped forward five years or so. One or other of Coogan’s parents were on set with him at all times, but Chaplin developed such a simple and close relationship with the boy that their presence was hardly needed to reassure the child. In Coogan, Chaplin had discovered a natural young performer who was also a perfect mimic. He had only to show the child once the kind or action or re-action he needed, and the boy would deliver it, note-perfect not in a mechanical way but in a heartfelt, purely natural and honest way, no matter how many takes the perfectionist Chaplin required.

By the end of September 1919, though, all work on The Waif had ground to a halt. Chaplin’s burst of creative energy had finally come to an end. He had achieved much, but he didn’t have a finished film. In fact, he was only beginning to explore the possibilities inherent in his ideas for The Kid. He finished off this surge with some intriguing footage involving a flea circus that would not ultimately feature in The Kid, but would be put to use in yet another intriguing but unfinished project known as The Professor. With this break in the making of The Waif, Chaplin returned to completing A Day’s Pleasure, if only to keep First National happy (he, of course, found a way to utilize Coogan in that short).


By mid-November Chaplin had returned to the project he was now officially calling The Kid. He shot further footage with Edna Purviance, expanding her story and character, but he would later delete this sequence from his revised 1971 re-issue of the film deeming it to be ‘too sentimental’. Either side of Christmas, Chaplin shot the central section of the film, in which he almost loses the child to the authorities. When the boy falls ill, a doctor calls in an orphanage to take the boy in, as Chaplin’s Tramp is clearly not his father. There follows a frantic and perilous chase as the Tramp crosses the city’s rooftops in pursuit of the wagon taking the boy away. It is one of the few clear moments in Chaplin’s filmography where the Tramp figure is depicted as being simply heroic, putting aside his own selfish needs and catering to those of another. There is physical heroism here too as Chaplin effectively becomes an action hero, out to retrieve his lost child no matter the personal cost. The embrace between Chaplin’s Tramp and the retrieved child is one of the most wonderful moments in all of silent cinema. Coogan’s father Jack was instrumental in helping to direct the boy’s performance in these scenes, so concerned was Chaplin with his own activity. Coogan senior also appeared in a couple of minor roles (including as a thief) in The Kid.

Into February and March 1920, work on The Kid slowed as Chaplin had to deal with drama in his personal life—the long mooted divorce from Mildred was finally underway, and the press were on the case. By May Chaplin was shooting on a ‘doss house’ set that had been built earlier but for which he had no story purpose. Now, it provided a hiding place for the Tramp and the Kid, somewhere they could lay low to evade the authorities. When the doss house master, played by Henry Bergman, turns the pair in, they are separated once more. Falling asleep on the step of his former home, the Tramp enters a dream of an idyllic Heaven, where the local area is transformed into a paradise and everyone in it is good and virtuous; he is even re-united with the Kid. He is, however, rudely awakened from this comforting dream by a cop.

Dreams and fantasy sequences had re-occurred throughout Chaplin’s work to this point, one of the most elaborate featuring in Sunnyside. This one puzzled viewers, with Peter Pan author J. M. Barrie accusing Chaplin of excessive whimsy, while others saw Chaplin’s cut-rate view of the afterlife as suitable to the Tramp character’s world view, a man whose imagination was limited by his surroundings and experience.

Kid00First National were growing ever more irritated by their wayward filmmaker. Chaplin had by now spent the better part of 18 months and $500,000 (deficit financing borrowed from the Bank of Italy) on The Kid, well in excess of the time and expenditure First National had expected from him. The distributor planned to count this unexpected feature film as a trio of two reelers and pay accordingly, which would bring in about $400,000, some way short of the actual expenditure Chaplin had already laid out on the project. Further, Chaplin suspected that First National were preparing to side with Mildred in their divorce negotiations, putting his business and the negative of The Kid at risk if it were to be attached to the divorce proceedings.

