Establishing United Artists (5 February 1919)


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In early 1919, Charlie Chaplin joined with three other film business luminaries—Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D. W. Griffith—to set up a new studio that would be driven by the creative talents who made the films. United Artists was born, and although it has endured years of turmoil, it is still around today almost 100 years later.

The first Hollywood studio established by the creative talent, rather than businessmen or mogul investors, was United Artists, launched on 5 February 1919. The founders of the newest Hollywood studio were Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, then two of the movie world’s biggest names, director D. W. Griffith and… Charlie Chaplin!

Chaplin had opened his own new physical studio space just a year before in January 1918 in order to fulfil his contract with First National. Since then, he’d released only three films—A Dog’s Life and his first near-feature length film Shoulder Arms, as well as the liberty bond supporting propaganda film The Bond. It was during his tour of major cities of the US selling war bonds to the public that the idea of establishing a new co-operative studio had come up in Chaplin’s discussions with Pickford and Fairbanks.

UA 05By this point in the schedule he’d agreed with First National, Chaplin was supposed to have delivered a total of eight films. He’d grown uneasy with the studio’s complaints about his tardiness, claiming the company was ‘inconsiderate, unsympathetic, and short-sighted’, which Chaplin biographer Peter Ackroyd interpreted as meaning ‘they refused to comply with all of his demands’. First National seemed unimpressed with both A Dog’s Life and Shoulder Arms, despite the fact that both films were instantly profitable, and seemed only concerned with the fact that Chaplin still owed the company five further films. Even though he had his own studio, Chaplin still felt he was under the control of his financiers. It is little wonder he was attracted to the utopian idea of total independence that he’d discussed with Pickford and Fairbanks.

The new studio would be run by the filmmakers, allowing them to indulge their creativity without being beholden to distant management figures who knew nothing of their art but who only cared about the bottom line. That was the idealistic intent, at least. Establishing the studio as a kind of artists’ collective would mean all those principally involved would invest their own money, be responsible for producing their own films, and then control the distribution of those films to audiences. In their minds, this would mean true independence.

As Chaplin biographer David Robinson notes in Chaplin: His Life and Art, the concept of United Artists was ‘revolutionary. Until this time producers and distributors—with the exception of First National— had been employers, and the stars salaried employees. Now the stars became their own employers. They were their own financiers, and they received the profits that had hitherto gone to their employers.’

UA 02As well as the four already named, early discussions of what was to become United Artists involved cowboy film star and director William S. Hart, but he soon dropped out have negotiated better terms with his studio. The remaining four talents incorporated their venture with them each holding a 25 per cent share of the preferred shares in the company, while the common shares where distributed among them at the rate of 20 per cent each, with the final 20 per cent of common shares going to the company’s lawyer, William Gibbs McAdoo. He had been Secretary to the Treasury under President Woodrow Wilson (also his father-in-law) until the end of 1918 and had recently established his own law firm, McAdoo, Cotton & Franklin. The idea of being in on the birth of a new Hollywood film studio was attractive to McAdoo, and he stayed with the organisation until 1922 when he left to re-establish his political career.

Taking Over the Asylum

The plan for the new venture had come about just at a time when the management of Hollywood’s nascent studios were attempting greater control over the ‘talent’ who actually made the pictures. What would become known as the classic ‘studio system’ that worked so well in the 1930s and 1940s was slowly beginning to form through a series of company mergers, but the stars who set up United Artists wanted to forge their own creative paths. Richard A. Rowland, head of Metro Pictures (later part of the MGM conglomerate), is said to have uttered the legendary lament ‘The inmates are taking over the asylum’ when he heard of the plans for United Artists.

With Hiram Abrams (formerly a board member and president at Paramount) as the first managing director, United Artists opened an office at 729 Seventh Avenue in New York. The stars may have been a little premature in establishing their own concern, however. The agreement called for each of the stars to produce, through United Artists, five movies each year—however, almost all of them had current outstanding commitments to various studios, including Chaplin who still owed First National those other five films on his contract. Given that Chaplin’s rate of production had dramatically slowed in recent years, how he ever thought he could hold up his end of the bargain and produce five movies each year is a mystery.

UA 07Chaplin wanted to produce better work, and increasing the quality of his films meant increasing their costs. He’d said of the successful Shoulder Arms, ‘the film had taken longer than anticipated, besides costing more than A Dog’s Life’. Now he hoped that First National would agree to increase funding for his films in return for an improvement in their quality. However, when the idea was put to the First National board of directors, they turned Chaplin down. It seemed to them that quality, strictly speaking, was immaterial, as almost anything with the ‘Charlie Chaplin’ name on it would attract a willing, paying audience. They simply wanted Chaplin to complete the five films he owed them.

Chaplin attempted to turn the tables on the studio, suggesting he could produce the pictures he owed them quickly, ‘if that is the kind of pictures you want’, meaning they’d be quickly made, cheap and cheerful, and of lesser quality. According to Chaplin’s autobiography, his blackmail gambit backfired when the board told him, ‘that’s up to you, Charlie.’ He attempted one last time to win their favour: ‘I’m asking for an increase to keep up the standard of my work. Your indifference shows your lack of psychology and foresight. You’re not dealing with sausages, you know, but with individual enthusiasm.’

It was to no avail. As far as the suits at First National were concerned, the Charlie Chaplin films may have well have been sausages—they were simply ‘product’ created in order that they could make a profit, what that product was seemed to be immaterial. It is little wonder that when the idea of United Artists became more fully developed, Chaplin couldn’t wait to joining Griffith, Pickford, and Fairbanks in forging their independence from Hollywood’s indifferent and grasping management.

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The Early Years

By the time United Artists actually started producing material it was 1921 and the film world had changed. Shorts, the kind of film that Charlie Chaplin had thrived in, were on their way out to be replaced by eight-reel (about 90 minutes) feature films that were more expensive to produce and becoming increasingly star-studded. In the light of that, the five films each year commitment of the founders was quietly abandoned.

The first United Artists film to see release was written by and starred Douglas Fairbanks. Largely forgotten now, His Majesty, the American was a comedy hit that featured future Frankenstein actor Boris Karloff in a small uncredited role as ‘the spy’. Over the first five years of its existence, United Artists only released five films, at an average rate of a single film each year, all a far cry from the founders’ original ambitions.

UA 09Where was Chaplin in all this? Well, for a while he was busy fulfilling his outstanding obligation to First National. Those films included 1921’s The Kid, often considered to be Chaplin’s first true feature film (it’s about 20 minutes longer than Shoulder Arms). He didn’t complete the First National contract until 1923 with the release of The Pilgrim, Chaplin’s final short and the last film he co-starred in with Edna Purviance (although she would play the lead in A Woman of Paris, which Chaplin directed but did not star in beyond a brief cameo).

Chaplin’s first film for United Artists was probably not what his co-founders expected. Instead of a laugh-packed comedy featuring the Little Tramp, he offered them Destiny, later titled A Woman of Paris, a melodrama he would direct but would not star in. Part of Chaplin’s aim was to offer a showcase to former girlfriend Edna Purviance, in the hope that she could be launched into a film career away from his own films. Purviance plays the mistress of a wealthy Parisian businessman (played by Adolphe Menjou; this film helped give him a higher profile, less so for Purviance who only made two further films before retiring) who reconnects with her aspiring artist former boyfriend (Carl Miller), leading to a tragic denouement. Chaplin appeared uncredited and out of his Tramp outfit as a station porter, and his frequent co-star Henry Bergman has a small bit as a headwaiter.

Each member of the United Artists collective were free to pursue their own creative muse free from the impositions of the others, but there must’ve been some disquiet from the other three that they were going to release a Chaplin picture without Charlie Chaplin in it. In the event, Mary Pickford loved the movie. ‘A Woman of Paris allows us to think for ourselves and does not constantly underestimate our intelligence,’ she said. ‘It is a gripping human story throughout and the director allows the situations to play themselves. Charlie Chaplin is the greatest director of the screen. He’s a pioneer. How he knows women!—oh, how he knows women! I do not cry easily when seeing a picture, but after seeing Charlie’s A Woman of Paris I was all choked up.’

Artists Disunited

UA 03By 1924, director D. W. Griffith had left the United Artists set-up, while producer Joseph Schenck joined as president with a remit to put the company on a more professional filmmaking footing. He came with some additional value baggage, namely his wife movie star Norma Talmadge, her sister Constance Talmadge, and third Talmadge sister Natalie’s husband, comedian Buster Keaton. From 1926’s The General, United Artists handled the distribution of Keaton’s comedies until he returned to MGM (with Schenck) with 1928’s The Cameraman. Schenck also succeeded in bring in various independent producers, including Samuel Goldwyn and Howard Hughes, to work with United Artists. Schenck also established a separate deal with Chaplin and Pickford to own theatres across the US. By 1935, Schenck had left to created 20th Century Fox, merging his own 20th Century Pictures with the Fox Film Corporation. Throughout the 1930s, other producers continued to use United Artists as a distributor, including Walt Disney Pictures, Hal Roach Studios (home of Laurel and Hardy), David O. Selznick, Walter Wanger, and Alexander Korda.

