By The Sea (29 April 1915)

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Released: 29 April 1915, Essanay

Director: Charles Chaplin

Writer: Charles Chaplin

Duration: approx. 14 mins (one reel)

With: Edna Purviance, Bud Jamison, Billy Armstrong, Margie Reiger, Paddy McGuire, Snub Pollard

Story: A day out at the beach proves eventful for the Tramp: two women catch his romantic eye, much to their annoyance—and that of their husbands!

Production: The first film Chaplin made upon his return to Los Angeles, By The Sea was essentially another ‘quickie’ made to make up for time invested in the making of The Tramp. As with several of Chaplin’s early Essanay shorts, this one recalls several of his Keystone efforts produced with a little more polish, and at just one reel it certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome. Where The Tramp had revealed new depths to Chaplin’s screen character with the addition of pathos, By The Sea is an unashamed knockabout comedy that reinforced his status as a master of silent pantomime: it would, however, be his final single reeler as he’d outgrown the format’s limitations.

‘By The Sea has all the appearance of having been shot in a day,’ wrote Chaplin’s biographer David Robinson, reinforcing the idea that for this rapidly produced movie Chaplin had fallen back upon Mack Sennett’s tried-and-tested Keystone approach to churning them out. ‘It’s the kind of scenario which would equally have served the commedia dell’arte or Keystone—a series of slapstick and situation variations skilfully managed within the restrictions of only nine camera set-ups,’ concluded Robinson. Glenn Mitchell, in The Chaplin Encyclopedia, described By The Sea as essentially ‘a park comedy without the trees … the impression is of an interim effort designed to maintain the public attention between the more elaborate two-reel subjects’.

Another justification for By The Sea was the need to produce a film while preparation work was being made for the Essanay Chaplin unit to move into the Bradbury Mansion, where the next film, Work, would be shot. The bulk of the filming for By The Sea took place along Ocean Front Walk and around the Abbott Kinney Pier in Santa Monica—the pier as seen in the short was destroyed by fire in 1920, so the film captured it before it was completely rebuilt in 1921. The original pier featured a roller coaster dubbed Race Thru the Clouds which was also seen in the opening scenes of the very first Chaplin short released, Kid Auto Races at Venice. The use of this location, therefore, made a somewhat fitting return to ‘home’ turf for Charlie Chaplin in 1915.

The scenes on the beach of Billy Armstrong mock-strangling Chaplin’s Tramp were filmed near the ‘Venice Plunge’, the largest saltwater bathhouse on the West coast, with the bulk of the Abbott Kinney Pier visible in the background. Further historic sights preserved in this short include the Venice Dance Pavilion, visible behind shots of Edna Purviance, along with the Ship Cafe Restaurant and the 1913 Waldorf Hotel (which still stands today) where Chaplin loses his hat in the wind. The Dance Pavilion, one of the largest dance halls on the Pacific coast, opened in June 1906 with 15,000 square foot of floorspace, more than enough to accommodate up to 800 dancers at any one time. Chaplin also flirts with Edna in Palisades Park in Santa Monica.

At the short’s opening when the Tramp treats himself to a tasty banana—only to slip on the discarded peel minutes later—he’s standing outside the Venice Diamond Cafe, part of the extensive buildings at the entrance to the pier complex. Here tourists could pick-up the so-called ‘Balloon Route’ (as on a map the route outlined a rough balloon shape) railroad ride through downtown Los Angeles to Hollywood and out to the beaches at Santa Monica and Redondo. A round trip cost $1.

While some of the Ocean Front buildings remain today, the pier featured heavily in By The Sea closed down in 1947 before burning down once again shortly thereafter. This area also appeared in Harold Lloyd’s Number Please (1920) and Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman (1928), for those hoping to see more of it. For the changing locations of many of Chaplin’s film, John Bengtson’s brilliantly illustrated book Silent Traces: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Charlie Chaplin is indispensable and is the result of much dedicated personal detective work on behalf of the author.

