A Night in the Show (20 November 1915)

Chaplin 2015 Night in Show 3

Released: 20 November 1915, Essanay

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Writer: Charlie Chaplin

Duration: approx. 24 mins.

With: Edna Purviance, Dee Lampton, Leo White, May White, Bud Jamison

Story: A night at the theatre, disrupted by Mr Pest (in the stalls) and Mr Rowdy (in the gallery).

Production: For the 12th film in his contract with Essanay, Charlie Chaplin opted to rest his Tramp figure that he’d been developing so much in his recent run of shorts, preferring instead to fall back upon another old vaudeville routine, a trusted source which had often formed the inspiration for much of his early film work. Fred Karno’s musical hall sketch ‘Mumming Birds’ had been retitled for touring in the United States as ‘A Night in an English Music Hall’, and it was a variation on the latter title that Chaplin used for this film. Instead of the Tramp, he plays the role of ‘the inebriated swell’, another part he knew very well from countless performances touring the vaudeville stages of Britain and America before he broke into the movies.

Chaplin 2015 Night in Show 5

In developing the film version of the Karno original, Chaplin opted to take on two roles: Mr Rowdy, the drunken bum modelled on the original ‘inebriated’ swell, and Mr Pest, also drunk but tuxedo-clad, so filling the ‘swell’ part of the original character. Neither of these is truly the Tramp figure as we’ve come to know him. Mr Pest is dressed for an evening at the theatre, and Chaplin’s slicked down hair emphases his (much noted later) resemblance to Hitler (they were born just four days apart). Mr Rowdy has a bigger moustache than the Tramp, and far baggier pants, but he captures some of the earlier violent physical nature of Chaplin’s original character. The plot is extremely simple, as the two characters Chaplin plays wreak havoc during a vaudeville performance. In this respect, A Night in the Show is perhaps a step back from the detailed character work Chaplin had been doing with his role as the Tramp.

As a fairly faithful filmed version of the Karno sketch, A Night in the Show serves the useful purpose of preserving something of the original vaudeville act. Arguably, though, we don’t see enough of the other (rather terrible) acts on stage, just glimpses of a rotund belly dancer, the comedy singing team of Dot and Dash, a snake charmer, and a fire-eater—all of whom have to struggle on with their performances while Chaplin causes havoc out in the stalls and then on the stage itself. According to Chaplin biographer David Robinson, it was surprising that Chaplin made no formal arrangement with Karno to adapt the material, especially as the old showman was known to jealously guard his intellectual property. Robinson notes that Chaplin expanded the original adding new business that takes place in both the auditorium and the foyer of the theatre, and this may have been enough to distinguish Chaplin’s work from that of Karno (although the remainder is a very faithful version of ‘Mumming Birds’ nonetheless).

It was Chaplin’s performance in the original Karno show that had brought him to the attention of Mack Sennett’s scouts looking for new film talent, so this short was perhaps Chaplin’s attempt to preserve something of the performance that had brought him to film, fame, and fortune in America. Chaplin’s drunk act was justifiably famous, and this short features one of the best examples. As Mr Pest (he’s the main character, with Mr Rowdy little more than a sideshow), he manages to entangle himself with almost everyone else in the vaudeville theatre, from the moment he enters.

A Night in the Show is essentially plotless, comprising a series of simple situations in which Chaplin’s two characters contribute to the spreading of chaos while the performers on stage attempt to get through their routines unscathed (the fire-eater is hosed off, a gag re-used much later in A King on New York, 1957). The well-turned-out Mr Pest is drunk, so seems confused about where he is and what’s going on. From striking his match on an orchestra member’s head to sitting on someone else’s top hat, Mr Pest lives up to his name. When not flirting with the nearest married woman, he’s throwing pies at the performers.

Beyond the silliness, Chaplin is perhaps here making a point about class. As Mr Pest appears well off—he’s dressed in elegant evening clothes and his hair is slicked back—so his antics are tolerated by those around him in a way they would not be if the exact same behaviour had been carried out by his usual Tramp character. This harks back to previous shorts, such as A Jitney Elopement, in which he touched on class difference and sets the stage for later projects like The Count and The Adventurer at Mutual.

Chaplin’s other character is the boorish Mr Rowdy, located in the balcony above the stalls. He spends much time throwing things around, and it is Rowdy who eventually unleashes the fire hose upon the fire-eater. Despite attempting to hide behind a large, theatrical moustache, it is likely that 1915 audiences would have spotted that it was Chaplin playing this larger-than-life second role.

Chaplin 2015 Night in Show 4

The one who loses out most in A Night in the Show is Chaplin’s leading lady (on and off stage), Edna Purviance. She is the married woman whom Mr Pest flirts with, and that’s all she gets to do in the film. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her bit, and more could easily have been done with it building upon the pair’s obvious natural chemistry. Perhaps, though, that wasn’t something Chaplin was keen on—the more he got involved with Purviance in real life, the less he seemed to want to feature her in his ‘reel life’ in the film business.

Chaplin would later build upon his dual roles in A Night in Show by repeating the trick to even greater effect in later films The Idle Class (1921) and, most effectively and expansively, The Great Dictator (1940). Drunks, of course, were Chaplin’s stock-in-trade, and would be seen again in The Idle Class and One A.M. (perhaps the pinnacle of his ‘drunk act’ on film).

Chaplin may have been keen to stretch himself beyond the role of the Tramp, even though it was evident from audiences that it was the Tramp they wanted to see. He’d become trapped by the part, and would (with a few exceptions) play it in all of his subsequent films until his later features. The Mutual shorts would allow him to consolidate and perfect the character, while the United Artists features would allow a more in-depth exploration of the ‘little fellow’. However, Chaplin the artist didn’t perhaps achieve proper satisfaction until after The Great Dictator (1940), when he could play other non-Tramp roles in feature films such as in Monsieur Verdoux (1947), in his homage to long-gone vaudeville in Limelight (1952), and in his British film (made in exile from the United States), A King on New York (1957).

Chaplin 2015 Night in Show 1

By the end of 1915, Charlie Chaplin was arguably the most famous man in the world. Not just the most famous movie star, but also the most famous person. Each new film—and the wait between movies was becoming increasingly longer—was greeted with whoops of joy and applause from ecstatic audiences. The noise, of laughter and clapping, would continue right through the performance, sometimes drowning out the piano musical accompaniment. Charlie Chaplin songs were being sung far and wide, and his image was reaching remote outposts where English was not spoken (not a requirement, as the films were perfectly understandable even without the few inter-title cards used). According to Peter Ackroyd, Chaplin was a figure of fun in Puerto Rico, while in Ghana ‘Fanti savages from Ashanti lands, up-country Kroo boys … Haussas from the north of Nigeria’ all greeted Chaplin with cries of ‘Charlee’ (as reported in The New York Times in 1915).

The merchandising of Chaplin’s image was in full swing as 1915 drew to a close, with dolls, figurines, hats and ties, playing cards, badges and statues widely available. The Tramp character featured in newspaper comic strip series, and the animated cartoon character of Felix the Cat owed more than a little to the antics of the Tramp. There was no escaping Chaplin if you went anywhere near a cinema, where life-size cut out figures and movie posters declared the little Tramp’s presence on the big screen. On stage, you wouldn’t see Chaplin but you could see several prominent imitators (who were also starting to appear on film, much to Chaplin’s understandable fury).

With the ‘great war’ of 1914-1918 underway in Europe, the injured would often recuperate in hospital wards that projected Chaplin’s films as part of the rehabilitation process. It would be a while before Chaplin himself took on the subject of the First World War, most prominently in Shoulder Arms in 1918—he steered clear of the subject as he wasn’t sure it was suitable for humour, but also because his perceived non-participation had brought him great criticism.

One reason Chaplin may have fallen back on reprising an old vaudeville number for A Night in the Show was because he was getting itchy feet once more. As before at Keystone, Chaplin was feeling constrained by Essanay. Although he had a lot of freedom, there was pressure on him to produce more shorts ever quicker, while his developing work habits were taking him in the opposite direction: fewer shorts, but much more thought out in more depth, better character development and better comedy business. It was where his work immediately prior to A Night in Show was heading, and he wanted to work with a management that would give him the time, space, and resources to further develop his art. It was evident that this would not happen at Essanay, and his time with the company was coming to a close.

Trivia: In 1915, it was estimated that Charlie Chaplin’s worldwide audience totalled an astonishing 300 million people of all nationalities speaking a variety of languages. Of his amazing fame, Chaplin said: ‘I am known in parts of the world by people who have never heard of Jesus Christ.’

The Contemporary View: ‘Chaplin loses the rails again by reason of no story … still he is funny. When they showed me this … at times decidedly unpleasant visual narrative, I punctuated it with ribald shouts. I couldn’t help roaring!’—Julia Johnson, Photoplay (1915).

Slapstick: While Mr pest waits patiently behind a statue for a ticket, Mr Rowdy almost takes the first of many near tumbles from the gallery. Seating confusion follows, then a trombone makes for a handy ashtray. A gallery of grotesques in the tiny orchestra pit entrances Mr Pest, leading to conflict with the conductor (and the audience). A latecomer is tipped into the fountain by Mr Pest, who then engages in an arm rest battle with his neighbour. In the gallery, Mr Rowdy pops open a bottle, showering all around (and below) him with the contents. Mr Pest switches seats again, at the cost of two Toppers. There’s more hat trouble when a woman with a giant feathered headpiece positions herself in front of Mr Pest—her feathers are soon plucked. A collision on stage sees Mr Pest come to the rescue. The arrival of a fat boy and his custard pie in Mr Pest’s box leads to… well, you know how that ends (a first for Chaplin?)! Escaped snakes cause new havoc in the orchestra pit and beyond. A firey climax and Mr Rowdy’s hand hose brings down the curtain on the show—even an umbrella can’t save Mr Pest.

