Released: 15 February 1915, Essanay
Director: Charles Chaplin
Writer: Charles Chaplin
Duration: approx. 34 mins
With: Ben Turpin, Edna Purviance, Bud Jamison, Leo White
Story: Two swells (Chaplin, Turpin) on the town meet their matches…
Production: Charlie Chaplin didn’t like his new working environment at Essanay’s Chicago studios. Ironically, he’d chosen to work there for his Essanay debut, His New Job, as he didn’t much fancy their limited facility at Niles, 60 miles outside San Francisco either. However, the cold climate, windy weather and factory-like working environment was not conducive to Chaplin’s evolving art. George Spoor—the ‘S’ of Essanay—was still suspicious of Chaplin’s actual worth and for his part, Chaplin wasn’t happy working under his supervision. Max Anderson—the ‘A’ of Essanay—had returned to the company’s Niles facility after showing Chaplin around in Chicago to resume work on his on-going Broncho Billy series of westerns. Chaplin decided to join him and having completed work on His New Job on 12 January 1915, he had returned to California by 18 January. He felt working under Anderson’s supervision would be a better bet, as Anderson was at least a filmmaker, while Spoor was much too like the New York money men who effectively ran the new Hollywood studios from their East coast outposts.
Niles is a small town, but even today it boasts proudly of its connections to Charlie Chaplin. There’s a Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum (http://www.nilesfilmmuseum.org/) paying tribute to the community’s filmmaking past, as well as small stores selling Chaplin merchandise and many cashing in on the town’s century-old cinematic legacy. Formed around a notable railroad junction, Niles is located east of San Francisco, south of Oakland and north of San Jose within the city of Fremont. The studio lot sat at the western entrance to Niles Canyon, the location for many of the Broncho Billy movies. The studio lot itself was essentially a fallow field upon which had been constructed a giant barn-like studio building. The glass roof ensured plenty of light, but it also caused those working on movies to have to toil under stuffy and hot conditions. Upon arrival, Chaplin moved into a room in a bungalow—one of a row that featured as background for street scenes in the movies—on the studio lot that he initially shared with Anderson. The accommodation was primitive, especially for men who were making a substantial income, but Chaplin had lived in far worse conditions during his childhood in London. Anderson mainly lived in a studio financed suite in the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, only staying at Niles when he absolutely had to. Chaplin quickly paid a visit to the city, bought a violin and proceeded to practice for several hours each day. His colleagues at the studio were relieved when the new signing finally moved into a room in Niles’ one and only hotel.
Chaplin now had three weeks to make each of his two-reel shorts, rather than the single week he’d been allocated at Keystone. Chaplin was intent on expanding his scope. In an early interview promoting his arrival as Essanay’s newest star, Chaplin had ruminated: ‘I have a distinct theory regarding farces… I believe that a plot which could easily become a dramatic subject, but which is treated in an amusing manner and which burlesques events of daily life … is the one way to make successful farce comedy. I hope my releases under the Essanay banner will be as agreeable as my past work…’ Chaplin would subtly expand his comedy, building in more drama and telling more rounded stories with proper conclusions over his next few films, with A Jitney Elopement (1915) the first to really show a new direction. By the time of The Tramp (1915), he’d be introducing more pathos into the character he played, thereafter making it integral to his films.
Chaplin’s biggest challenge after re-locating to California once again was to find a new leading lady as his co-star, someone who could fill Mabel Normand’s shoes without bringing the difficulties he’d experienced working with her. An advert was placed in the San Francisco Chronicle: ‘Wanted: The prettiest girl in California to take part in a moving picture.’ Auditions were held at the Belvoir Hotel in Niles, where several applicants were screen tested, among them Edna Purviance.
Or perhaps she was discovered by Chaplin and Anderson, who were in San Francisco while the cafe set was under construction for A Night Out, searching for a potential leading lady. Purviance was recommended to the pair, and an interview conducted at the St. Francis Hotel by Union Square. Except, maybe she was discovered when a cowboy bit part actor playing in a Broncho Billy short at the Essanay studio recalled a blonde secretary who wanted to be an actress and put her in touch with Chaplin. Or did Chaplin meet her at a reception in Los Angeles in 1914 (a photo of the Keystone crowd and Purviance in Chaplin’s own ‘My Life in Pictures’ is dated 1914) and kept her in mind for a possible future film role? All these stories, and no doubt several others, have seen print over the years as explanation of how then 19-year-old Edna Purviance came to work with Charlie Chaplin at Essanay.
