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 ). 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.
Featuring 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)
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.