Chaplin Signs With Mutual (26 February 1916)


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One hundred years ago on this day, 26 February 1916, Charlie Chaplin signed his contract with the Mutual Film Company (pictured above), making him the highest paid filmmaker in America at that time. This bonus post at Chaplin: Film by Film chronicles Chaplin’s departure from Essanay at the end of 1915 and celebrates his arrival at Mutual, of which Chaplin said: ‘Fulfilling my contract with Mutual was, I suppose, the happiest period of my life.’

Departing Essanay

Although he had more creative freedom and produced fewer films, Charlie Chaplin’s dissatisfaction at Essanay almost exactly mirrored that which had driven him out the door at Keystone a year before at the end of 1914. The pressure was on for him to produce more films, faster, just at a time he was developing a more considered, and so lengthier, production process for his comedy shorts. His tentative work on a project called Life also showed his growing ambition to expand beyond two-reel comedy shorts to produce a work that was not only feature length, but also mixed pathos with comedy, a potentially lasting work that might have something to say about the human condition. It would be an ambition that would stay with him, but which he wouldn’t truly get the chance to explore for another five years at least.

From the summer of 1915 onwards, Chaplin’s feet grew increasingly itchy at Essanay. His complaints and Essanay’s George K. Spoor’s determination to make the most of Chaplin’s rising star had resulted in a revised contract in July 1915 that paid him a bonus of an additional $10,000 on top of his weekly salary of $1250 for each of the 10 two-reel comedies he committed to producing by January 1916. The first film to be counted under this new arrangement was the already completed Work (1915). By the end of the year, though, such was the slow-down in his work rate, Chaplin had only completed six in total (including Work) of the expected 10 two-reeler shorts. Essanay would later claim its actions in relation to Burlesque on Carmen, Police, and Triple Trouble (see the eBook Chaplin at Essanay: A Centenary Celebration for more on these films) was work they were entitled to under this revised contract.

By the end of 1915, Chaplin’s half-brother Sydney had also left Keystone having worked out his contract there, and was now intent on managing his brother’s burgeoning film career. The Chaplin brothers knew they would not stay with Essanay beyond the end of 1915, but the question of what Chaplin would do next was wide open.

Despite Chaplin’s clear intention to leave Essanay, Spoor was not about to let his biggest star name walk out the door without a fight, and the only way he knew of solving a problem was to throw money at it. He personally came from Chicago to Los Angeles to negotiate with Chaplin, offering the comedian $350,000 for each of 12 two-reelers to be produced during 1916. Chaplin countered with a demand he knew was outrageous: a $150,000 bonus for simply signing a new contract.

Even Spoor had his limits, and knew at that point that Essanay would face the future without Chaplin. The company struggled on for a few more years, before eventually shutting up shop by 1920. After the departure of his business partner, G. M. Anderson (who served as a mentor to Chaplin), Spoor continued to work in film, developing unsuccessful 3D and widescreen processes, before dying in Chicago in 1953. Anderson—Chaplin’s strongest supporter at Essanay—continued as an independent producer, working on Stan Laurel silent comedies among others, and lived until 1971.

Arriving at Mutual

Chaplin1916 Mutual0.1Once it was clear within the industry that Charlie Chaplin was looking for a new studio home, Sydney Chaplin was inundated with offers for his brother’s services. Many of the biggest studio names of the day expressed an interest in signing the comedian, including Universal, Triangle, Famous Players, Vitagraph, and Fox. The winning offer, however, came from John R. Freuler (pictured right with Chaplin at the signing), the President of the Mutual Film Corporation. The company was only three years old, having been formed the year that Chaplin had arrived in the US. Freuler agreed to Chaplin’s $150,000 signing bonus (Chaplin immediately signed over half the bonus to Sydney), and the deal would pay him $10,000 each week (quite an advance on Essanay’s $1250 weekly rate).

Mutual had grown from the Western Film Exchange, founded by partners Freuler, Harry E. Aitken and Roy Aitken in July 1906 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Exchange was one of many nationwide that distributed movies to nickelodeons, specializing in covering the territory of the mid-West. Forced out of operation by Thomas Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company (known as the ‘Edison Trust’), Freuler and the Aitkens switched instead to becoming a movie studio that produced their own product. They went through several names—the American Film Manufacturing Company, Majestic Film, Western Film—and amalgamated with other interests, before becoming the Mutual Film Corporation.

Before Chaplin, Mutual had produced a variety of films, including A Little Hero (1913), which starred Harold Lloyd and Chaplin’s Keystone co-star Mabel Normand; The Life of General Villa (1914), a silent biopic of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa (which starred Villa as himself and is now lost—it was the subject of the TV movie ‘…And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself’ (2003), starring Antonio Banderas); and Sweet and Low (1914), based upon a poem by Lord Alfred Tennyson.

