Released: 1 February 1915, Essanay
Written and directed by Charles Chaplin
Duration: approx. 30 mins
With: Ben Turpin, Charlotte Mineau, Leo White, Agnes Ayres, Gloria Swanson, Jesse Robins
Story: Hired by ‘Lockstone’ film studios, the Tramp experiences life behind-the-scenes and as a featured extra, causing havoc wherever he goes…
Production: Charlie Chaplin set out on his second year of making motion pictures a somewhat changed man from the neophyte who’d arrived at the doors of Mack Sennett’s Keystone studios in December 1913. He’d gone from hired clown to creator of his own material, from a stage-trained vaudevillian who knew nothing about making films to the most accomplished director on the Keystone lot. All those around him, towards the end of 1914, knew that Keystone’s simple formulas could no longer contain Chaplin’s growing talent. In order to further develop his art and craft in motion picture comedies, Chaplin knew he’d have to look elsewhere.
He’d become such a success with American audiences during the second half of 1914 that Chaplin was the subject of a minor bidding war among rival studios. He wasn’t prepared to jump at the first nor the most lucrative offer: control was all to Chaplin. Any deal he made had to guarantee him full control over his own films, the kind of right that had been hard-won during his year at Keystone, chaffing under the restrictions imposed upon his filmmakers by Mack Sennett.
The winners of Chaplin’s services for 1915 were the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company of Chicago. The studio name came from the founders, ‘S’ for George Spoor and ‘A’ for Gilbert M. Anderson (born ‘Max Aronson’). Both were film industry pioneers, with Spoor working in exhibition and distribution while Anderson was better known to audiences as ‘Broncho Billy’, the first major cowboy film star. Anderson, more than Spoor, understood the creative nature of filmmaking and was prepared to offer Chaplin $1250 per week with a $10,000 signing on bonus.
Much more important was the freedom Anderson promised: no longer would Chaplin be held to the rigid deadlines that applied at Keystone, where each short film was just another in a long Henry Ford-style manufacturing chain, pumped out to keep cinema audiences briefly amused. Instead, Essanay were offering Chaplin larger budgets, more time, and the freedom to explore the still developing art of cinema comedy at his own pace. Despite his obvious popularity at Keystone, Spoor had his doubts that Chaplin was worth the money the studio was offering, but he agreed to be guided by Anderson.
Chaplin preferred the Essanay set-up at Chicago over their Californian base just outside San Francisco, so at the turn of the year the young comedian (he was still only 25-years-old) made his way to the cold East. One of the first challenges Chaplin faced in Chicago was recreating his now world-famous Tramp costume: the original had been left behind at Keystone. The new-look Tramp outfit was put together with items that Chaplin simply bought ‘off-the-shelf’ in various Chicago stores. He went up and down State Street, obtaining the baggy trousers and tight jacket he needed. His biggest problem, however, was in finding just the right pair of outsized shoes to compliment his distinctive waddling walk. With the costume recreated, Chaplin was ready to begin the next phase of his filmmaking life. Despite the initial thrill of coming to work at Essanay on his enlarged salary, Charlie Chaplin was to find that life at the new company wasn’t going to be as smooth as he’d hoped.
The story goes that Charlie Chaplin broke the ice with his new studio colleagues in Chicago by performing an outlandish clog dance in his full Tramp regalia, recalling his days as one of the Lancashire Lads. Once advanced orders from cinema distributors for the first Chaplin film from Essanay crossed the 100 mark, even George Spoor was more accommodating to his studio’s new star name. He paid for a series of full page ads which appeared on 16 January 1915 in Motion Picture News and Motion Picture World boasting of the studio’s newest player: the world’s ‘greatest’ and ‘funniest’ comedian was now with Essanay, and the studio wanted the movie world to know about it. Less than two weeks later, similar ads ran in the British movie press, such as Bioscope magazine, dubbing Chaplin ‘The greatest motion picture comedian the world has ever seen’! However, Essanay were not used to working Chaplin-style: the studio shut up shop every night at 6pm sharp, regardless of what was shooting, regularly screened film rushes in negative format to save the cost of developing, and—even worse from Chaplin’s point-of-view—performers were issued their scripts from the ‘scenario department’ (then run by future movie gossip columnist Louella Parsons).
