Making A Living (2 February 1914)

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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)

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CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

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.

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Pay Day (2 April 1922)

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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.)

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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

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‘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)

CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

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)

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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)

CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

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)

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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’.

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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).

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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.

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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)

CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

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)

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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)

CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

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)

Sunnyside00

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)

CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

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.

 

 

Establishing United Artists (5 February 1919)

 

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In early 1919, Charlie Chaplin joined with three other film business luminaries—Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D. W. Griffith—to set up a new studio that would be driven by the creative talents who made the films. United Artists was born, and although it has endured years of turmoil, it is still around today almost 100 years later.

The first Hollywood studio established by the creative talent, rather than businessmen or mogul investors, was United Artists, launched on 5 February 1919. The founders of the newest Hollywood studio were Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, then two of the movie world’s biggest names, director D. W. Griffith and… Charlie Chaplin!

Chaplin had opened his own new physical studio space just a year before in January 1918 in order to fulfil his contract with First National. Since then, he’d released only three films—A Dog’s Life and his first near-feature length film Shoulder Arms, as well as the liberty bond supporting propaganda film The Bond. It was during his tour of major cities of the US selling war bonds to the public that the idea of establishing a new co-operative studio had come up in Chaplin’s discussions with Pickford and Fairbanks.

UA 05By this point in the schedule he’d agreed with First National, Chaplin was supposed to have delivered a total of eight films. He’d grown uneasy with the studio’s complaints about his tardiness, claiming the company was ‘inconsiderate, unsympathetic, and short-sighted’, which Chaplin biographer Peter Ackroyd interpreted as meaning ‘they refused to comply with all of his demands’. First National seemed unimpressed with both A Dog’s Life and Shoulder Arms, despite the fact that both films were instantly profitable, and seemed only concerned with the fact that Chaplin still owed the company five further films. Even though he had his own studio, Chaplin still felt he was under the control of his financiers. It is little wonder he was attracted to the utopian idea of total independence that he’d discussed with Pickford and Fairbanks.

The new studio would be run by the filmmakers, allowing them to indulge their creativity without being beholden to distant management figures who knew nothing of their art but who only cared about the bottom line. That was the idealistic intent, at least. Establishing the studio as a kind of artists’ collective would mean all those principally involved would invest their own money, be responsible for producing their own films, and then control the distribution of those films to audiences. In their minds, this would mean true independence.

As Chaplin biographer David Robinson notes in Chaplin: His Life and Art, the concept of United Artists was ‘revolutionary. Until this time producers and distributors—with the exception of First National— had been employers, and the stars salaried employees. Now the stars became their own employers. They were their own financiers, and they received the profits that had hitherto gone to their employers.’

UA 02As well as the four already named, early discussions of what was to become United Artists involved cowboy film star and director William S. Hart, but he soon dropped out have negotiated better terms with his studio. The remaining four talents incorporated their venture with them each holding a 25 per cent share of the preferred shares in the company, while the common shares where distributed among them at the rate of 20 per cent each, with the final 20 per cent of common shares going to the company’s lawyer, William Gibbs McAdoo. He had been Secretary to the Treasury under President Woodrow Wilson (also his father-in-law) until the end of 1918 and had recently established his own law firm, McAdoo, Cotton & Franklin. The idea of being in on the birth of a new Hollywood film studio was attractive to McAdoo, and he stayed with the organisation until 1922 when he left to re-establish his political career.

Taking Over the Asylum

The plan for the new venture had come about just at a time when the management of Hollywood’s nascent studios were attempting greater control over the ‘talent’ who actually made the pictures. What would become known as the classic ‘studio system’ that worked so well in the 1930s and 1940s was slowly beginning to form through a series of company mergers, but the stars who set up United Artists wanted to forge their own creative paths. Richard A. Rowland, head of Metro Pictures (later part of the MGM conglomerate), is said to have uttered the legendary lament ‘The inmates are taking over the asylum’ when he heard of the plans for United Artists.

With Hiram Abrams (formerly a board member and president at Paramount) as the first managing director, United Artists opened an office at 729 Seventh Avenue in New York. The stars may have been a little premature in establishing their own concern, however. The agreement called for each of the stars to produce, through United Artists, five movies each year—however, almost all of them had current outstanding commitments to various studios, including Chaplin who still owed First National those other five films on his contract. Given that Chaplin’s rate of production had dramatically slowed in recent years, how he ever thought he could hold up his end of the bargain and produce five movies each year is a mystery.

