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.
As 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.
The 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…
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.
Lupino 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.
One 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)
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.