The Fireman (12 June 1916)

 

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Release Date: 12 June 1916

Writer/Director: Charles Chaplin

Duration: 24 mins

With: Eric Campbell, Edna Purviance, Lloyd Bacon, Albert Austin, James T. Kelley, John Rand, Leo White, Frank J. Coleman

Story: The Tramp has a job, as an incompetent fireman at Station 23. Caught up in an insure-and-burn scheme, he has to rescue fire chief’s intended from the flames…

Production: Charlie Chaplin’s second short for Mutual continued his focus on gags and situations—as the title suggests, Chaplin plays the role of an inept firefighter—but he failed to add any additional depth to his character. Perhaps he felt he needed to find his feet making new films for a new studio in unfamiliar circumstances before he could turn his attention to further developing his art? As it is, The Fireman is a gag-laden short that is richly amusing if not emotionally enriching. According to John McCabe, Chaplin drew inspiration from simply walking past a local Los Angeles fire station near to the Mutual studio one day and imaging himself as a fireman, a man completely at the mercy of the demands of the fire alarm bell. It was enough to see him embark upon making the short, even without a fully worked out scenario, as was increasingly becoming his habit. That approach might explain the somewhat disjointed, episodic nature of The Fireman.

This is a short more in the Keystone style, with Eric Campbell as the hopeless fire chief who gets caught up in an insure-and-burn caper so he can wed a businessman’s daughter (played by Edna Purviance). His plan falls apart, however, when the ever-heroic Charlie comes to the rescue after he spots Edna (whom he’s also in love with) trapped in the burning building. There is something of the later Harold Lloyd ‘thrill pictures’ in the climax as Chaplin (or maybe a stunt double, see ‘Trivia’) scales the ladder to come to Edna’s rescue. Meanwhile, Leo White’s house is also burning down, but nothing he does seems to engage the interest of the fire department.

Filming for The Fireman took place at a real fire station—Fire Station #29, located at 158 South Western, which had opened just three years before (it only closed in 1988, making it potentially the Los Angeles fire station that was in continuous use the longest). This decision gave the short some very high production values, as Chaplin was able to fully utilise the premises and the (horse-drawn) fire trucks stored there—presumably all subject to them being withdrawn from the film if there were an emergency call out.

In addition to the fire station, real fires mounted by the production team at two separate condemned houses added further spectacular production value. Scenes of Chaplin rushing to get to the fires, with the fire fighter crew hanging on to the buggy for dear life, recall some of the old Keystone rough-and-tumble chases from two years before. Even when they reach the site of the fire, the firemen insist on limbering up before they dare tackle the blaze…

Chaplin2016 TheFireman9 EdnaDespite all this action, there is room in the short for some quieter comic moments, such as when Charlie uses the fire engine’s boiler as a makeshift coffee urn, dispensing coffee and cream from its taps, and a scene in which the naïve fireman attempts to brush down the department’s horses using a dainty feather duster. These were characteristic comedy moments, but the relationship with Edna is not advanced much (attaching her to Eric Campbell’s villain made that difficult) and so the opportunities for any kind of heart-tugging pathos are limited.

Upon the release of The Fireman, Chaplin received a letter in reaction to the short from a fan that brought him up short (according to biographer John McCabe). The mid-westerner wrote: ‘I have noticed in your last picture a lack of spontaneity. Although the picture was unfailing as a laugh-getter, the laughter was not so round as in some of your earlier work. I am afraid that you are becoming a slave to your public, whereas in most of your pictures the audience were a slave to you…’ It seemed to Chaplin that the complaint was a valid one—he was in danger of resting on his laurels, and churning out material that could have been made at Keystone or even at Essanay was not enough. He would have to strive to deepen both his character and his filmmaking techniques if he was to stay one step ahead of his fans, giving the public not what they wanted but what they didn’t know they needed.

The latest addition to the Chaplin company at Mutual was James T. Kelley (born in Castlebar in July, 1854 and sometimes billed as ‘Kelly’), an Irish-born performer who had a degree of stage and dance experience, but on film often played elderly inebriates. His earlier films included some Edison credits in 1897: Bowery Waltz (aka Apache Dance) and Charity Ball. He was seen alongside Louise Fazenda in the Universal short The Battle of the Nations in 1914. Kelley had appeared alongside Chaplin before in A Night in the Show and in Police, but he’d really make his mark during the Mutual period. He was the elderly elevator operator in The Floorwalker, a past his prime fireman in The Fireman, and later an out-of-shape bellhop in The Cure and he played two roles in the Chaplin classic The Immigrant. He worked with Chaplin right through the Mutual period, including roles in The Pawnshop, The Vagabond, A Dog’s Life, The Count, The Rink, and Easy Street. He also worked with Harold Lloyd, appearing in his 1921 comedy Among Those Present right through to the feature Safety Last (1923). Later in the 1920s he appeared in a variety of Western films, including Man Rustlin’ (1926) and Men of Daring (1927). He died in 1933 at the age of 79 in New York City.

Along with his newfound popularity, Chaplin had to face a new problem: film piracy. In the earliest days of movie distribution, films were released across the US via local ‘film exchanges’ in an often haphazard manner. Films were considered disposable, unlikely to last (either physically or in the memory of audiences) beyond the projected 90-day life of a standard print. It was easy for unscrupulous practitioners to obtain copies of the newest Chaplin short and strike their own copy, which they then leased out to cinemas pocketing the theatrical screening fee that should have gone back to the studios, whether Keystone, Essanay, or—from May 1916—Mutual, none of whom seemed too interested in protecting their property. (French filmmaker George Méliès, a special effects and filmmaking pioneer in his own right, especially suffered from US piracy of his works).