Featured briefly in By The Sea, as the ice cream seller, is Snub Pollard. Harry ‘Snub’ Pollard had been born in Melbourne, Australia in 1889 as Harold Fraser. Later recognised through his trademark large drooping moustache, it is possible to spot him in By The Sea (sans moustache) and in several later Chaplin shorts, including His Regeneration (a Billy Anderson short in which Chaplin only makes a cameo), Police (1915) and Triple Trouble (1915). While working at Essanay, Pollard met Hal Roach, who was also based there. ‘Snub’ would hit his stride in the 1920s in the early Harold Lloyd shorts before Roach—who’d set up himself as a producer by then—gave him his own solo series. Perhaps best known is 1923’s It’s A Gift (not to be confused with the W.C. Fields film of the same title) in which he plays a crazy inventor. Pollard would go on to enjoy a decent if not spectacular career, appearing for the Weiss Brothers in the mid-1920s in a series of knockoff Laurel and Hardy style shorts. He later played small roles in talkies, including many Westerns, Hollywood Cavalcade (1939), Miracle on 34th Street (1937) and in Man of a Thousand Faces (1957). Somewhat fittingly, his final film role was a silent part in Twist Around the Clock, made in 1962—he died that same year, aged 72.

Trivia: Chaplin’s increasing fame made it difficult for him to work extensively on location or in public places, as he does for By The Sea. Through watching the film very carefully, it is possible to spot the reflection of a group of assembled curious onlookers in a store window, while behind Chaplin and Armstrong’s strenuous thesping on the beach can be seen a sole sunbather ignoring the crew of comedians, determine they won’t ruin his day out.

The Contemporary View: ‘More irresistible absurdities by the inimitable Charles [Chaplin] … [his] humour needs neither description nor recommendation.’—Bioscope 1915.

Slapstick: Banana peel ahoy—probably the first time Chaplin’s used that hackneyed gag. Hat’s off—thank goodness for those tangled tethers. Beach bums Billy and Charlie bounce around a beachfront bench—at least all that sand makes for a soft landing every time Billy knocks Charlie down. Searching for fleas in Billy’s hair, the Tramp pre-figures a classic routine used in Chaplin’s later Limelight. Enter Edna, exit the Tramp in pursuit. Snub wants paying for the ice cream, but neither of the beach bums seems to have any liquid assets, other than the ice cream they smear on each other’s faces, then Snub’s, then a passer-by’s. While the husbands go at it, the Tramp re-encounters Edna and is even more smitten, at least until her husband returns. The Tramp and the two couples reunite on the beach for a tumbling finale.

Verdict: An entertaining—if inconsequential—trifle with some historic sights, 2/5

Next: His Regeneration (7 May 1915)

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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.

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The Tramp (11 April 1915)

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Released: 11 April 1915, Essanay

Director: Charles Chaplin

Writer: Charles Chaplin

Duration: approx. 27 mins

With: Edna Purviance, Bud Jamison, Leo White, Paddy McGuire, Lloyd Bacon, Billy Armstrong, Ernest Van Pelt

Story: The Tramp saves a farmer’s daughter from a ruffian and wins a job on the farm as a handyman. When the ruffian returns with friends, it’s up to the Tramp to save the day, and attempt to win the girl…

Production: The Tramp would be the most significant film in the development of Charlie Chaplin’s filmmaking since he first set foot in front of a camera, but before he could make his first true masterpiece he relocated to Los Angeles, abandoning Essanay’s Niles studio in Northern California. He’d essentially reshaped the studio to his exacting needs, but had inconvenienced others in the process, especially studio co-owner ‘Broncho’ Billy Anderson who was struggling to make his own films when Chaplin was monopolising the facilities. Chaplin had also, according to Peter Ackroyd, complained of Niles’ ‘backwoods atmosphere’ and he longed to get back to the city.

At the start of April 1915, Chaplin decided he would rent his own studio facilities in the Los Angeles area where he would continue to produce his films for Essanay. Initially, he took over the Bradbury Mansion at North Hill Street in Los Angeles (as seen in the later Chaplin short, Work) before settling upon Majestic Studios as his new home. The Hill Street Tunnel, near the Bradbury Mansion, was often used by silent comedians as they were able to construct partial sets of high buildings which, when shot in perspective with the city vista, appeared to show the likes of Harold Lloyd or Laurel and Hardy in great jeopardy. Hal Roach would use the Bradbury Mansion as his base for the Harold Lloyd shorts he produced between 1915 and 1920.

