Charlie Chaplin made 81 films in a filmmaking lifetime that began in 1914 and ended in 1967. Chaplin remains justifiably famous for his feature films - Modern Times, The Gold Rush, City Lights, and others. Yet, nearly all Chaplin's output were short films, one or two-reelers which lasted no more than 23 minutes. In his later years, Chaplin would take years to make a feature film, his extravagant 100 to 1 shooting ratios the talk of the industry and the despair of his financiers. The shorts he made for Keystone, Essanay, Mutual, and First National studios were jammed into just a few years, 1914 to 1922, with Chaplin producing more than 65 of these miniature masterpieces in what may be the most sustained epic of creativity the movies have ever witnessed. In Kid Auto Races at Venice, which was produced in 1914 at the beginning of his year with Mack Sennett's Keystone studios, he was a precocious, brilliant, and unknown British music hall comic making a first foray in motion pictures. By the time he completed his last short for First National, 1922's Pay Day, his was the most recognized face in the history of the world.
Chaplin's career at Essanay began when negotiations between Keystone Studios' impresario Mack Sennett and Chaplin stalled. Chaplin had been making $150 a week at the beginning of the year; now, he wanted $1,000 a week, an unheard of sum. That was more than he made himself, as head of the studio, protested a pained Sennett. But, said Chaplin, it was not Sennett, but Chaplin who brought the audiences to Sennett's films. The dispute became public, and G.M. Anderson and George K. Spoor (their initials made up Essanay's name) offered Chaplin an astounding $1200 a week, and the opportunity to make fewer films. (Chaplin had made 35 films in his hectic year at Keystone.)
Chaplin's Essanay career was brief; he made films there during 1915 and part of 1916, a total of 14 films, before he jumped to still more money -- $10,000 a week and a $150,000 bonus, an astronomical sum -- at Mutual. But many critics feel the Essanay films show the real emergence of Chaplin as a director, and as a character. At first, Chaplin was dismayed by working conditions at Mutual, which, until his arrival, had thought of itself, in the words of the dean of Chaplin scholars, David Robinson, "a film factory," paying little attention to its artists. He shot his first film for the company ("His New Job") at Mutual's Chicago studios, in a dreary Chicago January, and immediately began the contest of wills with Spoor and Anderson that would end with him leaving Essanay. But Chaplin found a new voice at Essanay, and with it, a new suit: it was while in Chicago that he found the ingredients of the famous tramp costume in the city's State Street shopping district, off the rack. After "His New Job," he insisted on making his films at the studio's West Coast facility, and that is where A Jitney Elopement, The Tramp, By The Sea, and Work were made. There, he moved into a tiny bungalow on the studio lot, and, in essence, reorganized Essanay around his films, which were instantly the studio's biggest moneymakers.
Chaplin assembled a stock company of gifted comedians, including the cross-eyed Ben Turpin. It was at Essanay that he discovered the haunting Edna Purviance, who would be his leading lady throughout the rest of his time in short films. He now insisted on editing his own films from rushes, a practice the studio thought wasteful, but one which allowed the laboratory setting Chaplin required for his creative process. By the time of A Jitney Elopement and The Tramp, his fifth and sixth films at Essanay, he had transformed the studio into his personal workshop.
Both films were shot on locations near the Niles, California studio. A Jitney Elopement features Charlie as Edna's suitor, and in his competition for her favors with Leo White, he demonstrates The Tramp's astonishing inventiveness, in a scene involving a pastry. Chaplin had been born in poverty, and his films were always marked by this kind of humor born out of desperation, in which limitations are turned into pleasures. A Jitney Elopement also offers something we rarely associate with Chaplin: a masterful car chase. The Tramp extends A Jitney Elopement's sense of romance; by this time, Chaplin and Edna were deeply in love. By the time of The Tramp, the gear Chaplin had purchased on snowy State Street had come to fit the character perfectly. The film is his most cinematic to date, and the first total evocation of the tramp character. Charlie has fallen in love with a farmer's daughter, and gallantly saved her from the clutches of some tough crooks, but it seems all for naught. Chaplin's exit at the end of the film offers us the allegory of The Road in the Chaplin films for the first time.
By The Sea was made quickly, in the interim between the vacating of the Niles studio and the arrival at new quarters in Los Angeles by the Chaplin unit. It is a glorious piece of invention, with a seaside excursion there merest pretext for gags. It is proof that the spontaneous, even chaotic methods of the Keystone studios were still a part of Chaplin's working style. Work followed, after the company had relocated to larger studio facilities in Los Angeles. Here, the premise is simple: Charlie and his boss are hired to redecorate a house. The house turns out to be an painter's canvas, on which Chaplin daubs gags with Cezanne-like precision. Edna plays the daughter of the household, remote and lovely, who catches Charlie's eye. But the film is not merely a series of gags, as By the Sea had been. Instead, the action of the film flows organically from its remarkable opening. That opening is as strong a reference to class as the movies offered in a decade filled with bitter screen analyses of the rift between workers and employers in America. Work is all about class -- the pretensions of the middle class, conspicuous consumption, the brutish life of the ordinary worker, and finally, the sheer tyranny of work. David Robinson, in his masterful Chaplin: Life and Art, says that Chaplin's portrayal of the anxieties of class, and his uncanny ability to turn this anxiety into humorous defiance of the rich by the poor, was what endeared him to countless millions of ordinary, working class moviegoers who saw in his films an unpatronizing, affirmative, and warm-hearted picture of their little lives.