One example was the completely unauthorised ‘Chaplin Film Company’ that actually had an office on West 45th Street in Manhattan. It was Keystone investor Charles Baumann who discovered it following a tip-off. This unofficial distributor was well-stocked with ‘dupes’, unofficial duplicate prints, copies of the most popular Chaplin shorts and at this point—in the summer of 1915—was making great money from distributing Chaplin’s Dough and Dynamite. Now aware of the transgression, Keystone went to court and had the whole operation shut down. That, however, was just one of many ‘dupe’ distributors in action, many of them not daft enough to open a shop front in a major Manhattan thoroughfare.

One step beyond that kind of direct theft was the ‘bogus Chaplins’. These weren’t films featuring Chaplin impersonators and imitators (already covered here: In The Park), but movies made up of extracts or outtakes from Chaplin’s work that was re-edited to make a ‘new’ Chaplin release. One such was The Perils of Patrick, modelled after Pathe’s The Perils of Pauline (at least as far as the title went), a serial made up of much of Chaplin’s Keystone footage. It didn’t help their case that both Keystone and Essanay (see Burlesque on Carmen) were not above similar activity themselves.

The effort that went in to creating these ‘bogus’ Chaplin shorts was often ingenious. Rather than put their efforts into creating original works of their own, several would-be filmmakers took the opportunity of Chaplin’s stratospheric popularity to ride on the innovative comedian’s coat tails. Among them were Bronx-born duo Jules Potash and Isadore Peskov who took Chaplin’s The Champion (an Essanay release), removed the backgrounds and replaced them with an unlikely undersea world, itself lifted directly from Herbert Brenon’s film Daughter of the Gods. The resulting uncomfortable mash-up was released (through their New Apollo Feature Film Company) under the title Charlie Chaplin in a Son of the Gods, a film which contrived to show the Tramp visiting King Neptune’s court and there encountering Keystone-style bathing beauty mermaids. This film was brazenly screened at the 14th Street Crystal Palace theatre in New York, a regular venue for Chaplin’s legitimate products. Having succeeded with that release, Potash and Peskov were soon at it again with Charlie in the Harem and the predictive Charlie in the Trenches (itself a working title for the later Shoulder Arms, 1918). As Chaplin did not own the copyright to his early works, there was little he could do about such disgraceful behaviour.

Chaplin1916 The Fireman 1Others were inspired to follow the example of Potash and Peskov: after all, there was money in them thar films. The Seiden brothers—Joseph and Jacob—operated out of Chicago (Chaplin’s onetime Essanay stamping ground) and released a Chaplin knockoff under the title The Fall of the RummyNuffs (a supposed pun on the Russian Romanovs, then in the news). As well as adapting original footage, particularly enterprising film pirates would hire Chaplin lookalikes in order to create ‘new’ material to expand the length of the films (this lead to the full-blown craze for Chaplin impersonators such as Billy West). By this time, Chaplin was signed to First National (in 1917), and his legal officer Nathan Burkan launched a concerted effort to rid cinemas of these ‘bogus’ Chaplin films, including such titles as The Dishonour System (a two-reeler) and One Law for Both. Targets he attacked included not only the filmmakers themselves, but also the laboratories that developed the film, those who made the posters for the bogus movies, and those who screened them—all in an attempt to seek some form of financial redress. ‘Several suits will be started against each and every exhibitor in this and other cities for exhibiting spurious Charlie Chaplin pictures,’ said Burkan. At First National, Chaplin developed an innovative way of authenticating his films to counter such piracy, but we’ll cover that when the blog reaches Chaplin’s First National releases.

Another pressing problem that Chaplin faced in the summer of 1916 was the question of his willingness (or otherwise) to fight for his country—Great Britain—in the then-unfolding ‘Great War’, better known today as the First World War. In 1914, when war was first declared with Germany, Chaplin had decided to stay in the US rather than return home to do his bit for ‘King and Country’ (as the misguided patriotic cry had it). By the time he was at Mutual, just as the war was kicking into a higher gear in the summer of 1916, it became public that Chaplin’s Mutual contract actually contained a clause that would actively prevent him from ‘joining up’ in the British army as he was considered to be such a valuable ‘commodity’ to the company.

This created something of a backlash with some popular sentiment portraying Chaplin as a coward who was actively avoiding conscription (the ‘draft’ in the US) of ordinary citizens to serve in the army that was ensnaring much of his home country audience. The comedian began to receive letters from soldiers containing white feathers, long a symbol of cowardice in the face of war, and a handful of cinemas back in Britain refused to screen any further Chaplin films due to his non-participation in the war. At the same time, Chaplin received letters from other soldiers, many serving at the frontlines in France, pleading with him to continue making the ‘funny’ films that made them laugh and raised their morale in the face of deadly danger. Some in the ‘top brass’ of the British army actually came to regard Charlie Chaplin’s filmmaking to be a much more important contribution to the British war effort and to raising morale both among soldiers and on the ‘home front’ than any effort he could personally make by picking up a rifle.

Chaplin2016 The Fireman8According to Chaplin biographer David Robinson, the campaign to harass Chaplin due to his seeming avoidance of war service had been instigated by Lord Northcliffe, the publisher of Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper. From the spring of 1916 the paper had been carrying disparaging comments about Chaplin’s failure to sign up with Britain’s armed forces, highlighting the clause in his Mutual contract that apparently prevented him from returning to his homeland for the duration of the conflict in case he should be conscripted to fight. ‘We have received several letter protesting against the idea of [anyone] making a profit on the exhibition in this country of a man who binds himself not to come home to fight for his native land,’ said the newspaper.

By the following year, the rhetoric had escalated, with an editorial (probably dictated by Northcliffe himself) running in the Weekly Dispatch that castigated the comedian: ‘Charles Chaplin, although slight built, is very firm on his feet, as is evidenced by his screen acrobatics. … During the 34 months of the war it is estimated [that] he has earned well over £125,000. … Chaplin can hardly refuse the British nation both his money and his services. … He is under the suspicion of regarding himself as specially privileged to escape the common responsibilities of British citizenship. … It is Charlie’s duty to offer himself as a recruit.’ Other papers, including the Daily Express, joined the calls against Chaplin’s non-participation.

Eventually, the star was forced into issuing a statement on the situation to the press: ‘I am ready and willing to answer the call of my country to serve in any branch of the military service at whatever post the national authorities may consider I might do the most good,’ said Chaplin. ‘But, like thousands of other Britishers, I am awaiting word from the British Embassy in Washington.’ He went on to highlight his financial investments in the war effort and the fact that he’d registered for the draft (drawn on a random lottery basis) in the United States.

Chaplin2016 The Fireman7Sydney was drawn into the fuss, too, having to confirm that he was over the exemption age of 31—the suspicion was that he’d been singled out simply because he was Chaplin’s (half) brother. The active campaign against Chaplin only came to an end, according to Robinson, when the actor presented himself at a recruiting office but was turned away for being underweight!

According to Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Chaplin the comedian wrote back to one soldier correspondent that he was ‘sorry my professional demands do not permit my presence in the Mother Country.’ According to another friend, Chaplin had expressed his utter horror of war in these terms: ‘Not for me! I’d have gone to jail rather than have gone into it. I’d have gnawed off my fist rather than get into that sort of thing.’ These sentiments perhaps reflected Chaplin’s growing pacifist feelings rather than any cowardice in his nature. Later Chaplin would tackle the subject directly in 1918’s Shoulder Arms and would tour the US (where he was greeted by record-breaking crowds) promoting the purchase of war bonds. — Brian J. Robb

Trivia: It doesn’t appear to be Chaplin driving the horse-drawn fire truck from the station, more like Eric Campbell (based on his size) or an anonymous stuntman. Similarly, the dummy figure that Chaplin carries down during the rescue scene has much darker hair than the blonde Edna Purviance, who he is supposedly rescuing!

The Contemporary View: ‘There is an abundance of the rough comedy which secures laughs. The best laughs are when the prop engine falls apart. The rescue of the girl from the top storey is a good hit, also the general business around the firehouse.’—Variety, June 1916

Verdict: The Fireman is a throwback to Keystone and Essanay slapstick, but Chaplin was capable of more sophisticated comedy.

Next: The Vagabond (10 July 1916)

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The Floorwalker (15 May 1916)

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Release Date: 15 May 1916

Writer/Director: Charles Chaplin

Duration: 24 mins

With: Eric Campbell, Lloyd Bacon, Edna Purviance, Albert Austin, Charlotte Mineau, Leo White, James T. Kelley

Story: Visiting a department store, the Tramp becomes caught up in the schemes of the manager and the floorwalker, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Tramp.

Production: By the spring of 1916, Charles Chaplin had only been a filmmaker for two years and a worldwide movie star (one of the first) for just over a year, yet he was well on his way to mastering this relatively young art form. He’d escaped from his early poverty and troubled family background in London into Vaudeville, and eventually made his way to America as part of Fred Karno’s troupe. Headhunted by Mack Sennett’s Keystone, a studio always on the lookout for new cinematic comic talent, Chaplin made his first tentative steps before the camera in early 1914. A year later, he’d moved on to Essanay, tempted by a huge salary increase and a higher degree of creative control. During 1915, his Essanay year, it is possible to see Chaplin developing new ways of making movies, deepening his iconic Tramp character along the way.

In 1916, turning the age of just 27 that April, Charlie Chaplin had become the highest paid star in movies, signing a $670,000 deal (equivalent to over $10 million today, and 10 times more than he’d previously been paid) with the Mutual Film Company to make 12 two-reel short film comedys. Mutual went all in to support their new star, committing around $1.5 million to him (including that salary), and making available a dedicated studio space and production unit under the suitable moniker The Lone Star Studio. Film historian and publicist Terry Ramsaye (A Million and One Nights, 1926) dubbed Lone Star ‘The biggest operation centred around a single star in the history of the motion picture industry’. Ramsaye himself was sucked into the Chaplin business, having become a producer at Mutual in 1915 and later working on some of the Chaplin shorts.

Chaplin1916 01TheFloorwalker2During his time at Essanay in 1915, Chaplin’s working methods had evolved and his output slowed somewhat. As he spent more time developing comic business and situations for his films, so the anticipated release schedule of a new film short every month had slipped very badly by the end of the contract. It should come as no surprise that it would take Chaplin the better part of two years to complete the 12 films for Mutual that were supposed to have been produced as part of a one year contract. However, there is a lot of truth behind Chaplin’s famous quote about this period: ‘Fulfilling my contract with Mutual was, I suppose, the happiest period of my life.’

Mutual provided Chaplin with what he’d wanted at both Keystone and Essanay—an effectively unlimited budget, so he was free of financial concerns, with complete autonomy and creative control, so he could work the way he had to in order to produce the best comedy films he could his way. The other studios had been production line outfits, where all that mattered was getting the new films out and repeating successful formulas. Although Chaplin had started in this way, he’d quickly grown beyond it, creatively speaking. At Mutual, he had the tools and the time to develop his unique comedy, and to the credit of the studio they were willing to give him the time and resources he needed. Chaplin would not complete his 12 films with Mutual until the release of The Adventurer in October 1917, almost a year and a half after the release of his debut for the studio, The Floorwalker.