This led to farcical scenes in August 1920 when Chaplin’s cameraman Rollie Totheroh and studio manager Alf Reeves found themselves packing over 400,000 ft of footage split into 200 ft rolls into a series of 12 crates at 3am. They met with Chaplin at Santa Fe railroad station from where they all fled, with the material that comprised The Kid, to Salt Lake City. In a hotel bedroom they began editing the highly flammable nitrate film into a completed negative, a process that was carried out rather rapidly for Chaplin who had in the past tended to prevaricate over such things. Perhaps the pressures from his private and business life combining like this served to produce his first actual classic full-length movie. Desperate to see how an audience might respond to his work, Chaplin rented a local theatre and staged a preview screening of the first cut of The Kid. It went down so well that Chaplin felt emboldened enough to journey to New York where in a lab in New Jersey, under the guise of the ‘Blue Moon Film Company’, Chaplin finished fine-tuning the edit. In the background to all this frantic activity was an endless commentary in the press on the divorce from not only Mildred herself, but also from a bunch of self-appointed experts who claimed to know exactly what Chaplin was thinking or doing at any given moment.

Finally, the matters of marriage and filmmaking were jointly resolved when Chaplin agreed to pay Mildred $100,000 and a share of their community property, as long as her lawyers withdrew their order that prevented him from putting the by-now long completed final edit of The Kid into distribution. It took from August to 19 November for things to be legally finalized, but everything was signed off on that date. Now all Chaplin had to do was deal with First National over the payment for his first feature film and the release strategy to be followed.


Chaplin came out fighting in the negotiations. The test screening, a habit he had not really indulged in before, had given him an inkling of exactly what he’d got with The Kid. He asked First National for an advance against box office of $1.5 million, with the filmmaker to be paid 50 per cent of all box office takings after First National had recovered their advance. It was an audacious starting point, one that threw the studio. They were simply not going to agree to such an arrangement, and upon viewing the film declared they were unenthusiastic about its contents (regardless of their genuine thoughts on its quality). The quality of the film overcame everything, however, and First National was forced to admit that in The Kid the distributor had something special, a film potentially capable of cleaning up at the box office.

After so long in production and all the drama surrounding its making, Chaplin must’ve been relieved when The Kid finally hit screens in New York from 6 January 1921, opening wider across the country a month later. Over the next few years, The Kid would traverse the globe playing in over 50 countries. By 1924, the places that had not played The Kid could be counted on one hand, including America’s great enemy, the Soviet Union.

Kid13Some regard The Kid as the perfect Chaplin film. It works so well, perhaps, because in the Tramp and in the Kid it features too innocent children (regardless of actual age) making their own way through what is certainly a harsh and bleak world. There is much in the pseudo-Dickensian slum setting of The Kid that recalls Chaplin’s actual youth in London. The poverty on display, and the Tramp’s way of coping with it all, were filtered through Chaplin’s actual memories of real poverty he’d experienced. Evading the law and struggling to survive in a life led on the streets was in Chaplin’s bones. When he first finds the abandoned baby, the Tramp does all he can to pass it off on someone else, knowing he is certainly not equipped to give it a home. The Tramp can barely look after himself, never mind a helpless baby. Ironically, it is the law in the form of a local policeman that insists that he should function as a parent to this stray he has found.

When we fast-forward to the more grown exploits of the Kid, we discover that the pair are now partners in a criminal enterprise (or perhaps they could be looked upon as entrepreneurs?)—the Kid breaks windows, so that the Tramp can happen along to fix them, all for a reasonable fee, of course. It is thought that this little sketch developed from Chaplin’s knowledge that this was exactly how the young Fred Karno had made his living for a while; no doubt, Karno told the stories when he was on tour in vaudeville with Chaplin and Stan Laurel. The intervention of another cop brings this enterprise to a premature end.

While Edna Purviance’s distraught mother—who has now found fame as an opera star— searches for her lost son, the plight of the Tramp and the Kid are brought to the attention of the authorities by a well-meaning doctor, in a scene that comes straight from Chaplin’s own experience of being taken to the workhouse. The rooftop chase and recovery of the Kid follows. After hiding out, the Tramp loses the boy once more as Henry Bergman’s doss house manager turns him in for the reward. Waking from his dream of Heaven, the Tramp is taken by a cop to Edna and a reunion with the Kid, all followed presumably by a happy ever after ending. The audience is left unaware of the Tramp’s larger fate—all we know is that the Kid is back with his real mother. Maybe the Tramp will be hired as a gardener?