Chaplin, of course, was having none of it. His first film for the new management was autobiographically inspired—and it would be the only film he’d make in Chicago, a town he found more than lived up to its billing as the ‘Windy City’. Cheekily entitled His New Job, it is set in a familiar-looking movie studio called ‘Lockstone’. Chaplin’s Tramp is a stagehand, helping out with the props behind the scenes, when he unexpectedly finds himself promoted to be an on-screen player in the absence of the movie’s true star. Admittedly, this first Essanay film is not a great advance upon the work Chaplin was doing during his final few months at Keystone, but it does contain a few pointers to his future direction and introduced a new series of collaborators he’d be working with over the coming year.
Prime among them was Ben Turpin. Born in 1869, the famously cross-eyed comedian had been with Essanay since shortly after its inception in 1907. Turpin was a seat-of-the pants comedian who had no time for Chaplin’s more consider, formal approach to devising his comedy business. Shaped in the crucible of American vaudeville, circus and even burlesque (where he’d provide the largely-ignored comedy in between the strippers), Turpin was the recipient of what was believed to be the first pie-in-the-face gag in the 1909 Essanay short Mr Flip. By 1912, his distinctive look (he had his unique eyes insured by Lloyds of London for $25,000, believing them to not only be his trademark but also key to his comedic livelihood) was well-known and he was a recognised film comedy star.
With the arrival of Chaplin, however, Turpin found himself demoted to the role of ‘second banana’ (essentially filling the role played by Chester Conklin in many of the Keystone shorts), something he was less than pleased about. Perhaps if Chaplin had stuck it out in Chicago a bit longer, the duo may have been forced to get on, but with his early departure back to the West coast after His New Job, his work with Turpin was curtailed (comprising the first two Essanay films, His New Job and A Night Out, a tiny role in The Champion and an appearance in the new scenes Essanay would add to Chaplin’s Burlesque on Carmen to fill it out to featurette length). In a strange kind of job swap, Turpin would later go on to become a star at the Mack Sennett studio for the next decade or so. One of Turpin’s final film appearances was alongside Laurel and Hardy in Saps at Sea (1940), one of their early features. Turpin, who’d enjoyed great wealth since his retirement from the screen due to his careful real estate investments, died in 1940, aged 70.
Also appearing in His New Job was Leo White, a fellow Brit born in Manchester in 1882. He’d performed on the music hall stage across Britain before making the journey to America in about 1910 where he made something of a name for himself in the ‘Sweedie’ film comedies with Wallace Beery (who dragged up as a strange, supposedly Swedish maid) from 1914. Unlike Turpin, White would remain part of Chaplin’s evolving stock company of supporting acts right through to his time at Mutual studios and even as late as The Great Dictator (1940). In His New Job, White first appears more or less as himself at the studio reception before putting on his ‘comedy character’ costume, a kind of dandified cod-European nobleman which he’d most often play in Chaplin’s films. He’ll turn up regularly throughout Chaplin’s time at Essanay.
Perhaps easy to miss in His New Job, as she was uncredited and right at the back of the opening scene, was an appearance of actress Gloria Swanson, more associated with melodrama than silent comedy. Perhaps best known for her role as Norma Desmond, the bitter former silent movie star in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), it is sometimes forgotten that Swanson was actually a genuine silent comedy performer, even before she became the muse of director Cecil B. DeMille. Born in Chicago in 1899, Swanson was an army brat who started in movies as an extra at Essanay in 1914, the same year Chaplin was learning the movie ropes at Keystone. She attempted to win the leading female role in His New Job (played by Charlotte Mineau), but Chaplin just didn’t see her in the part (he was looking for a new Mabel Normand type, and eventually found Edna Purviance) casting her instead in the minor role of the uncredited stenographer. She recalled of Chaplin in Chicago that he ‘kept laughing and making his eyes twinkle, and talking in a light, gentle voice, encouraging me to let myself go and be silly.’ The following year she’d be in California working for ‘king of comedy’ Mack Sennett, before becoming a genuine star in her own right in a series of De Mille movies, including Male and Female (1919) and Why Change your Wife? (1920, in which she performed opposite a real lion). In addition, she became something of a fashion icon, defining the look of 1920s Hollywood in the eyes of many movie fans. Ironically, Swanson would imitate Chaplin on screen twice, in Manhandled (1924) and Sunset Boulevard (which, of course, also featured Buster Keaton—Chaplin’s rival and Limelight co-star—as her long-suffering butler). Much later, she would also narrated the Chaplin documentary The Eternal Tramp (1970).