UA 07Chaplin wanted to produce better work, and increasing the quality of his films meant increasing their costs. He’d said of the successful Shoulder Arms, ‘the film had taken longer than anticipated, besides costing more than A Dog’s Life’. Now he hoped that First National would agree to increase funding for his films in return for an improvement in their quality. However, when the idea was put to the First National board of directors, they turned Chaplin down. It seemed to them that quality, strictly speaking, was immaterial, as almost anything with the ‘Charlie Chaplin’ name on it would attract a willing, paying audience. They simply wanted Chaplin to complete the five films he owed them.

Chaplin attempted to turn the tables on the studio, suggesting he could produce the pictures he owed them quickly, ‘if that is the kind of pictures you want’, meaning they’d be quickly made, cheap and cheerful, and of lesser quality. According to Chaplin’s autobiography, his blackmail gambit backfired when the board told him, ‘that’s up to you, Charlie.’ He attempted one last time to win their favour: ‘I’m asking for an increase to keep up the standard of my work. Your indifference shows your lack of psychology and foresight. You’re not dealing with sausages, you know, but with individual enthusiasm.’

It was to no avail. As far as the suits at First National were concerned, the Charlie Chaplin films may have well have been sausages—they were simply ‘product’ created in order that they could make a profit, what that product was seemed to be immaterial. It is little wonder that when the idea of United Artists became more fully developed, Chaplin couldn’t wait to joining Griffith, Pickford, and Fairbanks in forging their independence from Hollywood’s indifferent and grasping management.

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The Early Years

By the time United Artists actually started producing material it was 1921 and the film world had changed. Shorts, the kind of film that Charlie Chaplin had thrived in, were on their way out to be replaced by eight-reel (about 90 minutes) feature films that were more expensive to produce and becoming increasingly star-studded. In the light of that, the five films each year commitment of the founders was quietly abandoned.

The first United Artists film to see release was written by and starred Douglas Fairbanks. Largely forgotten now, His Majesty, the American was a comedy hit that featured future Frankenstein actor Boris Karloff in a small uncredited role as ‘the spy’. Over the first five years of its existence, United Artists only released five films, at an average rate of a single film each year, all a far cry from the founders’ original ambitions.

UA 09Where was Chaplin in all this? Well, for a while he was busy fulfilling his outstanding obligation to First National. Those films included 1921’s The Kid, often considered to be Chaplin’s first true feature film (it’s about 20 minutes longer than Shoulder Arms). He didn’t complete the First National contract until 1923 with the release of The Pilgrim, Chaplin’s final short and the last film he co-starred in with Edna Purviance (although she would play the lead in A Woman of Paris, which Chaplin directed but did not star in beyond a brief cameo).

Chaplin’s first film for United Artists was probably not what his co-founders expected. Instead of a laugh-packed comedy featuring the Little Tramp, he offered them Destiny, later titled A Woman of Paris, a melodrama he would direct but would not star in. Part of Chaplin’s aim was to offer a showcase to former girlfriend Edna Purviance, in the hope that she could be launched into a film career away from his own films. Purviance plays the mistress of a wealthy Parisian businessman (played by Adolphe Menjou; this film helped give him a higher profile, less so for Purviance who only made two further films before retiring) who reconnects with her aspiring artist former boyfriend (Carl Miller), leading to a tragic denouement. Chaplin appeared uncredited and out of his Tramp outfit as a station porter, and his frequent co-star Henry Bergman has a small bit as a headwaiter.

Each member of the United Artists collective were free to pursue their own creative muse free from the impositions of the others, but there must’ve been some disquiet from the other three that they were going to release a Chaplin picture without Charlie Chaplin in it. In the event, Mary Pickford loved the movie. ‘A Woman of Paris 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. 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.’

Artists Disunited

UA 03By 1924, director D. W. Griffith had left the United Artists set-up, while producer Joseph Schenck joined as president with a remit to put the company on a more professional filmmaking footing. He came with some additional value baggage, namely his wife movie star Norma Talmadge, her sister Constance Talmadge, and third Talmadge sister Natalie’s husband, comedian Buster Keaton. From 1926’s The General, United Artists handled the distribution of Keaton’s comedies until he returned to MGM (with Schenck) with 1928’s The Cameraman. Schenck also succeeded in bring in various independent producers, including Samuel Goldwyn and Howard Hughes, to work with United Artists. Schenck also established a separate deal with Chaplin and Pickford to own theatres across the US. By 1935, Schenck had left to created 20th Century Fox, merging his own 20th Century Pictures with the Fox Film Corporation. Throughout the 1930s, other producers continued to use United Artists as a distributor, including Walt Disney Pictures, Hal Roach Studios (home of Laurel and Hardy), David O. Selznick, Walter Wanger, and Alexander Korda.

