Released: 18 March, Essanay
Director: Charles Chaplin
Writer: Charles Chaplin
Duration: approx. 14 mins
With: Edna Purviance, Bud Jamison, Leo White, Lloyd Bacon, Margie Reiger, Fred Goodwins
Story: A purloined handbag causes trouble between various couples in the park, while the Tramp gets caught in the middle of it all…
Production: In comparison to the progress made in The Champion, In The Park really is little more than a throwaway trifle, an unfortunate throwback to the slapdash Keystone approach to film comedy. Chaplin’s effort here is slightly better structured than those earlier films (of just a year before), but it is essentially the same formula featuring a variety of characters let loose in a local park who get up to various degrees of slapstick-driven mischief. Even the stolen handbag plot recalls the earlier Twenty Minutes of Love.
In The Park, however, features a slightly more sophisticated and more developed version of the Tramp character. He doesn’t leap automatically to kicking people and tossing bricks (although both feature here) as he would have done during his Keystone incarnation. Instead, there’s some comic business with Bud Jamison’s pickpocket and the other major characters before misunderstandings over the misappropriated handbag sees their disputes turn physical. In among the brief mayhem, the Tramp makes an attempt at romance with Edna Purviance’s nursemaid, with the handbag as a lure.
There’s no doubt that In The Park was seen at Essanay as little more than a ‘quickie’, an attempt to catch up on time lost due to overruns in the making of The Champion. Although Chaplin was beginning to develop his slower, more considered approach to his work (that would see the Essanay releases reduce to one a month later in 1915), here he was still trying to adhere to an artificially imposed schedule, resulting in this Keystone throwback comedy shot in the Niles studio and on location in near-by San Francisco.
Despite the subtle progress, Chaplin’s biographer David Robinson saw some of the Tramp’s actions from In The Park as a step backwards to a more unsavoury version of the character: ‘The Tramp is here at his least ingratiating. He is not only a pickpocket, but a cad as well. Having immobilized big Bud Jamison with a brick, he uses his victim’s open mouth as an ashtray. He even makes awful grimaces behind Edna’s back.’ Peter Ackroyd cuts Chaplin a little more slack, with his interpretation of the response of the audience of 1915 to Chaplin’s antics: ‘Charlie has more poise and dash than in the Keystone comedies, however, and it is easy to understand his immense and growing popularity. Did you see what he did? What is he going to do next? His was a completely different kind of character, and the early audiences were mesmerised by his originality. They had never seen anything like it before.’
By the spring of 1915, Charlie Chaplin was well on his way to becoming a bona fide popular personality the like of which the nascent Hollywood film business had not seen before. Simon Louvish in his book The Tramp’s Odyssey noted: ‘There were even “Charlie Chaplin” girls, who wrote passionate letters and wanted to know if he was married.’ It began to look like Edna Purviance might have had some competition on her hands.
Chaplin could be seen in newspaper cartoon strips, in topical cartoons on political or social issues of the day which used the image of the Tramp to make their point, and in life-size cardboard figures posted outside nickleodeons, often with no accompanying words, to indicate that this cinema was screening Charlie Chaplin shorts. The almost uncontrolled spread of Chaplin merchandising, much of it unofficial (in that it was not endorsed or controlled by Essanay or Chaplin himself) caused the New Jersey Evening News to headline a piece on Chaplin ‘Man Who Has Made Millions Laugh Can’t Be Avoided’, highlighting the ubiquity of the comic figure of the Tramp. As Louvish notes, the merchandising of Chaplin preceded that of popular animated figures like Felix the Cat and Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse. As in so many other things in the world of cinema, Charlie Chaplin was inadvertently innovating here, too.
By the summer of 1915, the field of live Chaplin imitators was booming—so many were performing for pennies in public parks that some authorities took to holding Chaplin lookalike contests in the hope of somehow organising the situation. This lead to the longstanding myth that Chaplin himself entered such a contest, only to lose to someone else! That story can be traced back to claims by Mary Pickford reported in the press in the early-1920s. Chaplin himself never mentioned any such event, although comic actor Bob Hope is said to have won a Chaplin lookalike contest in 1915 in Cleveland. Beyond hopeful street entertainers, a spate of Chaplin imitators began appearing in their own movies, some of them later to be as famous as Chaplin under their own unique guises.