Charlotte Mineau, playing the role Swanson wanted, would become one of Chaplin’s regular supporting cast at Essanay and Mutual, appearing in his movies through to 1917’s Easy Street. She’d been in a Sweedie film (Sweedie Goes to College, 1915) opposite Turpin and Swanson, and ended her career with the Marx Brothers in Monkey Business (1931). Following her retirement from the screen in 1932, she lived to the grand old age of 93, dying in 1979.
Perhaps Chaplin needed to do something easy, given the unfamiliar surroundings and people he was now working with, for his debut film at Essanay. His New Job was both a good joke on his actual circumstances and provided a ready-made backdrop as it was set in a film studio. There’s no great change in Chaplin’s character here, either. He didn’t take the fresh start as an opportunity to reinvent the Tramp, not yet at least. Instead, Chaplin seemed content simply to reproduce all those elements that had made him such a success in the previous year, possibly being afraid to change too much, too soon. He’s physically violent, causing mayhem and chaos wherever he goes around the studio, amused by his own unerring ability to disrupt the work in progress. This is the Tramp as malevolent imp, using whatever objects come to hand to further his aim of causing trouble, whether its a soda syphon, a saw, or a scenic pillar. The movie was put together in just two weeks, not quite Keystone pace but pretty quick nonetheless.
Drawing upon previous Keystone work, most obviously A Film Johnnie and The Masquerader, Chaplin takes the opportunity of His New Job to not only comment upon his own new employment but also upon the madness of filmmaking itself, at a time when the art form was in its relative infancy (he’d do it yet again in 1916’s Behind the Screen). While there is little new here, in terms of comedic content, there is a slight advance in style. At Keystone, such was the breakneck pace of production that a ‘point-and-shoot’ aesthetic was all that could be managed: the camera rarely moved, if ever, and everything was shot in a four-square, locked off fashion. In some sections of His New Job, the camera tracks (ever so slightly) along with the action, suggesting that Chaplin was either pushing himself to experiment or had picked up the idea from someone at Essanay, perhaps his photographer on this short, Jackson Rose. Either way, it was a sign of things to come, with Chaplin increasingly experimenting with form and content as the year progressed, deepening and developing the character of the Tramp far beyond what had been possible at Keystone.
Within just six months of his arrival as Essanay’s newest star, Charlie Chaplin would not just be well known in America but would be well on his way to becoming a world famous figure… and he was only getting started.
Trivia: This is the first time Chaplin actually receives on-screen credit—’Featuring Charlie Chaplin’.
The Contemporary View: ‘It is absolutely necessary to laugh at Chaplin in ten-ninths of his antics in this disaster-attended search for a new job—the small point in which is evidenced the only irony in the picture.’—Chicago Tribune (1915).
Slapstick: From the first moment, when Charlie cosies up to the girl also waiting for an audition, we recognise this is the Tramp we’ve known from Keystone. Especially when he immediately walks into a door. Charlie’s first meeting with Ben Turpin is all about personal space issues, and the Tramp’s cane comes in rather handy. The pair’s troubles continue either side of that pesky door. Soon Charlie’s crashing about the studio causing havoc, interrupting takes and is demoted from extra to carpenter. He’s soon back in the picture, though when the Sennett-like director fires an actor. Naturally, the dressing room provides plenty of opportunity for horsing around… Gambling proves to be a costly distraction. Soon, Charlie’s making his point… with a prop sword. He then takes a saw and a hammer to poor old Ben Turpin. The sword proves troublesome once more during repeated takes. A cigarette promises sophistication until Charlie topples a pillar like a celluloid Samson. A rumble with the rotund director, a stramash with the star, and a final battering for Ben wrap the show.
Verdict: Slow but steady start to Chaplin’s new era, 2/5
Next: A Night Out (15 February 1915)
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.