Chaplin himself told the story of the accidental discovery in San Francisco, while for her part Purviance (left) claimed to have responded to the newspaper advertisement. Hundreds of girls had turned out for the audition, putting the young woman off making the attempt, so instead she visited with an acquaintance who worked at the studio instead. According to her account, she was spotted by Chaplin, who firmly pointed in her direction and exclaimed ‘That’s the type I want!’ Purviance didn’t recognise Chaplin as he was out of costume and make-up, dressed in his very different civilian guise. Chaplin asked her to co-star in his next picture, to which she claimed to have replied: ‘Why not? I’ll try anything once!’
Puirviance had been born in Nevada in 1895, where her parents had owned a hotel. She attended business college in San Francisco, and was working as a secretary in 1915 when Charlie Chaplin ‘discovered’ her. She had taken part in amateur dramatic productions in her mid-teens, but supposedly harboured no real ambitions to become an actress. This suited Chaplin fine as he, according to cameraman Rollie Tothero (quoted in Peter Ackroyd’s Charlie Chaplin) wanted an untested actress who ‘didn’t know her arse from her elbow’. That way, Chaplin could mould exactly the performance he wanted. Purviance was so successful in the role that she appeared in each of Chaplin’s subsequent films (except for One A.M.) through until 1923— an eight year period.
‘I had thought of myself as gifted,’ recalled Purviance in 1916, ‘with a little more than ordinary intelligence. After the first day in front of the camera [in A Night Out], I came to the conclusion that I was the biggest boob on Earth. Charlie was very patient with me, and after my first picture—in which I was terrible—I began to get used to the work, and although I have had occasional relapses, I am at least “camera wise” by now…’
Purviance would prove to be a good foil for Chaplin, her blonde hair contrasting nicely with his darker features, her natural on-screen warmth making up for his sometimes frosty character. She served to suggest to Chaplin that he could humanise the Tramp even more, make the audience have more sympathy for him and his plight, rather than indulging in the nonsense knockabout comedy that had been the forte of the Mack Sennett Keystone crowd. It wasn’t long before their on-screen chemistry spilled over into an off-screen real life affair. She was soon living in a hotel not far from Chaplin, and the pair generally dined together every evening. Out-takes from some of the movies made during this period seem to show a spontaneous fun-loving girl, quite distinct from the more mannered character that she would ‘perform’ on screen. Perhaps that’s exactly what Chaplin needed to ground him at this point in his increasingly tumultuous life.
William ‘Bud’ Jamison (right) plays the head waiter and jealous husband of Edna Purviance’s character in A Night Out. This would be the first of a series of appearances for the 6ft tall California-born vaudeville veteran in various Chaplin shorts. Previously he’d appeared in some of Harold Lloyd’s Lonesome Luke comedies (the part he played before perfecting his ‘glasses’ character) and in some early solo Stan Laurel comedies, before the latter’s teaming with Oliver Hardy by Hal Roach. Later in his career he’d work with the likes of the Three Stooges, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon and Charley Chase in Columbia’s sound shorts. He died in 1944.
For the film Chaplin revived his well-worn drunk act from his British vaudeville days on the stage, putting himself and Ben Turpin (in his final major appearance with Chaplin) in a version of the vaudeville staple ‘The Funny Drunks’ in what essentially a remake of The Rounders, his Keystone movie with Rosco ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle. According to Ackroyd’s Chaplin biography, so convincing were the pair during filming at the Hotel Oakland in Oakland, California that they were almost arrested for being intoxicated in public. Oddly, it might have been supposed that Chaplin’s fame across America at this point would have tipped off even the dimmest cop as to what was actually going on, making the entire tale somewhat suspect.
After a weekend in San Francisco following the shooting of the film, Chaplin returned to the studio only to discover that in his absence Anderson had begun editing the short by cutting up the actual camera negative. Chaplin was furious, tearing a strip off both Anderson and the cameraman involved in the editing, Rollie Totheroh. Chaplin wanted to cut on film, so that he could experiment with putting his shorts together: cutting the negative destroyed the original material from which he hoped to hone a precise piece of closely considered comedy. As a result of Chaplin’s complaint the studio had to install new equipment so they could develop their film on site. The incident was unfortunate, but it served two purposes. It established Chaplin’s preferred way of working early on, and brought those at Essanay’s Niles facility into line with his way of thinking, which helped improve his films. Almost as importantly, the incident led to Chaplin striking up a great personal and professional relationship with Totheroh, who would serve as Chaplin’s principal cameraman for almost the next four decades.
Roland H. Totheroh, known to all as ‘Rollie’, had been born in 1890 in San Francisco and was a former cartoonist and minor league ball player before working in cinematography at Essanay before Chaplin’s arrival. Totheroh recalled the crew’s reaction to Chaplin’s arrival, surprised to discover he was English: ‘We all thought he was a little Frenchman!’ Totheroh was once credited as being the principal cameraman on Chaplin’s Essanay shorts, but later research has suggested it was more likely that Totheroh functioned as an assistant to cinematographer Harry Ensign during this period. Totheroh, as a result of the relationship he built with Chaplin during 1915, went with the comedian when he moved on to Mutual in 1916, and worked with him right up until his death (in 1967) with his final credit being ‘photographic consultant’ on Limelight (1952).