Chaplin released most of his features through United Artists, from 1925’s The Gold Rush, The Circus (1928), City Lights (1931), and Modern Times (1936)—all largely silent pictures. Three ‘talkies’—The Great Dictator (1940), Monsieur Verdoux (1947), and Limelight (1952)—were all released by United Artists, although Limelight was pulled from theatres shortly after release when Chaplin was forced into political exile in the UK and Switzerland. His final two features, A King in New York (1957) and A Countess From Hong Kong (1967), were made in exile in London.

Douglas Fairbanks died in 1939 and United Artists entered something of a decline in the 1940s. The movie business was changing and independent producers were finding it hard to compete with the ‘big seven’ studios. This situation would only begin to change with the 1948 ‘Paramount Decree’ that forced studios to sell their theatres, thus opening them up to independently produced films.

UA 08Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin were the only original founders still involved in United Artists as the 1950s dawned. In 1951, producers Arthur B. Krim and Robert Benjamin were put in charge of United Artists, with a remit to run the company successfully for ten years—at the end of that period, if the studio was profitable, they would take a half ownership. Immediate hits included The African Queen (1951) and High Noon (1951), but it was all too late for Chaplin, who was forced into political exile when his permit for re-entry to the United States was revoked in September 1952. In 1955, Chaplin—now based in Switzerland—cut his final business ties with the US by selling his 25 per cent share in United Artists to Krim and Benjamin for just over $1 million. A year later, Mary Pickford also sold up for $3 million. By 1957, United Artists went public, selling shares worth $17 million. The company was now producing around 50 films each year. None of the original founders were involved.

For the next 50 years United Artists would undergo a complicated history of take-overs (the TransAmerica Corporation in 1967, Ted Turner in 1986 for about five minutes), mergers (in 1980, when Kirk Kerkorian’s MGM joined United Artists to form MGM/UA Entertainment), asset stripping (Ted Turner again, throughout the 1980s), and near-bankruptcies. Along the way, the studio would move into records and television, and at one point owned 50 per cent of the James Bond franchise. By 2006, Tom Cruise became a partial owner of United Artists for a couple of years, before MGM once again fully took over the studio in 2015. Today United Artists continues as a brand name for the in-house material MGM produces and distributes.

It is all a long way from when back in 1919 Charlie Chaplin and three friends established United Artists as a place to be owned and operated by the creative talent that actually makes movies. However, despite all the turmoil the studio endured over the years, surely Chaplin (who died in 1977) would have been happy to know that the studio he helped found is still going strong almost 100 years later.

Charlie Says: ‘Within six months, Mary [Pickford} and Douglas {Fairbanks] were making pictures for the newly formed company [United Artists], but I still had more comedies to complete for First National. As Mary and Doug were the only stars distributing their pictures through our company, they were continually complaining to me of the burden imposed upon them as a result of being without my product. [This] ran the company into a deficit of $1 million. However, with the release of my first film [for United Artists], The Gold Rush, the debt was wiped out, which rather softened Mary and Doug’s grievances, and they never complained again.’—Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography [1964]

—Brian J. Robb

Next: Sunnyside (15 May 1919)

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Documentary: Star Power—The Creation of United Artists


Shoulder Arms (20 October 1918)


Release Date: 20 October 1918

Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin

Duration: 46 minutes

With: Edna Purviance, Sydney Chaplin, Jack Wilson, Henry Bergman, Albert Austin

Story: Following the progress of a US ‘doughboy’ from boot camp to the battlefields of France and beyond during the First World War.

Production: Charlie Chaplin came late to the First World War; so late, in fact, that the Armistice was declared just under a month after the release of his WWI movie Shoulder Arms. Although only 46 minutes, Shoulder Arms was too long to be classified as a short, so is often regarded as Chaplin’s first feature film.

Reluctant to engage with the war effort, Chaplin had finally given in to popular pressure and had done ‘his bit’ through his tour selling war bonds (see The Bond). Sending his Little Tramp figure onto the battlefield seemed like a good idea to Chaplin, and Shoulder Arms had started out as a project called Camouflage, which he’d put to one side in order to deliver his promised ‘propaganda’ film, The Bond.

Arms25Chaplin knew the dangers of playing the war for laughs—many of his friends and professional acquaintances had warned him off the putative project—so he approached Camouflage carefully. It would be the best expression to this point of his ability to balance humour and entertainment with tragedy and depth of feeling. Announced in the trade press as a five-reel presentation, the film was expected to run almost an hour long and was planned to depict the Tramp’s experiences before, during, and after the war. In the event, Chaplin chose to focus on only the middle section of the planned triptych, and other editing meant that the movie came in under the promised length. Nevertheless, at about 46 minutes, Shoulder Arms was Chaplin’s longest movie to that point. He was finally ready to put down the Tramp’s cane and instead pick up a rifle.

Arms05In filming Shoulder Arms, Chaplin followed his original, unusually detailed (for him) outline, by filming the scenes intended to convey the Tramp’s civilian life before he enters military service. He was to be depicted as a meek fellow, under the thumb of his dominating wife and the father of a brood of unruly children, played by a trio of child actors: True Boardman Jr., Frankie Lee, and Marion Feducha. The role of the wife was not filled as she was intended to be an off-screen presence, only indicated by the items she habitually threw at her husband. At one point, the Tramp leaves his trio of children outside a tavern as he seeks a blessed escape from his life. When he returns home to find the postman has delivered his draft papers, the Tramp is overjoyed, seeing the Army as an opportunity to escape his unhappy life.

Arms06There follows a sequence at a recruiting office which includes a medical examination (the doctor is Albert Austin) during which Chaplin draws upon some old vaudeville routines for his new farce, including scenes played entirely in silhouette. It took Chaplin the better part of a month to shoot all this material, but unhappy with the way the film was progressing he dropped it all from the film—that’s not surprising as the scenes are unusually laboured for Chaplin. Luckily, the footage survived and has been incorporated into the Unknown Chaplin (1983) television documentary series and as ‘deleted scenes’ on The Chaplin Revue DVD release.

Arms20During July 1918, Chaplin devised a new story and had new sets built—this was all a costly process, as was the discarding of so much material, but it was a cost he was prepared to shoulder. The new sets were recreations of the trenches that the American and other Allied soldiers inhabited during the battles in France. For four weeks Chaplin shot on these sets, finding comedy material in the harshness of the conditions that the troops had to endure. The shooting of the sequences in which the Tramp disguises himself as a tree so as to penetrate enemy lines were shot at the height of an LA heat wave, making things ever more uncomfortable for the star-director.

Arms11It was all worth it, however, as audiences acclaimed the sequence as one of the funniest Chaplin had yet committed to film. The rural appearing environment in which these scenes apparently take place was filmed at Wilshire Boulevard and Sherman in Beverly Hills! By the time Chaplin had shot the scenes in which the soldier Tramp meets Edna Purviance’s French peasant in her wrecked home in mid-August, Chaplin realised he was running out of time to supply the propaganda film he’d promised the Liberty Bonds organisation (see The Bond). Production on Shoulder Arms was shut down so the cast and crew could spend a week filming on The Bond.

Arms21It would be the middle of September 1918 before Shoulder Arms would be completed, edited, and prepared for distribution. At that point, Chaplin was suddenly overwhelmed with doubts about both the quality of the film he’d made and the wisdom of releasing a film that dealt in a humorous way with the serious topic of the war. It was only when his war bonds tour partner Douglas Fairbanks watched Shoulder Arms and laughed from beginning to end that Chaplin’s confidence in the project was restored. It was timely intervention, as he’d been on the cusp of cancelling the release and would no doubt have destroyed all the footage he’d shot.

Arms08In the event, Chaplin needed to have no concerns; among the most prominent supporters of Shoulder Arms, those who seemed to enjoy the picture the most, were the troops returning to civilian life from the front. The film seemed to realistically capture their experience, and they were both amused and relieved to have survived it. The film turned out, as David Robinson put it, to be ‘one of the greatest successes of his career’.

Arms14Towards the end of filming on Shoulder Arms, Mildred Harris had announced to Chaplin that she was pregnant (see The Bond). That resulted in a hasty marriage that coincided almost exactly with the release of the film. With a new wife, Chaplin leased a new home on DeMille Drive, but shortly after he had relocated there, Mildred told him she had been mistaken and she wasn’t pregnant after all. While this no doubt came as a relief to Chaplin, it effectively ruined the marriage as he now came to believe he had been trapped by a lie and that his matrimonial state was having a negative effect on his creativity.

Arms01Adding further to Chaplin’s upset was Mildred’s campaign to become a big name actress herself, no doubt through trading on the Chaplin name. Almost as soon as the ink was dry on the marriage certificate she had begun negotiating with Louis B. Mayer at MGM for a lucrative film contract. This tested Chaplin’s patience and resulted in a huge row between them. In his biography of Chaplin, Peter Ackroyd notes an article that Harris later wrote in which she admitted: ‘I think he [Chaplin] was right, but he ought to have had a little more patience and consideration of youth.’ Despite the fact that they were largely leading separate lives—Mildred had her own chauffeur and credit line at all the top stores, while Chaplin went to the studio early and came home late (if at all)—Mildred did somehow contrive to actually become pregnant by November 1918. The Armistice may have been declared and Shoulder Arms a bona fide success, but things were not about to become quiet on the home front chez Chaplin.