With the Chaplin craze in full swing by the spring of 1915, Essanay were desperate to get more ‘product’ into theatres as they feared that Chaplin’s old studio, Keystone, who had far more shorts circulating than Essanay did, would be the major benefactors of their expensive signing’s growing popularity. The problem was that Chaplin was in fact slowing down his work rate rather than increasing it. He’d produced In The Park as a ‘quickie’ to make up for the extra time he’d spent making The Champion. Similarly, after he lavished time and attention on The Tramp, which would send him off in a new direction altogether, Chaplin rapidly produced the single reel By The Sea to keep his bosses at Essanay happy. There would then be a two month gap before Chaplin had a new film on release.

The Tramp, more than any previous Chaplin short, develops the romance and pathos of the character. Shot in just 10 days, The Tramp was, according to Chaplin biographer David Robinson, ‘a staggering leap forward in its sense of structure, narrative skill, use of location and emotional range’. Set on a farm, the short has Chaplin’s Tramp working as a farm labourer (a role he repeatedly fails at—he attempts to milk a cow by pumping her tail). He fights off a gang who are planning to rob the farm and falls in love with the farmer’s daughter, played by Edna Purviance. His new-found happiness is crushed, however, when the daughter’s fiancé arrives. The Tramp despondently leaves the farm and the short ends with what would soon become Chaplin’s signature sign-off: as he walks away down a country road heading for pastures new, the screen irises in upon him, a solitary figure temporarily defeated but soon sure to bounce back.

Chaplin biographer Simon Louvish points out that the word ‘tramp’ to describe the travelling unemployed—as Chaplin’s character would definitively become from here on—first came into use towards the end of the 19th century. It was interchangeable with ‘hobo’, and in 1885 the New York state ‘Tramp Act’ defined a tramp as ‘persons who rove about from place to place begging… vagrants… who stroll over the country without lawful occupation.’ This would be the core of Chaplin’s Tramp character, moving from place to place, always struggling to do the right thing, but often losing out in both work and love.

In The Tramp, Chaplin expended great energy in getting the details right. He filmed on a real farm in Los Angeles and held extensive rehearsals to work out comedy business, much to the chagrin of his co-stars who were unused to working this way. Stan Laurel recalled Leo White telling him of the making of The Tramp: ‘He said they repeated some gags until the actors felt that if they did it one more time they’d blow their corks. He said the business of the crooks going up the ladder was done so many times and in so many variations that they just couldn’t tell what the hell all the fuss was about. That’s what made Charlie a great creator of comedy. He knew that sometimes you have to do a thing 50 times in slightly different ways until you get the very best. The difference between Charlie and all the rest of us who made comedy was that he absolutely refused to do anything but the best. To get the best he worked harder than anyone I know.’

Supposedly, Chaplin had drawn upon a real-life encounter in his creation of The Tramp. He’d met a genuine tramp on the street and invited him into a saloon for lunch, in return asking the man to tell him his life story and of his experiences on the road. For John McCabe, though, this tale of meeting inspiration upon the streets of America was ‘a little too pat, a bit too press agenty’. Wherever the inspiration came from, the approach to this film was very different from anything the comedian had produced at Keystone or so far in his tenure at Essanay.

In producing a more melancholic work, Chaplin knew he was taking ‘an awful chance’, although he felt his pubic was ready for an expansion and a deepening of the Tramp’s overall character. The slapstick knockabout fun of the past was not enough any more to keep Chaplin interested in making movies. From now on, his films would be more concerned with character and dramatic incident, while still providing plenty of laughs although in a more sophisticated form of comedy. His bosses at Essanay were not prepared for the sudden change of tone. In an article headed ‘Chaplinitis’ in a 1915 edition of Motion Picture World, Charles McGurk noted: ‘Down in the projection room at Essanay, the men who passed on [ie. approved] the picture felt a chill across their backs as the Tramp discarded his humour and became pathetic. That chill was fear.’ The Essanay executives may have felt fear witnessing Chaplin’s change of direction in The Tramp, but it seems the public were ready for it. The film was a box office hit.

As it is such an important film in Charlie Chaplin’s developing art, it is worth looking at The Tramp in some considerable detail. For the first time, Chaplin effectively mixes pathos with his trademark knockabout slapstick. Before Chaplin’s adoption of the character, tramps and vagabonds in American movies were generally the villains. They were the characters who held up trains, mugged people in the street and broke into houses when the occupiers were away. They certainly weren’t leading men, and they certainly weren’t comic characters (even allowing for the occasional comedy drunk). Chaplin was making his Tramp not only sympathetic in general, and the hero of his films, but also a figure of romantic interest for his leading lady, Edna Purviance. It was also his first film with a genuinely tragic ending.