In March 1915 Essanay ran a trade advertisement warning off cinemas from screening imitation product: ‘Are you programming Charles Chaplin or a Deputy?’ asked the text. Whether these imitators were setting out to pay tribute to Chaplin’s uniqueness or whether they hoped to cash in by being mistaken for him is unclear at this distance in time. No doubt there was a mixture of motives involved: any runaway success, such as the 1915 ‘Chaplin Craze’ (as the newspapers took to calling it) always produces derivative works. A paper by Ulrich Ruedel for a Chaplin conference held by the BFI entitled ‘Send in the Clones’ noted that ‘Chaplin may indeed qualify as the most imitated character in film history.’ The plethora of ‘bogus Chaplin’ films released in the early days of his stardom would play merry havoc with later researchers attempts to construct a definitive filmography for the little Tramp.
As Glenn Mitchell pointed out in The Chaplin Encyclopedia, most of the Chaplin impersonators who suddenly appeared in Spring 1915 were cheerful amateurs not looking in any way to encroach upon his business. In fact, Chaplin and Essanay seem to have regarded such activities as not only a further indication of the phenomenal popularity of the clown but also as an effective form of free advertising for the films themselves. On stage, Stan Laurel—an old Karno colleague of Chaplin’s—was known to perform a pastiche of Chaplin in the days before his own film career took off. As Mitchell noted: ‘As Chaplin’s former understudy, Laurel had a reasonable entitlement to perform such an imitation.’ According to Chaplin biographer John McCabe, Laurel’s imitation was at least honest, being clearly promoted as such. Billed as ‘The Keystone Trio’ (pictured), Laurel appeared on stage during 1915 alongside Edgar and Wren Hurley, two more ex-Karno troupers who played versions of Mabel Normand and Chester Conklin. The act didn’t last too long, with Laurel disbanding The Keystone Trio in favour of the Stan Jefferson Trio (Jefferson being Laurel’s birth name). Chaplin was believed to have resented Laurel’s attempts (however short-lived) to cash in on his own success believing that if Laurel was to succeed he would need to develop his own character. This, of course, he would later do, but even then it was in partnership with Oliver Hardy after both had toiled alone and teamed with others in many silent movies.
Perhaps one of the most surprising Chaplin impersonators was Harold Lloyd. Working with Hal Roach, Lloyd developed a film character dubbed ‘Willie Work’ (later Lonesome Luke, pictured right) which according to Roach was ‘a definite imitation of Chaplin’. For his part, Lloyd claimed that film distributors were so keen to find the next Chaplin they refused to take on anyone who wasn’t Chaplin-like: ‘…exhibitors would hear of no departures from the Chaplin track,’ he claimed. Only a single ‘Willie Work’ short has survived, April 1915’s Just Nuts—it is in fact, Lloyd’s oldest surviving starring film. It is a standard romantic knockabout in the Keystone style, and Lloyd would go on to develop the Lonesome Luke character (where he adopted an opposite version of Chaplin’s look: tight trousers, baggy jacket, and liberally borrowed from Chaplin’s plots) and, finally, the ‘Glasses’ character which he would stick with through his successful silent career thereafter.
More troubling to Chaplin in years to come were those who took on a Chaplin-style persona for their own film characters. Perhaps the most notorious was Billy West, who’d come to the screen as a Chaplin impersonator a few years later in 1917. Born in 1892 in Russia as Roy B. Weissburg, he’d come to the United States as a child. He started life as a cartoonist, but made his first movie, Apartment #13, in 1912. He continued to perform comedy on stage, but it was the incredible popularity of Charlie Chaplin by 1917 that brought him pack to film as a pretty shameless Chaplin imitator. McCabe called what West perpetrated ‘theft of a sort quite obvious yet very hard to prove legally’.
What made West different from Laurel and some of the others imitating Chaplin on stage was the fact that Billy West was in direct competition with him in the field of movie comedy. West would directly steal Chaplin’s look and manner in around 50 individual films, many of which featured Oliver Hardy (pictured right, in his pre-Laurel and Hardy days, with West in The Hobo) as the ‘heavy’ as well as Chaplin’s one-time rep member Leo White. Charley Chase would also sometimes turn up in the movies, following his appearances opposite Chaplin during his year at Keystone. While he was no doubt making money from the venture, West was not well-regarded by the movie trade, with some of the industry newspapers printing his name in all lower case letters as if to diminish his importance.