Chaplin released most of his features through United Artists, from 1925’s The Gold Rush, The Circus (1928), City Lights (1931), and Modern Times (1936)—all largely silent pictures. Three ‘talkies’—The Great Dictator (1940), Monsieur Verdoux (1947), and Limelight (1952)—were all released by United Artists, although Limelight was pulled from theatres shortly after release when Chaplin was forced into political exile in the UK and Switzerland. His final two features, A King in New York (1957) and A Countess From Hong Kong (1967), were made in exile in London.

Douglas Fairbanks died in 1939 and United Artists entered something of a decline in the 1940s. The movie business was changing and independent producers were finding it hard to compete with the ‘big seven’ studios. This situation would only begin to change with the 1948 ‘Paramount Decree’ that forced studios to sell their theatres, thus opening them up to independently produced films.

UA 08Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin were the only original founders still involved in United Artists as the 1950s dawned. In 1951, producers Arthur B. Krim and Robert Benjamin were put in charge of United Artists, with a remit to run the company successfully for ten years—at the end of that period, if the studio was profitable, they would take a half ownership. Immediate hits included The African Queen (1951) and High Noon (1951), but it was all too late for Chaplin, who was forced into political exile when his permit for re-entry to the United States was revoked in September 1952. In 1955, Chaplin—now based in Switzerland—cut his final business ties with the US by selling his 25 per cent share in United Artists to Krim and Benjamin for just over $1 million. A year later, Mary Pickford also sold up for $3 million. By 1957, United Artists went public, selling shares worth $17 million. The company was now producing around 50 films each year. None of the original founders were involved.

For the next 50 years United Artists would undergo a complicated history of take-overs (the TransAmerica Corporation in 1967, Ted Turner in 1986 for about five minutes), mergers (in 1980, when Kirk Kerkorian’s MGM joined United Artists to form MGM/UA Entertainment), asset stripping (Ted Turner again, throughout the 1980s), and near-bankruptcies. Along the way, the studio would move into records and television, and at one point owned 50 per cent of the James Bond franchise. By 2006, Tom Cruise became a partial owner of United Artists for a couple of years, before MGM once again fully took over the studio in 2015. Today United Artists continues as a brand name for the in-house material MGM produces and distributes.

It is all a long way from when back in 1919 Charlie Chaplin and three friends established United Artists as a place to be owned and operated by the creative talent that actually makes movies. However, despite all the turmoil the studio endured over the years, surely Chaplin (who died in 1977) would have been happy to know that the studio he helped found is still going strong almost 100 years later.

Charlie Says: ‘Within six months, Mary [Pickford} and Douglas {Fairbanks] were making pictures for the newly formed company [United Artists], but I still had more comedies to complete for First National. As Mary and Doug were the only stars distributing their pictures through our company, they were continually complaining to me of the burden imposed upon them as a result of being without my product. [This] ran the company into a deficit of $1 million. However, with the release of my first film [for United Artists], The Gold Rush, the debt was wiped out, which rather softened Mary and Doug’s grievances, and they never complained again.’—Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography [1964]

—Brian J. Robb

Next: Sunnyside (15 May 1919)

Available Now!

CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

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

 

Documentary: Star Power—The Creation of United Artists

Shoulder Arms (20 October 1918)

Arms19

Release Date: 20 October 1918

Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin

Duration: 46 minutes

With: Edna Purviance, Sydney Chaplin, Jack Wilson, Henry Bergman, Albert Austin

Story: Following the progress of a US ‘doughboy’ from boot camp to the battlefields of France and beyond during the First World War.

Production: Charlie Chaplin came late to the First World War; so late, in fact, that the Armistice was declared just under a month after the release of his WWI movie Shoulder Arms. Although only 46 minutes, Shoulder Arms was too long to be classified as a short, so is often regarded as Chaplin’s first feature film.

