Chaplin Diary, Part 2: Early Essanay

According to the Internet Movie Database, Charlie Chaplin directed 71 movies. By my count, he did 64. The remaining seven include recuts of previous films, uncompleted works, “features” that were actually compilations of shorts, promotional films, and what we now call public service announcements. Remove those, and you have 64 original movies.

After his year at Keystone, Charlie Chaplin moved to Essanay. Here he would have more time to polish his routines to near perfection. He would find Edna Purviance, his leading lady for the next eight years, and Rollie Totheroh, his primary cameraman and cinematographer for the rest of his American career.

Essanay was an old company, even in 1914, and it never made a home for itself in Hollywood. It had a studio in Chicago, and another here in the Bay Area – specifically in Niles, now part of Fremont. (That’s why we now have the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum.) During his year at Essanay, Chaplin worked mostly in and around Niles. During his year at Essanay, Chaplin made one film in Chicago, four in Niles, and nine in other California locations. [correction 1/3/18]

He made 14 short films for Essanay, most of them two reelers. Here’s my reactions to the first five. I streamed them via Fandor.

His New Job

Chaplin picked an appropriate title for his first movie at the new studio. This two reeler follows Charlie as he works at his first, and presumably his last, day at a movie studio called Lockstone – an obvious dig at Keystone. Before the day is through, he’s promoted from carpenter to leading man to completely unemployable. The cross-eyed comic Ben Turpin gets the butt of most of Charlie’s accidents and attacks. Charlie is still not likeable, but he’s funnier than at Keystone – perhaps the result of a looser shooting schedule. This was the only Chaplin film shot in Essanay’s Chicago studio. After that, he moved to Niles.

A Night Out

This one starts out very much like The Rounders (see the Keystone diary entry): Two drunk friends go out on the town and make a mess of things. But Ben Turpin is no Fatty Arbuckle, so there’s only one great comedian playing drunk onscreen. But it still provides a lot of laughs between the dull parts. Edna Purviance makes her first screen appearance in A Night Out. Charlie flirts with her, of course, but she turns out to be married to someone who already has good reasons to hate Charlie.

The Champion

Chaplin made a big step in the right direction in his third Essanay. Finally, we get a Charlie we can care for and love – the character, as opposed to merely the look, that would go down in history. When we first meet him, he’s desperately poor and hungry, yet he shares his last sausage with a dog. After that gesture, we must cheer him in the boxing gym, even when he puts a horseshoe in his boxing glove. The slapstick, almost entirely built around boxing, has a hint of the beautiful and hilarious slapstick dances to come. Easily his best film so far.

In the Park

What a letdown after The Champion. This one feels like a throwback to some of his worst work at Keystone. It’s a one reeler, and guess what the plot is about. You guessed it – flirting in the park. The gags are a bit better staged than what he did at Keystone, but not by much. At least it’s short.

A Jitney Elopement

This one has a more complicated plot than most of what we’ve seen before, and a chance of Charlie to pretend he’s something he’s not – a common theme in later movies. Edna’s father (rich enough to have a butler) wants her to marry Count Chloride de Lime, but Edna loves Charlie. So Charlie pretends he’s the Count and acts the part of a blueblood, even when he slices bread as if he’s pealing an orange. Everything works until the real Count appears. Then everyone goes outside and the chase is on. A Jitney Elopement is very funny at times, and even Edna gets to do a couple of pratfalls. But the big chase is dull as often as it is funny (it also provides an early view of the Golden Gate Park windmill).

Next up, five more Essanay shorts, including the one that would forever make Charlie “The Tramp.”