Kid05The effect that The Kid had on the audience worldwide was as much down to Jackie Coogan’s innocent, yet perfect, performance as much as it was to Chaplin’s evergreen popularity. He figured the lad had a big future ahead of him, and it would be unfair to hold him back. Chaplin therefore gave up Jackie Coogan’s contract option, allowing him to map out his own future in film. Part of the comedian’s thinking was that the pair could not actually really work together again, as whatever they did would be unlikely to achieve the same impact as they had with The Kid. Coogan’s father took over managing his son’s career, and he continued to appear in films for First National until about 1927. Becoming a teenager drove the young man off the screen, as he was no longer able to play the ‘cute kid’ roles in which he had become typecast. He was back in the news in his early 20s when he discovered his parents (mother and step-father) had misappropriated his estimated $4 million earnings from his films, leaving him penniless. The result was the Californian Child Actors’ Bill of 1939 (or ‘Coogan’s Law’ as it became know) that protected young actors from their managers, whether parents or otherwise. It would be another 20 years before Coogan made an impact on the screen again, this time on television in the distinctive (and completely different) role of Uncle Fester in The Addams Family Gothic comedy show of the mid-1960s.

One consequence of the battles with First National over The Kid was a lessening of Chaplin’s commitment to the company; after all, he had United Artists waiting in the wings, and his new studio partners were keen for him to add his Chaplin uniqueness to their overall package. He still owed First National three films from his original contract. These would be The Idle Class, Pay Day, and The Pilgrim, and Chaplin would then be free of the contract with First National by early in 1923, allowing him to commit fully to making feature length films exclusively for release through United Artists.

Trivia: The ‘woman’ who tempts the Tramp in the dream sequence in The Kid was played by 12-year-old actress, Lillita McMurray. The young performer fascinated Chaplin, and he soon put her under personal contract. Four years later, now 16 years old (just a year younger than Mildred Harris when she married Chaplin) and now known as Lita Grey, that actress would become Chaplin’s second wife in a marriage that was to prove even more tempestuous than that with Mildred Harris. One of the other children featured in the dream sequence was Esther Ralston, who would later go on to become a major star in the later 1920s.

Charlie Says: ‘We decided to give [The Kid] the acid test and arranged to show it at the local [Salt Lake] theatre without any announcement. It was a large theatre and three-quarters filled. In desperation, I sat and waited for the film to come on. This particular audience seemed out of sympathy with anything I might present to them. I began to doubt my own judgment as to what an audience would like and react to in a comedy. Perhaps I had made a mistake. … A scream of delight went up from the audience, and scattered applause. … There was a laugh that accumulated and increased. They saw the joke! In fact, they laughed hysterically throughout the picture.’—Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964.

Kid07Verdict: There is a telling moment in The Kid when Chaplin’s Tramp seems to consider disposing of the unwanted baby he has inherited by tossing it into the sewer he sees beneath a grate in the street. If he hadn’t found the mother’s note, would he have divested himself of a potential burden in the cruelest way possible? No, of course not, but it is a sign of Chaplin’s increasing cinematic maturity that he allows this moment of threat to play out, even if only to provide an example of an action the Tramp would never take. The Kid is easily Chaplin’s first true classic, as moving and entertaining today as it undoubtedly was almost 100 years ago.—Brian J. Robb

Next: The Idle Class (25 September 1921)


An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the first year of blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.


A Day’s Pleasure (15 December 1919)


Release Date: 15 December 1919

Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin

Duration: 25 minutes

With: Edna Purviance, Marion Feducha, Bob Kelly, Jackie Coogan, Babe London, Tom Wilson, Henry Bergman, Loyal Underwood

Story: After some trouble with his broken-down Model T Ford, the Tramp sets out with his family for a day trip. They embark upon an boat ride, but seasickness and comic hijinks serve to ruin the fun. More car trouble awaits the family on the journey home to the end of a “perfect” day.

Production: Adrift in both his private and professional lives, Charlie Chaplin sought escape in the creation of a brand new short film, only for his troubles to start all over again. It was a simple enough idea—Charlie’s Picnic would feature a family day out. Chaplin could see a myriad of comic possibilities in that simple set up. Five children were selected from the many who auditioned and contracted for a month to make the movie; Chaplin should have realized from his past experience and practice  that he was being overly optimistic as to the time scale any film he would make from now on would likely take.