Verdict: Standard stuff that was old even 100 years ago, 2/5

Next: Burlesque on Carmen (18 December 1915)

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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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Shanghaied (4 October 1915)


Released: 4 October 1915, Essanay

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Writer: Charlie Chaplin

Duration: approx. 28 mins.

With: Edna Purviance, Billy Armstrong, Carl Stockdale, Leo White, Wesley Ruggles, Paddy McGuire, Fred Goodwins, Bud Jamison

Story: The Tramp is all at sea as he is caught up in a plot to scuttle a ship, is then shanghaied, and pursues the ship owner’s daughter.

Production: One of Charlie Chaplin’s key ways of working in making his films was to settle first upon a setting for the action of each short, then the characters and comedy would follow from that. The idea of setting a comedy upon a boat was not exactly new, but Chaplin could see the many comic possibilities for his Tramp character that such a scenario suggested. He may not have been so happy to embark upon such an endeavour if he’d known the trouble he’d get into trying to make the film.

In Shanghaied the Tramp has found himself a girlfriend (Edna Purviance, inevitably), but her unscrupulous ship-owner father (Wesley Ruggles) disapproves of Charlie and sends him packing. Unusually, this film starts with the Tramp losing the girl, the moment where a handful of his most recent films have tended to end (as in The Bank). Edna’s father has also directed one of his crew to ‘shanghai’ some extra sailors: in 1915, the same year this short was made, this practice (essentially kidnapping people to serve as sailors, either by force or deception) was outlawed in the US, although the rise of steam-powered ships had reduced the need for it. News coverage of this may have inspired Chaplin in creating his film.

Chaplin goes for broke in these early scenes, playing his enforced separation from Edna as melodramatic tragedy in the style popular in movies at the time. When he’s hired to help grab some unsuspecting sailors to serve aboard the ship, Chaplin again maximises the comic potential of the scenario. While the ship’s mate entices would-be sailors with the offer of a drink, the Tramp pops out of hiding in a nearby barrel to bop each of them on the head with a mallet. Finally, that old standby prop of silent comedy, the mallet, is put to use in a way that actually justifies its inclusion! His mistake comes when he accidentally knocks out the Captain himself. The Tramp is paid off, but then falls foul of the same unethical recruitment technique himself when he’s knocked out and shanghaied for ship-board services.

Chaplin2015ShanghaeidPosterThe majority of the action on Shanghaied takes place aboard ship. Roused by his new crew, the Tramp is put to work under threat of physical violence. He tangles with a cabin boy, grapples with a cargo hook, and finally—now in a sloppy sailor uniform—serves soup from the galley kitchen. Each of these sequences consists of well thought through and developed comedy slapstick, with Chaplin pushing the boat out (ahem) to make sure he doesn’t miss a comedy trick.

More than before, editing is of prime importance in making Chaplin’s comedy work. Chaplin is beginning to master close-ups, previously used so well to get across the emotional moments in The Bank. There are more of these moments during Shanghaied, as well as some fast cutting in the ‘action’ scenes that help sell the mishap comedy of the situations the Tramp finds himself in when all at sea.

Motion Picture World (in the September 25, 1915 edition) reported upon some of the difficulties Chaplin and his crew faced filming onboard a real ship. The schooner Vaquero had been rented by Chaplin for use in the film, but no sooner had shooting started than the ship broke one of its drive shafts. The cast and crew were essentially stranded at sea, with the nearest craft able to rescue them over five miles away. Chaplin, Edna Purviance and the others faced a night stuck aboard ship, with no supplies including fresh water or any food—and a storm was rapidly approaching. Determined to solve the problem, Essanay producer Jesse Robbins commandeered a rowboat and took off, along with another crew member named Lou Trimbly, to get help. However, in circumstances that might have seemed like something straight out of a Chaplin comedy, their rowboat capsized. The unfunny bit involved the pair nearly drowning. According to the report, a wireless station in Venice Beach attempted to contact the ship, but the schooner had no wireless aboard. Instead, they eventually fell back upon the tried and trusted method for long distance communication: semaphore. The ship was soon in contact with the shore, with Chaplin (or someone on the boat who knew semaphore) supposedly sending back the message ‘Help! We’re starving and thirsty!’ Motion Picture World reports a happy ending to the whole escapade when those trapped on the Vaquero were rescued.

The making of Shanghaied certainly threw up some technical challenges. Shooting on the boat was fine for verisimilitude, but with the camera locked to the boat, when the boat rocked so did the camera. This meant the accepted exaggerated swaying to-and-fro that would be central to much of the comedy could not be achieved easily. The solution was developed by cameraman Harry Ensign. He developed a pivot connected to a heavy counterweight upon which the camera was mounted. This effectively simulated the rocking motion that filmgoers would expect to see, although the sea and horizon inevitably remained stable in relation to the boat.

Chaplin2015ShanghaeidBookletIn addition, Chaplin had an extra prop cabin built by his stagehands on rockers, so that it could physically swing back-and-forward, essential to recreating the inside of a storm-wracked ship, matching the onboard shots in the studio. He’d employ a similar technique in creating the tottering cabin in The Gold Rush (1925). Chaplin would also end his career with a film set aboard ship with A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), but in between he’d return to a setting at sea for much of The Immigrant (1917).

By the time Edna has stowed away on the boat (and her father sets off in hot pursuit in a motor boat), the Tramp—now in his new sailor suit guise—has been reassigned to work in the ship’s kitchen. The preparation of food was always a reliable source of gags for Chaplin, made doubly so by the difficulty of cooking at sea on a rocking ship (although these scenes were created in the studio on the innovative rocking set cabin). The Tramp decides the chef’s soup is ideal for washing up some dirty dishes in, no doubt simply adding to its unique flavour. Attempting to deliver a tray of food to the Captain, the Tramp is rocked from side to side of the boat, tumbling and falling head-over-heels, all the while not dropping the tray. This was an elaboration of a bit Chaplin had tried out in Dough and Dynamite (1914) and would finally perfect in his role as a troubled waiter in his masterpiece, Modern Times (1936). Even here, a little rougher around the edges, in Shanghaied it is a virtuoso moment.

Edna’s father, the ship’s owner, finally catches up with the boat just as the Tramp discovers the stowaway Edna hiding in the hold encased in an old sack. Together they dispose of the dynamite, saving the ship from being destroyed. After being dunked at sea, the Tramp climbs back aboard the small boat only to knock Edna’s father into the drink. Wesley Ruggles was a recent addition to the Chaplin stock company at Essanay (he’d first appeared in The Bank), but Shanghaied gave him a prominent role as Edna’s father (in ridiculous whiskers) who both disapproves of her relationship with Charlie and is planning on scuppering his own boat for the insurance. Ruggles, born in 1889 in Los Angeles, was a character actor who’d previously worked at Keystone but had somehow contrived to avoid appearing in any of Chaplin’s initial run of shorts in 1914. He’d go on to appear alongside Chaplin in A Night in Show, Carmen, and Police, and may have appeared in a couple of the later Mutual shorts (there are questions over the identification of the actor in Behind the Screen and The Pawnshop).

Ruggles became a director at Vitagraph, just before the final stages of the First World War (then known as ‘The Great War’) which saw him in service as an Army Signals Corp cameraman. He returned to directing, later making a success in ‘talking pictures’ such as the Western Cimarron (1930), the Clark Gable and Carole Lombard team-up No Man of Her Own (1932), the Mae West vehicle I’m No Angel (1933), and True Confessions (1937). His final role in film was as director of the British-made colour musical (the country’s first) London Town (1946), one of the biggest commercial failures in cinema up to that point. Ruggles was out of his depth, both in making a British subject and a musical (which he had no experience of; his being an American seemed to have been convincing enough to the film’s producers). Ruggles retired as a director, although he continued producing including on the TV documentary The Incredible World of James Bond (1965). He died in Santa Monica in 1972, aged 82.

Of Shanghaied, Peter Ackroyd wrote: ‘The film is notable for the display of Charlie’s graceful acrobatics in the face of overwhelming difficulties. He dances a hornpipe on a wildly swaying deck, and even manages a complete somersault while carrying a tray of plates. His Karno training was still invaluable.’ Equally, Simon Louvish noted: ‘The main virtue of the film is a series of ludicrous scenes of cooking, eating and getting along in high winds, as the ship yaws madly from side to side.’

The acrobatic artistry of Charlie Chaplin would only increase from here…

Trivia: Ever the businessman, Chaplin and his half-brother Sydney negotiated new terms of trade with the exhibitors for the Chaplin shorts released through Essanay. As Chaplin wrote in his memoir My Autobiography: ‘It did not seem fair that exhibitors would make all the money. Even though Essanay were selling hundreds of copies of my films they were selling them along old-fashioned lines of distribution. Sydney suggested scaling the larger theatres according to their seating capacity. With this plan each film could increase the receipts to a hundred thousand dollars or more. … Later, the Motion Picture Herald announced that the Essanay Company had discarded its old method of selling and, as Sydney suggested, was scaling its terms according to the seating capacity of a theatre…’

The Contemporary View: ‘This picture is actually funny in the sense that it would cause anyone to laugh without offending. That’s odd for a Chaplin, and through it Shanghaied is doubly amusing.’—Variety, 1915

Slapstick: A recalcitrant garden gate comes between the Tramp and Edna. Handy with a mallet, the Tramp soon bags three unwilling shipmates, then for good measure tries his technique on the Captain. He’s then bopped on the head himself and added to the total. Put to work, the Tramp finds the deck a little slippy and those barrels hard to keep a hold of. Helping with a cargo hook, the Tramp flattens the Captain under some fully-packed sacks, before hoisting him aloft on the same hook. His hand signalling leads to the dunking of a couple of sailors overboard. Many more follow, while the Tramp himself somehow contrives to stay aboard ship… Washing up below decks proves to be something of a smashing time. Souper! A hambone hornpipe allows Chaplin to show off his balletic moves, after a kerfuffle with the chef. A tumble with a tray leads to better balancing as the Tramp takes a terrible tumble (or two) himself. Look out for that sack: it’s got Edna inside! What’s good enough for the goose—soon the Tramp’s given himself the sack. Edna and the Tramp dispose of the dynamite overboard, blowing the Captain up with his own explosives.