The film opens with the Tramp entering the story alone, just as he would exit it at the film’s end. He’s hitchhiking his way across the country, but it proves a dangerous occupation as his close encounters with a couple of speeding cars demonstrate. Appearance is important to him, despite his reduced circumstances, so much so that after falling into the dirt to avoid being run over, the Tramp proceeds to dust himself down so he is presentable for anyone who might stop and offer him a lift. He even loses his lunch to another tramp as he’s too busy buffing his ragged fingernails to eat it immediately. Even after a substitute meal of grass, he is careful to clean his face and hands, as if he were at a polite society dinner party. There’s an inherent dignity to the character of Chaplin’s Tramp that many other comedy creations before this point clearly lacked. His trousers may not fit and his derby may be less than perfect, but he’s a man simply looking to make his way in the world like any other. Despite that, in each film he is a man with no past.

The first action comes when the Tramp gets his revenge on the lunch thief as he thwarts the attempt to steal money from farmer’s daughter, Edna. Although he’d like the money for himself, he likes Edna more so happily returns it. As the farm comes under a sustained assault, the Tramp—as the new farm hand—provides a haphazard defence, involving a brick wrapped in a blow-softening handkerchief. Mischievousness comes naturally to the Tramp, and he can’t resist using a pitchfork to surprise a fellow farm hand. Whether the business with the bag of flour is deliberate or accident is open to question.

The more focused recipient of the Tramp’s mischievous nature is the local clergyman, played by Billy Armstrong who’d featured in minor roles in the Chaplin shorts since His New Job. Armstrong was born in Bristol in England in 1891 and like Chaplin he started performing in vaudeville and music hall alongside a parent, in Armstrong’s case it was his father. For four years from 1910, Armstrong was part of the Fred Karno troupe touring the UK. This connection brought him straight to Chaplin when he reached the US, with The Tramp providing his first major role. He stayed with Chaplin until the end of the Essanay contract, and in 1916 was working at Keystone and then Rolin. Unfortunately, Armstrong’s film career and life were cut short by a bout of tuberculosis and he died in 1924 at the age of just 33. Armstrong’s minister provides much of the straight-forward comedy in The Tramp. The smell of dung on the Tramp’s shoes interrupts the reverend’s attempt to commune with nature, while a rotten egg spoils his prayer book.

However, there’s as much romance as comedy in The Tramp. As in A Jitney Elopement, Chaplin signifies his character’s softer side when he pulls a flower from a bush and tosses it to Edna. This is enough to signify he’s beginning to fall in love with her. He’s motivated, therefore, to help save the farm from the trio of thugs threatening it, and to do so he pretends to join them. It’s the Tramp’s warning that allows the farmer to get off a couple of early shots, although it is the Tramp who gets wounded when one of the raiders plugs him. These scenes are played out as straight drama, rather than knockabout comedy and the aftermath allows the Tramp’s love for Edna to deepen. Recovering from his leg wound, the Tramp is doted on by a grateful farmer’s daughter. He mistakes this kindness during his convalescence as an expression of love on her part. He samples a lifestyle, complete with aromatic cigar and equally pleasing whisky, that he could no doubt get used to.

There lies the centre of this tragi-comic romance. The Tramp gets a taste of a better, more pleasing life than that on the road, only to have it snatched away when Edna’s fiancé turns up. His leg is healed and Edna’s romantic attentions lie elsewhere. There’s nothing left for the heroic Tramp but to slip away, wishing the couple every happiness while inside his heart is breaking. From now on, romantic disappointment will be a core aspect of Chaplin’s depiction of the ongoing life of his ‘little fellow’. As he hits the road once more, it is with a deep sense of melancholy that is evident in his gait. However, as the familiar road welcomes him, his sagging shoulders straighten up and he gets a new spring in his step. Tomorrow is another day and will no doubt bring new adventure, opportunity and—yes—romance.

Trivia: The scene of the Tramp departing at the end of the film was shot along Niles Canyon Road, with him walking away from the studio at Niles—it would also be the last shot taken in Northern California as after this film Chaplin relocated to Los Angeles once more.

