Chaplin Diary, Part 4: Late Essanay

During his year at Essanay, Charlie Chaplin became the most famous and beloved person in the world (Mary Pickford was the only significant rival). Movies changed the concept of celebrity, and no one before had ever been famous like Chaplin. Everyone loved him. It was like Beatlemania, except with a universal language and no generation gap.

This is my fourth entry in my Chaplin Diary, where I’m surveying all of the films directed by Charlie Chaplin in chronological order.

We’ve already seen how Chaplin grew inconsistently as a filmmaker, making one brilliant short followed by two or three mediocre ones. The behavior continued. His last four films with Essanay went from okay to bad to wonderful.

I watched A Night in the Show off the Slapstick Encyclopedia DVD. I streamed the other three over YouTube.

Shanghaied

From a strictly technical view, this seafaring adventure is surprisingly complex. Much of it was shot at sea – always a difficult location. Interior sets were built on rollers to create an ocean-like effect. It’s quite funny at times, but not consistently. It lacks the emotional complexity of Chaplin’s previous work, The Bank. Is it even worth mentioning that the plot is full of holes?

A Night in the Show

As a study of Chaplin’s past, this two-reeler is fascinating. As entertainment, it’s acceptable.

Before he ever stepped in front of a movie camera, Chaplin became famous in the British Music Hall playing a rich drunk who interrupts and ruins the acts on stage. He recreates that act here, providing us with the closest thing we have to a record of his pre-cinema work.

Chaplin also plays a rowdy in the cheap seats. Oddly, he wears the standard Charlie makeup and mustache as the rich drunk, and an entirely different makeup and mustache – barely recognizable – as the rowdy.

The movie has several very funny bits, most of them built around the drunk routine. But it has quite a few weak moments, as well.

A Burlesque on Carmen

Chaplin parodies opera, and it’s only funny far and in between. This is the sort of broad farce where the protagonist, named Don Jose in the original, is renamed Darn Hosiery (Chaplin) for the burlesque. Operatic tragedy and low slapstick just don’t work – or at least they don’t here. The best thing about Burlesque is watching Chaplin’s regular ingénue, Edna Purviance, enjoying the chance to play an amoral seductress.

But if you had seen this movie in its original release, it would have been even worse. Over Chaplin’s objections, Essanay turned this two-reel short into a four-reel feature by adding outtakes and shooting a new, Chaplin-less subplot starring Ben Turpin. In 1999, David Shepard reconstructed Chaplin’s original cut (or at least something like it); and that’s the version I watched for this article.

Police

Chaplin’s last Essanay is easily the best movie he’d made up until that point. Not only is it very funny, but it plays with the way people appear one way but act another. Right at the start, a clergyman preaches reverently to Charlie while picking his pocket. Charlie may be a burglar, but he gallantly protects his victim (Edna, of course) from his partner in crime. The cops don’t race to the scene of the crime; they finish their tea and relax with cigars. When they finally arrive, Edna protects Charlie by telling the police that he’s her husband and he immediately becomes the master of the house. And it’s all very, very funny.

The high quality of Police promises the many short masterpieces ahead. Next up, Chaplin’s amazing Mutual period.