Verdict: The swaying camera might make you seasick, but the trick with the tray makes it all worthwhile, 3/5

Next: A Night in Show (15 November 1915)

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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 Bank (9 August 1915)


Released: 9 August 1915, Essanay

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Writer: Charlie Chaplin

Duration: approx. 25 mins.

With: Charles Inslee, Carl Stockdale, Edna Purviance, Leo White, Fred Goodwins, Billy Armstrong, Lloyd Bacon

Story: Bank janitor Charlie gets involved in a romantic entanglement, then day-dreams he heroically sees off a group of would-be bank robbers.

Production: Having produced two films—Work in June and A Woman in July—after a long break, Charlie Chaplin appeared to be settling into a regular release schedule, issuing a new short on a monthly basis. This would be maintained with The Bank in August 1915, but just as his work was reaching new heights with this short, Chaplin was about to take another lengthy hiatus. There’d be no new shorts released until Shanghaied in early October.

Chaplin had shown the capacity within his Tramp character (a figure he was coming more and more to regard as the ‘Little Fellow’ or an everyman archetype) for unexpected pathos in his short The Tramp, released back in April. His subsequent short Work had seen him develop serious themes within his storytelling, while the following film A Woman had allowed Chaplin to have some fun exploring his feminine side. None had really adequately built on the expansion of the character seen in The Tramp, although it had been an issue Chaplin had been wrestling with in between moving studios, twice. Now, with The Bank he had a thematically serious storyline that also allowed for him to bring new depths to the ever-evolving character of the Tramp.

As usual, Chaplin’s Tramp has found a lowly form of no doubt temporary employment as the lowly caretaker at a large bank. He’s fallen in love with the boss’s secretary (Edna Purviance), although she has barely noticed him, due to a mis-reading of a note she intends for the cashier. The only way he seems able to both catch her attention and act out a heroic adventure is in his idle day dreams, echoing ‘Jimmy the Fearless’, a well-travelled vaudeville stage comedy Chaplin had played in a few years earlier, mixed with echoes of his old Keystone short, The New Janitor.

The opening sequence is an example of masterful comic misdirection. The indications are that the Tramp has made something of himself at last as he enters a big city bank building, almost but not quite as if he owns the place. He confidently makes his way down into the vaults where he is confronted by a massive safe. Surely only someone of great importantance would know the combination to such as safe, as Charlie seems to. As he opens the door he pulls out… a bucket, a mop, and his janitor’s uniform. Knowing a good joke when he saw one, Chaplin re-used the safe gag a year later in The Pawnshop (1916), this time retrieving his lunch.

There follows a singular scene in The Bank that demonstrates how Chaplin was now thinking about his developing character. As Edna’s secretary carelessly and unthinkingly tosses away the flowers he has specifically left for her, Chaplin the director affords the Tramp a close shot which shows a series of emotions crossing his expressive face. In that one shot the Tramp appears confused by her actions, even disbelieving, before he is overtaken by an involuntary expression akin to grief. Chaplin biographer Peter Ackroyd called this one shot ‘…one of the most memorable moments of [Chaplin’s] career. His is a bleak and frightened face, wide-eyed and distraught. It is the moment when he imagines what it is to be betrayed by a woman whom he adores.’ Ackroyd goes on (in a form of cod philosophy I tend to resist) to source this emotional expression of female betrayal deep in Chaplin’s childhood and effectively sources it as his expression of disappointment in his own troubled mother, Hannah. In contrast, writer John McCabe saw in this moment in The Bank the birth of a word that would define the work that was to come: ‘[In The Bank] the situation is poignant and it is funny; it is, to use a word that now means both of those things together, Chaplinesque.’

Flowers as a motif would become central to the pathos Chaplin would henceforth build into his comedy. We’ve already seen the Tramp associating a flower with romance at the start of A Jitney Elopement, while in The Tramp he is intending to give Edna a flower as a token of his love, but is too shy and instead throws it away (into a milk bucket). The Bank is the first time, though, that flowers are seen to be used in this way in an extended sequence, recurring twice through the film. Later films continued the motif. In Sunnyside (1919) as the Tramp spies on Edna he absentmindedly pulls the petals from a daisy, and in the dream world featured in The Kid (1921), flowers abound. According to critic Gerald Mast, for Chaplin ‘flowers become surrogates for the real human beauty [the Tramp] wants to possess, he can at least hold a flower, if not the lady for whom it is intended.’ The pinnacle of this use of flowers in dramatic gestures would come in City Lights (1931), in which the object of his affection is a blind flower seller (Virginia Cherrill). He buys flowers from her at the start of the film and again at the climax, when it is revealed through this act that he has been her benefactor. Images of flowers recur throughout City Lights—such as during the scenes where he rescues the would-be suicide by the quayside—and provide the central metaphor for femininity as perceived by Chaplin. In these earlier films we see the first sketches for ideas he would more fully develop later in his features, including The Gold Rush (1925) in which prospector Charlie keeps Georgia Hale’s rose under his pillow and even Monsieur Verdoux (1947), where the romantic assassin sends flowers to his prospective victims.

Charlie awakens from his dream of success to discover he’s caressing his mop rather than Edna, as he’s imagined. As he bins the rejected flowers with a swift kick of his heel, the Tramp pulls himself back together and wanders off as the camera irises in. According to Chaplin’s pre-eminent biographer David Robinson: ‘It was from this time that the serious critics and audiences began to discover what the common public had long ago recognised, that Chaplin was not like anyone else before him.’

In a more high-faluting comparison, writer Robert Payne in his book The Great Charlie in 1952 compared the Tramp’s ‘deadpan’ face to ‘the Great God Pan … the divine prince of knaves and liars … the high and presiding genius of sensuality who is also the mocker of sensuality … the eternal wanderer on the high cliffs of the mind … the spirit of licence in a trammelled world.’ That was quite a litany for one ‘mere’ comedian to live up to, but as Simon Louvish points out, Chaplin’s use of the close up to convey inner emotion was simply Chaplin building upon the cinematic innovations of others, contributing his own input to the developing art of cinema. ‘By using the straight-forward close-up to convey his inner thoughts Chaplin was not reinventing the wheel,’ wrote Louvish in Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey. ‘[But he was] utilizing a dramatic trope that was unusual in comedy.’ Earlier that year in February 1915, cinematic innovator D. W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation had been released, revealing alike to audiences and filmmakers such as Chaplin new techniques in editing, cross-cutting, the direction of actors and the use of close-ups. As Louvish notes: ‘Everyone was learning from Griffith, but no-one more than Chaplin understood the potential power of the apparently unmoving close-up.’

Once again, The Bank was shot in and around some key locations in Los Angeles. The building that houses the bank itself was the Trinity Auditorium, located at 851 South Grand Street in Downtown Los Angeles, as revealed by author John Bengtson in his book Silent Traces. It was an unusual building, with the first three stories housing not a bank but a church, while the upper six stories featured men’s dormitories consisting of 330 rooms. Essentially a site for self-improvement run by the church, the building included a rooftop garden and any manner of facilities from a barber shop to a library. It opened just a year before Chaplin used it as the site of his bank, and it was often used in the 1930s as a venue for jazz concerts. More recently, it has been converted into a high end hotel. The interiors for The Bank were shot on sets constructed at Chaplin’s rented facility at the Majestic Studio, although as was often the convention in silent film many of these supposedly ‘interior’ sets were actually built on open air stages to make better use of the Los Angeles light.

While he was developing more depth for his own character, Chaplin wasn’t sacrificing the comedy in his shorts to do so. As well as the opening gag, there’s a classic moment when asked to post a letter, Chaplin’s Tramp assess a bank customer as though he is ill, enticing him to stick out his tongue, so allowing the Tramp to wet the stamp he needs to stick on the letter. The same letter won’t fit in the mail slot, so the Tramp’s innovative solution is simply to tear it into three pieces and post each one individually. Of course, as he’s a janitor with a mop, there is plenty of opportunity to use that as a comic prop.

Even before the dream sequence in which the Tramp thwarts the would-be bank robbers, the audience’s sympathy is firmly with him. This version of Chaplin’s Tramp is not the violent imp from the earliest Keystone films. He’s a prankster, but he means no real harm to anyone, and is in fact keen to improve his lot. Naturally, he’d like to do this without actually engaging in any real hard work—and that probably appealed to a lot of his contemporary 1915 audience. More and more, though, as Chaplin developed his cinematic art during his time with Essanay, the Tramp is focused on romance, matters of the heart and eternal heartbreak as his romantic yearnings are very rarely fulfilled.

It is significant, given the character development in this short, that for the first time the image of Chaplin used in posters to promote The Bank was not one that suggested simple comedy. The head-and-shoulders image of the Tramp is one that contains emotion, although whether sorrow or anger is not instantly clear (alternatively, he could just be getting ready to sneeze!). It was an indication that for this particular short, and more widely indeed, that Charlie Chaplin was no longer just about the laughs. He was now promising stronger comedy rooted in distinctive character.