The Contemporary View: ‘When you go to see a Chaplin comedy, you know that you will get your full measure of merriment down to the last foot. [The Tramp] is as good as any of them…’—Bioscope, 1915

Slapstick: After tackling the trio of ruffians, who each have a go at getting the money from Edna, the Tramp sets himself on fire at their camp and has to put himself out at a nearby overflow pipe, much to his relief. Most of the physical abuse comes as the Tramp attempts to get to grips with farm life, using pitchforks, bricks, mallets, watering cans, buckets and other implements in ways they were not intended, causing injury and indignity to farm hands and minsters alike.

Verdict: A breakthrough, but while Chaplin’s moving in the right direction, he hasn’t quite mastered the blending of comedy and pathos, 3/5

Written by Brian J. Robb

Next: By The Sea (29 April 1915)

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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.

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A Jitney Elopement (1 April 1915)

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Released: 1 April 1915, Essanay

Director: Charles Chaplin

Writer: Charles Chaplin

Duration: approx. 26 mins

With: Edna Purviance, Bud Jamison, Leo White, Lloyd Bacon, Ernest Van Pelt

Story: As her father wants Edna to marry a wealth count, the Tramp impersonates the Count de Lime, until the real thing turns up to spoil things. Later, the Tramp takes Edna for a ride in his car, only for her father, the Count and the cops to set off in pursuit…

Production: By the time he came to make A Jitney Elopement and, especially, his next short The Tramp, Charlie Chaplin had essentially harnessed the Essanay studio machine to his own developing filmmaking needs. His fifth and sixth films released by the studio would signal a new direction and a new maturity in his filmmaking alongside a further evolution for the Tramp. They would also be the last films he produced for Essanay at the Niles studio, preferring to relocate once more to Los Angeles in Southern California.

This was the first film that would focus on developing a romance between the characters played by Chaplin and Edna Purviance (reflecting their off-screen real lives), an area that many of the subsequent films would build further upon. The whole premise of the short develops from the Tramp’s attempts to save Edna from the arranged marriage her father (Ernest Van Pelt) has contracted with Leo White’s Count.

With the Tramp impersonating a member of the aristocracy for the purposes of romance, A Jitney Elopement recalls Chaplin’s Keystone effort, Caught in a Cabaret. The difference between this and his other loose Keystone remakes that preceded it is that A Jitney Elopement uses the basic scenario but develops it far beyond anything he ever achieved at Keystone or even in his first hesitant films produced at Essanay.

The social comedy of the first reel sees Edna’s distraught would-be bride tossing a note explaining her predicament to Chaplin’s Tramp. Catching the note, Charlie takes on the guise of the Count, works his way into the household and is unwittingly wined-and-dined by the bride’s father. Only the arrival of the genuine count puts an end to the Tramp’s domestic charade. Re-encountering the trio in the park, the Tramp rescuses the bride and flees in the Count’s car, closely pursued by the cops.

While A Jitney Elopement—at least in its final section—might be regarded as an ‘action comedy’ or ‘thrill film’, thanks to the spectacular car chase, the opening section features some subtle but germane social comedy. The dinner scene sees the Tramp play the Count, and while his host (the father of his bride-to-be) believes him to be of the upper classes, he overlooks the several ‘social gaffes’ (as Peter Ackroyd dubs them) the Tramp commits. The arrival of the real count causes Ernest Van Pelt’s indulgent host to react against what the Tramp has been doing: it’s as if Chaplin is saying that class excuses everything. As long as his interloper was believed to be of the same class as his host, his actions were regarded as eccentricities. When he’s ‘unmasked’, however, such behaviour in a member of the lower classes (a tramp, indeed!) becomes completely unacceptable. Chaplin’s films always had a streak of social comment running through them, even in the more knockabout Keystone days. From here forward (and really beginning with his next short, The Tramp), Chaplin went out of his way to include such content in his art.

Ernest Van Pelt, playing Edna’s father in A Jitney Elopement, was the latest addition to the Chaplin Essanay repertory company. Born in 1883 in Kansas, Van Pelt was also an assistant director who worked with Chaplin on several shorts including In The Park (1915), in which he also played the sausage seller; Burlesque on Carmen (1916); and Police (1916). He’d also worked with Billy Anderson on a variety of his Broncho Billy shorts, and his brother Homer was also in the film business as a cameraman. Van Pelt died in 1961, aged 78.