By 1916 Chaplin had taken up residence in the Los Angeles Athletic Club. Despite his growing wealth, he continued to live fairly frugally—he didn’t own property. His new ‘Lone Star’ studio was just south of Santa Monica Boulevard, so he didn’t have far to go to get to work in the morning. He had a Japanese chauffeur, Toraichi Kono, to drive him to work in his newly purchased Locomobile. Kono would double in service to Chaplin as an effective bodyguard and servant, as well as chauffeur, becoming a figure Chaplin described as ‘My Man Friday’. Kono would stay in Chaplin’s service for the next 30 years. In a profile of the filmmaker by Karl K. Kitchen Chaplin’s frugal lifestyle was put under the spotlight. ‘His only extravagance is a 12-cylinder automobile. … His personal expenses last year were considerably less than $500 and there are no indications that his new contract has turned his head.’

The filmmaker also had a secretary (and valet) named Tom Harrington to help look after his affairs, while his half-brother Sydney Chaplin continued to handle the business side of his ever more complicated life. While he didn’t flaunt his wealth, Chaplin did put great store by the people his fame allowed him to meet, from those in American ‘high society’ to the great thinkers of his times to his fellow movie stars and filmmakers.

There was some perhaps unwelcome news for co-star and girlfriend Edna Purviance in one of the interviews given by Chaplin at this tumultuous time. ‘When I wanted to marry I didn’t have the money,’ Chaplin claimed (quoted in David Robinson’s Chaplin: His Life and Art). ‘Now that I have the money, I don’t care to marry. Besides, there’s plenty of time for that kind of thing when I quit work.’ His trip to New York to negotiate with studio executives for his services had meant he and Edna were apart for most of a month, the longest time they’d spent apart since they’d met.

Chaplin had a simple plan for his time at Mutual: ‘I’m going to make better pictures than I did last [year],’ he said, perhaps dismissing some of his work at Essanay in the process. ‘I am doing my own scenarios and my own directing.’ His iconic Tramp outfit was not going to be sacrosanct in his newest incarnation. ‘I’ll keep the moustache, but won’t stick so closely to the other clothes. It’ll depend on what the circumstances [of the story] demand. It isn’t how one is dressed, but what one does and how. Slapstick comedy has as much artistic possibility as the best efforts from the stage.’

Chaplin’s new Lone Star studio was officially opened on 27 March 2016, a week later than initially planned. The old Climax Studios facility stood on the corner of Lillian Way and Eleanor Avenue in Los Angeles and it housed an open air shooting stage surrounded by canvas walls, said to be one of the largest stages at that time in Los Angeles. Whereas before Chaplin and his crews at Keystone and Essanay had shot largely on location around the streets of Los Angeles, this new space was vast enough for him to construct his own bespoke street sets (seen to best advantage in Easy Street), where he could exert better control over his filmmaking (and so avoid the increasingly large—and annoying—crowds who gathered whenever Chaplin filmed in public). All the support departments had their own buildings, and the site also contained its own lab and projection facility where Chaplin could review his work-in-progress, something he’d had to force upon Essanay.

Edna Purviance would remain as Chaplin’s ‘leading lady’, in life as well as on screen, while cameraman Roland Totheroh and comedian Leo White followed Chaplin from Essanay to Mutual. Other old hands who’d pop up among Chaplin’s new stock company of performers included Lloyd Bacon, Charlotte Mineau, and James T. Kelley. Several new signings would play prominent roles in the films to come, prime among them being Albert Austin (who would appear in all 12 of the Mutual shorts), and ‘gentle giant’ Eric Campbell, who replaced previous bulky antagonists like Mack Swain and Bud Jamison.

Chaplin1916TheFloorwalker5Chaplin’s filmmaking method had developed instinctively over his two years of experience with the ‘fun factories’ of Keystone and Essanay. He took what he could from those experiences, discarding any approaches he didn’t feel were productive. From a basic idea for a scenario—a department store in the case of The Floorwalker—he would think up ideas for ‘funny business’. Elaborate sets would be built and Chaplin and his team would rehearse comic antics on the set. Sometimes he’d decide these huge sets needed to be adapted or altered, as he’d come up with some new ideas. Chaplin began to use film on his rehearsals, viewing the rushes the next day to decide whether he’d nailed the comedy of situation or if he could improve on it. Much of this was revealed in the 1980s Unknown Chaplin television documentary series, which only existed because Syd Chaplin took it upon himself to preserve every foot of film his younger brother shot (against Chaplin’s own wishes). This outtake material was housed in Chaplin’s own studio until its closure in 1952 (even though, strictly speaking, it was owned by the by-then defunct Mutual). Chaplin ordered all the unused footage destroyed, but Totheroh failed to do the job completely, leaving many reels of Chaplin outtakes in existence. Notorious film ‘preserver’ and distributor Raymond Rohauer got hold of this material, and in 1982 it would form the backbone of the fascinating Unknown Chaplin, made by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill. The series exposed Chaplin’s ‘try it and see’, ‘revise it’ and ‘improve it’ method of working out his comedy cinema. He addressed his working method at this time in his Autobiography: ‘With a bare notion I would order sets, and during the building of them the art director would come to me for details, and I would bluff and give them particulars about where I wanted doors and archways. In this desperate way I started many a comedy.’

The ‘bare notion’ that Chaplin was entertaining as the subject matter for his first film with Mutual was a department store, and—more specifically—the relatively new innovation of the ‘moving staircase’ or escalator. The inspiration behind The Floorwalker had come during Chaplin’s trip to New York to sign his contract with Mutual. He and Sydney had toured the city and witnessed a man fall down on an escalator at the elevated train station on Sixth Avenue—although some versions of this tale place the event in Los Angeles and taking place in an actual department store. Wherever it happened, the comedic potential of the moving stairs was instantly clear to Chaplin, who thought such antics would always be funny as long as they were happening to someone else: he recognised laughter as a form of relief that it is not the viewer caught up in whatever trouble is unfolding on screen. Chaplin combined the moving staircase (when the film was released Chaplin’s Keystone boss Mack Sennett was said to have exclaimed ‘Why the hell didn’t we think of a running staircase?!’) with his vague department store setting, instructing his Lone Star technical director Ed Brewer to build a store set based around a central escalator, which had been designed by George Cleethorpe (one of Chaplin’s transfers from Essanay). In the meantime, he’d try and work out some comic business to be performed before the cameras.

In his tentative beginnings at Mutual, Chaplin put to one side his developing emotional intelligence, briefly side-lining the increasing pathos that he was getting from his Tramp character. The Floorwalker is almost entirely based around Chaplin’s physical clowning, putting the Tramp (slightly better dressed than before) in a basic adventure story and ignoring any romantic complications—Edna had a rather small, insignificant role as the store manager’s secretary. The department store manager (Eric Campbell) and his store ‘floorwalker’ (Lloyd Bacon) are engaged in embezzlement, but detectives are on their tails. Enter the little Tramp, who just happens to be a dead ringer for Bacon’s floorwalker: could this be the way out for at least one of the criminals?

Chaplin1916TheFloorwalker4In casting Bacon as a near duplicate, was Chaplin acknowledging all those ‘Chaplin imitators’ that had followed in the wake of his worldwide fame? Others were making their own way in movies by doing a take-off on Chaplin (Harold Lloyd being one of the earliest offenders), so perhaps the original screen Tramp was warning audiences to beware of imitators. Bacon was a discovery of Chaplin’s previous employer ‘Broncho’ Billy Anderson at Essanay, and had appeared in a trio of earlier Chaplin shorts: The Champion, A Jitney Elopement, and The Tramp (all 1915). He’d go on to appear in a half dozen or so of the Mutual Chaplin films, right through to Easy Street (1917), including the look at moviemaking called Behind the Screen (1916). He’d go on to become a director in his own right, with a number of classics under his belt including Footlight Parade (1933), Invisible Stripes (1938, with George Raft and Humphrey Bogart), and war movie Action in the North Atlantic (1943). By the time of his death in 1955 at the age of 65, Lloyd Bacon had directed over 100 films.

In The Floorwalker, Chaplin is clearly still the familiar Tramp figure that audiences had come to love through his year each at Keystone and Essanay. He seems to be visiting the store with an eye on using the toiletry supplies to freshen himself up, and while he is the subject of attention of the store detective (Albert Austin) other, more well-to-do looking ‘customers’ make off with the majority of the goods on display. As in some of his best shorts, like Work (1915), Chaplin makes a subtle social point amid the comic antics: those with most money accumulate more, while those with least are targeted with suspicion.

The Floorwalker is rightly recalled for the escalator scenes, Chaplin’s initial inspiration for the short. Whether he’s being pursued down when the escalator is moving ‘up’ (both Chaplin and Campbell appear not to be moving on the fast-paced moving staircase) or up the escalator is moving ‘down’, Chaplin takes the advantage of the opportunity to display his physical dexterity in the interest of comic action. In his battle to overcome this new ‘modern’ technology that is getting in his way, Chaplin anticipates some of the themes that would be central to his feature film masterpiece, Modern Times (1936). An outcast from society, Chaplin’s Tramp is also unfamiliar with such new-fangled devices and sees them as little more than obstacles to be overcome. The entire store set had been purposely built around the central escalator, so Chaplin was determined that it should feature prominently in the film. As David Robinson noted, In Chaplin: His Life and Art, ‘The gag sequences are developed with virtuosity. The pursuits on the escalator are miraculously timed and choreographed.’

Perhaps equally well remembered is the ‘mirror image’ sequence in which Chaplin’s Tramp comes face-to-face with Bacon’s floorwalker. For just a moment, the pair are confused, thinking they’ve stopped in front of a mirror. They test out their movements, each mirroring the other, until Chaplin spots that Bacon is holding a bag (full of the stolen money, a plot point of many films from Too Late for Tears, 1949, to Shallow Grave, 1994, and beyond), while he is holding his traditional cane. Although the routine wasn’t new (Max Linder had previously used it), it was the first time it had been widely seen by such large audiences as those attracted to films by Chaplin. It would go on to be repeated and reworked in countless variations, including by Bugs Bunny, the Marx Brothers, Lucille Ball, and others.

Another lovely moment of Chaplin’s natural dexterity worth noting is when the Tramp fights Campbell’s crooked department store boss in his office. The Tramp’s way to divert attention or avoid the physical battle is to indulge in a little ballet, pirouetting away from any swings Campbell aims his way. The Tramp becomes caught up in his little dance, ending with a flourish, arms spread wide, perhaps expecting applause: instead, he gets a punch in the face!

Albert Austin was given the task of becoming one of Chaplin’s key foils at Mutual. Once a member of the Karno vaudeville troupe, as had been Chaplin, Austin had been born in Birmingham in 1881 (or 1885 in some accounts) and was instantly recognisable thanks to his painted and styled handlebar moustache. He was working in theatre rep when Chaplin discovered him, having come to the US in 1912. As well as significant roles in the Chaplin Mutual shorts (especially The Pawnshop, 1916), Austin later appeared in The Gold Rush (1925) and City Lights (1931). He ended his days as a security guard at the Warner Bros. studio in Hollywood, dying in 1953 at the age of 72 (or thereabouts!).

Chaplin1916TheFloorwalker6For many years Eric Campbell was something of a mystery. Like Austin, he was an old Karno trouper, like so many of the British born comics who made it big in the early movie business. Born in 1879 (or 1880, according to some sources), Campbell was at one time said to have hailed from Dunoon in Scotland (see the Kevin Macdonald documentary Chaplin’s Goliath: In Search of Scotland’s Forgotten Star, 1996), but more recent research has revealed he originated in Sale, Cheshire in England—resulting in the removal in 2011 of a plaque erected in his honour in Dunoon’s Castle Gardens. Although Campbell worked in Scotland in his music hall days, it is now believed that either he or his agent invented his Scottish roots in order to make him seem even more ‘exotic’ or romantic to American audiences. Some have even speculated that it was Chaplin himself that decided to promote Campbell as a Scot for publicity value, based upon his surname alone.

