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)
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.