Chaplin2015AJitneyElopement3As mentioned, A Jitney Elopement features a skilfully realised car chase, the kind of ‘speed’ comedy later more associated with Harold Lloyd primarily. A ‘jitney’, as used here and in several other silent comedy film titles, was the general name for a type of shared taxi service common prior to the 1920s in Los Angeles, with the word drawn from a slang nickname for a nickel, the cost of a ride. It came to denote any form of jalopy or old vehicle, in common with other slang phrases such as ‘flivver’ and ‘Tin Lizzie’, the latter referring specifically to a Model T Ford. Shot on location in San Francisco, the unusual car chase pre-dated Steve McQueen’s acclaimed Bullitt (1968) sequence by some six decades.

Chaplin2015AJitneyElopement4The second reel (actually, really just the final five minutes or so) features the material shot in and around San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, including shots of the dramatic still-extant (and restored) Murphy Windmill in the park’s southwest corner. This was the second of the area’s pair of windmills, built in 1905, and the working vanes seen in A Jitney Elopement were removed (or, in some accounts, simply fell off) during the 1940s. The windmill was a gift to the city from banker Samuel G. Murphy, and it was originally used to pump up to 40,000 gallons of water each day for irrigation of the park, freeing the city from costly private water suppliers. Electric pumps soon replaced this mechanism and the windmill fell into disrepair in the years after the Second World War. A long campaign for its restoration finally achieved success in 2012.

The car chase takes in shots along Ocean Beach and the Great Highway (notably unpaved back then—the three storey house visible in several shots is still standing and occupied today), before defying the laws of space and time, but using the magic of film editing, continuing in the Mission District by racing along Folsom Street past ‘Joe Holle Bicycles’. The chase ends with the cop’s car shunted off a pier and into the bay, shot at Fisherman’s Wharf with the US Customs House visible in the background.

Amid the action, Chaplin never forgets that it is character that counts. The opening of the film sees the Tramp holding a flower, suggesting the character’s softer and more emotional or caring side. This would be an image that Chaplin would repeat and develop as his filmmaking became more sophisticated, with the contrast between the freshness and vitality of a flower with the broken down aspect of the Tramp becoming one of the filmmaker’s favourite juxtapositions. Notice, also, in this sequence, Chaplin’s use, as director, of an iris out effect (a circular transition effect achieved in the film developing lab—a facility which Essanay lacked prior to Chaplin’s arrival) to emphasise the detail of the flower. Cinematic technique or clever direction or camerawork was never central to Chaplin’s comedy or Rollie Tothero’s cinematography, but they would develop the ‘iris out’ as a signature finale to many of their shorts beginning with The Tramp.

Chaplin’s increasing popularity during the first half of 1915 was further evident through the bizarre phenomenon of the Chaplin songs and dances. Being a silent comedian, Chaplin himself was not known for his singing (not until Modern Times, 1936, at any rate) and while sometimes balletic in his slapstick, dancing was not his forte either. That made it all the more strange that worldwide there should be a craze for Charlie Chaplin-inspired songs and dances.

In his vaudeville revue comedian Lupino Lane sang and performed ‘That Chaplin Walk’, whose lyrics were quoted by Chaplin biographer David Robinson:

Since Charlie Chaplin became all the craze
Everybody copies his funny old ways
They copy his hat and the curl of his hair
His moustache is something you cannot compare
They copy the way he makes love to the girls
His method really is a treat
There’s one thing ’bout Charlie they never will get
And that is the shoes on his feet, and…

[Chorus]

It doesn’t matter everywhere you go
Watch ’em coming out of any cinema show
Shuffling along, They’re acting like a rabbit
When you’ve seen Charlie Chaplin, you can’t help but get the habit
First they stumble over both their feet
Swing their sticks and look up and down the street
Fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers
All your wife’s relations and half a dozen others
In London, Paris and New York
Everybody does that Charlie Chaplin walk.

Chaplin2015AJitneyElopement5Lupino Lane was an English actor and theatre manager born in 1892 (as William Henry George Lupino) who started his performing life while still a child, billed as ‘The Little Nipper’. He worked on stage for years, before graduating to making films during 1915 in Britain. By the 1920s he was in Hollywood and worked with Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle (as had Chaplin). His biggest success, though, came with the 1937 stage musical Me and My Girl, which popularised another ‘walk’-based song, The Lambeth Walk. Perhaps the most famous member of the theatrical Lupino family was Lupino Lane’s niece, Ida Lupino, an actress and director who made her own career in Hollywood from the 1940s and 1970s in film and television.