Before singing with Mutual, Chaplin spent a welcome month in New York in early 2016 fielding offers from other studios while enjoying all that Broadway and café society had to offer. It was the first time in over a year he’d spent any time away from Edna Purviance: she had gone home to be with her family in Lovelock, Nevada until after Chaplin completed his negotiations. His trip East was his first holiday from producing films at Essanay, and his first experience of his own popularity, dubbed ‘Chaplinitis’ by the popular press.

Supposedly, a telegraph operator who mediated the cables between Chaplin and Sydney (who was already in New York negotiating with the studio heads) had leaked the star’s travelling plans to the press. Soon crowds were gathering at stations en route, waving banners to grab Chaplin’s attention. The man himself had seen nothing like it. Civil dignitaries at each stop along the way saw their chance for great publicity if they could be photographed shaking hands with Chaplin. In Amarillo, Texas, Chaplin was mobbed as he tried to eat a quiet lunch. In Kansas City, excited Chaplin fans proved themselves to be dangerous when they lined the train tracks. By the time he was due to arrive in New York, the authorities insisted Chaplin leave the train at 125th Street rather than going on to Grand Central Station, both for his own safety and for avoidance of an ‘incident’ at the station. No doubt, such unexpected public acclaim gave the comedian an even greater idea of his own worth at a crucial time.

The Historic Signing

Chaplin1916 Mutual6Mutual’s signing of Chaplin (pictured above with Mutual’s John R. Freuler) on 26 February 1916 made him the highest-paid entertainer in the world, with the contracts total worth for 1916 said to be $670,000. Mutual’s newly hired publicity man Terry Ramsaye (later author of the first substantial history of film, A Thousand and One Nights, 1926), knew the public would be fascinated by the big numbers. Writing in Mutual’s own publicity magazine, Reel Life, in March 1916, Ramsaye heralded the Chaplin signing: ‘Chaplin will receive a salary of $670,000 for his first year’s work under the contract. The total operation in forming the Chaplin producing company involved the sum of $1,530,000. This stands as the biggest operation centered about a single star in the history of the motion picture industry. … Next to the war in Europe, Chaplin is the most expensive item in contemporaneous history. Each hour that goes by brings Chaplin $77.55, and if he should need a nickel for a carfare it only takes two seconds to earn it. Mr. Chaplin will be 27-years-old on the 16th of April. He is doing reasonably well for his age.’ Breaking it down further, Chaplin’s dealt meant he’d receive over $12,880 each week, $1840 per day, and $1.27 per minute. According to Ramsaye’s publicity flim-flam, the contract between Chaplin and Mutual was over 20,000 words long. It covered one year, but it would actually take Chaplin 18 months (until 1917) to fulfill it.

The contract was signed in the Hotel Astor with much ceremony under the eyes of movie cameras and press photographers, such had been the endless interest and speculation on who would secure the comedian’s services since the beginning of 1916. Much as he was essentially shy and retiring and hated appearing in public, Chaplin felt duty bound to issue a statement on his move to Mutual.

Chaplin1916 Mutual5‘A great many people are inclined to make wide eyes at what is called my salary,’ Chaplin began (pictured right in 1916). ‘Honestly, it is a matter I do not spend too much time thinking about. Money and business are very serious matters and I have to keep my mind off them. In fact, I do not worry about money at all. It would get in the way of my work. I do not think that life is all a joke to me, but I do enjoy working on the sunny side of it. What this contract means is simply that I am in business with the worry left out and with the dividends guaranteed. It means that I am left free to be just as funny as I dare, to do the best work that is in me, and to spend my energies on the thing that the people want. I have felt for a long time that this would be my big year and this contract gives me my opportunity. There is inspiration in it.’

Unlike Keystone and Essanay, Mutual recognized the need to give Chaplin total creative freedom in order that he might produce his best work (and prove his worth under the extravagant contract they’d signed). Having decided to go ‘all in’ in the Chaplin business, it didn’t seem like too much of a leap for Mutual to agree to offer Chaplin his very own studio facility where he could work in peace producing the 12 two-reel comedies they’d contracted him for. The studio and Chaplin’s films were financed under a separate Mutual subsidiary, dubbed the Lone Star Film Corporation: guess who the ‘lone star’ of the new studio was? The physical studio space was refurbished from the previous Climax Studios at 1025 Lillian Way in Hollywood (it would later become Buster Keaton’s studio after Chaplin moved on to his own purpose built facility in 1917).

Chaplin had big plans for the year ahead, announced to the press during a stop off in Chicago as the train Twentieth Century made its way back to Los Angeles with the comedian aboard. ‘I am going to make better pictures than I did last year. I am doing my own scenarios and my own directing [he had, of course, been doing this for a while]. We’re to have a little bit more legitimate plots. I like a little story, with maybe an idea in it, not too much, not to teach anything, but some effect, like in The Bank (1915) for instance. One must consider the kiddies, not to go over their heads, and remember the grown-ups, too…’ — Brian J. Robb

Next: The Floorwalker (15 May)

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