In The Park (18 March 1915)

LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01

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.

ChaplinStanLaurel1As 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.

Chaplin2015InthePark2LloydPerhaps 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’.

Chaplin2015InThePark3WestWhat 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)

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

The Champion (11 March 1915)

Chaplin2015TheChampion1

Released: 11 March 1915, Essanay

Director: Charles Chaplin

Writer: Charles Chaplin

Duration: approx. 31 mins

With: Edna Purviance, Bud Jamison, Leo White, Lloyd Bacon, G. M. Anderson, Ben Turpin

Story: Responding to a sign declaring ‘Sparring partners wanted’, the Tramp enters the boxing ring…

Production: Charlie Chaplin’s ever increasing profile during 1915 saw him having to cope with a rather new experience: being required to give interviews as himself. Early on in this process he was simply trying to justify himself and his work, but later on he would come to see the press as a way of communicating his sometimes controversial view of the world and its woes. His position as a famous comedian across the United States (and eventually the world) gave him a platform which he could use to offer his views on politics and society: it would be a platform he would be only too happy to use, even when some of those views caused him huge amounts of trouble, leading to his eventual ‘exile’ from the US.

Chaplin took the opportunity of some of these early press interviews (many conducted during his weeks in Chicago shooting His New Job) to express worries about the expectations being placed upon him by his arrival at Essanay, especially in the light of the extravagant (to many) financial deal he’d been able to strike. ‘When a man’s been boosted to the skies, they’re apt to sit back in their seats and and say “I don’t see anything so wonderful about that chap. Nothing to make a fuss about. He’s over-rated”. But if a man’s not made, they take pride and joy in discovering him.’

According to Essanay’s studio co-chief, ‘Broncho’ Billy Anderson, it was he and not Chaplin who directed this third Essanay outing, The Champion. According to Joyce Milton’s biography of Chaplin, The Tramp, the pair swapped assignments while waiting for the new Essanay film developing lab to be set up. According to Anderson, Chaplin directed one of Anderson’s western shorts, while Anderson helmed one of Chaplin’s comedies. Anderson claimed that he filmed Chaplin as ‘a skinny prize-fighter… I had him put a horseshoe in his glove. He could hardly lift it, and then he swung at the fellow and hit himself with the horseshoe and down he went.’

There are some problems with this story. While Anderson appears in the film—he can be seen as a rather over-enthusiastic audience member during the boxing match (Ben Turpin makes his blink-and-you’ll miss it appearance in these scenes as a ringside vendor)—it seems unlikely that Chaplin would give over his hard-won right to direct his own material so soon into his Essanay run, even to the man who ran the studio in Niles, California. Chaplin certainly appears uncredited in Anderson’s short His Regeneration, so perhaps the deal was simply to appear in each other’s films, not to direct them, and Anderson was confused or later exaggerated the story. The question of who was behind the camera is important, as The Champion would turn out to be a rather significant film in the overall development of the character of the Tramp.

For his first few efforts at Essanay Chaplin seemed happy to fall back on old work, either from his time at Keystone or from his years in vaudeville amid the Fred Karno troupe. While he got to grips with working at Essanay and considered ways to develop his Tramp character successfully, Chaplin simply began by producing better versions of stories he’d done before. So it was with The Champion, the roots of which go all the way back to an old Karno music hall sketch ‘The Football Match’—in particular, the scene in which Leo White (overacting in the dated Victorian style that Chaplin himself eschewed) attempts to bribe the Tramp to throw the boxing match. Even the climatic fight owed something to another Karno favourite, ‘The Yap Yaps’.

However, more than anything, The Champion draws upon the Chaplin/Arbuckle Keystone short The Knockout in which he’d appeared in just one scene as a referee. The direction of that scene, by Charles Avery, in which Chaplin is drawn into the boxing match featuring Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle had resulted in a simple, single long shot with a locked-off camera. Chaplin knew he could improve on that, and he took the opportunity of his first few weeks at Essanay to give it a go. As Chaplin biographer David Robinson said of The Champion ‘Like other Essanay films, this seems a deliberate effort to retrieve opportunities lost at Keystone’. It was also Chaplin indulging in his personal interests, as by this time he’d become an even bigger fan of boxing often attending local prize fights with friends and members of the Essanay studio staff (the sport was still illegal in many states, so film of real matches or even comic spoofs of the same were often crowd pleasers).

There’s no doubt in this film that Chaplin’s Tramp character is just that, a vagrant living on the streets (as indicated in the opening caption). He’s not only got himself to look after though, he’s also got a trusty pet dog to care for (a scene that lays the foundation for the later classic, A Dog’s Life [1918]). The dog used here, known as Spike the Bulldog, was unfortunately struck by a car and killed mere weeks after completing this film. This was a tentative step in giving the Tramp character an emotional investment in someone or something other than himself. It starts with a dog, but would expand in later films to take in Edna Purviance as a regular love interest character and, eventually, Jackie Coogan as the titular character of The Kid in 1921.

Chancing his arm as a fighter to make some cash (if only to keep he and his dog in sausages), the Tramp is soon in the ring, having enhanced his prospects of success by stuffing a horseshoe into his glove. The final sequence of the film, running at a full six minutes, was Chaplin’s chance to make-up for the directorial failure of The Knockout. He could clearly see the potential for such a fight scenario for cinematic laughs, as he’d choreographed his turn as a referee accordingly, only for Avery to fail to capture the action properly. Now, on The Champion, Chaplin would get to do it his way. Often such sequences are spoken of in terms of choreography—and while Chaplin worked out each and every move with his partners in detail, it is a particularly apt word here as the sequence culminates in the sparring partners almost indulging in a fox trot.