Arms00Trivia: Shoulder Arms signified a period of experimentation by Charlie Chaplin and an attempt to alter his signature Tramp figure. Fearing the Little Tramp had run its course, Chaplin attempted—through Shoulder Arms, A Day’s Pleasure, and Pay Day—to refresh his character by making him something of a family man. The deleted scenes from Shoulder Arms sees Chaplin’s Tramp-like figure looking after his three kids, while in A Day’s Pleasure, he is Tramp no longer but instead a happily settled family man. By the time of Pay Day, he’d dropped the idea of children but was still attempting to portray a figure other than his iconic Tramp. However hard he tried, it simply didn’t stick. By the time of The Gold Rush, in 1925, Chaplin had become resigned that moviegoers simply wanted to see him in a single guise and so the Tramp lived on for many more years. It would not be until Monsieur Verdoux in 1947 that Charlie Chaplin would successfully play an entirely different character.

Arms27Charlie Says: ‘Shoulder Arms was made in the middle of a sizzling heat wave. Working inside a camouflaged tree was anything but comfortable. I loathe working outside on location because of its distraction. One’s concentration and inspiration blow away with the wind. The picture took a long time to make and I was not satisfied with it. I was so discouraged I was thinking of throwing it in the ash-can. [Douglas Fairbanks] was my greatest audience. Shoulder Arms was a smash hit and a great favourite with the soldiers during the war, but again the film had taken longer than I had anticipated besides costing more than A Dog’s Life.’—Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964

Arms03Contemporary Reviews: ‘We double up painfully with guffaws of mirthfulness when he camouflages himself as a tree and battles the bewildered Germans, but underneath all the farce of it, we are in close sympathy with the little man and conscious of a touch of true pathos which makes us realize that this Chaplin who calls himself a comedian is perhaps the greatest (a word I dislike to use but which seems necessary in this case) actor on the screen today. Truly, with each release does he prove the value of his policy of making only a few pictures a year. With each successive Chaplin picture the verdict is, the best thing he has ever done, which, I believe, can be said of no other actor on the screen.’—Motion Picture, January 1919

Arms09‘Shoulder Arms is a perfect handling of a delicate subject, and in its treatment the comedian has shown, more completely than ever before, his faculty for getting inside a character and grasping, as if by intuition (but really by hard work) all that character’s salient points. The best thing about this film is that the rookie sees his own little weaknesses, his hardships, his hopes, his glories, his quaint vanities and small fears—he sees himself. Being completely funny on a background of completely terrible war is not only difficult, but dangerous. As far as we can see, Chaplin has been wholly successful.’—Photoplay, January 1919

Arms12Verdict: The ‘it was all a dream’ ending may be a cop out, but Shoulder Arms is an exquisitely crafted film; the split-screen contrasting life in the trenches with the Tramp’s recollections of Broadway is genius, as is the sequence where he is disguised as a tree. Edna Purviance shines in this too, showing she could rise above her personal troubles with Chaplin and still act opposite him.

—Brian J. Robb

Next: Sunnyside (15 May 1919)


An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the first year of blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.

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The Bond (29 September 2018)


Release Date: 29 September 1918

Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin

Duration: 10 minutes

With: Edna Purviance, Albert Austin, Henry Bergman, Sydney Chaplin, Dorothy Rosher

Story: The bonds of friendship, love, and marriage are explored in a series of vignettes, culminating in the Liberty Bond, which takes the shape of an outsized mallet the Little Tramp uses to knock out the Kaiser (Sydney Chaplin).

Production: As if in response to the long-running criticism he’d been receiving over his lack of participation in the war effort on behalf of either Britain or the US, in the spring of 1918 Charlie Chaplin embarked upon a tour promoting the sale of Liberty Bonds (launched in June 1917), securities used to fund the American war effort. He wasn’t alone in this endeavour, being paired up with Hollywood pals Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Teaming with the ‘king of Hollywood’ Fairbanks and ‘America’s sweetheart’ Pickford was a smart move and helped to rehabilitate Chaplin in the eyes of the American movie going public. It was not as though he’d been idle, though, having already signed 3000 photos for a Red Cross auction and donated many thousands of boxes of candy for soldiers’ care parcels.

Bond07Despite his past in vaudeville in the UK and touring America, Chaplin was apparently nervous about the requirement to give serious public speeches, essential a sales pitch on behalf of the war bonds movement. He came straight onto the tour from working on editing A Dog’s Life, setting out in early April 1918, and was reportedly so exhausted he simply slept for two whole days on the train taking him, Pickford and Fairbanks from Los Angeles to Washington. Chaplin needn’t have worried about whether he had a facility for such public speaking—once he’d warmed to the huge crowds that turned out to see the stars, he had no trouble exhorting each and every one of them to part with their hard-won cash to fund the American war machine (something that would seem contrary to his long-held principles). Of course, Chaplin would later use the form of public address in the climax of The Great Dictator (1940) to demolish such warmongering, speaking out passionately in the cause of peace.

Things didn’t go without incident, however. During that first stop in Washington, Chaplin got carried away, falling off the platform (along with his Marie Dressler, his Tillie’s Punctured Romance co-star) erected at a football field for their speeches and comically landing on top of the secretary of the navy, one Franklin D. Roosevelt. Chaplin later met President Wilson at the White House, and declared himself singularly unimpressed by the encounter.

Bond00There is a famous photo of Chaplin held aloft by Fairbanks, addressing a crowd of thousands (estimated say 30,000) at their next stop, Wall Street in New York. The crowds had been gathering since early morning on 8 April 1918 to see the stars who were scheduled to appear around noon. On the corner of Broad Street and Wall Street, Fairbanks allowed Chaplin to climb upon his shoulders, no doubt wary after the incident that had happened in Washington. Chaplin immediately got the crowd on his side with the disingenuous announcement: ‘Now listen! I’ve never made a speech before in my life, but believe me I can make one now!’ Perhaps Chaplin was simply playing a part when he demanded the audience part with their cash so America could ‘drive that old devil, the Kaiser, out of France’.

No doubt, Chaplin was only too aware he was being used by the Establishment for propaganda purposes, but he presumably thought this was a way to win back public favour and to avoid any further suspicion that he was not supportive of the war effort. This was a compromise he was willing to make in order to be allowed to continue to make the films he wanted, his way. While Pickford and Fairbanks headed north, Chaplin’s tour progressed to Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi, then to New Orleans, all in the space of a few weeks. Chaplin found the effort and the travelling tiring, and he quit the planned three-week solo tour early, returning to Hollywood via a stop in Texas. The official cause given was simply ‘exhaustion’, although some media outlets reported that in personal appearances Chaplin, the great screen comedian, had been suffering from crippling stage fright. Alternatively, it is simply possible that the evident contradiction between his personal views about ‘the ogre of militarism’ and the shilling for war bonds was getting on top of him… His tour had, however, sold millions of war bonds and Chaplin himself had bought $350,000 worth, a small price to pay for a revival in public opinion towards him.

Chaplin was increasingly aware that he was neglecting his work and had spent a couple of months away from his brand new studio which lay idle—as long as he wasn’t working, neither was anyone else at his new studio. However, the time he’d spent on the Liberty Bonds tour was to impact his life greatly—the first part of the tour had served to cement his friendship with Fairbanks and Pickford, and he’d soon be joining with them in a radical new project…


Back in Hollywood in early May 1918, Charlie Chaplin was desperate to get back to the work of filmmaking after his Liberty Bond tour duties. The idea of the Little Tramp going to war was irresistible to Chaplin, and he embarked upon a film called Camouflage (see Shoulder Arms). While making that one, though, he broke off in mid-August to make a propaganda short he’d promise to the Liberty Bond organisation. From 15 August 1918, the whole of the following week was given over to the creation of this film, eventually titled The Bond.

The ten-minute single reel short (685 feet in length) features Sydney Chaplin as the Kaiser, dressed in a uniform used for the work-in-progress Camouflage. The film was made up of four self-contained episodes each of which explores a different meaning of the word ‘bond’—friendship, love, marriage, and the Liberty Bond. Given the speed of production, Chaplin opted to use spare, almost expressionistic sets to suggest locations and backgrounds, resulting in one of his more artistic and experimental films. It is especially amusing when the Tramp hangs his cane from the crescent moon in the background. As well as Sydney Chaplin, the other members of the small cast were Edna Purviance, Albert Austin, Henry Bergman, and child actress Dorothy Rosher (as Cupid, hiding in the moon).

Bond04Under the ‘bond of friendship’, the Tramp (slightly more dapper than usual) meets Albert Austin beneath a lamp-post—all goes well until Albert asks for a loan. A particular vivacious and flirty Edna Purviance features in the ‘bond of love’ sequence, as she flirts with Chaplin on a park bench. Interestingly, given that his near future would include the film fantasy-suffused Sunnyside (1919), this sequence sees Cupid firing an arrow into Chaplin’s behind, causing him to float about as if in a ballet, before tying the pair together in silk bonds.