He shot for just two days before calling the project off on 16 June 1919, dismissing the children. The stifling heat was not helping the ideas flow. By the start of July he was ready to try again, shooting over four days in an attempt to get something—anything—on film. He used those around him, from his own chauffeur to studio manager Alf Reeves and a visiting friend, to play in incomplete and unsatisfying scenes. Once again, Chaplin gave up, effectively shutting down the studio. It was in the middle of this that Chaplin’s short-lived first son was born (see Sunnyside for the details). The malformed child died after just three days on 10 July, so there was little chance of Charlie’s Picnic resuming production any time soon.

Day03Chaplin set aside Charlie’s Picnic, and having met the young Jackie Coogan began development work on The Waif, a film that would eventually emerge as the brilliant The Kid. Whether this was distraction from the film he’d set out to make or from his private grief is unclear, but Chaplin was inspired by the young Coogan whom he’d witnessed performing as part of his father’s stage act. This work took up much of August and September [and will be covered in the next entry on The Kid].

When Chaplin realized that The Kid was going to be a bigger project than he initially thought, he acquiesced to pressure from his studio First National to offer them a ‘quickie’ film to fill the sizeable gap that was emerging between Chaplin pictures. As David Robinson notes of Chaplin: ‘He had, after all, made two-reelers in a month for Mutual and in a week at Keystone.’ That was true, but perhaps in indulging his growing artistic side, Chaplin had forgotten how to make a quick lowdown comedy.

Intending to deliver something with the utmost haste, Chaplin returned to the material he had shot several months before for the aborted Charlie’s Picnic; surely he could turn this into something serviceable that could be released without shame as a Chaplin comedy?

Day11Chaplin brought in a new, and contrasting, co-star in the ample form of Babe London. Born in 1901 as Jean Glover, the plump comedienne is perhaps best know today for co-starring with Laurel and Hardy in their 1931 sound short two-reeler Our Wife. Her film debut had been recent, in 1919’s The Expert Eloper, directed by Eddie Lyons and Lee Moran, who both co-starred. It’s unclear if Chaplin saw the movie, or if someone else recommended London to him. Either way, she was the perfect comic foil for an under-the-gun comedian aiming for a quick return to his earlier days of rapid filmmaking.Day01

The Chaplin unit was newly energized and decamped to San Pedro, where a pleasure boat named the Ace was hired from the San Pedro Transportation Company for $5 per hour. This was a return to the kind of filmmaking that had brought Chaplin fame in the first place—turn up, find a prop of some sort, and just start filming. There were all sorts of possibilities for comedy from a setting on a boat, and in A Day’s Pleasure—as the resulting short was eventually titled—Chaplin made use of them all. He shot 25,000 feet of film across the period of just one week, and had the project edited within two weeks after the end of shooting. Chaplin had not worked so fast for quite some time. The resulting film was made available to First Nation on 3 November 1919—it was only the fourth film he’d produced for the studio.

A Day’s Pleasure may be a trifle, but at least it is fun which is a miracle given the circumstances under which it originated. Given new wind in his sails by his work with Coogan on The Kid, Chaplin was able to return to the approach that had served him so well during the Mutual years, turning out a genuinely funny short film in a reasonable amount of time.

Day05Perhaps somewhat basic, A Day’s Pleasure nonetheless served to answer First National’s demands. It features some old stand-bys in terms of early cinematic comedy, such as car trouble, with the automobile a new technology that developed in tandem with film itself. Of course, the malfunctioning Model T Ford that Chaplin uses to convey his fractious family (including his new discovery, Jackie Coogan, as his young son) on a day out is barely fit for purpose. Frequent breakdowns and tangles in traffic follow. It is with the material on the boat that A Day’s Pleasure livens up a little, as Chaplin risks missing the departure in an effort to secure some cigarettes. When Babe London’s plump passenger similarly almost misses the boat and ends up hanging onto the ship and the shore, Chaplin nonchalantly uses the poor women as a natural bridge to get himself back aboard (only then does he help her aboard, too). Other than that, this is simple stuff—‘unadventurous’ as John McCabe has it—yet some critics regarded it as a better film (or simply more enjoyable) than Sunnyside had been.