‘That Chaplin Walk’ was just one of many Chaplin-inspired songs and dances that became popular as his fame spread throughout 1915. There was ‘The Charlie Chaplin Glide’, ‘Those Charlie Chaplin Feet’, the French ‘Charlot One-Step’ and the song ‘The Funniest Man in Pictures’, the lyrics of which (by Marguerite Kendall) included the optimistic lines ‘He tips his hat and twirls his cane/His moustache drives the girls insane’.

The plethora of Chaplin products was enough to suggest to Chaplin’s half-brother Sydney that the Chaplins themselves should be benefitting from Charlie’s fame, not these interlopers. By 1915, Sydney’s own contract at Keystone had expired, so he joined his increasingly famous brother in setting up the Charles Chaplin Music Company and the Charles Chaplin Advertising Service and devoted himself full time to managing his brother’s business affairs. Always wary of those who might exploit him, Chaplin was happy to have a trusted family member looking after his interests.

Chaplin2015AJitneyElopement6One exploitation of Chaplin’s image began in 1915, but wouldn’t really catch on for another couple of years. The Chaplins agreed for Essanay to produce a Charlie Chaplin animated cartoon as an instalment in their ongoing ‘Dreamy Dud Draws…’ series. Animator Wallace Carlson was behind ‘Dreamy Dud Draws Charlie Chaplin’ (AKA ‘Dreamy Dud Sees Charlie Chaplin’, released 18 August 1915), in which little lad Dud’s daydreams get him into all sorts of trouble. Drawing heavily on the Little Nemo series, the cartoon has Dud and his dog watching a Chaplin short in a cinema. The animated Tramp falls foul of a mule, a policeman, and a lamppost. The film ends with Dud’s father waking him up from yet another dream… Moving Picture World noted: ‘Wallace A. Carlson has reproduced the moving picture comedian in a very lifelike manner, although some of the feats that Charlie performs in this half-reel cartoon would prove rather difficult for the actor himself.’ The short was made at Essanay’s Chicago studio, where Chaplin had filmed his Essanay debut, His New Job.

While Chaplin could be seen in newspaper cartoon strips, the animated cartoon idea didn’t take off—at least not yet. Further animated Chaplin cartoons would follow in 1916, produced by Pat Sullivan and Otto Mesmer (creators of Felix the Cat). [The animated Chaplin image above is from Sullivan’s later At The Beach].

Trivia: Chaplin’s drawing upon his comedy past stretched far back beyond Keystone for one scene in A Jitney Elopement. When attempting to help himself to a bread loaf, the Tramp slices the loaf in a single long spiral cut, so producing a concertina by the time he’s finished. The gag harked back to Chaplin’s stage days in vaudeville and had—according to David Robinson—been part of Chaplin’s performance when Alf Reeves saw him on stage before recruiting him for the movies.

The Contemporary View: ‘It demonstrates the extraordinary ability of Mr. Chaplin to manufacture [two reels] of lively, knockabout comedy on a plot which is practically threadbare. He is admittedly a wonderful bag of tricks.’—The Cinema (1915).

Slapstick: The Tramp’s enthusiasm for pepper during the soup course causes a mass outbreak of sneezing. His cup of tea proves to be hot stuff… The discovery of the Tramp’s true identity sees him thrown out on his ear—or, rather, by his ear, with a kick up the backside to boot! The Tramp’s self-rolled cigarette disintegrates in his mouth, while the Count’s Top Hat makes for a handy ashtray. Their canes also prove to be effective duelling weapons. The Tramp celebrates vanquishing the Count by rolling his hat along his arm… until the cops arrive. An overenthusiastic embrace of Edna sees the pair take a tumble over a tree branch, twice. Battling with Edna’s father sees the Tramp make further acquaintance with that same branch. Several heel skids by the Tramp lead into the car chase, but only after the Tramp figures out how to start the car. An automotive ballet follows, ending in a splash down and a shy kiss.

Verdict: A film of two halves, with the spectacular car chase making up for the formulaic opening, 3/5

Next: The Tramp (11 April 1915)

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CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

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