Chaplin2015TheChampion2BaconFeaturing in The Champion was Lloyd Bacon, another new arrival in what was rapidly becoming Chaplin’s own rep company. Born in California in 1889, Bacon had learned the clowning trade in vaudeville, just as Chaplin had. Also like Chaplin, Bacon’s parents had been involved in show business. His earliest work (starting in 1914, the same year as Chaplin’s debut) was with Billy Anderson in his western shorts and then supporting Chaplin in a variety of Essanay films. Like several of Chaplin’s Essanay stock company, Bacon would follow the comedian when he switched to work at Mutual in 1916, with Easy Street (1917) being his final work with Chaplin.

After serving in the military during the First World War, Bacon returned to film work at Triangle in 1919, becoming a director in the early 1920s, working with Mack Sennett among others. The early 1930s saw him handling big stars in the making in dramatic subjects, such as Joan Blondell in Miss Pinkerton (1932) and James Cagney in The Picture Snatcher (1933). Musicals became a Bacon speciality, including 42nd Street (1933), Footlight Parade (1933), and Gold Diggers of 1937 (1936). He’d later direct Humphrey Bogart, George Raft, Edward G. Robinson and Cagney again in a series of late-1930s gangster pictures. He died in 1955, aged 65.

While their off-screen romance was blossoming, The Champion would be the first time Chaplin and leading lady Edna Purviance (as the trainer’s daughter) would kiss on screen—or almost. Chaplin’s Tramp suffers a bout of sudden shyness, almost as if he was aware of the watching audience (indicated by his uncharacteristic look to camera—something that Oliver Hardy would later perfect), and he holds up a beer jug behind which the kiss takes place, out of the sight of prying eyes. Otherwise, Purviance doesn’t have much to do in this short.

The character of the Tramp was subtly evolving during these first Essanay films: he not only has someone else to look after (his dog, with whom he shares his meagre food, an act that would have been uncharacteristic of the Keystone Tramp), he’s also developing romantic feelings that compare starkly with the more lustful pursuit of women in parks indulged in by his Keystone predecessor. Chaplin had discovered that he could both make his Tramp more likeable, by softening his character, and at the same time heighten the comedy of his films. Mere slapstick—while still an important element—would not dominate in the way it had when he was making films for Mack Sennett.

The Champion offers to the observant viewer a glimpse behind-the-scenes of the Essanay studio lot at Niles. The fence against which much of the training action is staged is actually the perimeter fence of the studio itself. It’s also possible throughout the film to spot shots of Essanay’s glass roofed studio stage (briefly, through a gate), the open countryside surrounding the studio, and the studio’s row of bungalows (within which Chaplin lived his first few weeks back in California) where the Tramp encounters the cop.

In Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey Simon Louvish called Essanay ‘the workshop in which the Tramp, like Geppetto’s Pinocchio, is hammered out and let loose from his strings.’ Chaplin drew upon his own childhood memories and the recent experience his three years in America had brought him to develop the Tramp further. Where the Keystone figure had been a one-dimensional force of nature, often a thoughtlessly destructive force, the new Essanay Tramp was an aspiring American, a figure who only needed that one opportunity to set him on the road to prosperity. The new Tramp was more optimistic, forward-looking, and selfless, making for a far more sympathetic figure with whom worldwide audiences could eventually identify.

By this point in his filmmaking, Chaplin wasn’t simply playing imaginary characters and situation but was sourcing his comedy in real life people and events, which he would study. ‘I know now why my comedy is good,’ Chaplin told Motion Picture magazine in March 1915. ‘I lay out my plot and study my character thoroughly. I even follow the character I am to represent for miles or sit to watch him at his work before I portray him. It is a serious study to learn characters, it is a hard study. But to make comedy a success there must be an ease, a spontaneity in the acting that cannot be associated with seriousness.’

Slapstick: Starting out as a punching bag, the Tramp is on the ropes before he learns the ropes. Aided by his horseshoe-stuffed glove, the Tramp knocks out the champ. An encounter with a policeman leaves the copper punch drunk. Training proves both injurious and intoxicating (that jug of beer helps). When swinging on the ropes, Chaplin’s Tramp shows some of the balletic poise that would come to define the character. The choreography of the climatic fight itself is a joy, with Chaplin making the most of his lithe form (in comparison with his chunkier opponent, Bud Jamison). Staged like a dance, the Tramp ducks every blow aimed his way, until he’s finally floored. The second half sees his punches make contact—although it is more often with the referee and his own face. Clinging onto his opponent as if he were a dance partner, the pair whirl around the ring until they separate and take turns knocking each other to the floor. Expected to throw the fight, the Tramp triumphs with a last-minute burst of energy, pursuing his opponent around the ring. Victory is finally sealed with a little illicit help from the Tramp’s faithful canine chum, who bites the Tramp’s opponent on the bum.

Trivia: The Champion was the last Chaplin film Ben Turpin appeared in. Part of the reason may have been down to the $50-per-week Turpin discovering that the less experienced Chaplin was being paid $1,250-per-week.

The Contemporary View: ‘For some time past rumours have been in circulation to the effect that Charlie Chaplin, the famous Essanay comedian, who is at the present time the best drawing card of all motion picture actors, had been killed while playing in one of his comedies. This report was emphatically discredited. Charlie is very much alive at the present time, producing side-splitting, multiple-reel films. Had the rumour of his death been true, not only the Essanay company, but ten million or more people who spend several hours in picture-play theatres throughout the country would have sorely felt the loss.’—Picture-Play Weekly, April 1915

Verdict: Hits home, with every punch reaching its target—the funny bone, 3/5

Next: In The Park (18 March 1915)

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