The original release of The Bank was delayed by a week, giving rise to speculation that Chaplin had either produced a stinker of a movie, or one that was too vulgar (in line with recent criticisms made of his work) to release. Instead, The Bank proved to be the first film to show Chaplin’s new direction, as explained by actor Fred Goodwins in a letter to Britain’s Pictures and the Picturegoer magazine that was published at the time: ‘Charlie’s new line of work [is] the dramatic-comedy … so much adverse criticism has cropped up among the public of the USA (which is inclined to be very Puritanical) about some of the “naughty” little incidents in certain of Charlie’s comedies, that he has decided to turn his attention to a much more legitimate line of work—dramatic stories in which he, in comedy vein, pulls off all the rescues, the traps, the thieves, and so on…’

In The Bank, the optimistic dreamer of Chaplin’s more mature work made his first tentative appearance, providing a pointer to the future of the ‘Little Fellow’.

Trivia: Playing both the bald cashier and the robber wearing the derby hat, actor Fred Goodwins recalled working with Chaplin on the robbery dream sequence. ‘We had a scene in the vault,’ he told Pearson’s Weekly, ‘a burglary, with a creeping, noiseless entrance. All the time Chaplin sat beside the cameraman, whispering, almost inaudibly, “Hush. Gently boys: they’ll hear us upstairs!” It is infectious, it gets into the actors’ systems, and so “gets over” on the screen.’

The Contemporary View: ‘It’s the most legitimate comedy film Chaplin has played in many a long day, perhaps since he’s been in pictures. While there were no boisterous guffaws from upstairs [the balcony] that his slapstick would have pulled, the use of clearer material brought some enjoyment to the entire house, also left a better impression.’—Variety, 1915.

Slapstick: The first of many mop-tastic ‘accidents’ sees the janitor dip his wet mop into a gentleman’s top hat. In moving the waste paper basket, the janitor turns litterbug, making more mess than he’d cleaned up. Smartly dressed Edna provides such a distraction that the janitor hits himself in the face with his mop. The foot-in-a-bucket gag may seem old now but… yeah, it was old even then. Romantic disappointment leads to day-dreaming, and an action-packed robbery thwarted. While Edna’s boyfriend makes himself scarce, Charlie’s janitor saves the day—shame it’s all just a dream.

Verdict: Anticipating the more sophisticated Mutual shorts of 1916, The Bank shows Chaplin’s evolution as an artist, 3/5

Next: Shanghaied (4 October 1915)

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A Woman (12 July 1915)


Released: 12 July 1915, Essanay

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Writer: Charlie Chaplin

Duration: approx. 26 mins.

With: Charles Insley, Marta Golden, Edna Purviance, Billy Armstrong, Leo White, Margie Reiger

Story: The Tramp meets Edna and her parents in a park and later (for reasons too complicated to summarise) has to dress as a woman to fool her father!

Production: A Woman—the last of a trio of Charlie Chaplin comedies in which he cross-dresses—was clearly the most successful. His previous comedic turns in a dress included both A Busy Day and The Masquerader, but it is only in this film that he seriously attempts to convince the viewer as a bonafide female impersonator.

According to critic Walter Kerr, one of Chaplin’s key attributes was that of impersonation: ‘The secret of Chaplin as a character is that he can be anyone. … the man who can with the flick of a finger or the blink of an eyelash, instantly transform himself into absolutely anyone is a man who, in his heart, must remain no one. Infinitely adaptable, Chaplin now has no one identity to embrace. [He has] no limitations.’

Perhaps his turns in both A Busy Day and The Masquerader had shown Chaplin he did have some limitations in at least one department. Admittedly, in A Busy Day he was barely trying to convince anyone he was really a female character: it was just Charlie/the Tramp in a dress, essentially. It was slightly different with the set-up of The Masquerader, where the Tramp does set out to convince the motion picture director he is actually a completely different person, to mixed effect. It is only in A Woman, however, that Chaplin final goes all out to try and actually play a female character in order to genuinely fool someone else.

Chaplin2015AWoman1Taking on the role for Chaplin was—according to biographer David Robinson—a ‘tempting exercise. Female attire suited him disturbingly well. The role gave [him] scope for a whole new range of character mime. … The female impersonation is remarkable.’ Indeed, female impersonation, long a staple of theatrical types, had been given a new sense of acceptability by Julian Eltinge. Born in 1881, Eltinge had been performing female roles on the stage from the age of 10. He would later appear in films finding success from 1917, when he starred in The Countess Charming, and then co-starred with Rudolph Valentino and Virginia Rappe (of the 1921 Fatty Arbuckle scandal infamy) in 1918’s The Isle of Love, which also featured Chaplin co-star Leo White. The Great Depression and the end of vaudeville (where he performed as a woman, only revealing at the end of his turn that he was, in fact, male) put paid to Eltinge’s career and he died in 1941 aged just 59. Despite the growing acceptance of female impersonations (something Laurel and Hardy would make a great play of in their later films), such was the concern in 1915 about Chaplin’s taboo busting in A Woman, the film was banned in Scandinavia until the 1930s. In Britain, the country’s censor the BBFC initially rejected the film for release when first submitted for approval in March 1915. Shortly thereafter, the British censor relented and A Woman was approved for British distribution under the title Charlie, the Perfect Lady.

Variety founding editor Sime Silverman wrote of Chaplin’s material that ‘the Censor Board is passing matter in the Chaplin films that could not possibly get by in other pictures.’ Across America at this time, individual films were subject to the censorship of local censorship boards or other civic ‘worthies’ who set themselves up as such. The Chicago Tribune complained that Chaplin’s new film was simply his ‘latest and most deplorable break into the realm of suggestive slapstick’. Local Chicago censor Major Metillus L. C. Funkhouser (yes, really) of the Chicago police was responsible for the cutting of various elements from A Woman, including (according to a list published contemporaneously in the Chicago Tribune): ‘Woman kicking man; Woman picking man’s pocket in park; All scenes of man minus trousers; All scenes of man in bedroom showing him dressing up as a woman; All scenes showing extraction of hatpin from man’s anatomy; Man pulling skirt off woman and subsequent vulgar sections; Picture with father giving couple blessings.’ All of which is pretty funny stuff looked at from today’s perspective, especially when it is considered that Major Funkhouser’s apparent hobby was to host private screenings of all the material censored from films cut for public consumption. Aware of his private predilections, a critic for the Tribune is said to have stated: ‘Major Funkhouser should be soundly spanked and sat in a corner until he behaves.’

Contemporary critic Fred Goodwins wrote of the attacks on Chaplin provoked by both his drag turn in A Woman and his gag with the naked statue in his previous short, Work: ‘His fame was at its zenith here in America when suddenly the critics made a dead set at him. … They roasted his work wholesale, called it crude, ungentlemanly, risqué, and even indecent.’ These attacks supposedly caused Chaplin to shift gears and, with his next film, The Bank, produce something he called ‘clean, clever, dramatic … with a big laugh at the end.’ The response suggests that Chaplin was sensitive to and responsive to criticism. It was, however, inevitable given the incredible Chaplin-mania of the first few months of 1915 that there would be an (albeit short-lived) critical backlash against the Tramp and his creator.

A Woman was the first film Chaplin made from his new Essanay base in LA, the Majestic Studios located at 651 Fairview Avenue in Boyle Heights, then regarded as a ‘Jewish neighbourhood’ in Los Angeles (the area was the original location of the famous Cantor’s Deli). This meant Chaplin relocating a few miles East of the Bradbury Mansion where he’d shot Work. Most of A Woman, though, was actually filmed in and around Eastlake Park (known as Lincoln Park after 1917), befitting this variation on the old Keystone park comedy. Eastlake Park had previously been home to William Selig’s zoo and Selig Polyscope Company movie studio from 1911.

Chaplin2015AWoman2Chaplin’s cross-dressing in A Woman is in service of a proto-feminist message. The film opens with the Tramp coming to the aid of a woman in a local park who is being disturbed by a pair of lechers. Despite this, the Tramp himself goes on to pick up a different woman (Edna Purviance), who introduces him to her mother and invites him home to dinner. When Edna’s father and his friend arrive home, the Tramp realises that they are the lechers from the park whom he had tackled earlier. He escapes them, and while upstairs at the house makes himself over: gone is the moustache, and with the help of some of Edna’s accoutrements, the Tramp reappears, this time as a woman. It is his way of testing Edna’s father, of revealing the man’s true nature to his daughter and his wife. In the words of Chaplin biographer Kenneth S. Lynn, ‘His lovely, pincushion-enhanced embonpoint and fluttery gestures drive the lechers wild.’

Despite this potential social and political angle, A Woman is something of a slight step backwards following the progress made in the previous two shorts, The Tramp and Work. The first half is essentially a glorified ‘park’ comedy of the type we’re overly familiar with from the Keystone days, and which by now Chaplin was way beyond in terms of character and cinematic technique, at least in potential if not actual deliverance. If it had not been for the convincing female impersonation in the second half, it is doubtful that A Woman would be regarded as particularly notable at all.

In terms of cinematic technique, Chaplin developed the use of the close-up in A Woman, something he’d sparingly but notably dabbled with before. Ironically, the significant close-up here is reserved not for Chaplin in his Tramp guise, but when he has discarded his male persona and adopted female clothing. It as if he was challenging his viewers to look at him afresh, without his distinctive and trademark moustache, but yet not as himself as he appeared off-screen (when he was largely unrecognisable to most as the ‘Charlie Chaplin’ from the films). The point being, perhaps, that there was more to this little fellow than a knockabout clown, as he would go on to prove in his future filmmaking endeavours.