Bond02In the follow-up ‘bond of marriage’, Edna and Chaplin are seen at the altar, where everything is sweetness and romance, until the pastor performing the marriage demands payment, as do several others. Finally, the Liberty Bond sequence has Chaplin’s little fellow as a representative of ‘the people’, handing over their hard-won earnings and savings to ‘Uncle Sam’, who in turn funds the workers building the guns and ships for the war. The final scene has the Tramp set about the Kaiser with a huge mallet labelled ‘Liberty Bonds’—subtle it ain’t, but then it is unabashedly propaganda in intent. There was an alternative version made for British audiences where ‘Uncle Sam’ was replaced by ‘John Bull’, an equivalent British figure, in support of UK war bonds.

The resulting film was donated to the US Government who distributed to theatres across the country in the fall of 1918, with it playing repeatedly between September and December that year. Even though the war officially ended in November 1918, the fundraising effort continued.

NPG P283; Charlie Chaplin by Strauss-Peyton StudioAs well as the end of the war and the making of Chaplin’s war themed Shoulder Arms, the year 1918 also saw a dramatic change in Chaplin’s romantic life. Although she continued to appear in his films, things had cooled almost completely between Edna Purviance and Charlie Chaplin. Through letters Chaplin had reconnected with a friend from England, Hetty Kelly, writing to her in July 1918: ‘I am all that could be desired of a young man of 29 years. I am still a bachelor, but that is not my fault.’ He may have been technically correct in this claim, but by the middle of 1918 Charlie Chaplin had already met the woman who was to become his first wife: Mildred Harris.

Bond12HarrisA child actress since she’d been about 10, Harris was just 16 years old (she claimed to Chaplin to be 17) when she got involved with Chaplin. It was to be just the first of a series of romantic liaisons with younger women that were to get Chaplin into all sorts of hot water. Chaplin met Harris at a party at the beach house of Owen Moore, Mary Pickford’s estranged husband. Actually their first meeting was in the back of director Eddie Sutherland’s car—she was already a passenger en route to the party when Sutherland stopped to pick up Chaplin to give him a ride. Sutherland recalled that Chaplin paid a huge amount of attention to Harris, both in the car and at the party after they arrived.

Chaplin’s ‘attention’ to young Mildred Harris resulted in her pregnancy and their marriage on 23 October 1918, just a few days after the release of Shoulder Arms (marriage being the only way to reasonably deal with the fact of her pregnancy back then in a socially-acceptable manner).

In his autobiography, Chaplin says little about Mildred Harris except to comment that he found her to be ‘no mental heavyweight’, which oddly seemed to suit him just fine, as he confided to Douglas Fairbanks. ‘I had no desire to marry an encyclopaedia,’ he noted, concluding that ‘to Mildred marriage was an adventure as thrilling as winning a beauty contest. She had no sense of reality. Although Mildred was young and pretty was I always to be in close proximity to her? Did I want that?’

Chaplin may have been a bit late in asking those questions after marriage, but the issue of the pregnancy came to naught as ‘after we were married, Mildred’s pregnancy turned out to be a false alarm’, raising the question of whether young Ms. Harris (or her ambitious mother, a movie studio wardrobe supervisor) had been wily enough to entrap the rich and not too old Charlie Chaplin into marriage? Either way, during the production of Sunnyside, which he had not enjoyed making, Chaplin concluded that ‘marriage was having an effect on my creative faculties’. In this case, this particular ‘bond of marriage’ was virtually doomed from then on…

Bond11Trivia: Building had commenced on Chaplin’s new studio in November 1917 and took three months, with Chaplin’s cameraman Rollie Totheroh filming much of the action. This spiralled into a bigger project to capture on film daily life behind the scenes at the studio, although Chaplin appeared to have no formal intention of making a film for public release from this material. Among the footage captured was Chaplin’s arrival at the studio, him putting on his Little Tramp outfit, and the comedy capers of Chaplin and several others from behind and in front of the camera, including Henry Bergman, Albert Austin, and Loyal Underwood playing cards. Chaplin is captured directing a (staged?) rehearsal and in attending to an actress’ hairdressing needs. There’s even footage of some fun taking place around the studio’s central asset, the pool. There was some vague thought of this material becoming a two-reel short under the title How To Make Movies (1918), but Chaplin concluded there would be limited public interest in the process. During the filming, Chaplin’s studio had been the location for his meetings with a series of famous and distinguished visitors, including Scottish performer Harry Lauder (pictured above), Winston Churchill, and Lord and Lady Mountbatten, many of whom Chaplin caught hamming it up on film.

Bond09Charlie Says: ‘We are all trying to appear modest and dignified … and genteelly indifferent to our personal ovations … We could see the crowds waiting for us, and we were all wondering whether the cheers were for Doug, or Mary, or Charlie, and sternly reminding ourselves that we were on a lofty patriotic mission and must comport ourselves accordingly … It was dreadfully thrilling. We at once adored these crowds and suspected them of invidious discrimination on behalf of each of use. And then, after the excitement had died down, we looked sheepishly at each other, and it took all our histrionic abilities to appear calm and unmoved, trying to look a bit blasé, as if we had been used to these wild national acclimations all our lives.’—Charlie Chaplin, interviewed by Alma Whitaker about the war bonds tour

Verdict: An odd propaganda-driven item, The Bond shows a different, almost neo-Expressionist side to Chaplin’s filmmaking, one rarely explored in his regular work. 

—Brian J. Robb

Next: Shoulder Arms [20 October 1918]


An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the first year of blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.


A Dog’s Life (14 April 1918)


Release Date: 14 April 1918

Written and Directed by Charles Chaplin

Duration: 33 mins

With: Edna Purviance (bar singer), Bud Jamison, Albert Austin (pickpockets), Henry Bergman (hot dog vendor/old woman/employment office man), Tom Wilson (policeman), Syd Chaplin (lunch wagon owner), James T. Kelley, Chuck Riesner

Story: The Little Tramp adopts a stray dog (Scraps), falls foul of a couple of pickpockets and some policemen, and falls in love with a singer at a bar…

Production: With The Adventurer, Charlie Chaplin had completed his contract with Mutual. It had taken a bit longer than anticipated, with him producing the work that was initially intended to take one year over a period of more than 18 months. His work rate had slowed considerably since the Keystone days (when he was far from being his own boss), but the quality had arguably improved dramatically. Now without a studio behind him, Chaplin was considering whether to continue with his filmmaking at all—he’d suffered a backlash over his continued avoidance of any involvement in the world war then raging, on behalf of either his birth country of Britain or his adopted home of America. Even then, audiences and studios were reluctant to let Charlie Chaplin vanish entirely.

Dog03A five week holiday in Hawaii with Edna Purviance seemed like nothing less than his due reward, but while there Chaplin had to think over the many offers being made to him to continue making movies. The problem was the Charlie Chaplin of late-1917 was very different from the man who’d started in the film business at Keystone under Mack Sennett. Slowly but surely, Chaplin had taken over control of his own output. It was this desire for control and improved films that had caused him to be so slow in fulfilling the terms of the Mutual contract. No matter how it may have irked them, those in charge at Mutual realised that Chaplin was such an asset that he was worth hanging on to, even if they might have to wait a little longer for each film. That was the reason that Mutual were quickest to offer Chaplin a new contract for just eight new movies with a total payment value of $1 million attached, a first in Hollywood.

Chaplin’s half-brother Sydney was his business manager, and he knew that this offer from Mutual would only be the starting point. Other studios were sure to be interested, and Mutual had helpfully established the ‘going rate’ or asking price for Chaplin’s services. Chaplin had also been giving the matter some thought, both during his holiday with Edna and later, upon his return to Los Angeles. The one thing that mattered to him most was control, with the monetary aspects of any new deal of secondary importance. His instruction to Sydney was simple: anything less than total control of his work was unacceptable.

Studio191807The deal Sydney came back with was with the First National Film Corporation. The company was relatively new having been incorporated in 1917, initially as a theatrical exhibitor and distributor made up of a chain of independent theatre owners across the US, controlling around 600 cinemas. The company had been established to compete with Paramount Pictures (whose Jesse Lasky also bid for Chalpin) that then dominated the distribution of movies (First National would be absorbed by Warner Bros. in 1929). As a relatively new company, First National was keen to make a splash and they did just that by signing both Chaplin and Mary Pickford to $1 million dollar deals. Chaplin’s deal specified he should produce eight films (designated as two-reelers, although each additional reel would bring a further $15,000 in funding), preferably over a period of 18 months but without any firm deadlines attached (he’d end up making just nine movies for First National, mostly three-reelers or longer, but that would take him a total of five years!). His deal promised to deliver to Chaplin an advance of $125,000 on each film, with a split on the profits (after distribution costs) expected to bring his overall earnings across the period of the arrangement to well over the much-publicised $1 million. More importantly, Chaplin would retain copyright ownership of his own films, thus eliminating any further hassles from the likes of Essanay’s George Spoor.