Chaplin would make just six more films at Essanay. The relationship between he and Spoor and Anderson would explode in a lawsuit over a film called Charlie Chaplin's Burlesque on Carmen, a film largely carpentered together by Essanay to take advantage of the gigantic demand for Chaplin films, a demand which had increased geometrically in the first months of his contract at Essanay. During his time at Essanay, Chaplin had developed the ingredients of the style that would shape not only his filmmaking, but comic filmmaking itself right down to the present day. Chaplin was even said to be developing a feature film, tentatively called Life, as he finished up at Essanay.
Essanay never again found the success it had so briefly known when it had Chaplin under contract. In a few years, it was defunct, forgotten by all but the most dedicated film historians. Chaplin went on to the kind of popular culture immortality that has never been duplicated. Five years after he began making films, it was said that more people knew of Chaplin than knew of Jesus Christ. And here, in the span of the 100 days that elapsed between the release of A Jitney Elopement and Work, lay the very heart of the creativity that would make audiences laugh and weep at the little man in the baggy pants and the too-tight jacket, as they might laugh and weep at their triumphs at troubles.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
The following is excerpted from a review by Gary Johnson of the restored 1999 edition of Chaplin’s Essanay comedies. The review appears in Issue No. 8 of Images: A Journal of Film and Popular Culture.
Most of Charlie Chaplin’s famous short comedies come from his tenure at Mutual Film Corporation. During 1916 and 1917, he turned out a series of 12 outstanding, influential comedies that placed him among the most popular of all silent film stars. But before Mutual (and after his brief, hectic tenure at Keystone Studios, in 1914), Chaplin worked for one year (1915-16) at a largely forgotten film studio called Essanay Film Manufacturing Company. If not for Chaplin’s comedies for Essanay, it’s doubtful if more than a handful of people would now recognize the Essanay name.
Unlike the Mutual comedies, the films he produced at Essanay are rarely studied in film schools— with the exception of "The Tramp," the one unqualified gem in Chaplin’s work at Essanay. However, these comedies are important films in the development of Chaplin’s screen comedy… [and] screen persona.
Upon Chaplin’s arrival at Essanay, he immediately encountered difficulties with the producers, who weren’t interested in giving him the freedom that he desired. He was even given scripts to work from. (Louella Parsons, who would become one of Hollywood’s most famous gossip column writers, was the head scenario writer at Essanay at this time.) However, Chaplin rejected most tampering and worked with his own stories….
Thanks to Kino on Video, these Chaplin comedies are now available again in excellent transfers (released in 1999). Several of these shorts were previously available from Kino, but the new transfers, have been made from newly restored prints with re-recorded musical accompaniment.
The quality of the source material [ie: the surviving film prints of Chaplin’s work at Essanay] varies. Some segments are relatively free of wear, while others are obviously well-worn. This is one of the major challenges of restoring works of silent cinema now over 80 years old. Scraps of films were frequently discarded as shorts were re-released. And negatives frequently were left to deteriorate in film vaults. Entire reels decomposed. However, thanks to the work of David Shepard of Film Preservation Associates, Chaplin’s Essanay comedies have been pieced back together again from choice material discovered around the world during the course of a nine-year search. They haven’t looked this good in many decades. This is the definitive edition of these comedies.
A Jitney Elopement
(American, 1915, 26 minutes, b/w, silent).
Directed by Charlie Chaplin.
Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance (heiress), Fred Goodwins (father), Lloyd Bacon (butler), Paddy McGuire (retainer).
Charlie impersonates a count to rescue Edna from the unwelcome attention of the original. His behavior at her father’s house, especially at mealtime, casts doubts upon his authenticity that are confirmed when the real Count turns up…. A Jitney Elopement is chiefly a charming imposture drama, in which attention is centered upon Charlie’s eccentricities…. Above all, he is governed by his own codes of habit and association: the politely bowing father is yanked up by Charlie’s cane, the whisky-and-soda gargled with, the purloined cigars stuffed in his hat…. His most alarming transgressions are reserved for the dinner table, where he stuffs his napkin in his top pocket, theatrically cools his hot coffee, cuts the bread cleverly concertina-wise, and broadcasts the pepper to the company’s discomfiture. It all adds up to a very lively series of transformations and an excellent example of Charlie’s benignly disruptive social role.
— John Kimber, The Art of Charlie Chaplin (2000).
Romance first touched Charlie’s soul in A Jitney Elopement…. [In marked contrast to his rude treatment of women in earlier comic shorts] there are no pats on bottoms, sticks up skirts, or sudden bursts of lust. Instead, there is the hopeless love of poor for rich, soulfully expressed as he toys with a daffodil and casts cow-eyes at Edna’s balcony.