Trivia: Upon moving into the Majestic Studios, which was to be his new LA base, Chaplin had all the locks changed and a new security system installed, so paranoid was he about his competitors stealing his ‘secrets’. Biographer Peter Ackroyd even claims that Essanay went so far as to build an embankment around the studio to deter curious interlopers.

The Contemporary View: ‘Chaplin needs a scenario writer, and if he doesn’t Essanay does. In comedy pictures as much fun may be secured through a situation, with the humour starting at the suggestion of that situation, as by the actual comedy work involved in it. This is what is missing in the Essanay Chaplin film, the situation. Chaplin needs a scenario writer very, very badly. Too much money could not be paid the man who could fit Charlie Chaplin in his present brand of comedy as he should be fitted.’—Sime Silverman, Variety, reviewing A Woman.

Slapstick: Apart from the usual knockabout stuff in the park (with the usual suspects taking an involuntary dip in the lake), it is in the domestic setting that Chaplin rolls out a few new(ish) routines. His table manners are somewhat lacking for ‘society’ as he gargles his tea and uses a long knife to retrieve donuts (which slide down the shaft and off the handle onto the plates). Meeting Edna’s father once again results in an altercation and a strangulation, before the Tramp loses his trousers and has his long johns soaked thanks to Edna’s ticklish trigger finger on a soda syphon. Trying to escape to the outside, the Tramp’s trouser-less appearance puts the wind up a group of old women, resulting in him returning to the house. Hiding upstairs, a mannequin gives him the idea of adopting an unusual disguise, but first the mannequin has to be undressed with the upmost respect for its modesty. A pin cushion is pressed into service as a makeshift bosom, but the moustache is almost disturbingly forgotten until it is pointed out by Edna, who doesn’t seem to mind having a transvestite boyfriend (ahead of her time was Edna). The cheeky close-up (and glance to camera) confirms the Tramp’s new identity and challenges the viewer to raise an objection. Introduced as Edna’s ‘college chum’, the new Tramp has a knockout effect on her father and his friend (who is distracted from seemingly romancing Edna’s mother). A final fracas sees friend and Tramp forcibly ejected from the once happy home.

Verdict: Yes, Chaplin makes for a convincing woman, but that’s all there is to this slight outing, 2/5

Next: The Bank (9 August 1915)

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Work (21 June 1915)


Released: 21 June 1915, Essanay

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Writer: Charlie Chaplin

Duration: approx. 28 mins.

With: Charles Insley, Edna Purviance, Billy Armstrong, Marta Golden, Leo White

Story: The Tramp is gainfully employed as a decorator… unfortunately, decorating is not part of his limited skill set…

Production: Charlie Chaplin took his time to produce Work, his eighth short for Essanay. Since the beginning of 1915, when he’d joined the studio, Chaplin had been slowly asserting his artistic independence, first in moving back to California from Chicago and now in moving from Niles back to Los Angeles. The relocation to the studio housed in the Bradbury Mansion at 147 North Hill Street partly explains the gap between the release of the ‘quickie’ By The Sea on 29 April and Work on 21 June, but the larger part of the reason is that Chaplin simply took his time in developing his newest comedy short. This would increasingly become his approach to his work: developing, rehearsing and re-working material until he felt it was as funny as it could possibly be.

The Bradbury Mansion was not only the temporary creative base for Chaplin: the house also provided the exteriors for the home featured in the short, making it a historic record of an area now completely demolished. The magnificent turreted mansion was designed by Samuel and Joseph Carter Newsom, and built in 1886 at a cost of $80,000, complete with 35 rooms, five chimneys, and five turrets. The views of the city from the top of the uppermost turret were said to be spectacular. The following year the house was purchased by Lewis Leonard Bradbury for $125,000. Bradbury was a mining magnate with interests in Mexico which made him immensely wealthy. Various movie studios occupied the house from 1913 onwards, including J.A.C. Film Manufacturing Company, Hal Roach—who made the early Harold Lloyd shorts there—and others. Lloyd dubbed the building ‘pneumonia hall’ as it was impossible to heat and suffered from constant drafts. After Chaplin used it, the house became a restaurant for Supreme Court Judges and a rooming house for artists before finally being demolished in 1929 as the entire area was significantly redeveloped.

For Chaplin biographer David Robinson, in its ‘circumscribed form and ambitions’, Work was as original as D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (which Chaplin had obsessively re-watched) released four months earlier in 1915. Of course, in this tale of destructive decorators Chaplin was drawing upon his well-mined vaudeville heritage. He and half-brother Sydney had appeared in Wal Pink’s famous ‘Repairs’ sketch in 1906, as well as a Karno variation called ‘Spring Cleaning’, so he knew the source material well. In this filmed version, the Tramp and his boss are charged with the make-over of a respectable middle class home, offering many opportunities for slapstick havoc. Chaplin complicates this basic situation by including a hen-pecked husband, a wild wife, her clandestine lover and a semi-detached maid (played by Edna Purviance), who all variously get in the way.

Work builds upon the character development Chaplin had achieved in The Tramp. Here he’s not a vagabond as such, but gainfully employed, even if he wants to actually work as little as possible (and that’s where much of the comedy comes from). In his first appearance, Chaplin is shown pulling a cart which is not only laden down with decorating equipment, but also carries his boss, the decorator. Anticipating Soviet propaganda cinema, this image immediately encapsulates the relationship between capital (the boss) and labour (the Tramp). Forced to drag his boss (and his friend, who clambers aboard), the Tramp endures the Sisyphean task of getting the cart up a steep incline (in reality achieved rather cleverly by simply tipping the camera on its side).

Writing about this opening sequence, Chaplin biographer David Robinson noted: ‘Chaplin’s aims in inventing the sequence were no doubt uncomplicated enough: it is funny, and it prepares the audience to accept as his proper deserts the ill-treatment that the boss will later receive at Charlie’s hands. Yet, almost incidentally to his purposes, he has created a masterly and unforgettable image of the exploitation and humiliation of labour, the reverse of the Victorian ideal of salutary virtues of work.’

The mistrust between workers and their employers is reinforced by the ‘My silver!’ sequence, shortly after their arrival at the house, in which the lady of the house hides her valuables in a safe so the untrustworthy proletariat can’t get at them. The workers respond in kind by pooling their valuables—wallets, watches—and pining them in the Tramp’s voluminous pockets for safe-keeping.

Many of Chaplin’s later roles would see his character in some form of employment, rather than travelling the rails. In upcoming films he’s a policeman (of all things), a fireman, a waiter and (eventually) in The Kid (1921), a glazier (albeit a crooked one). The main thing is that the character constantly moves on from job to job, never settling on one ‘profession’ or way of earning a pittance. Here he’s an assistant decorator who can’t manage the basics of hanging wallpaper.

Chaplin biographer Joyce Milton saw in Work not a Socialist manifesto, but a comment on Chaplin’s more immediate problems with his own employer: ‘Work may well have owed something to Chaplin’s exposure to Socialist ideas, but the protest was also highly personal. He had hitched himself to the rickety cart of the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, hauling its do-nothing partner, George Spoor, up the steep slope of profitability.’ It’s a over-stretched, over-burdened metaphor, but there may have been something in the idea.

Whether this commentary on his working conditions hit home, or it was just co-incidental, Chaplin did get to renegotiate his contract with Essanay in June 1915. The new deal—for a total of 10 more films before the end of the contract on 1 January 1916—started with Work. This suggested a new film would be required every three weeks, a rate of production Chaplin must’ve known he was unlikely to sustain, given his developing working habits. Each film would bring Chaplin an additional $10,000 bonus on top of his weekly salary, putting him on a par (bonus-wise, not in terms of salary) with Mary Pickford. The deal also involved the relocation of the Chaplin film unit to the Majestic Studios on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles, under Chaplin ally Jesse Robbins supervision.

Following the signing of the new contract, Chaplin embarked upon an even more ambitious feature film project to be called Life. Intended as no less than the portrait of a city’s slum life, it was clearly inspired by the work of D. W. Griffith, which Chaplin had taken to studying. He managed to shoot some flophouse footage before Essanay’s George Spoor ordered their star comic to stop work on that film and re-start production on more two-reel shorts immediately. Chaplin attempted to work some of the material into a later three-reel film called Police, but the footage was missing from the released version, which came out in 1916 after the comic had left the studio. Chaplin assumed the footage intended for Life must have been destroyed by Essanay. He was surprised, therefore, when it turned up two years later in an unauthorized Chaplin comedy released by Essanay called Triple Trouble in 1918. [There will be more on Police, Triple Trouble and the scenes from Life in two Essanay Extra Essays in the Chaplin: Film by Film 2015 eBook available in December]

Chaplin2015Work2To a lesser extent than in The Tramp, Chaplin maintains the newly-developed romantic (rather than plain lustful) side of the Tramp in his scenes in Work with Edna Purviance as the maid. They share an intimate moment, after much flirting throughout the action, in a close two-shot as he regales her with chatter while picking at his nails with a trowel and other decorating tools, a habit that clearly doesn’t endear him to her given her expression. He even covers her bare arms with his dirty hand prints. Romance is once more abandoned, as the maid returns to her duties and there is nothing left but for the melancholy Tramp to reluctantly go back to his work. The scene stands out amid the generally better organized knockabout farce of the rest of the short and indicates Chaplin’s growing interest in depicting interesting characters moments in a bit more depth.

John McCabe pointed out a recurring and developing aspect of Chaplin’s Tramp character. In opposition to both his boss and the lady of the house, the Tramp ‘remains imperturbable. This is a favourite Chaplin device: creating the tensions of anger around him while he stays placid in the eye of the storm. … Like any great actor, Chaplin listens to his fellow actors when they speak; he does not merely wait for his cue as so many actors do. He believes in the reality of Charlie; he plays Charlie on Charlie’s terms. … Charlie believes himself to be real and so he convinces us.’