Reluctant to engage with the war effort, Chaplin had finally given in to popular pressure and had done ‘his bit’ through his tour selling war bonds (see The Bond). Sending his Little Tramp figure onto the battlefield seemed like a good idea to Chaplin, and Shoulder Arms had started out as a project called Camouflage, which he’d put to one side in order to deliver his promised ‘propaganda’ film, The Bond.

Arms25Chaplin knew the dangers of playing the war for laughs—many of his friends and professional acquaintances had warned him off the putative project—so he approached Camouflage carefully. It would be the best expression to this point of his ability to balance humour and entertainment with tragedy and depth of feeling. Announced in the trade press as a five-reel presentation, the film was expected to run almost an hour long and was planned to depict the Tramp’s experiences before, during, and after the war. In the event, Chaplin chose to focus on only the middle section of the planned triptych, and other editing meant that the movie came in under the promised length. Nevertheless, at about 46 minutes, Shoulder Arms was Chaplin’s longest movie to that point. He was finally ready to put down the Tramp’s cane and instead pick up a rifle.

Arms05In filming Shoulder Arms, Chaplin followed his original, unusually detailed (for him) outline, by filming the scenes intended to convey the Tramp’s civilian life before he enters military service. He was to be depicted as a meek fellow, under the thumb of his dominating wife and the father of a brood of unruly children, played by a trio of child actors: True Boardman Jr., Frankie Lee, and Marion Feducha. The role of the wife was not filled as she was intended to be an off-screen presence, only indicated by the items she habitually threw at her husband. At one point, the Tramp leaves his trio of children outside a tavern as he seeks a blessed escape from his life. When he returns home to find the postman has delivered his draft papers, the Tramp is overjoyed, seeing the Army as an opportunity to escape his unhappy life.

Arms06There follows a sequence at a recruiting office which includes a medical examination (the doctor is Albert Austin) during which Chaplin draws upon some old vaudeville routines for his new farce, including scenes played entirely in silhouette. It took Chaplin the better part of a month to shoot all this material, but unhappy with the way the film was progressing he dropped it all from the film—that’s not surprising as the scenes are unusually laboured for Chaplin. Luckily, the footage survived and has been incorporated into the Unknown Chaplin (1983) television documentary series and as ‘deleted scenes’ on The Chaplin Revue DVD release.

Arms20During July 1918, Chaplin devised a new story and had new sets built—this was all a costly process, as was the discarding of so much material, but it was a cost he was prepared to shoulder. The new sets were recreations of the trenches that the American and other Allied soldiers inhabited during the battles in France. For four weeks Chaplin shot on these sets, finding comedy material in the harshness of the conditions that the troops had to endure. The shooting of the sequences in which the Tramp disguises himself as a tree so as to penetrate enemy lines were shot at the height of an LA heat wave, making things ever more uncomfortable for the star-director.

Arms11It was all worth it, however, as audiences acclaimed the sequence as one of the funniest Chaplin had yet committed to film. The rural appearing environment in which these scenes apparently take place was filmed at Wilshire Boulevard and Sherman in Beverly Hills! By the time Chaplin had shot the scenes in which the soldier Tramp meets Edna Purviance’s French peasant in her wrecked home in mid-August, Chaplin realised he was running out of time to supply the propaganda film he’d promised the Liberty Bonds organisation (see The Bond). Production on Shoulder Arms was shut down so the cast and crew could spend a week filming on The Bond.

Arms21It would be the middle of September 1918 before Shoulder Arms would be completed, edited, and prepared for distribution. At that point, Chaplin was suddenly overwhelmed with doubts about both the quality of the film he’d made and the wisdom of releasing a film that dealt in a humorous way with the serious topic of the war. It was only when his war bonds tour partner Douglas Fairbanks watched Shoulder Arms and laughed from beginning to end that Chaplin’s confidence in the project was restored. It was timely intervention, as he’d been on the cusp of cancelling the release and would no doubt have destroyed all the footage he’d shot.

Arms08In the event, Chaplin needed to have no concerns; among the most prominent supporters of Shoulder Arms, those who seemed to enjoy the picture the most, were the troops returning to civilian life from the front. The film seemed to realistically capture their experience, and they were both amused and relieved to have survived it. The film turned out, as David Robinson put it, to be ‘one of the greatest successes of his career’.