Coogan later recalled the making of A Day’s Pleasure, and claimed that Chaplin had ‘kind of sloughed that picture off. You’ll notice, if you see it, that it gets very jumpy. He lost interest in it.’ Chaplin’s loss of interest in what had started off as Charlie’s Picnic would be to Jackie Coogan’s eternal advantage, as the project that had captured his interest was The Kid.

Day06The misadventures of a ‘happy family’, messing about in cars and on boats, was in stark contrast to Chaplin’s less-than-happy off-screen life during this period. For several years, Chaplin and his half-brother Sydney had been investigating the possibility of bringing their mother, Hannah, across from Britain to the United States. Although everything was all squared away on the American end as early as 1917, the British end proved more problematic and the permits required for Hannah to travel to and become domiciled in the US were denied. Hannah remained in Peckham House, a care home, for the next two years while the Chaplin brothers got on with their careers.

Ironically, when the permits were finally sorted out on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean by the middle of 1919, Chaplin was in no position personally to contemplate adding his addled mother to the family home. His marriage troubles, despair over the death of his new-born son, and concerns about his abilities to continue to make films his audiences would enjoy were all plaguing the comedian. The thought of suffering further by reuniting with his mentally-stricken mother was something Chaplin simply could not face.

Day12Sydney was in New York, preparing for a trip to England, when he received a cable from Chaplin: ‘Second thoughts consider will be best mother remain in England. Some good seaside resort. Afraid presence [of] her might depress and affect my work. Good may come alone.’ It was a ruthless decision, one made easier by physical distance and time: Chaplin resolved to put himself first above all others, no matter who they might be to him. Eventually arrangements were made for Hannah to take up residence in the English seaside town of Margate, with a nurse to attend to her.

Day02Things with Mildred had not improved, and the pair had essentially separated. Renewed animosity between the pair hit the press, partly (or so Chaplin believed) thanks to Mildred’s manager, Louis B. Mayer, who had disdained the comedian’s offer of $25,000 to settle things between them. In print, Chaplin threatened to beat up Mayer—and that’s exactly what happened when the pair bumped into one another in the dining room of the Alexandria hotel. The pair managed to roll around a bit, with Chaplin hitting his head, before hotel authorities separated the soon-to-be movie mogul from the flailing comedian. Chaplin later realized that his big mouth had brought this situation about, while Mayer declared victory having landed a blow or two on the slight Englishman.

Day08Trivia: As Charlie’s Ford fails to start, it is parked right outside the specially-built Chaplin studio on the corner of La Brea and De Longpre. When the family finally reach the boat, it departs from the Southern Pacific Passenger Station in San Pedro. As the boat sets sail, Dead Man’s Island can be seen in the background—this San Pedro harbour landmark no longer exists. It was apparently a burial ground (hence the name) for US Marines who died in the retreat from Mexican forces that occupied Los Angeles in 1846. The island also appeared in the background of another boat-themed Chaplin short, Shanghaied, made back in 1915 for Essanay. Later it is possible to see vintage battleships and the Angel’s Gate Lighthouse, built in 1913 and still in existence. According to John Bengston’s Silent Traces, the Lighthouse also features in the Roscoe Arbuckle short Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916). Other real-world locations that can be discerned in a close viewing of A Day’s Pleasure include Bullock’s department store, located downtown at Seventh Street and Broadway, and the church tower from the still-standing Sunnyside village set can be seen in the background to a scene filmed within the walls of the Chaplin studio upon a recreation of the downtown streets around Bullock’s. Jeffrey Vance speculates that Chaplin began the shoot on location, but frustrated by the crowds his filming attracted, he went to the trouble and expense of recreating the area within his studio so he could more closely control the filming environment.

What the Critics Said: ‘Charlie Chaplin is screamingly funny in his latest picture, A Day’s Pleasure, at the Strand, when he tries in vain to solve the mysteries of a collapsible deck chair. He is also funny in many little bits of pantomime and burlesque, in which he is inimitable. But most of the time he depends for comedy upon seasickness, a Ford car, and biff-bang slap-stick, with which he is little, if any, funnier than many other screen comedians.’—The New York Times, 8 December 1919.