Chaplin had often expressed his hope, mainly to half-brother Sydney, that he could make money quite quickly in films and then quit the picture business in short order. He had other interests he’d rather be pursuing professionally, especially music. The plethora of Tramp-inspired songs, such as ‘Those Charlie Chaplin Feet’ and ‘The Chaplin Strut’ served to irritate the would-be composer. His rage was partially assuaged by a public appearance in July 1915 at the Shrine Civic Auditorium in Los Angeles where he conducted the orchestra in their playing of one of his own original compositions. In future, he’d combine his musical ambitions and his film archive in a series of re-scored re-issues, but for the moment, the film business had a firm grip on Charlie Chaplin.

Trivia: During the making of Work, Chaplin injured his wrist, an accident that rapidly became exaggerated in the re-telling to the extent that it was rumoured he’d actually been killed engaged in a dangerous stunt: his almost two month absence from the screen no doubt reinforced this rumour.

The Contemporary View: Chaplin didn’t always score positive reviews, even for his better films. ‘Chaplin has found the public will stand for his picture comedy of the worst kind, and he is giving them the worst kind … [Work] is the usual Chaplin work of late, mussy, messy, and dirty.’—Sime Silverman, Variety, June 2015.

Slapstick: Following the cart sequence, the Tramp causes chaos at the household using every tool of the decorators trade to aid him. Entering the house, he is so burdened with assorted ladders, ropes, sheets, buckets and brushes, it is almost impossible to see him under it all. Everything is dumped on the floor of the hallway as he trips on the head of a bearskin rug. A plank proves to be a tricky prop in the Tramp’s hands—he also ends up as a support for the same plank as his boss sits on it, a role soon abandoned when Edna enters. After lighting the stove, the Tramp has his usual trouble with a swing door and takes his frustration out on the aforementioned bearskin rug. There’s much literal mucking about as the Tramp helps his boss out when a bucket of paint falls on his head (caused by the careless Tramp in the first place). The Tramp has clearly never hung wallpaper before (is this his first day on the job?). Leo White’s ‘French count’ arrives to cause more havoc, before a faulty stove brings the action to an explosive climax.

Verdict: Good slapstick structure and character stuff, but still lacking depth on the Tramp himself, 3/5

Next: A Woman (12 July 1915)

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The Champion (11 March 1915)


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 [1918]). 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.

Chaplin2015TheChampion2BaconFeaturing 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)

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A Night Out (15 February 1915)


Released: 15 February 1915, Essanay

Director: Charles Chaplin

Writer: Charles Chaplin

Duration: approx. 34 mins

With: Ben Turpin, Edna Purviance, Bud Jamison, Leo White

Story: Two swells (Chaplin, Turpin) on the town meet their matches…

Production: Charlie Chaplin didn’t like his new working environment at Essanay’s Chicago studios. Ironically, he’d chosen to work there for his Essanay debut, His New Job, as he didn’t much fancy their limited facility at Niles, 60 miles outside San Francisco either. However, the cold climate, windy weather and factory-like working environment was not conducive to Chaplin’s evolving art. George Spoor—the ‘S’ of Essanay—was still suspicious of Chaplin’s actual worth and for his part, Chaplin wasn’t happy working under his supervision. Max Anderson—the ‘A’ of Essanay—had returned to the company’s Niles facility after showing Chaplin around in Chicago to resume work on his on-going Broncho Billy series of westerns. Chaplin decided to join him and having completed work on His New Job on 12 January 1915, he had returned to California by 18 January. He felt working under Anderson’s supervision would be a better bet, as Anderson was at least a filmmaker, while Spoor was much too like the New York money men who effectively ran the new Hollywood studios from their East coast outposts.

Niles is a small town, but even today it boasts proudly of its connections to Charlie Chaplin. There’s a Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum (http://www.nilesfilmmuseum.org/) paying tribute to the community’s filmmaking past, as well as small stores selling Chaplin merchandise and many cashing in on the town’s century-old cinematic legacy. Formed around a notable railroad junction, Niles is located east of San Francisco, south of Oakland and north of San Jose within the city of Fremont. The studio lot sat at the western entrance to Niles Canyon, the location for many of the Broncho Billy movies. The studio lot itself was essentially a fallow field upon which had been constructed a giant barn-like studio building. The glass roof ensured plenty of light, but it also caused those working on movies to have to toil under stuffy and hot conditions. Upon arrival, Chaplin moved into a room in a bungalow—one of a row that featured as background for street scenes in the movies—on the studio lot that he initially shared with Anderson. The accommodation was primitive, especially for men who were making a substantial income, but Chaplin had lived in far worse conditions during his childhood in London. Anderson mainly lived in a studio financed suite in the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, only staying at Niles when he absolutely had to. Chaplin quickly paid a visit to the city, bought a violin and proceeded to practice for several hours each day. His colleagues at the studio were relieved when the new signing finally moved into a room in Niles’ one and only hotel.

Chaplin now had three weeks to make each of his two-reel shorts, rather than the single week he’d been allocated at Keystone. Chaplin was intent on expanding his scope. In an early interview promoting his arrival as Essanay’s newest star, Chaplin had ruminated: ‘I have a distinct theory regarding farces… I believe that a plot which could easily become a dramatic subject, but which is treated in an amusing manner and which burlesques events of daily life … is the one way to make successful farce comedy. I hope my releases under the Essanay banner will be as agreeable as my past work…’ Chaplin would subtly expand his comedy, building in more drama and telling more rounded stories with proper conclusions over his next few films, with A Jitney Elopement (1915) the first to really show a new direction. By the time of The Tramp (1915), he’d be introducing more pathos into the character he played, thereafter making it integral to his films.

Chaplin’s biggest challenge after re-locating to California once again was to find a new leading lady as his co-star, someone who could fill Mabel Normand’s shoes without bringing the difficulties he’d experienced working with her. An advert was placed in the San Francisco Chronicle: ‘Wanted: The prettiest girl in California to take part in a moving picture.’ Auditions were held at the Belvoir Hotel in Niles, where several applicants were screen tested, among them Edna Purviance.

Or perhaps she was discovered by Chaplin and Anderson, who were in San Francisco while the cafe set was under construction for A Night Out, searching for a potential leading lady. Purviance was recommended to the pair, and an interview conducted at the St. Francis Hotel by Union Square. Except, maybe she was discovered when a cowboy bit part actor playing in a Broncho Billy short at the Essanay studio recalled a blonde secretary who wanted to be an actress and put her in touch with Chaplin. Or did Chaplin meet her at a reception in Los Angeles in 1914 (a photo of the Keystone crowd and Purviance in Chaplin’s own ‘My Life in Pictures’ is dated 1914) and kept her in mind for a possible future film role? All these stories, and no doubt several others, have seen print over the years as explanation of how then 19-year-old Edna Purviance came to work with Charlie Chaplin at Essanay.

Chaplin2015ANightOut2Chaplin himself told the story of the accidental discovery in San Francisco, while for her part Purviance (left) claimed to have responded to the newspaper advertisement. Hundreds of girls had turned out for the audition, putting the young woman off making the attempt, so instead she visited with an acquaintance who worked at the studio instead. According to her account, she was spotted by Chaplin, who firmly pointed in her direction and exclaimed ‘That’s the type I want!’ Purviance didn’t recognise Chaplin as he was out of costume and make-up, dressed in his very different civilian guise. Chaplin asked her to co-star in his next picture, to which she claimed to have replied: ‘Why not? I’ll try anything once!’

Puirviance had been born in Nevada in 1895, where her parents had owned a hotel. She attended business college in San Francisco, and was working as a secretary in 1915 when Charlie Chaplin ‘discovered’ her. She had taken part in amateur dramatic productions in her mid-teens, but supposedly harboured no real ambitions to become an actress. This suited Chaplin fine as he, according to cameraman Rollie Tothero (quoted in Peter Ackroyd’s Charlie Chaplin) wanted an untested actress who ‘didn’t know her arse from her elbow’. That way, Chaplin could mould exactly the performance he wanted. Purviance was so successful in the role that she appeared in each of Chaplin’s subsequent films (except for One A.M.) through until 1923— an eight year period.

‘I had thought of myself as gifted,’ recalled Purviance in 1916, ‘with a little more than ordinary intelligence. After the first day in front of the camera [in A Night Out], I came to the conclusion that I was the biggest boob on Earth. Charlie was very patient with me, and after my first picture—in which I was terrible—I began to get used to the work, and although I have had occasional relapses, I am at least “camera wise” by now…’

Purviance would prove to be a good foil for Chaplin, her blonde hair contrasting nicely with his darker features, her natural on-screen warmth making up for his sometimes frosty character. She served to suggest to Chaplin that he could humanise the Tramp even more, make the audience have more sympathy for him and his plight, rather than indulging in the nonsense knockabout comedy that had been the forte of the Mack Sennett Keystone crowd. It wasn’t long before their on-screen chemistry spilled over into an off-screen real life affair. She was soon living in a hotel not far from Chaplin, and the pair generally dined together every evening. Out-takes from some of the movies made during this period seem to show a spontaneous fun-loving girl, quite distinct from the more mannered character that she would ‘perform’ on screen. Perhaps that’s exactly what Chaplin needed to ground him at this point in his increasingly tumultuous life.