Campbell was in his mid-30s when he came to work with Chaplin, and at six foot four and weighing twenty stone it was inevitable that he would play the ‘heavy’ in the eleven Mutual films he appeared in. The contrast between the slight five foot five Chaplin and the towering giant of a man that was Campbell was irresistible to the comedian. Chaplin, along with his brother Sydney, had spotted Campbell in a Broadway stage production (George M. Cohan’s Pom Pom) during the negotiations over the Mutual contract. He was an obvious choice as a replacement for Mack Swain as the outsized foil to Chaplin’s Tramp (Swain would reunite with Chaplin in 1921 for The Idle Class and would star in a major role in The Gold Rush, 1925).

When Chaplin completed his work for Mutual in 1917 and was moving to First National, he intended to take Campbell with him, but fate intervened. In July 1917 Campbell’s wife died suddenly of a heart attack, and that December Campbell died in a car crash at the age of just 38. He’d remarried on the rebound, and his new wife was already suing him for divorce (it is believed that her actions were part of a ‘gold digging’ scam). His unhappiness may have contributed to his getting drunk at a cast party, resulting in the fatal 4am crash. At the time, Campbell was living at the Los Angeles Athletic Club in a room next to Chaplin.

Although The Floorwalker fails to capitalise on Chaplin’s deeper emotional development of the Tramp character at Essanay (that would come again in later films, especially The Vagabond), it is already clear that the working conditions at Mutual had been nothing but beneficial for the comic. The sets are larger and more elaborate, allowing for larger and more elaborate comic explorations by the star. Although the plot is slight in The Floorwalker and it ends with the traditional free-for-all runaround, the stories are more robust throughout the later Mutual shorts than they ever were at Keystone or Essanay. The Floorwalker was a clear sign of the greater things to come throughout 1916 as the little Tramp blossomed. — Brian J. Robb

Charlie Says: ‘I am left free [at Mutual] to be just as funny as I dare, to do the best work that is in me, and to spend my energies on the things that people want. I have felt for a long time that this would be my big year and this contract gives me my opportunity. There is inspiration in it.’

Trivia: In 1932, a few years after the coming of sound—a cinematic development that one time pioneer Chaplin studiously ignored—Van Beuren Studios paid $10,000 for each of the Chaplin-Mutual comedies, adding music and sound effects to ‘update’ them and rereleased each of the 12 through RKO Radio Pictures.

The Contemporary View: ‘Charlie, in a new environment, is still Charlie. He has lost none of this famous quality of drollery and has picked up, instead, a lot of new ideas, with new business and new props which make these two reels worth what the Mutual organisation had paid for them.’—Harvey F. Thew, Motion Picture News

‘…cultured, artistic people are beginning to regard the young English buffoon Charles Chaplin as an extraordinary artist as well as a comic genius. … If it is true that the test of an artist’s greatness is in the width of his human appeal, then Charlie Chaplin must be entitled to a place among the foremost of all living artists.’—The Art of Charlie Chaplin, Minnie Maddern, Harper’s Weekly

Verdict: A small step towards the true Chaplin classics.

Next: The Fireman (12 June 1916)

Available Now!

CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

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

Amazon US | Amazon UK

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

 

 

 

Chaplin Signs With Mutual (26 February 1916)

 

Chaplin1916 Mutual0

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

Departing Essanay

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

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

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

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

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

Arriving at Mutual

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

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

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

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

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

The Historic Signing

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

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

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

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

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

Next: The Floorwalker (15 May)

Available Now!

CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

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

Amazon US | Amazon UK

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

Burlesque on Carmen (18 December 1915)

Chaplin 2015 Carmen3

Intended Release: 18 December 1915, Essanay [screened for critics only]

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Writer: Charlie Chaplin

Duration: approx. 30 mins. [1916 version: 44 mins]

With: Edna Purviance, Jack Henderson, John Rand, May White, Bud Jamison, Wesley Ruggles, Ben Turpin, Leo White

Story: Guards officer Darn Hosiery (Chaplin) falls foul of seductive gypsy Carmen (Purviance) and the gang of smugglers she works with.

Production: Just as Chaplin had left Keystone at the end of 1914 with nary a word to his co-workers (he claimed his own shyness prevented any grand goodbye gesture), so his departure from Essanay towards the end of 1915 was equally unusual, if a little more controversial. This film was Chaplin’s comic response to Cecil B. DeMille’s Carmen (1915), with each being based upon the Bizet opera. The film, however, was released in various versions between 1915 and 1916 (after Chaplin’s departure from the studio) and resulted in a controversial court case.

The Bizet opera of Carmen dated from 1875, but the story proved especially popular in the early years of the 20th century. There were two film versions alone in 1915 before Chaplin turned to the material towards the end of the year, the first starring the notorious ‘vamp’ Theda Bara (real name Theodosia Burr Goodman, who hailed from Cincinnati, Ohio and not the ‘mysterious East’ at all) and directed by Raoul Walsh—it is now considered a lost film. The second film was the more famous DeMille version, featuring opera star Geraldine Farrar—that movie was critically acclaimed, but when Chaplin saw it, he felt the material was crying out for a fun parody version, and he was just the man to supply it.

For his Carmen Chaplin pulled out all the stops, paying more attention than he ever had before to such matters as the sets and the costumes (in the interest of historical atmosphere, if not accuracy exactly), as well as to cinematography and editing, things he been becoming more interested in as his work had developed. Certainly, during the Essanay period, film editing had become intrinsic to Chaplin’s comic effects, and would become more so at Mutual. Over all, though, the biggest improvement in Carmen was in the on-screen performances.