Day10Charlie Says: ‘My clowning, as the world calls it—and I dislike the word clown, for I am not a clown—may have esoteric meanings. I prefer to think of myself as a mimetic satirist, for I have aimed in all my comedies at burlesquing, satirizing the human race—or at least those human beings whose very existence in this world is an unconscious satire on this world. The human race I prefer to think of as the underworld of the gods. When the gods go slumming they visit the Earth. You see, my respect for the human race is not 100 per cent…’—Charlie Chaplin, The New York Times, 1920.

Verdict: A Day’s Pleasure is a bit throwaway, produced at a time when Chaplin was far from on his best game. However, it is a pleasing throwback to a simpler form of cinematic comedy the great clown was in the process of moving away from… —Brian J. Robb

Next: The Kid (6 February 1921)


An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the first year of blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.



Sunnyside (15 June 1919)


Release Date: 15 June 1919

Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin

Duration: 20 minutes

With: Edna Purviance, Tom Wilson, Henry Bergman, Loyal Underwood

Story: Working at a rural hotel, the Tramp falls in love with local farmer’s daughter Edna and has to fight for her with a rival from the big city…

Production: Charlie Chaplin’s marital troubles with new bride Mildred Harris were beginning to have a deleterious affect on his creative work. He began his next film for First National under the title Jack of All Trades, but it would eventually be released in June 1919 as Sunnyside and would be very different from the ideas Chaplin had started out with.

Sunnyside02Wanting to make something with a countryside feel, he had his studio’s main standing street set converted into something more suitable for a rural village rather than a metropolis like New York of Chicago. A set was built that formed the lobby of a down-at-heel hotel, where Chaplin imagined much of the action taking place. Initially, he thought he could play the handyman of the hotel, the jack of all trades of the title.

The first few days of actual shooting, in early November 1918, took place out on the Phelps Ranch, where the studio paid for the hire of a cow and also for the repair of a fence seemingly broken during filming. Shooting was regularly interrupted by random stoppages where Chaplin would abandon whatever he was half-heartedly doing in order to think again about the story he wanted to tell. He had a bunch of random ideas, but no over-arching theme that was the kind of guiding principle he usually had before beginning to roll the cameras.

Chaplin was definitely out-of-sorts, largely due to his frustrations with Mildred, and it was beginning to affect not only his work but also his health. A photograph of him during this period became a source of irritation for the comic. ‘I hate this picture of me,’ he said. ‘I look bleary-eyed, like a murderer. No wonder.’ When viewing the resulting film from this period, it can be discerned that Chaplin looks thinner and tired than usual during Sunnyside.

Sunnyside06Days away from shooting became more frequent than actual filming days, and the excuses became flimsier. At first, it was because he wanted to ‘talk the story’ with his creative advisors, including Henry Bergman, whom Chaplin continued to rely upon in times of creative stress. Long lunches became the norm, then began to consume entire days. Visitors to the studio, such as the Bishop of Birmingham, provided yet another excuse for doing no work. Soon, Chaplin and his friends would go off on entire weekend-long trips, such as the three-day outing the entire company took to see the ‘air circus’ in San Diego, as reported by Chaplin biographer David Robinson. Chaplin half-heartedly tried to justify the trip by filming some of the event, but none of it was ever used in any of his films.Sunnyside09

In the run up to Christmas 1918, Chaplin edited together what little material he had for Jack of All Trades, but the results depressed him even further and he shut the entire studio down early for the holidays. It was expected Chaplin would return to work in the New Year, but he did not. On 19 January 1919, the Chaplin Studio closed down entirely. The company’s leading man spent a total of six weeks away from the studio during this period, doing anything but make his next film.

By the end of January, Charlie Chaplin had returned to work. Everything he’d already shot for Jack of All Trades was formally scrapped and the film abandoned. The new film would be called Putting It Over, but this fresh start did little to relieve Chaplin’s creative malaise. Rainy days limited his shooting time during February, so he took to auditioning actresses, hiring wildlife, and planning new work. Illness and further story development work took Chaplin away from the studio repeatedly, until he finally announced Jack of All Trades was back on, but would now be called Sunnyside.

Given the repeated false starts, it is surprising that Sunnyside turned out as good as it did. There was an eight-month gap between the release of Shoulder Arms and the arrival of its follow-up. There seemed to be some tension between the character of the Tramp and his creator—he was increasingly moving away from depicting his onscreen character in the manner that audiences had come to love. Chaplin thrived on new challenges, so he was not simply going to churn out the same slapstick fall-about comedy material. He was beginning his search for something deeper in film.

Sunnyside05Chaplin plays the handyman of a rural inn, overworked and under-appreciated. His environment is idyllic: the eggs come straight from the hens, and the milk direct from the cows. It’s a simple life, full of simply pleasures, so unlike Chaplin’s real life in Los Angeles. It’s a dream world, a fantasy from a man raised in urban squalor, and the dreams-within-dreams featured in Sunnyside serve to emphasize that unreality. Chaplin’s wistful figure is engaged in a half-hearted battle with Albert Austin’s city slicker for the attention of country girl Edna Purviance, but it amounts to very little.

Sunnyside04One of the film’s notable fantasy sequences sees Chaplin dance with four nymphs, a sort of pastiche of Nijinsky, or perhaps intended as homage. The women playing the nymphs were exactly the kind Chaplin was attracted to: young, seemingly innocent, available. It was a betrayal of his current anxieties, a revelation of his fantasies. His problems with Mildred had hit him where it hurt, in his creativity, and he sought escape.

There is a deleted scene from Sunnyside, first available as part of the indispensible Unknown Chaplin documentary series. It seems to relate to some of the earlier ideas for Jack of All Trades and depicts Chaplin as a hotel barber preparing Albert Austin for a shave. The set up seems to indicate that this is not going to be a smooth shave, from the broken-down barber’s chair, to the excessive lather applied to Austin’s fearful face, and the near scalding of his scalp by a furnace. There’s some traditional Chaplin humour here, although the piece is not in keeping with the rest of what became Sunnyside. The barber skit attempted here, though, may have been a dry run for a sequence that Chaplin finally brought to fruition in The Great Dictator, over two decade later.

Sunnyside10The bulk of Sunnyside was shot during a burst of feverish activity during the final three weeks of March 1919, after 150 supposed ‘shooting’ days when the unit had laid largely idle. Chaplin quickly fell back on the romantic triangle, and the recursion of dreams within dreams displayed his uncertainty over his handling of the material. There is a darkness at the heart of Sunnyside, but Chaplin could not wrestle it into a coherent shape. He plays the romance with Edna two ways: she goes off with the city slicker, only for Chaplin’s handyman to awake from a dream and win her back. Was this an expression of his desire for a ‘do-over’ in real life, wishing he could leave Mildred and return to the days when he and Edna were together on and off-screen?

Sunnyside12The humour is lacking in Sunnyside, and what there is comes across as decidedly dark or offbeat. To get ride of Edna’s country bumpkin brother, the handyman blindfolds him, pretending they are playing hide-and-seek, only to send the kid out into the middle of the traffic, where he remains for the duration of the film. The film ends with the dream fake-out suicide-by-car, which is neither particularly funny and is anyway undone instantly. There is an open question as to what scene is actually the dream, the suicide or the aftermath?

Chaplin may have wished his domestic life was but a dream; instead, it was about to turn into a nightmare. The making of Sunnyside spanned the period from when it became clear that Mildred’s pregnancy (the reason she and Chaplin had hastily married) was false, through to her becoming genuinely pregnant. Anxieties about impending parenthood and whether he could sustain his relationship with Mildred fed directly into the film, perhaps explaining the dream-like escape to the countryside with the dancing nymphs. Reality, though, was about to hit Charlie Chaplin hard.

Sunnyside08Mildred had been confined to bed rest or periods in hospital or a sanatorium during her pregnancy, as there were some fears on behalf of her doctors as to whether she would be capable of carrying the child to term. During these periods Mildred was alone or with her mother; Chaplin certainly spent little time with his pregnant wife. When she moved back into their home at De Mille Drive, Mildred moved her mother into the spare bedroom to support her. Chaplin increasingly spent time, often overnight spending his nights at the Athletic Club, away from home.