Chaplin2015ANightOut3BudWilliam ‘Bud’ Jamison (right) plays the head waiter and jealous husband of Edna Purviance’s character in A Night Out. This would be the first of a series of appearances for the 6ft tall California-born vaudeville veteran in various Chaplin shorts. Previously he’d appeared in some of Harold Lloyd’s Lonesome Luke comedies (the part he played before perfecting his ‘glasses’ character) and in some early solo Stan Laurel comedies, before the latter’s teaming with Oliver Hardy by Hal Roach. Later in his career he’d work with the likes of the Three Stooges, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon and Charley Chase in Columbia’s sound shorts. He died in 1944.

For the film Chaplin revived his well-worn drunk act from his British vaudeville days on the stage, putting himself and Ben Turpin (in his final major appearance with Chaplin) in a version of the vaudeville staple ‘The Funny Drunks’ in what essentially a remake of The Rounders, his Keystone movie with Rosco ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle. According to Ackroyd’s Chaplin biography, so convincing were the pair during filming at the Hotel Oakland in Oakland, California that they were almost arrested for being intoxicated in public. Oddly, it might have been supposed that Chaplin’s fame across America at this point would have tipped off even the dimmest cop as to what was actually going on, making the entire tale somewhat suspect.

After a weekend in San Francisco following the shooting of the film, Chaplin returned to the studio only to discover that in his absence Anderson had begun editing the short by cutting up the actual camera negative. Chaplin was furious, tearing a strip off both Anderson and the cameraman involved in the editing, Rollie Totheroh. Chaplin wanted to cut on film, so that he could experiment with putting his shorts together: cutting the negative destroyed the original material from which he hoped to hone a precise piece of closely considered comedy. As a result of Chaplin’s complaint the studio had to install new equipment so they could develop their film on site. The incident was unfortunate, but it served two purposes. It established Chaplin’s preferred way of working early on, and brought those at Essanay’s Niles facility into line with his way of thinking, which helped improve his films. Almost as importantly, the incident led to Chaplin striking up a great personal and professional relationship with Totheroh, who would serve as Chaplin’s principal cameraman for almost the next four decades.

Roland H. Totheroh, known to all as ‘Rollie’, had been born in 1890 in San Francisco and was a former cartoonist and minor league ball player before working in cinematography at Essanay before Chaplin’s arrival. Totheroh recalled the crew’s reaction to Chaplin’s arrival, surprised to discover he was English: ‘We all thought he was a little Frenchman!’ Totheroh was once credited as being the principal cameraman on Chaplin’s Essanay shorts, but later research has suggested it was more likely that Totheroh functioned as an assistant to cinematographer Harry Ensign during this period. Totheroh, as a result of the relationship he built with Chaplin during 1915, went with the comedian when he moved on to Mutual in 1916, and worked with him right up until his death (in 1967) with his final credit being ‘photographic consultant’ on Limelight (1952).

Chaplin2015ANightOut4RollieThere is much for film buffs and Chaplin enthusiasts to be grateful to Totheroh (pictured left, behind Chaplin) for. Throughout Chaplin’s career from this point onwards, Totheroh functioned as an ad-hoc Chaplin archivist and film conserver. When few people were giving any thought to film preservation beyond the short term aim of making money through nickelodeon distribution, Totheroh (perhaps as a result of his close proximity to Chaplin) viewed their work together as a form of art, worth preserving. It was actually contrary to Chaplin’s direct instructions that Totheroh kept all the out-takes from the films that the filmmaker himself initially wanted destroyed. It has been suggested that the initial impetus for this came from Totheroh’s cautious nature, with him maintaining the material as safety copies in case the original negative should ever get damaged. Totheroh’s foresight allowed the much later creation of the fascinating Kevin Brownlow three-part documentary television series Unknown Chaplin (1983) which drew heavily upon the out-takes and other material Totheroh kept safe.

In A Night Out, two drunks (Chaplin, Turpin) out on the town fall foul of a ‘French count’ (Leo White), only to encounter him once more in a restaurant, where their drunken harassment sees them ejected by a out-sized waiter (Jamison, almost in Eric Campbell mode, Chaplin’s foil in many of the Mutual comedies). The Tramp lights upon a pretty girl (Purviance) whom he tries to seduce, before discovering she’s married to the hostile waiter. He quickly moves to another hotel to escape him, but unfortunately the harassed couple plan the exact same move. The climax is a hotel room mix-up straight out of Mabel’s Strange Predicament or Caught in the Rain from the previous year.

There’s little that’s new here, over and above the Keystone versions of the same basic material, but the execution under Chaplin’s ever-more sure hand is somewhat better than his work in the previous year. Despite their personal animosity and falling out over the best method of constructing cinematic comedy, Turpin and Chaplin make a good team in A Night Out, but they don’t reach the thwarted heights once promised by Chaplin’s teaming with Arbuckle in The Rounders. In many ways, Turpin’s comic shtick is too close to Chaplin’s own to provide the kind of contrast that Arbuckle’s bulkier figure offered. However, they do spark off one another well in a near-perfect cinematic resurrection of that old vaudeville drunk routine. ‘I have since proved that I could work without him,’ Turpin would later say of his time after Chaplin. ‘I am now a star and my films make a lot of money.’ Despite his increasing fame and wealth, it seems that Chaplin was neither interested in becoming a ‘star’ per se, nor was he particularly interested in money. The challenges of creating unique and captivating film comedy were his driving force, not fame and fortune: in fact he’d find both of those things, when they were thrust upon him during 1915, to be largely troubling.

Trivia: In press interviews given upon his arrival at Essanay, Chaplin claimed his ‘highly cultivated’ mother was dead: this wasn’t true, Hannah Chaplin was resident at Peckham House hospital before moving to the Cane Hill asylum. Chaplin and his half-brother Syd were paying for her care.

The Contemporary View: ‘The film gives Chaplin full elbow room for many extraordinary antics and touches of humorous detail, and the fun romps along at top speed … Turpin makes an excellent partner, and takes many a stunning knockout blow with paralytic indifference.’—The Cinema (1915).

Slapstick: Even before anyone’s had a drink, the encounter with the ‘French count’ gets physical. Some hat trouble serves to re-acquaint them in the posh hotel. Soon Turpin’s taking a tumble (or two). The prominent fountain proves to be a well of slapstick nonsense, including the Tramps ablutions. When Turpin is tossed out, the Tramp gets familiar with the count’s lady friend. The Tramp’s cane comes in handy for retrieving his pal from the curious cop. The Tramp finds walking a drag, so Turpin lends a hand (or two). Keyhole peeping gets the Tramp’s pants wet (there’s a soda syphon involved). An unexpected reunion with the hotel’s waiter prompts a change of residence for the Tramp, although signing the register proves something of a challenge. The two pals reunion in the park quickly turns into a punch up (and a classic Keystone-style brick gag) over the room rent. The cane is anthropomorphised even more than ever before when the Tramp tucks it in for the night (one of this short’s best bits). Apparently candlestick phones don’t dispense water, nor do they make for good clothes hangers. A canine calamity brings things to a chaotic climax.

Verdict: A mash-up of some old Keystone favourites, it is clear that Chaplin is still searching for a unique signature, 2/5

Next: The Champion (11 March 1915)

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His New Job (1 February 1915)


Released: 1 February 1915, Essanay

Written and directed by Charles Chaplin

Duration: approx. 30 mins

With: Ben Turpin, Charlotte Mineau, Leo White, Agnes Ayres, Gloria Swanson, Jesse Robins

Story: Hired by ‘Lockstone’ film studios, the Tramp experiences life behind-the-scenes and as a featured extra, causing havoc wherever he goes…

Production: Charlie Chaplin set out on his second year of making motion pictures a somewhat changed man from the neophyte who’d arrived at the doors of Mack Sennett’s Keystone studios in December 1913. He’d gone from hired clown to creator of his own material, from a stage-trained vaudevillian who knew nothing about making films to the most accomplished director on the Keystone lot. All those around him, towards the end of 1914, knew that Keystone’s simple formulas could no longer contain Chaplin’s growing talent. In order to further develop his art and craft in motion picture comedies, Chaplin knew he’d have to look elsewhere.

He’d become such a success with American audiences during the second half of 1914 that Chaplin was the subject of a minor bidding war among rival studios. He wasn’t prepared to jump at the first nor the most lucrative offer: control was all to Chaplin. Any deal he made had to guarantee him full control over his own films, the kind of right that had been hard-won during his year at Keystone, chaffing under the restrictions imposed upon his filmmakers by Mack Sennett.

The winners of Chaplin’s services for 1915 were the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company of Chicago. The studio name came from the founders, ‘S’ for George Spoor and ‘A’ for Gilbert M. Anderson (born ‘Max Aronson’). Both were film industry pioneers, with Spoor working in exhibition and distribution while Anderson was better known to audiences as ‘Broncho Billy’, the first major cowboy film star. Anderson, more than Spoor, understood the creative nature of filmmaking and was prepared to offer Chaplin $1250 per week with a $10,000 signing on bonus.

Much more important was the freedom Anderson promised: no longer would Chaplin be held to the rigid deadlines that applied at Keystone, where each short film was just another in a long Henry Ford-style manufacturing chain, pumped out to keep cinema audiences briefly amused. Instead, Essanay were offering Chaplin larger budgets, more time, and the freedom to explore the still developing art of cinema comedy at his own pace. Despite his obvious popularity at Keystone, Spoor had his doubts that Chaplin was worth the money the studio was offering, but he agreed to be guided by Anderson.