Studio191802At the same time, Chaplin began work on his own purpose-built studio, where he would be his own producer and have the ability to run his entire production company independently. Although Mutual had repurposed an existing facility for the exclusive use of Charlie Chaplin, the security offered by First National allowed Chaplin to afford to have a dedicated studio purpose-built to his own design. Located on the corner of La Brea Avenue and Sunset Boulevard (about a mile away from the main cluster of studios), the façade of the complex was designed after a row of Tudor-style English cottages, mainly to placate local residents but perhaps also partly intended to appeal to Chaplin’s own English roots. Five acres of former agricultural land (costing Chaplin $34,000) known locally as the R. S. McClellan estate was taken over for the construction of two open-air stages, a host of set building workshops, varied dressing rooms for the performers, a dedicated film laboratory, editing suite and projection room, as well as executive offices and meeting spaces—and a large swimming pool for recreational purposes. Chaplin’s own dedicated office was located in a modest private bungalow on the property. Partly for attractive landscaping purposes, but also calling back to the land’s original use, a series of lemon, orange, and peach trees were maintained within the grounds, as was the 10-room colonial ‘mansion’, the home of the former owner of the orange groves.

Studio201802Construction, by the Milwaukee Building Co. following plans by architects Meyer and Holler (who’d designed the Ince and Goldwyn studios, and would go on to design Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre), cost Chaplin around $100,000. Building commenced in November 1917 and took three months. After Chaplin vacated the studio in 1952 it was used as a location for the William Castle film Hollywood Story and then used or occupied by Stanley Kramer (1954), American International Pictures (1960), Red Skelton (1962), and A&M Records throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Most recently it has been home to the Jim Henson organisation, and the entrance features a statute of Kermit the frog done up as Chaplin’s Little Tramp.

Dog14Although he began filming on what would ultimately become A Dog’s Life (under the original title I Should Worry) on 15 January 1918, Chaplin officially opened the new studio (located at 1416 N. La Brea Avenue) on 21 January 1918 in front of the waiting press when, in full costume as the Little Tramp, he marked his ‘big shoe’ footprints in wet cement, along with an imprint of his bamboo cane, his name and the date, at the entrance to the studio. It was important that this new environment suit Chaplin, both personally and as a work place in which he would be free to conjure up his new ‘funnies’ in peace and isolation, as it would be where he would be based for the rest of his time working in the United States (essentially until 1952, although he didn’t know that at the time).

Dog11Just as everything was going right for Charlie Chaplin towards the end of 1917 in his professional life, things were very different in his private life. He and Edna Purviance had been drifting apart for some time, partly due to his work schedule and their different outlooks on life and ultimate ambitions—she wanted to marry, and Chaplin had no time for that at that moment. Chaplin took time while on that Hawaiian holiday with Edna to give some serious thought to their future together or whether they even had one—his life was about to change in every other way, so was there any reason for his by now unsatisfying life with Edna to persist? The end when it came was down to Edna’s own unfaithfulness, rather than due to any decision of Chaplin’s. In his autobiography Chaplin described himself and Edna as being ‘inseparable’ in 1916, doing everything together, but he was aware of her growing jealousy, not only of the attention paid to him by men and women (due to his increasing fame), but also of his unrelenting dedication to his work.

Chaplin was clearly a workaholic and a perfectionist who demanded even higher standards of himself than he demanded of others—this was both a source of great joy to him (he loved his work, even more so the results) but also of great anguish (the work came at a great personal price). Chaplin’s work was the one ‘mistress’ with which Edna Purivance could not complete, and she may have come to feel neglected by Chaplin in favour of his work. Despite this, Chaplin noted: ‘I blamed myself for neglecting her at times.’

Edna had taken up with Thomas Meighan, a film actor 10 years Chaplin’s senior who’d formerly been on the stage and before that was a doctor. When he discovered their liaison, Chaplin was heartbroken. He and Edna split and then reconciled, but when Chaplin found that Edna was still seeing Meighan, he finally put a halt to their relationship. The initial separation affected Chaplin’s creativity and impacted his work, but as time went on it was in his work that he found a new escape: ‘My consolation was in my work.’ Edna’s relationship with Meighan was short; perhaps it had served its purpose in allowing her to find a way away from Chaplin and so to find herself. However, she never married and maintained a collection of press cuttings following Chaplin’s progress. For his part, Chaplin maintained that the time he’d spent with Edna had been the most fulfilling relationship of his early career in films.

Dog15Chaplin’s focus on his work in his new environment of his own dedicated studio would serve dividends, but it would take a few years for his creativity to fully blossom. He had been taking steps to develop his filmic storytelling, developing short comedy narratives in new ways in such films as Easy Street and The Immigrant. As part of the First National deal, Sydney had promised that Chaplin would further explore ‘a continuous story’ in each of his future films that at a minimum of three reels each would be longer than any of his previous work. Although Chaplin had produced more story-focused films, he had still built them up from a series of often unrelated comic incidents, only later applying an overall direction to the story (even to the extent of going back and shooting or reshooting material to make his tale more coherent). Now, the plan was for narrative to take precedent over laughs for their own sake—there’d be less slapstick, but more ‘character’ and more emotion in Chaplin’s work. This would begin with his first production for First National, A Dog’s Life.

Dog04Despite breaking up in real life, Chaplin realised what an asset Edna Purviance was to his movies and they continued to work together for the first three films in his new First National contract—A Dog’s Life, Shoulder Arms (mainly in deleted domestic scenes), and The Pilgrim. In the first of these, A Dog’s Life, Edna plays the bar singer whose emotional laments reduce the bar’s lowlife clientele to tears (Chaplin’s Tramp included), and who reluctantly hustles patrons for dances in order to make them buy more drinks. She’s selective whom she dances with, however, choosing Chaplin’s good natured Tramp over some of the more boorish patrons demanding her attention, a personal discernment that earns her the sack.

Dog02The film’s other relationship is that between Chaplin’s Little Tramp and the dog, Scraps. The opening sequences in which we find both the Tramp and Scraps getting by separately on the streets set out to compare their lives with one another, giving the film and its title a satirical edge—the Tramp’s life is little better than that of a stray mutt. Both are alone, both suffer the same hunger pangs, and both lose out to the bigger and more ruthless elements within their societies.
This is depicted when the Tramp attempts to find work at a labour exchange, where his competition with a bunch of other out-of-work men for scarce jobs is contrasted with Scraps conflict with a bunch of larger, wilder dogs on the street over a measly bone. Although the Tramp is first into the exchange, he loses out on a day’s employment as he is continually pushed aside by others or disadvantaged as he attempt to get to one of the open windows before the competition. At the Tramp’s social level, it really is a dog-eat-dog world.

Dog12According to Peter Ackroyd’s Chaplin biography, Chaplin had been searching for a suitable animal co-star for a while, realising the emotional screen potential of a teaming of the Tramp with an equally vulnerable creature. A total of 12 (Ackroyd) or 21 (David Robinson) dogs were brought in to the star’s brand new studio to audition for A Dog’s Life, with the winner being a mongrel dubbed ‘Mut’, whose stage and screen name was ‘Scraps’. An accounting entry in the studio ledger is marked ‘whiskey (Mut) – 60 cents’ suggesting the dog may have been given a wee dram or two for the scenes where he was supposed to be asleep or docile, possibly for the scene where the Tramp uses the dog as a makeshift pillow (this kind of practice of sedating a screen animal with alcohol would not be allowed today).

Dog08In a news report from 1916, Chaplin was quoted as commenting ‘For a long time I’ve been considering the idea that a good comedy dog would be an asset in some of my plays, and of course the first that was offered [to] me was a dachshund. [It] got on my nerves. The second was a Pomeranian picked up by Miss Purviance. I got sick of having ‘Fluffy Ruffles’ round me, so I traded the ‘Pom’ for Helene Rosson’s poodle. That moon-eyed snuffling little beast lasted two days. What I really want is a mongrel dog. These studio beasts are too well kept.’ Perhaps dogs and Chaplin simply weren’t made for each other—maybe he should’ve tried a kid instead?

Dog10One brilliant bit of comic business is down to the dog’s tail. Attempting to hide the animal down his trousers as he enters the lowlife bar, Chaplin appears to be sporting a fluffy tail when Scraps own appendage sticks out through a hole in his trousers. Standing by the drummer in the band, the Tramp is oblivious as the dog’s eager wagging tail taps out an unexpected drumbeat, confusing the drummer who’s on a lunch break. Such a gag obviously depends on sound, so seems an odd choice for a silent movie, especially when the choice to add in such sound effects would vary according to each individual exhibitor—for once, the controlling Chaplin couldn’t exactly dictate how that particular gag should be presented.

A Dog’s Life was Chaplin’s longest work to date (apart from his role in Tillie’s Punctured Romance and the expanded Carmen, neither of which he controlled), with filming completed by 22 March (followed by almost a week of intense editing). In expanding his material to three reels (just over 30 minutes in duration), Chaplin faced the task of structuring his narrative in a more disciplined way. While he worked much as he always had in terms of developing comic business within scenes as he went along and as the fancy took him (an approach that was much more tenable in his own studio rather than when under the supervision of others), Chaplin was now finding it necessary to develop at least a modicum of a story spine first from which he could hang his comic business if he were to adequately fill the new running time.

One way of expanding the length of his films was to focus on character. Chaplin’s Tramp had always been at the centre of his films and so had enjoyed greater scope in terms of character development over the years, from the knockabout devil-may-care figure of the Keystone days to the more nuanced and better-developed human being of the Essanay and, especially, the Mutual shorts. Now he turned the character spotlight onto others. Arguably, Edna’s bar singer is a little more developed than some of her past roles, and even the likes of the pickpockets and the lunch wagon vendor get a bit more time and business than might be allowed in a simple two-reeler.