On the evening of 6 July, and in the absence of her husband, Mildred began labour. Around 6am the following morning, 7 July, she gave birth to a baby son. Charles Spencer Chaplin Jr. (a name Chaplin loudly objected to, preferring Norman Spencer Chaplin), however, was not long for this world. Born malformed, the baby only survived for three days. According to Joyce Milton’s biography of Chaplin, his manservant Kono had been told that the child had been born with ‘its stomach upside down’. The child’s condition caused peristaltic action (the muscle-driven motion that pushes food through the digestive tract) to apparently work, more or less, in reverse. The death certificate gave cause of death for Chaplin’s first son as ‘rudimentary development of the large intestine’.

The date of birth came just over eight months after Mildred’s supposed ‘false’ pregnancy, throwing into doubt the story over whether she was or was not pregnant that first time around, or actually fell pregnant so rapidly after the ‘false alarm’ that it didn’t impact on a nine-month (or so) gestation period. When staying in various sanatoriums, Mildred may have been given drugs to calm her nerves that affected the viability of her foetus.

Sunnyside03Either way, the child that Chaplin did not want was gone, but in the most terrible way. His avoidance of Mildred and her pregnancy was a huge act of denial on Chaplin’s part, and his confusion and depression during this period no doubt fed into the confused narrative of Sunnyside, with its dreams, wish fulfilment, and dark undercurrents. Mildred later claimed that Chaplin had indeed shown remorse, crying upon the death of his first-born child. Whatever reconciliation the tragedy may have brought about was short-lived and the pair had reverted to their quarrelsome ways within days of the death of their child.

Sunnyside07Chaplin’s inherent selfishness also kicked in quickly, and he distanced himself from the arrangements that had to be made. Mildred left things to her church to arrange, and Chaplin objected to the funeral technician’s application of an artificial smile to their dead son’s face. He refused to attend the wake, supposedly because he disliked Mildred’s religious friends, but it was just the latest act in his denial surrounding his son. Mildred later complained that Chaplin had haggled with the mortician over the bill for the funeral, trying to get it reduced—this from the best-paid man in Hollywood. He got his way in just one thing: the death certificate recorded his short-lived son to be called Norman Spencer Chaplin, his preferred choice of name. Chaplin almost omits his doomed son entirely from his 1960s autobiography, giving him only one sentence: ‘After we had been married a year, a child was born but only lived three days.’

Trivia: For some, Sunnyside was perceived as Chaplin straying into the territory of the ‘art film’ and it was seized upon by those hoping to elevate his efforts beyond mere entertainment. Joyce Milton noted: ‘Admired by intellectuals, the dark comedy [of Sunnyside] laid a foundation for a Chaplin vogue among French cineastes.’ It wasn’t just the French. In that hotbed of American intellectualism, Indianapolis, something was stirring, as reported in the 12 July 1919 edition of The Motion Picture News. S. B. McCormick of the Circle Theatre in Indianapolis was in using Chaplin’s Sunnyside hoping to attract ‘the most elite local society’, who would nonetheless have to enjoy the Tramp’s antics in the company of the hoi polloi, of the masses, the common people, or as the Motion Picture News had it: ‘dyed-in-the-wool Chaplin fans’. In his advertising for the film, McCormick sought to equate Chaplin to the god Pan, emphasising the film’s connections with classical dance. The report concluded: ‘McCormick’s campaign was based on the psychology that the regular Chaplin fans would attend regardless of the kind of exploitation, but that to reach the society element of Indianapolis it would be necessary for him to lift his exploitation into the “society” stage.’

Charlie Says: ‘Sunnyside had been like pulling teeth. Without question marriage was having an effect on my creative faculties. After Sunnyside, I was at my wits’ end for an idea. … Although I had grown fond of Mildred, we were irreconcilably mismatched. I could never reach her mind. It was cluttered with pink-ribboned foolishness. She seemed in a dither, looking always for other horizons. Although we lived in the same house, we seldom saw each other, for she was much occupied at her studio as I was at mine. It became a sad house. I would come home to find the dinner table laid for one, and would eat alone. … We separated in a friendly way, agreeing she was to get [a] divorce on the grounds of mental cruelty, and that we would say nothing about it to the press.’—Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964.

Verdict: Whimsical, and lacking engagement and any really great comedy, Sunnyside is a minor film from a troubled period in Chaplin’s life.

—Brian J. Robb

Next: A Day’s Pleasure (15 December 1919)


An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the first year of blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.