Chaplin preferred the Essanay set-up at Chicago over their Californian base just outside San Francisco, so at the turn of the year the young comedian (he was still only 25-years-old) made his way to the cold East. One of the first challenges Chaplin faced in Chicago was recreating his now world-famous Tramp costume: the original had been left behind at Keystone. The new-look Tramp outfit was put together with items that Chaplin simply bought ‘off-the-shelf’ in various Chicago stores. He went up and down State Street, obtaining the baggy trousers and tight jacket he needed. His biggest problem, however, was in finding just the right pair of outsized shoes to compliment his distinctive waddling walk. With the costume recreated, Chaplin was ready to begin the next phase of his filmmaking life. Despite the initial thrill of coming to work at Essanay on his enlarged salary, Charlie Chaplin was to find that life at the new company wasn’t going to be as smooth as he’d hoped.

The story goes that Charlie Chaplin broke the ice with his new studio colleagues in Chicago by performing an outlandish clog dance in his full Tramp regalia, recalling his days as one of the Lancashire Lads. Once advanced orders from cinema distributors for the first Chaplin film from Essanay crossed the 100 mark, even George Spoor was more accommodating to his studio’s new star name. He paid for a series of full page ads which appeared on 16 January 1915 in Motion Picture News and Motion Picture World boasting of the studio’s newest player: the world’s ‘greatest’ and ‘funniest’ comedian was now with Essanay, and the studio wanted the movie world to know about it. Less than two weeks later, similar ads ran in the British movie press, such as Bioscope magazine, dubbing Chaplin ‘The greatest motion picture comedian the world has ever seen’! However, Essanay were not used to working Chaplin-style: the studio shut up shop every night at 6pm sharp, regardless of what was shooting, regularly screened film rushes in negative format to save the cost of developing, and—even worse from Chaplin’s point-of-view—performers were issued their scripts from the ‘scenario department’ (then run by future movie gossip columnist Louella Parsons).

Chaplin, of course, was having none of it. His first film for the new management was autobiographically inspired—and it would be the only film he’d make in Chicago, a town he found more than lived up to its billing as the ‘Windy City’. Cheekily entitled His New Job, it is set in a familiar-looking movie studio called ‘Lockstone’. Chaplin’s Tramp is a stagehand, helping out with the props behind the scenes, when he unexpectedly finds himself promoted to be an on-screen player in the absence of the movie’s true star. Admittedly, this first Essanay film is not a great advance upon the work Chaplin was doing during his final few months at Keystone, but it does contain a few pointers to his future direction and introduced a new series of collaborators he’d be working with over the coming year.

Prime among them was Ben Turpin. Born in 1869, the famously cross-eyed comedian had been with Essanay since shortly after its inception in 1907. Turpin was a seat-of-the pants comedian who had no time for Chaplin’s more consider, formal approach to devising his comedy business. Shaped in the crucible of American vaudeville, circus and even burlesque (where he’d provide the largely-ignored comedy in between the strippers), Turpin was the recipient of what was believed to be the first pie-in-the-face gag in the 1909 Essanay short Mr Flip. By 1912, his distinctive look (he had his unique eyes insured by Lloyds of London for $25,000, believing them to not only be his trademark but also key to his comedic livelihood) was well-known and he was a recognised film comedy star.

With the arrival of Chaplin, however, Turpin found himself demoted to the role of ‘second banana’ (essentially filling the role played by Chester Conklin in many of the Keystone shorts), something he was less than pleased about. Perhaps if Chaplin had stuck it out in Chicago a bit longer, the duo may have been forced to get on, but with his early departure back to the West coast after His New Job, his work with Turpin was curtailed (comprising the first two Essanay films, His New Job and A Night Out, a tiny role in The Champion and an appearance in the new scenes Essanay would add to Chaplin’s Burlesque on Carmen to fill it out to featurette length). In a strange kind of job swap, Turpin would later go on to become a star at the Mack Sennett studio for the next decade or so. One of Turpin’s final film appearances was alongside Laurel and Hardy in Saps at Sea (1940), one of their early features. Turpin, who’d enjoyed great wealth since his retirement from the screen due to his careful real estate investments, died in 1940, aged 70.

Also appearing in His New Job was Leo White, a fellow Brit born in Manchester in 1882. He’d performed on the music hall stage across Britain before making the journey to America in about 1910 where he made something of a name for himself in the ‘Sweedie’ film comedies with Wallace Beery (who dragged up as a strange, supposedly Swedish maid) from 1914. Unlike Turpin, White would remain part of Chaplin’s evolving stock company of supporting acts right through to his time at Mutual studios and even as late as The Great Dictator (1940). In His New Job, White first appears more or less as himself at the studio reception before putting on his ‘comedy character’ costume, a kind of dandified cod-European nobleman which he’d most often play in Chaplin’s films. He’ll turn up regularly throughout Chaplin’s time at Essanay.

Perhaps easy to miss in His New Job, as she was uncredited and right at the back of the opening scene, was an appearance of actress Gloria Swanson, more associated with melodrama than silent comedy. Perhaps best known for her role as Norma Desmond, the bitter former silent movie star in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), it is sometimes forgotten that Swanson was actually a genuine silent comedy performer, even before she became the muse of director Cecil B. DeMille. Born in Chicago in 1899, Swanson was an army brat who started in movies as an extra at Essanay in 1914, the same year Chaplin was learning the movie ropes at Keystone. She attempted to win the leading female role in His New Job (played by Charlotte Mineau), but Chaplin just didn’t see her in the part (he was looking for a new Mabel Normand type, and eventually found Edna Purviance) casting her instead in the minor role of the uncredited stenographer. She recalled of Chaplin in Chicago that he ‘kept laughing and making his eyes twinkle, and talking in a light, gentle voice, encouraging me to let myself go and be silly.’ The following year she’d be in California working for ‘king of comedy’ Mack Sennett, before becoming a genuine star in her own right in a series of De Mille movies, including Male and Female (1919) and Why Change your Wife? (1920, in which she performed opposite a real lion). In addition, she became something of a fashion icon, defining the look of 1920s Hollywood in the eyes of many movie fans. Ironically, Swanson would imitate Chaplin on screen twice, in Manhandled (1924) and Sunset Boulevard (which, of course, also featured Buster Keaton—Chaplin’s rival and Limelight co-star—as her long-suffering butler). Much later, she would also narrated the Chaplin documentary The Eternal Tramp (1970).

Charlotte Mineau, playing the role Swanson wanted, would become one of Chaplin’s regular supporting cast at Essanay and Mutual, appearing in his movies through to 1917’s Easy Street. She’d been in a Sweedie film (Sweedie Goes to College, 1915) opposite Turpin and Swanson, and ended her career with the Marx Brothers in Monkey Business (1931). Following her retirement from the screen in 1932, she lived to the grand old age of 93, dying in 1979.

Perhaps Chaplin needed to do something easy, given the unfamiliar surroundings and people he was now working with, for his debut film at Essanay. His New Job was both a good joke on his actual circumstances and provided a ready-made backdrop as it was set in a film studio. There’s no great change in Chaplin’s character here, either. He didn’t take the fresh start as an opportunity to reinvent the Tramp, not yet at least. Instead, Chaplin seemed content simply to reproduce all those elements that had made him such a success in the previous year, possibly being afraid to change too much, too soon. He’s physically violent, causing mayhem and chaos wherever he goes around the studio, amused by his own unerring ability to disrupt the work in progress. This is the Tramp as malevolent imp, using whatever objects come to hand to further his aim of causing trouble, whether its a soda syphon, a saw, or a scenic pillar. The movie was put together in just two weeks, not quite Keystone pace but pretty quick nonetheless.

Drawing upon previous Keystone work, most obviously A Film Johnnie and The Masquerader, Chaplin takes the opportunity of His New Job to not only comment upon his own new employment but also upon the madness of filmmaking itself, at a time when the art form was in its relative infancy (he’d do it yet again in 1916’s Behind the Screen). While there is little new here, in terms of comedic content, there is a slight advance in style. At Keystone, such was the breakneck pace of production that a ‘point-and-shoot’ aesthetic was all that could be managed: the camera rarely moved, if ever, and everything was shot in a four-square, locked off fashion. In some sections of His New Job, the camera tracks (ever so slightly) along with the action, suggesting that Chaplin was either pushing himself to experiment or had picked up the idea from someone at Essanay, perhaps his photographer on this short, Jackson Rose. Either way, it was a sign of things to come, with Chaplin increasingly experimenting with form and content as the year progressed, deepening and developing the character of the Tramp far beyond what had been possible at Keystone.

Within just six months of his arrival as Essanay’s newest star, Charlie Chaplin would not just be well known in America but would be well on his way to becoming a world famous figure… and he was only getting started.

Trivia: This is the first time Chaplin actually receives on-screen credit—’Featuring Charlie Chaplin’.

The Contemporary View: ‘It is absolutely necessary to laugh at Chaplin in ten-ninths of his antics in this disaster-attended search for a new job—the small point in which is evidenced the only irony in the picture.’—Chicago Tribune (1915).

Slapstick: From the first moment, when Charlie cosies up to the girl also waiting for an audition, we recognise this is the Tramp we’ve known from Keystone. Especially when he immediately walks into a door. Charlie’s first meeting with Ben Turpin is all about personal space issues, and the Tramp’s cane comes in rather handy. The pair’s troubles continue either side of that pesky door. Soon Charlie’s crashing about the studio causing havoc, interrupting takes and is demoted from extra to carpenter. He’s soon back in the picture, though when the Sennett-like director fires an actor. Naturally, the dressing room provides plenty of opportunity for horsing around… Gambling proves to be a costly distraction. Soon, Charlie’s making his point… with a prop sword. He then takes a saw and a hammer to poor old Ben Turpin. The sword proves troublesome once more during repeated takes. A cigarette promises sophistication until Charlie topples a pillar like a celluloid Samson. A rumble with the rotund director, a stramash with the star, and a final battering for Ben wrap the show.

Verdict: Slow but steady start to Chaplin’s new era, 2/5

Next: A Night Out (15 February 1915)

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