Chaplin Diary, Part 3: Middle Essanay

My last diary entry covered Charlie Chaplin’s first five short films at Essanay; the beginning of his second year as a filmmaker. But with his sixth Essanay comedy, The Tramp, Chaplin made a major step towards maturity. Before this seminal two-reeler, Charlie was a funny little man with ill-fitting clothes and a brush mustache. In The Tramp, he became the romantic, complex, and unique individual who captured the heart of the world.

In the previous entry, I erroneously stated that ” During his year at Essanay, Chaplin worked mostly in and around Niles.” I have since read that, after his fifth Essanay, A Jitney Elopement, he left the Niles lot and worked elsewhere while still working for the company.

Up until now, I’ve been watching these shorts via Fandor. But Chaplin’s shorts disappeared from that streaming service with the coming of the new year. Luckily, films made in 1915 are all in the public domain, and you can find them on YouTube – although not always in the best possible condition.

Here are Charlie Chaplin’s next five shorts, shot in various California locations. Edna Purviance plays the female lead in all five.

The Tramp

With this tremendous step towards maturity, Chaplin created what is arguably his first masterpiece. Charlie is, for only the second time, a tramp. But he’s a complicated tramp, torn between his chivalrous desire to protect Edna and the survival instinct that temps him to steal her money. Amongst the very funny slapstick, he will fall in love with her, and then discover that she loves someone else. And for the first time, he uses what would become his signature ending: Charlie, walking down the road by himself, off to a new adventure. Chaplin is bringing complexity, and pathos, into his comedies.

By the Sea

You can’t expect two breakthrough movies in a row. Chaplin’s last one-reel short is nothing but slapstick and flirting on a windy beach. In many ways, this thankfully short film feels like a crude Keystone comedy, but the gags are better executed, and therefore, funnier.

Work

Chaplin begins to play with the class system here. When we first see Charlie, an assistant paperhanger, he’s manually pulling an overloaded cart on which his boss sits, flicking him with a whip as if he were a lazy mule. When they finally arrive at the mansion they’ve been hired to fix up, the rich people who live there treat the workers very badly. But on the other hand, Charlie proves to be very inept at his job.

A Woman

This starts like one of those repetitive flirting-in-the-park pictures Chaplin made at Keystone, except that the gags are better done and funnier. Charlie impresses Edna and her mother (he appears to be comfortably middle class this time around), and they take him home . But Edna’s father has reasons to hate Charlie. So Charlie disguises himself as a woman, and the transformation is amazing. He’s cross-dressed before (see The Masquerader), but this time the motivations are clearer, and Chaplin dares to be photographed as a woman in extreme closeup. Charlie makes a beautiful, flirtatious woman.

The Bank

This one starts with a brilliant gag. Charlie enters the bank where he works. With the combination written on his cuff, he opens a massive safe door, and then another massive safe door inside the first one. Inside the safe, he hangs up his coat, puts on a uniform, and takes out his mop and pail. There are many fine gags in this movie (including a very clever way to lick a stamp), but like The Tramp, it mixes pathos with the comedy. Charlie finds a love letter Edna wrote for someone else, and assumes it was meant for him. One of his best so far.

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