That lunch wagon vendor—from whom the Tramp steals several mouthfuls of muffins (or are they pies? Cakes? Pastries?) before he is caught—was played by Chaplin’s half-brother and business manager Syd Chaplin, the first time the pair had appeared together on screen. They’d worked together on the vaudeville stage, and Syd had been the first of the brothers to be signed up by Fred Karno. Syd effectively replaced Chaplin (upon Chaplin’s recommendation) at Keystone when he left at the end of 1914, but after a year at the studio and little success, Syd left. By then he’d taken up his role as Chaplin’s manager, negotiating both the Mutual and First National contracts that proved to be so lucrative and key to Chaplin’s development as a filmmaker (Syd would later be key to the negotiations that established United Artists in 1919). After appearing beside Chaplin in A Dog’s Life, Syd went on to feature in four more films with him: The Bond, Shoulder Arms, Pay Day, and The Pilgrim. Syd was signed to his own $1 million dollar contract by Famous Players-Lasky, a studio evidently keen to get in on the Chaplin business even if they couldn’t secure the ‘original’ Chaplin.

Syd’s wasn’t the only familiar face to have made the move from Mutual to the First National contract alongside Chaplin. Having essentially established a ‘Mutual repertory group’ that he knew he worked well with, Chaplin saw no reason to rock the boat and signed many of the same performers to work on the First National films as he’d used previously, central to them (for the first trio of films, at least) being Edna Purviance as his ‘leading lady’. Perhaps Chaplin simply knew it might take him a while to find a suitable replacement. Among those who reappeared from the Mutual films were Chaplin’s stand-by Henry Bergman (in at least three roles, and whom Chaplin looked upon as a replacement for the lost Eric Campbell), and the likes of Bud Jamison (from the Essanay days) and Albert Austin (as the pair of pickpockets), James T. Kelley, and Chuck Riesner.

Dog16While Chaplin was beginning to develop more complex stories, his camera style remained restrained consisting of largely establishing shots or simple head-on shots of the main characters in any scene. There is little visual innovation or experiment to be discerned from A Dog’s Life, except for the unusual step of shooting Scraps and the other dogs with no or few humans in the scene, following the dog’s adventures in parallel to those of the Tramp (who is endeavouring to ‘liberate’ a hot dog). The Tramp’s attire has been altered slightly; it more ‘vagabond’ in appearance, as he has lost his tie and cane—it is believed that Chaplin dropped the latter due to the need to hold onto the dog’s leash, and also because he was coming to feel he was relying on it a little too much for comic business.

A Dog’s Life ends on an unusual, almost fantasy-like scene of contentment for the Tramp. He’s fulfilled his promise to Edna to move to the country (becoming a farmer in the process, apparently), and seems to have a baby, if the presence of a baby basket is anything to go by. In a final comic upset, we’re shown that the basket contains Scraps and her pups… A family of sorts for Edna and the Little Tramp.

Trivia: The funniest scene in A Dog’s Life comes when the Tramp inserts his arms through a curtain behind the unconscious Albert Austin in an attempt to convince his drinking partner he’s still awake, and in an effort to recover some of the money the pair have stolen (and for the odd sup of beer). This scene (along with a few others in the film) is edited differently in alternate cuts of A Dog’s Life. The film was one of three (the other two being Shoulder Arms and The Pilgrim, along with clips from the incomplete How to Make Movies, see The Bond) were recut and released by Chaplin as The Chaplin Revue in 1959, with a new score composed by Chaplin and his own linking narration. As the original negative of the released version of A Dog’s Life had deteriorated beyond saving by 1940, Chaplin had to rely on alternate takes and unused shots archived by Rollie Totheroh to ‘reconstruct’ the film. Whereas the action in the Revue edit is uninterrupted, the original included reaction shots of Bud Jamison.

Charlie Says: ‘My first picture in my new studio was A Dog’s Life. The story had an element of satire, paralleling the life of a dog with that of the Tramp. This leitmotif was the structure upon which I build sundry gags and slapstick routines. I was beginning to think of comedy in a structural sense, and to become conscious of its architectural form. Each sequence implied the next sequence, all of them relating to the whole. In the Keystone days the Tramp had been freer and less confined to plot. With each succeeding comedy the Tramp was growing more complex. Sentiment was beginning to percolate through the character.’—My Autobiography

Verdict: Chaplin under a new boss (himself!) produces a slight step forward in A Dog’s Life, but it was merely the curtain raiser for the delights yet to come…

—Brian J. Robb

Next: The Bond [29 September 1918]


An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the first year of blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.

January 2018 Update

January 2018 Update: As predicted, I’m speeding up my Chaplin: Film by Film project, otherwise I’ll be 100 years old myself when I get to A Countess From Hong Kong if I stick to doing them on the 100th anniversary.

From January 2018, starting with the 1918 First National releases, I’ll be posting monthly (usually towards the end of the month). That way, I’ll cover the First National films by the end of September 2018. The first 10 months of 2019 will then be dedicated to Chaplin’s feature films, from A Woman of Paris through to A Countess From Hong Kong.

Be sure to join the journey, as it all ends in October 2019!

Coming next week: A Dog’s Life (April 1918).

Brian J. Robb

The Immigrant (17 June 1917)

Immigrant 06

Release Date: 17 June 1917

Writer/Director: Charles Chaplin

Duration: 24 mins

With: Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell, Henry Bergman, Albert Austin, Loyal Underwood, Janet Miller Sully, John Rand, James T. Kelley, Frank J. Coleman

Story: The Tramp’s arrival in the United States, where he finds love and heartbreak in equal measure…

Production: Charlie Chaplin’s penultimate film for Mutual sees him creatively stepping up a gear. The Immigrant is rightly acclaimed as one of Chaplin’s finest films from his Mutual period, but it is also a film that shows a maturation in his style, especially after the perhaps more inconsequential The Cure.

The starting point this time for Chaplin had been a plan to produce a ‘serio-comedy’ film about the nightlife of Paris and the people who inhabit it. ‘This theme offers scope for the sentimental touch which somehow always creeps into my stories,’ Chaplin told an interviewer at the time. ‘The trouble is to prevent that touch from smothering the comedy. There is so much pathos in the lives of all true bohemians that it is hard to lose sight of it even for a moment and the real spirit of that community is far too human and deeply respected by the world at large for me even to think of burlesquing it.’

Immigrant 04The original version of this film was to open in a restaurant where Charlie and Edna would be customers, with Eric Campbell inevitably cast in the role of an irascible waiter. Again, the discarded footage used in the Brownlow and Gill documentary series Unknown Chaplin clearly shows how Chaplin slowly but surely developed his material, almost in real time. Take after take, he’d slowly finds the story or the incident he wanted to portray, sometimes moving actors around from role to role until he found the right fit for each of his ‘rep company’ members. Initially, Campbell was absent and the Tramp’s dining partner wasn’t Edna but Albert Austin. It was only on take 46 that Austin exits and Edna enters, after about three days of shooting.

The addition of Campbell as a foil after a full week of shooting (replacing the original waiters, James T. Kelley and Henry Bergman) changes the tone of the piece, and it is surprising it took Chaplin a while to arrive at this idea, as it had worked so well (and recently) in so many previous films. The slow development of something approaching a plot (it is more a series of small events) comes when Chaplin decides that his Tramp does not have the funds to pay his bill. A series of comic developments sees him work his way out of this predicament, and in the process of shooting this sequence, Chaplin began to ask himself what had happened previously to bring the Tramp and Edna to this time and place.

As with Easy Street, Chaplin drew upon his own background as an immigrant to America to give his characters a possible backstory. Out of Chaplin’s slow burn filmmaking method developed the main thrust of this short, some distance from his rather more simple starting place. This layering of complexity over something initially rather simple would stay with Chaplin his entire creative life; he would develop the bigger themes of his films from a series of smaller incidents that would lead him to something larger and more meaningful.

Immigrant 01Unknown Chaplin reveals there were over 700 takes involved in making this film, about half set in and around the restaurant scenario that Chaplin started out with, and the other half focusing on life aboard the boat bringing the immigrants to the ‘new world’. The boat setting—something Chaplin had used to varying degrees of success before in such films as A Busy Day, The Rounders (a rowing boat!), Tillie’s Punctured Romance, By the Sea (a lifebelt, rather than a boat), and Shanghaied (Chaplin reused the rocking set idea he’d developed for that film on The Immigrant). He’d return to the theme almost immediately in The Adventurer, his final film for Mutual, and explore it further in A Day’s Pleasure, The Gold Rush, and in his final film as director, A Countess from Hong Kong.

During his Karno tours of America Chaplin had come to the country aboard the Cairnrona on his first trip in 1910, and then on board the Oceanic—having arrived in America for the second time he stayed, soon finding himself making his first films at Keystone in 1914. The immigrant experience was something close to Chaplin’s heart, and he saw an opportunity in exploring the origins of the Tramp and Edna in this film to explore the topic in greater depth. He immediately instructed his set designer Danny Hall to find a suitable vessel, and Hall soon hired a ‘tramp steamer’ registered at San Pedro at the cost of $1300 per day. It took 10 days before Chaplin got around to start shooting on the hired ship.