Chaplin 2015 Carmen1Chaplin’s version of Carmen was an effective showcase for Edna Purviance, perhaps to make-up for her blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance in A Night in the Show. She plays Carmen, a gypsy connected to a band of smugglers who are illegally shipping goods into the city. Standing in their way is Darn Hosiery (Don Jose in the original, played by Chaplin, in a departure from his Tramp character), the last honest lawman on duty. It is Carmen’s task to seduce Hosiery, thus clearing the way for the smugglers to go about their clandestine business. An unexpected action by Hosiery means he has to flee his position and effectively join the smugglers. By the time he joins them, however, Carmen has already moved onto a new lover, a bullfighter whom she follows to Seville. Driven mad, Hosiery tracks her down and in a confrontation stabs her to death!

A bit melodramatic for Charlie Chaplin? No doubt that’s what Chaplin thought of the original DeMille version, so as well as spoofing the earnest nature of that film, he defuses the seemingly bleak ending of his film by having Edna and himself break character at the finale, revealed the fake nature of the prop knife and having a laugh at the silliness of the picture as a whole. Some, including biographer Joyce Milton, have questioned Chaplin’s authorship of his Carmen, given his own admitted ignorance of opera at the time, and his inability to distinguish between Rigoletto and Carmen. Viewing Chaplin’s short in conjunction with the DeMille version, it is clear that his is a take-off that required no knowledge of the original opera as it is a direct response to the DeMille film, not the original source story or historical presentation.

Chaplin 2015 Carmen4In Chaplin’s Camen, Edna Purviance took on the task of directly spoofing Geraldine Farrar’s performance in the DeMille film. Her temptress is a direct take-off on Farrar’s performance, no doubt thanks to her innate abilities (remember she was a relative newcomer to film, as was Chaplin himself in many respects) and to some serious coaching and direction from Chaplin. It’s almost as though he was trying her out in a more dramatic role to see if she could cope, perhaps with a view to the starring role she’d later play in the Chaplin-directed A Woman of Paris (1923), which the comedian directed but did not star in (as with the much later A Countess from Hong Kong [1967], he only appears in a brief cameo—his long planned bio-pic of Napoleon never materialised).

Although there are plenty of gags, they are effectively blended with some fairly serious melodrama throughout Carmen, especially in the sword fight scene Chaplin shares with Leo White. Chaplin wrings ever bit of drama and humour from the sequence, moving through variations on the theme of clashing swords, while all the time ensuring the camera moved and wasn’t simply locked off as a static observer of the action, as had happened in many of the Keystone shorts. Close-ups are also used to emphasize the drama, especially on Edna and Charlie, both of whom play their parts relatively straight when the story requires it (right up to that fourth wall breaking end gag, at least).

Charlie Chaplin’s intended take on Carmen went largely unseen. It was screened in the original two-reeler form to critics and reviewers in December 1915, then promptly withdrawn by Essanay. When Chaplin left the Essanay studio, he carelessly left behind material cut from his version of A Burlesque on Carmen. This seems unusual: for an artist who had been demanding control over his own material and who at Essanay had taken over the editing of his own films, to have left behind such footage seems like a huge oversight. Perhaps the thought that Essanay would exploit the Chaplin name by re-cutting the film to include as much footage of the star as they could did not even occur to him?

Chaplin 2015 Carmen6Either way, Essanay were not done with Chaplin and his work, even if he was done with them. Chaplin’s tight and witty two-reel short was revamped by Leo White into a bloated four-reel movie and released in April 1916. Alongside the previously unseen Chaplin material, the studio also padded out the film by adding newly-shot footage starring cross-eyed Ben Turpin as a gypsy character in an all-new (unfunny) subplot.

Essanay boss George K. Spoor attempted a feeble defence of his studio’s actions in the house journal Essanay News by erroneously (and deliberately misleadingly) claiming that the original version of Carmen was Chaplin’s ‘first attempt at cutting’ and that the version that resulted was ‘not acceptable to us, for the reason that Chaplin left out more good stuff than he put in.’ This was a fundamental and probably willful misunderstanding of Chaplin’s evolving approach to his art. During his time at Essanay he had begun to work with celluloid as his raw materials. Although he’d often begin with a scenario and a rough idea of how each short would develop, Chaplin had begun to work out his gags on the fly, often filming them and then thinking up a new way to achieve a bigger laugh or a way to extend the comic potential of any sequence. This would result in a lot of decent comic material hitting the cutting room floor in favour of the far better material that Chaplin’s process produced (indeed, much of the fascinating and highly recommended documentary series Unknown Chaplin [1983] by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill depends upon the excised material for its footage of Chaplin actively working out his gags).

The action of his erstwhile studio drove Chaplin to court in May 1916 an attempt to protect his work, claiming that the new release would do damage to his reputation as it did not represent his artistic view. Chaplin’s suit was supported by written affidavit material from his half-brother Syd Chaplin, describing the production process of Carmen and the adverse publicity the editing had brought Charlie. As The Chaplin Encyclopedia’s Glenn Mitchell pointed out, this fact (as reported in Motion Picture World) suggested that Syd had an intimate knowledge of his brother’s work at Essanay. The studio—furious at Chaplin’s action—had immediately countersued claiming breach of contract and demanding $500,000 in damages. In this they perhaps had an argument, claiming that Chaplin had fallen short of the number of films he’d agreed to complete when he was paid an additional $10,000 bonus. Chaplin won that case, but the bigger issue was not to go his way.