There is much for film buffs and Chaplin enthusiasts to be grateful to Totheroh (pictured left, behind Chaplin) for. Throughout Chaplin’s career from this point onwards, Totheroh functioned as an ad-hoc Chaplin archivist and film conserver. When few people were giving any thought to film preservation beyond the short term aim of making money through nickelodeon distribution, Totheroh (perhaps as a result of his close proximity to Chaplin) viewed their work together as a form of art, worth preserving. It was actually contrary to Chaplin’s direct instructions that Totheroh kept all the out-takes from the films that the filmmaker himself initially wanted destroyed. It has been suggested that the initial impetus for this came from Totheroh’s cautious nature, with him maintaining the material as safety copies in case the original negative should ever get damaged. Totheroh’s foresight allowed the much later creation of the fascinating Kevin Brownlow three-part documentary television series Unknown Chaplin (1983) which drew heavily upon the out-takes and other material Totheroh kept safe.
In A Night Out, two drunks (Chaplin, Turpin) out on the town fall foul of a ‘French count’ (Leo White), only to encounter him once more in a restaurant, where their drunken harassment sees them ejected by a out-sized waiter (Jamison, almost in Eric Campbell mode, Chaplin’s foil in many of the Mutual comedies). The Tramp lights upon a pretty girl (Purviance) whom he tries to seduce, before discovering she’s married to the hostile waiter. He quickly moves to another hotel to escape him, but unfortunately the harassed couple plan the exact same move. The climax is a hotel room mix-up straight out of Mabel’s Strange Predicament or Caught in the Rain from the previous year.
There’s little that’s new here, over and above the Keystone versions of the same basic material, but the execution under Chaplin’s ever-more sure hand is somewhat better than his work in the previous year. Despite their personal animosity and falling out over the best method of constructing cinematic comedy, Turpin and Chaplin make a good team in A Night Out, but they don’t reach the thwarted heights once promised by Chaplin’s teaming with Arbuckle in The Rounders. In many ways, Turpin’s comic shtick is too close to Chaplin’s own to provide the kind of contrast that Arbuckle’s bulkier figure offered. However, they do spark off one another well in a near-perfect cinematic resurrection of that old vaudeville drunk routine. ‘I have since proved that I could work without him,’ Turpin would later say of his time after Chaplin. ‘I am now a star and my films make a lot of money.’ Despite his increasing fame and wealth, it seems that Chaplin was neither interested in becoming a ‘star’ per se, nor was he particularly interested in money. The challenges of creating unique and captivating film comedy were his driving force, not fame and fortune: in fact he’d find both of those things, when they were thrust upon him during 1915, to be largely troubling.
Trivia: In press interviews given upon his arrival at Essanay, Chaplin claimed his ‘highly cultivated’ mother was dead: this wasn’t true, Hannah Chaplin was resident at Peckham House hospital before moving to the Cane Hill asylum. Chaplin and his half-brother Syd were paying for her care.
The Contemporary View: ‘The film gives Chaplin full elbow room for many extraordinary antics and touches of humorous detail, and the fun romps along at top speed … Turpin makes an excellent partner, and takes many a stunning knockout blow with paralytic indifference.’—The Cinema (1915).
Slapstick: Even before anyone’s had a drink, the encounter with the ‘French count’ gets physical. Some hat trouble serves to re-acquaint them in the posh hotel. Soon Turpin’s taking a tumble (or two). The prominent fountain proves to be a well of slapstick nonsense, including the Tramps ablutions. When Turpin is tossed out, the Tramp gets familiar with the count’s lady friend. The Tramp’s cane comes in handy for retrieving his pal from the curious cop. The Tramp finds walking a drag, so Turpin lends a hand (or two). Keyhole peeping gets the Tramp’s pants wet (there’s a soda syphon involved). An unexpected reunion with the hotel’s waiter prompts a change of residence for the Tramp, although signing the register proves something of a challenge. The two pals reunion in the park quickly turns into a punch up (and a classic Keystone-style brick gag) over the room rent. The cane is anthropomorphised even more than ever before when the Tramp tucks it in for the night (one of this short’s best bits). Apparently candlestick phones don’t dispense water, nor do they make for good clothes hangers. A canine calamity brings things to a chaotic climax.
Verdict: A mash-up of some old Keystone favourites, it is clear that Chaplin is still searching for a unique signature, 2/5
Next: The Champion (11 March 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.