Immigrant 02Such was Chaplin’s production process that the opening scenes of The Immigrant were the last to be shot. Sea-sickness was clearly an irresistible comic topic for Chaplin, and he makes much play of the Tramp (and others’) uncomfortable voyage across the sea, although when we first see him and assume he is ill, he is only in the throws of wrestling with a captured fish. Amid the would-be immigrants to America are a variety of characters (and caricatures) that the Tramp falls foul of, among them Albert Austin’s unwell Russian, Henry Bergman in drag (again) as a peasant woman, and Loyal Underwood as his tiny husband. As the Statue of Liberty comes into view of the weary travellers, they are roped together like cattle in a far from welcoming gesture (in this moment, Chaplin managed to sneak some basic and subtle political commentary into the film—outtakes also see him rounding on recalcitrant extras with an unusual degree of directorial anger during shooting).

At the end of the undisciplined filming process on The Immigrant, Chaplin had around 40,000 feet of film to work with in order to produce a short that was supposed to be about 1,800 feet in length (he’d apparently shot a total of 90,000 feet of film, equivalent to D. W. Griffith’s 12-reel feature film Birth of a Nation). Chaplin was unusual at that time for indulging in multiple takes, especially on short films. As David Robinson notes, ‘More than two years after The Immigrant, D. W. Griffith made his ambitious Broken Blossoms practically without a second take. For a director like Griffith to shoot any scene more than once would have been an admission of inadequate rehearsal and error. For Chaplin it was an assertion that it was always possible to do better.’

Faced with a seemingly unmanageable mountain of material, Chaplin spent the better part of a whole week, day and night, working on assembling a working cut of The Immigrant. He refused to break off until the work was done in fear that he might lose sight of the bigger picture he was trying to achieve. The editing process involved Chaplin viewing the same scenes (or variations thereof) over and over again, often up to 40 or 50 times to ensure he used the right take, the best option. As ever, his perfectionist tendencies were at play here and the final editing of The Immigrant was a painstaking process.

Where The Cure might have been the funniest of Chaplin’s Mutual films, The Immigrant was perhaps the most serious or most poignant. There is much comedy in it, of course, but underlying the whole thing is the theme of immigration and the struggle to make a new life in a strange world, the risks involved in finding companionship, and the worries of making ends meet in the face of a hostile world. All this in a comedy short that runs for under half-an-hour.

Immigrant 03On board ship the Tramp meets Edna and her mother (Kitty Bradbury), only to lose them when the party finally reaches land. It is in the restaurant, searching for sustenance, that the Tramp finds Edna once again. A purely visual sequence indicates that Edna’s mother has died, and Chaplin plays the sympathetic friend well here. The comedy crashes back in with his inability to pay and his conflict with Campbell’s waiter. After that, he and Edna leave the restaurant into the pouring rain, heading to the marriage bureau to get hitched (where Chaplin’s then-new valet, Tom Harrington, plays the clerk). It is both triumphant and melancholy, as most of Chaplin’s films would be from here on.

The Immigrant was a quicker production than The Cure, taking just two months as Chaplin had hit upon the central conceit of the film relatively early in the process. Simon Louvish, writing in Chaplin: A Tramp’s Odyssey, notes that ‘whatever the convoluted and exhaustive process used to achieve his results, those results were now seamless [with The Immigrant and The Adventurer], as if they had been meticulously planned and structured in advance. The process was quite unique among film-makers, and revealing of the odd and singular nature of Chaplin’s intuition.’ Although Chaplin’s ‘process’ may appear rather hit-and-miss from the vantage point of 100 years later, it worked for him. He may not have exactly known what he was making while in the throws of filming, but when viewing the results of his efforts he seemed to have an eye for just the right shot needed to cement any given sequence.

Photoplay magazine hadn’t been the only source of a mild backlash against Chaplin, having criticized his outlandish salary (although the magazine ultimately concluded that his films made it just about worthwhile). During 1917, Charlie Chaplin ‘when he’s drunk’ was on a list of things that Minneapolis teachers and ministers objected to. Chaplin may have been happy to be among such ‘objectionable’ company as ‘uncensored Wild West films, thrillers, Theda Bara’. A Detroit pastor had already attacked Chaplin’s salary, claiming that ‘the fact that Charlie Chaplin now receives the largest salary of any man in the United States … is clear evidence of the enormous numbers of low-grade, unintelligent, shallow-minded men and women in the United States.’ It was clear in this case that attacking Chaplin was part of some larger, perhaps eugenics-infused agenda, although the same pastor attacked Mary Pickford before rounding on ‘the coarse, vulgar slapstick of Chaplin, which passes for humour with the witless and coarse-grained person of a low-order of intellect.’ Wow.

While huge audiences worldwide found Chaplin’s comedy highly humorous without exception, and without regard to their intelligence (or otherwise), elite critics with a platform (then and today) liked nothing more than to turn upon and castigate the popular, especially if it was popular with the ‘uneducated lower classes’, that is the mass of the population.

Perhaps some of this Chaplin backlash had come about due to America’s entry into the Great War in Europe in April 1917. Chaplin had already addressed his non-participation upon Britain’s declaration of war, three years earlier. Now the fact America had joined the conflict offered his critics another chance to have a go at the comedian who was happy to cash-in while his fellow countrymen fought and died in bleak fields in Europe to defend freedom. These criticisms would stick to Chaplin, despite his best efforts—he had already donated $150,000 of his Mutual salary to the British war effort in February 1917—and would sow the seeds that ultimately dogged the comedian through the 1940s and led to his self-exile in Europe in the 1950s.

Chaplin, though, had other more personal issues on his mind at this time—he was about to renegotiate his deal with Mutual or look elsewhere to pursue his filmmaking endeavours.—Brian J. Robb

Charlie Says: ‘The Immigrant touched me more than any other film I made. I thought the end had quite a poetic feeling. Even in those early comedies I strove for a mood; usually music created it. An old song called Mrs. Grundy created the mood for The Immigrant. The tune had a wistful tenderness that suggested two lonely derelicts getting married on a doleful, rainy day.’—My Autobiography, 1964

Trivia: Publicity for The Immigrant put out by the distributors highlighted an incident that occurred during filming, and revealed exactly how Chaplin went about directing himself and others during the making of a picture. ‘If you have wondered how Charlie Chaplin manages to play the lead in a production and at the same time direct all the other people who are acting in the scene, here is the reason: he is a ventriloquist, but none of the members of his cast discovered it until a bean which refused to go down with a spoonful of others lodged in Chaplin’s windpipe during the filming of The Immigrant. Chaplin was working with Edna Purviance in the foreground. They were seated at a table busily eating beans. Quick action was in progress in the background, and the various characters moved about at the sound of the “assistant director’s” voice. Charlie hurled directions from the depth of his chest to every corner of the set. “Slap me on the back,” he shouted from the side of this mouth to Eric Campbell, the 300 pound heavy, and Eric did it. Like lava from a volcano almost a pint of beans shot forth from Charlie’s face. It was now time for him to bring in some excitement in the background, and, still laughing, he leaned back in his chair, drew in his breath and was about to ventriloquize when the fatal bean choked him! His secret was out—the mystery of the “assistant director” was solved to the satisfaction of the players.’

The Contemporary View: ‘There’s no two ways about it: Charlie Chaplin is funny. If, perchance, you are a grouch and resolutely set yourself in the mental attitude that you won’t be amused by his nonsensicalities, go to any theatre where The Immigrant is being shown and, in spite of yourself, you’ll be carried away by those about you. The surprising thing about it all is that nobody ever thought of placing him on board a ship as one of a load of immigrants. Now that it is brought to your attention, it is as obvious as the historical story of Columbus and the egg… The $670,000 a year funny man is still “there”. The extremely limited number of titles speak volumes for the pantomimic art of the comedian.’—Variety, 22 June 1917

‘[The Immigrant is] a transparent intermezzo well repaying the closest analysis. In its roughness and apparent simplicity it is as much a jewel as a story by O. Henry and no full-time farce seen on our stages in years has been more adroitly, more perfectly worked out. It has, to an extraordinary degree, those elements of surprise that are necessary in every play, and which put the capstone of humour on comedy, because they add to the ludicrousness, the deliciousness of the unexpected. His payment of the waiter with his friend’s change concludes what is without any doubt at all the longest variation on a single comedy incident put on screen—a variation worked out with such patience and skill that every sequence of action seems entirely natural and spontaneous.’—Photoplay, September 1917

Verdict: Perhaps the best of the Mutuals, The Immigrant is when Chaplin’s serious side began to shine.

Next: The Adventurer (22 October 1917)


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.

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.



The Cure (16 April 1917)

The Cure 1

Release Date: 16 April 1917

Writer/Director: Charles Chaplin

Duration: 24 mins

With: Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell, Henry Bergman, John Rand, Albert Austin, James T. Kelley, Frank J. Coleman

Story: A drunk (Chaplin) checks into a health spa in order to dry out, but brings a suitcase full of booze with him…

Production: Where Easy Street saw Charlie Chaplin branching out and drawing upon his own childhood experiences of poverty for inspiration, with his next film for Mutual, The Cure, he returned to the tried and tested: his familiar drunk routine. This new spin on a character he’d been playing since his earliest days in vaudeville was his attempt to go straight, even if he turns up at the spa for the cure with a huge trunk full of booze in tow.