In July 1916, Judge Hotchkiss (who presided over the case) ruled in favour of the studio. Unfortunately, the terms of Chaplin’s agreement with Essanay meant that they had legal ownership of all the material he shot for them, used and unused, and were at liberty to use it how they liked, with or without the permission of Chaplin himself. The outcome of this court case saw the original two-reel version of Carmen withdrawn and suppressed by the studio, replaced by the four-reel versions (and a later three reel cut-down of the same material released once again in 1928, with a partial soundtrack). This experience would ensure that went he went to Mutual and thereafter, Chaplin would retain full control over his creative material (a ‘moral right’ of artists since recognized in law), with clauses in his contracts specifically forbidding studios from re-editing or otherwise re-formatting his work.

As a result of Essanay’s legal victory, for many years the only extant and easily accessible version of Chaplin’s spoof of Carmen was in this butchered form. One of Chaplin’s major objections to the expanded Carmen was the inclusion of repeated material in which he performed essentially the same gag twice (his pretence to be a masseur). This did not escape the critics who reviewed the expanded four reel released in April 1916. ‘A goodly portion of the legions of Chaplin’s admirers will be disappointed,’ noted Motion Picture World of A Burlesque on Carmen, before noting the repeated material ‘…the inference being that the stunt was done twice [so] that the better of the two might be chosen’. This victory over Chaplin would encourage Essanay to release his final Essanay film Police (1916), long after he’d left the studio, and to further utilize more of Chaplin’s discarded material to form the patchwork film Triple Trouble, released in 1918. [For more on these projects, see my second annual Chaplin: Film by Film eBook — Chaplin at Essanay: A Centenary Celebration, on sale now!].

In his autobiography, Chaplin certainly considered Carmen to be his final film at Essanay. ‘I was so impressed with [DeMille’s] Carmen that I made a two reel burlesque of it, my last film with Essanay. After I had left they put in all the cut-outs and extended it to four reels, which prostrated me and sent me to bed for two days. Although this was a dishonest act, it rendered a service for thereafter I had it stipulated in ever contract that there should be no mutilating, extending or interfering with my finished work.’

Chaplin’s original vision—or the best approximation possible—was recovered in 1999 when film preservationist David Shepard studied the transcripts of the Essanay/Chaplin court case and other contemporary documents in an effort to recreate the ‘lost’ Chaplin cut from the available materials. Kino released this version in 1999 as an ‘all new’ rediscovered Chaplin short with an accompanying musical score from David Israel.

Shepard described his approach to reconstructing Chaplin’s Carmen: ‘The version I prepared in 1999 attempts to reconstruct the two-reel version of A Burlesque on Carmen, based upon an affidavit from the lawsuit provided by the Chaplin archives in which Charlie details his intended two-reel version. It was impossible to be guided exactly by Chaplin’s testimony. Some of Chaplin’s original shots were removed in the process of editing the four-reel expansion, which now seems to survive only with reissue intertitles from 1928. A few 1916 shots are retained for continuity in this version and most of the intertitles derive from DeMille, but we hope it captures Chaplin’s intention. For those familiar with DeMille’s production, the two-reel A Burlesque on Carmen is actually one of the better Essanay-Chaplin comedies.’

At its heart in Chaplin’s original version, his take on Carmen was one of his first sustained attempts to blend heartfelt drama and comedy in one film—the kind of thing he’d much later perfect in The Kid (1921) and City Lights (1931). Given that Chaplin had only been actively in the movie business for just two years, the way he’d developed his art over that period is nothing short of astounding. Almost as soon as he’d wrapped on Carmen (the later 1916 release), Police, had been shot earlier, Charlie Chaplin boarded a train for New York, determined to put as much distance between himself and George Spoor’s Essanay as possible. As always with Chaplin, the best was yet to come.

Trivia: G. M. Anderson, star and creator of the Broncho Billy westerns, and Chaplin’s mentor at Essanay, sold his share in the studio to fellow co-owner George K. Spoor (the man who countersued Chaplin over Carmen) shortly after Chaplin left Essanay—is it too much of a leap to think that all these events might have been connected? The result was the immediate closure of the Essanay studio at Niles in California, where Chaplin had initially based himself, and the eventual closure of Essanay’s Chicago base in 1918.

The Contemporary View: ‘Charlie Chaplin’s Burlesque on Carmen [was] given a private showing for review … it is in four reels and, on the whole, was voted unsatisfactory by the majority of the exhibitors who attended. The consensus of opinion is that it is a very much padded picture.’—Variety [reviewing the Essanay four reel version in 1916]

Slapstick: Out of his regular Tramp outfit, Chaplin has some fun with the ornate feathered helmet that replaces his derby and the sword he sports in place of his cane. A table dance sees Chaplin bustin’ some unusual moves. The duel—which kicks off about 20 minutes in—allows for a variety of classic Chaplin balletic slapstick, including turning the fight into a wrestling match, an impromptu game of snooker and a dance routine! When he flees from the guards, Chaplin indulges in a couple of his trademark single-foot skids (we haven’t seen that in a while). When he arrives in Seville (in pursuit of Carmen), Chaplin is much more like the Tramp figure we know, in looks and behaviour (except for all the killing, of course!).

Verdict: The genuine chemistry between Edna and Charlie is evident in Carmen, but the mix of drama and comedy doesn’t quite work, 3/5

Chaplin Signs With Mutual

Next: The Floorwalker (15 May 1916)

[For entries on the Essanay 1916 Chaplin shorts Police, Triple Trouble, and the unfinished Chaplin film Life, see my second annual Chaplin: Film by Film eBook — Charlie Chaplin: A Centenary Celebration]

Available Now!

CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

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

Amazon US | Amazon UK

 

 

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.

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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).

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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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CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

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

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Shanghaied (4 October 1915)

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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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CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

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

Amazon US | Amazon UK

The Bank (9 August 1915)

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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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CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

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