Arms14Towards the end of filming on Shoulder Arms, Mildred Harris had announced to Chaplin that she was pregnant (see The Bond). That resulted in a hasty marriage that coincided almost exactly with the release of the film. With a new wife, Chaplin leased a new home on DeMille Drive, but shortly after he had relocated there, Mildred told him she had been mistaken and she wasn’t pregnant after all. While this no doubt came as a relief to Chaplin, it effectively ruined the marriage as he now came to believe he had been trapped by a lie and that his matrimonial state was having a negative effect on his creativity.

Arms01Adding further to Chaplin’s upset was Mildred’s campaign to become a big name actress herself, no doubt through trading on the Chaplin name. Almost as soon as the ink was dry on the marriage certificate she had begun negotiating with Louis B. Mayer at MGM for a lucrative film contract. This tested Chaplin’s patience and resulted in a huge row between them. In his biography of Chaplin, Peter Ackroyd notes an article that Harris later wrote in which she admitted: ‘I think he [Chaplin] was right, but he ought to have had a little more patience and consideration of youth.’ Despite the fact that they were largely leading separate lives—Mildred had her own chauffeur and credit line at all the top stores, while Chaplin went to the studio early and came home late (if at all)—Mildred did somehow contrive to actually become pregnant by November 1918. The Armistice may have been declared and Shoulder Arms a bona fide success, but things were not about to become quiet on the home front chez Chaplin.

Arms00Trivia: Shoulder Arms signified a period of experimentation by Charlie Chaplin and an attempt to alter his signature Tramp figure. Fearing the Little Tramp had run its course, Chaplin attempted—through Shoulder Arms, A Day’s Pleasure, and Pay Day—to refresh his character by making him something of a family man. The deleted scenes from Shoulder Arms sees Chaplin’s Tramp-like figure looking after his three kids, while in A Day’s Pleasure, he is Tramp no longer but instead a happily settled family man. By the time of Pay Day, he’d dropped the idea of children but was still attempting to portray a figure other than his iconic Tramp. However hard he tried, it simply didn’t stick. By the time of The Gold Rush, in 1925, Chaplin had become resigned that moviegoers simply wanted to see him in a single guise and so the Tramp lived on for many more years. It would not be until Monsieur Verdoux in 1947 that Charlie Chaplin would successfully play an entirely different character.

Arms27Charlie Says: ‘Shoulder Arms was made in the middle of a sizzling heat wave. Working inside a camouflaged tree was anything but comfortable. I loathe working outside on location because of its distraction. One’s concentration and inspiration blow away with the wind. The picture took a long time to make and I was not satisfied with it. I was so discouraged I was thinking of throwing it in the ash-can. [Douglas Fairbanks] was my greatest audience. Shoulder Arms was a smash hit and a great favourite with the soldiers during the war, but again the film had taken longer than I had anticipated besides costing more than A Dog’s Life.’—Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964

Arms03Contemporary Reviews: ‘We double up painfully with guffaws of mirthfulness when he camouflages himself as a tree and battles the bewildered Germans, but underneath all the farce of it, we are in close sympathy with the little man and conscious of a touch of true pathos which makes us realize that this Chaplin who calls himself a comedian is perhaps the greatest (a word I dislike to use but which seems necessary in this case) actor on the screen today. Truly, with each release does he prove the value of his policy of making only a few pictures a year. With each successive Chaplin picture the verdict is, the best thing he has ever done, which, I believe, can be said of no other actor on the screen.’—Motion Picture, January 1919

Arms09‘Shoulder Arms is a perfect handling of a delicate subject, and in its treatment the comedian has shown, more completely than ever before, his faculty for getting inside a character and grasping, as if by intuition (but really by hard work) all that character’s salient points. The best thing about this film is that the rookie sees his own little weaknesses, his hardships, his hopes, his glories, his quaint vanities and small fears—he sees himself. Being completely funny on a background of completely terrible war is not only difficult, but dangerous. As far as we can see, Chaplin has been wholly successful.’—Photoplay, January 1919

Arms12Verdict: The ‘it was all a dream’ ending may be a cop out, but Shoulder Arms is an exquisitely crafted film; the split-screen contrasting life in the trenches with the Tramp’s recollections of Broadway is genius, as is the sequence where he is disguised as a tree. Edna Purviance shines in this too, showing she could rise above her personal troubles with Chaplin and still act opposite him.

—Brian J. Robb

Next: Sunnyside (15 May 1919)

CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

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.