Of course, the humour in such a film comes from the Tramp’s complete resistance to any attempt to sober him up. A relaxing massage turns into a wrestling match, while the Tramp’s supply of back-up booze ends up in the water fountain, leading to all sorts of mayhem. Also in the mix is Eric Campbell’s gout sufferer, ensuring that Charlie gets his sensitive leg stuck in the revolving door, and Edna Purviance needs to be rescued from assorted drunks who’ve partaken of the fountain’s ‘healing’ waters. At the finale, both Charlie and Edna end up in the very same fountain.

The Cure is fast-moving and joke packed, made at a time when Chaplin was in his element, enjoying the security of his Lone Star studio and the complete trust of Mutual, who were resigned to if not relaxed about his slowed pace of production. They knew he’d complete the contracted 10 films, but they perhaps hoped he might have finished before October 1917, when he completed The Adventurer.

The Cure 2Three months had elapsed since the release of Easy Street, a significant period between Chaplin movies. Chaplin’s working process was becoming ever more elaborate and drawn out, as revealed in the Kevin Brownlow/David Gill documentary Unknown Chaplin. Thanks to saved outtakes and unused material, skilfully compiled by Brownlow and Gill, it is possible to witness Chaplin constructing The Cure by shooting, revising, and rethinking individual scenes and scenarios. Spontaneous ideas would mean rearranging or replacing already shot material, while previously discarded notions re-emerge as the work progresses. The opening sequence, for example, was apparently only reached by a total of 84 takes and a rethink in the design of the set.

Through the numbered takes we can see Chaplin’s character evolving from bellboy to spa attendant, as the action is relocated from forecourt to the lobby of the health facility. A wheelchair bound patient is initially Eric Campbell, but is then replaced in later takes by Albert Austin. At one point, Chaplin’s employee becomes an ersatz traffic cop, directing the increasing number of wheelchair bound patients.

It is only after 77 takes of various bits of business that Chaplin removes the fountain in the forecourt, replacing it with a more accessible well, so much the better for falling in to. The first drunk to take a dunk is played by John Rand, under Chaplin’s close direction. At some point, whether through frustration or because he couldn’t resist the temptation of the role himself, Chaplin had dropped his previous characters and stepped into the part of the drunk. That led to the revolving door and the emergence of the final version of The Cure as we now know it.

The Cure 3It was little wonder that the progress of each film would be slower and more involved given the way Chaplin was approaching his work. He’d seemingly inherited the idea of starting a film based upon a simple scenario, character or location from Keystone, but on top of that he’d brought his own perfectionist instincts. Having built up a solid reputation for good work in such a short period of time, it is fair to speculate that Chaplin must’ve been terrified of turning in anything less than his best efforts. However, his approach of ‘finding’ the film in the shooting of it was both beneficial and detrimental. A benefit shows up in comic business created accidentally: in one take around the revolving door, Chaplin’s cane gets accidentally caught in the door. A few takes later, he starts to incorporate this ‘accident’ as a deliberate bit of business. This kind of thing would happen a lot as he used time, his colleagues, and reels and reels of film to work out his ideas. The downside was that he could now spend months on each individual film, determined to get it right, constantly striving to improve whatever he’d worked out, only agreeing to release it once his high standards had been satisfied. It certainly worked on the critics, who largely failed to perceive the amount of effort that went in to creating such ‘spontaneity’, such that Motion Picture World was able to say of The Cure: ‘Chaplin’s inimitable expressions and postures are so spontaneous that one cannot for a moment think of his work as preconceived effort.’

The Cure 7Simon Louvish, in Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey, positions The Cure as a kind of sequel to One A.M., working on the assumption that the character of ‘Mr. Arthur Arkwright, the naturalist’ may be the same drunk audiences saw struggling with the contents of his home when he arrived back late one night slightly the worse for wear. Perhaps, so Louvish’s theory goes, The Cure sees the same character presenting himself for detoxification. According to Louvish, ‘The Cure is a torture chamber of society’s solutions for the demon rum’s malignant authority… The revolving door exemplifies [the] failed attempt at moral resurrection … There is no cure for society’s ills, as it is incurably insane.’

Was Chaplin’s approach to filmmaking at this stage an example of his growing abilities as an artist, creating the films with the camera as an author writes with a pen (or typewriter), being willing to discard what doesn’t work, to rework material, or even drop everything in order to start again? Or was it, as Chaplin biographer Joyce Milton suggests, simply symptomatic of a man who couldn’t make up his mind? It took Chaplin four months to complete and release The Cure, and while the final film is regarded as one of his best, the increasing delays and slowing pace of production was of concern to Mutual, who felt their ‘Lone Star’ was perhaps delaying production for no very good reason (except, maybe, his own enrichment).

Milton reports that Chaplin was becoming ever more moody during this time, and had a tendency to upset those he was working with, perhaps simply a symptom of his own artistic frustration in making The Cure. A new recruit among Chaplin’s company during the early part of 1917 was his new personal publicist, Carlyle T. Robinson, who would remain by the comedian’s side for the next decade and a half. Robinson quickly found that Chaplin ‘was a very difficult person to meet, even within his own studio. I learned also that it was absolutely forbidden for strangers to penetrate into the studio, that the star did not like journalists, and did not wish to be bothered by old friends, even those who had known Charlie Chaplin when he played in the English music halls.’

Robinson quickly got the measure of his new employer, learning his ways. It was clear that Chaplin did not keep anything resembling ‘office hours’, and would come and go from the studio at all hours of the day and night, as inspiration or the need to work struck him. Robinson was to be on the receiving end of Chaplin’s eccentricities and idiosyncrasies, as well as his strongly expressed likes and dislikes. According to Robinson, Chaplin’s favourites, like Henry Bergman, tended to be disliked by the rest of the crew working on the Chaplin films, simply because they’d been singled out for the star’s favour.

The Cure 5For all its inventiveness, there is something basic about The Cure. The scenario is not particularly unique, while the comic business featuring Chaplin’s drunk and Eric Campbell’s gout-struck foot is par for the course. Even the negligent romance with Edna is underplayed, except for one surprising moment that sticks out today. As noted by John Kimber in The Art of Charlie Chaplin, ‘[Charlie and Eric]’s routine feuding over Edna is enlivened by a moment when Charlie imagines that Eric’s salacious invitations are being directed at him, and reacts with a mixture of embarrassment and pleasure.’

Chaplin’s focus on the mischief making drunk is a throwback to his earlier Keystone shorts in which the Tramp was the source of most of the mayhem that ensued. In The Cure he has retreated from being the figure of authority seen in his policeman in Easy Street, bringing order where there is chaos, and has instead returned to playing the Trickster figure, the one who causes the chaos where there otherwise was order.—Brian J. Robb

Charlie Says: ‘When I see a screen actress get ready to cry, I look the other way until she’s through with the spasm. It gives me the shudders; I feel ashamed. That isn’t good acting. Some directors insist on their actresses crying during certain kinds of emotional scenes. Then they show a close-up of tears furrowing through make-up. Uhh! One of the easiest things in acting is to bring tears. I can do it any time, but I should never forgive myself if I had some scene like that photographed.’—New York Tribune Sunday, 30 December 1917

Trivia: Chaplin’s astonishing earnings at Mutual [see Chaplin Signs With Mutual] had been causing consternation through 1916 and 1917 in the motion picture community, with many arguing that his payment was ridiculously high at a time of war when many people were struggling to earn a decent income. Photoplay magazine ran an article entitled ‘C. Chaplin, Millionaire-Elect’ that focused on Chaplin’s accumulating wealth. Photoplay noted that ‘Except for John Hayes Hammond, President of US Steel, ‘Chaplin’s salary is likely the biggest salary grabbed off by any public person outside of royalty.’ Statistics revealed that Chaplin’s salary made up 17 per cent of the total salaries paid to 96 Senators and 435 Representatives of the US Congress, and 93 per cent of the Senate’s payroll.

The Contemporary View: ‘If there should be any impression that Charlie Chaplin has slipped the slightest in his ability to comically mime in the films, the once over of his latest effort, The Cure (Mutual), should certainly “cure” any such idea. … It may be that Chaplin fans will vote The Cure the best of the Mutual’s so far. It has been […] months since the previous Chaplin, Easy Street, was released, and therefore the new one is considerably late. A reason for that probably is the rather pretentious hotel setting employed, which looked good enough to have taken plenty of time for construction. … The Cure is a whole meal of laughs, not merely giggles, and ought to again emphasize the fact that Charlie is in a class by himself.’—Variety, 13 April 1917

‘[The Cure] wherein Charlie Chaplin proves himself a great comedian. There is little slapstick comedy used in this burlesque on sanatorium life. Chaplin’s inimitable expressions and postures are so spontaneous that one cannot for a moment think of his work as preconceived effort. It is interesting to note that of each of Mr. Chaplin’s latest comedies one feels like saying: “the best yet”.’—Motion Picture Magazine, July 1917

Verdict: One of the best Mutuals, even if Chaplin’s character reverts to near-Keystone type as the creator of chaos.

Next: The Immigrant (17 June 197)


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.

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.