No doubt in a side-swipe at Chaplin himself, West was billed as ‘The funniest man on Earth’, but his shorts were only ever knock-offs of the real thing in which his films directly imitated the plots and comic situations in many of Chaplin’s films some time after Chaplin had originated them. Adding injury to insult was a letter to Picture and Picturegoer magazine in 1919 which chided Chaplin for ‘always trying to imitate Billy West’! West would eventually abandon his imitation of Chaplin’s Tramp, but whether it was because he grew tired of it or because he felt he’d established his name in his own right is unclear. For his part, Chaplin never took legal action and retained that letter from the movie magazine ‘against the time he notices symptoms of acquiring a swelled head’.
There was another Billy who tasked Chaplin with his impersonations that the comic took more seriously and more personally. Billy Ritchie was a Scottish comedian born (as ‘William Hill’) in Glasgow in 1878 who’d been part of the Fred Karno vaudeville troupe almost a full decade before the likes of Charles Chaplin and Stan Laurel joined up. He was the original ‘drunk’ character in Karno’s famous ‘Mumming Birds’ sketch, and he claimed that the Chaplin Tramp costume originated there, so Charlie Chaplin was, in fact, imitating Billy Ritchie! In Hollywood, no doubt himself capitalising on the success of other Karno figures like Chaplin, Ritchie made a series of silent shorts with ex-Chaplin director Henry Lehrman’s L-KO Kompany outfit. Ritchie’s film costume was not an exact duplicate of Chaplin’s, with a frock coat and tighter trousers, as well as a broader moustache. However, his imitation was close enough to fool Swedish film censors who in 1915 believed that the newly-imported Chaplin movie The Rounders actually featured Billy Ritchie. Ritchie died in 1921 of stomach cancer, although his wife Winifred Ritchie was later employed by Chaplin as a wardrobe assistant. (Various authors, among them David Robinson and Glenn Mitchell, speculate about a possible family connection through Chaplin’s mother Hannah Hill and Billy Ritchie’s ‘William Hill’, making sense of Chaplin’s lack of legal action and subsequent employment of Winifred).
No doubt Laurel and Ritchie’s antics annoyed Chaplin, but only one film imitator led him to finally snap and sue: Mexican Charles Amador. So determined to pass himself off as ‘the Mexican Charlie Chaplin’, Amador legally changed his name to ‘Charles Aplin’. It may have been this alone that inspired Chaplin to sue. Amador’s lawyers cleverly—and accurately—argued that several other comedians on stage and on film had utilised various elements of a look and a costume that Chaplin was claiming was uniquely his long before he ever came on the scene. Chaplin, wisely, conceded all the precedents cited, but he argued that no single individual had used those elements combined in the way he did, and that this look in conjunction with his name—Charlie Chaplin—was his unique property. Citing the possibility of unfair competition and the need to protect his livelihood from imitators, Chaplin won his suit. For years afterwards, in private among friends, Chaplin would perform a routine in which he imitated his imitators in turn, pointing out the specifics that each of them had got wrong in performing the Charlie Chaplin Tramp character.
Trivia: In 1915 the Mark Hampton Company, manufacturers of Chaplin miniatures, launched a law suit against the Art Novelty Company, in an attempt to protect their $50,000 investment in the Chaplin craze.
The Contemporary View: ‘The one-and-only Charlie [Chaplin] is seen to his best advantage in this riotous farce which is as wildly funny as it is absurd. There seem to be no grey patches in his work. It is all one long scarlet scream.’—Bioscope, 20 May 1915
Slapstick: Romance in the park earns the Tramp a kick up the backside, while breaking up a fight sees him walk away with a string of sausages. His cane comes in handy for retrieving the pickpocket’s ill-gotten gains. The suitor, the Tramp, and the pickpocket get caught up in a chain of calamitous kicks, attracting the attention of the law. Punches soon turn to brick-throwing. Once everyone else is more of less knocked-out, the Tramp can get on with romancing the girl. The sudden appearance of a lake 90 seconds from the end leads to the inevitable soggy climax for several characters, but not the Tramp.
Verdict: Merely a walk in the park, better was soon to come, 2/5
Next: A Jitney Elopement (1 April 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.