— Denis Gifford, Chaplin (1974).
(American, 1915, 20 minutes, b/w, silent).
Directed by Charlie Chaplin.
Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance (daughter), Fred Goodwins (father), Bud Jamison and Leo White (the hobos).
In The Tramp, Charlie saves Edna from a gang of crooks, shooing them into a lake, and is rewarded with a job on her father’s farm. As a hired hand, he is a resounding failure, accidentally dropping a sack of flour on the farmer, puncturing another worker with a pitchfork, and trying to milk a cow by pumping her tail….
Charlie came into his own in this, his first masterpiece, the film in which the quintessential gentleman tramp—the character Chaplin frequently called The Little Fellow—emerged. Interestingly, until this film, his forty-first, Chaplin had played an actual tramp only once, in Mack Sennett’s The Face on the Barroom Floor. In all his other films his character had a variety of gainful occupations or at least appeared solvent. It should be noted that in Chaplin’s native England, a "tramp" is not so disdainfully regarded as in the United States, which may be a factor in the sympathy quotient Chaplin extends to the character. In the United States the word connotes a seedy vagrant, unwashed, eternally on the beg. Not so much in England where the name derives from the English phrase, "on the tramp." The Oxford English Dictionary defines "tramp" as "one who travels from place to place on foot, in search of employment, or as a vagrant; also, one who follows an itinerant business."
Chaplin worked diligently on The Tramp and it shows…. It was shot on a farm outside Los Angeles and great attention was paid to detail, some of the endless rehearsals irritating cast members. Here began the legend of Chaplin the Overmeticulous.
Comic actor Stanley Laurel recalled the stories of his friend Leo White, who played one of the Hobos:
"He said they repeated some gags until the actors felt if they did it one more time they’d blow their corks. He said the business of the crooks going up the ladder was done so many times and in so many variations that they just couldn’t tell what the hell all the fuss was about. But they were wrong. That’s just what made Charlie a great creator of comedy. He knew that sometimes you have to do a thing fifty times in slightly different ways until you get the very best."
— John McCabe, Charlie Chaplin (1978).
By the Sea
(American, 1915, 14 minutes, b/w, silent).
Directed by Charlie Chaplin.
Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Bud Jamison (husband), Billy Armstrong (man with hat), Carl Stockdale (cop).
By the Sea is basically a Keystone Studios-style park/lake location impromptu comedy, but it gains freshness from its unusual seaside setting, and from the stylization of comic business that was already evident in the earlier Keystone versions of its type. Like the others it consists of passages of flirting, interspersed with passages of fighting….
— John Kimber, The Art of Charlie Chaplin (2000).
By the Sea was essentially a "quickie" improvised around Crystal Pier in Los Angeles. The film was made while the Essanay film company waited for its new studios on North Hill Street to be readied.
— Denis Gifford, Chaplin (1974).
(American, 1915, 28 minutes, b/w, silent).
Directed by Charlie Chaplin.
Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance (maid), Charles Insley (boss), Billy Armstrong (husband), Marta Golden (wife), Leo White (lover).
The basic notion of Work is that Charlie and his boss are decorators come to do over a middle class home. This gives rich scope for all the traditional business with planks, ladders, paste and paint. Charlie wrestles with sticky and disintegrating wallpaper and transforms a peaceful parlour into a quagmired battlefield. The situation is the richer since the household consists of a tetchy little husband, angrily protesting because his breakfast is late; a flamboyant wife, en déshabillé and rocketing around the house giving artistic instruction to the glazed-eyed workmen; a pretty but inactive maid (Edna); and a gas stove given to periodic explosions. The mistress also has a secret lover (Leo White, in French count style) who comes calling with flowers at the most awkward moment and has to be passed off, improbably, as one of the workmen. No opportunity for insult or assault with all the tools of the decorator’s trade is allowed to pass….
It is the introduction to this delirium of destruction that makes the film most memorable. Our first sight of Charlie is as he advances towards the camera down a busy city street, harnessed to a cart piled high with ladders, boards and buckets. The boss sits on the driver’s seat, flicking at him with a whip…. [This introduction to boss and employee] begins a series of haunting, grotesque, horror-comedy images of slavery, with a degree of audacity and invention in the visualization that was hardly to be challenged until the Soviet avant-garde (idolaters of Chaplin) a decade later. Chaplin’s aims in inventing the sequence were no doubt uncomplicated enough: it is funny; and it prepares the audience to accept the ill-treatment that the boss will later receive at Charlie’s hands. Yet, almost incidentally to his purposes, he has created a masterly and unforgettable image of the exploitation and humiliation of labor, the reverse of the Victorian ideal of the salutary virtues of work. It was such aspects of Chaplin’s vision that found the hearts of the great mass audience of the early twentieth century….
— David Robinson, Chaplin: His Life and Art (1985).
For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620 or online at http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst.