Friday, October 18, 2013

Chaplin at Essanay - Part I

A new series of essays on Charlie Chaplin's comedies made for the Essanay company during 1915-1916.

Beginning in 2010, I had begun re-visiting Chaplin's Keystone comedies and decided to write a series of short pieces on that formative period of his screen career. Following this, I decided to look at the comedies he made for Essanay in 1915-16, a tremendously important period in Chaplin's career. With the Essanay comedies, Chaplin found his filmmaking style and further developed the screen character which would become an international icon in 1915. Key works such as The Tramp looked forward to his later, mature classics in the masterful handling of comedy and pathos. During this time Chaplin also established his reliable stock company of players, including leading lady Edna Purviance, with whom he would continue to work in the coming years.

While there have already been countless volumes written on Chaplin's filmography (Charlie Chaplin by Theodore Huff and The Films of Charlie Chaplin by Gerald McDonald, Michael Conway and Mark Ricci being key sources), and books focusing on his work for Essanay (including Charlie Chaplin at Keystone and Essanay: Dawn of the Tramp by Ted Okuda, Chaplin at Essanay: A Film Artist in Transition, 1915-1916 by James L. Neibaur, and the article "Essanay - Chaplin Brand" by Jeffrey Vance, adapted from his book Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema), these essays are intended as continued examination and appreciation of this important part of Chaplin's filmmaking career.

A note on the sources: The copies of the films I viewed are the ones included on the DVD set pictured above: "Charlie Chaplin Short Comedy Classics: The Complete Restored Essanay & Mutual Collection" (Image Entertainment, 2003).

A note on the credits: Unless otherwise noted, all films were written and directed by Charlie Chaplin, produced by Jess Robbins, and photographed by Harry Ensign (the cinematographer of His New Job is unknown).

His New Job
With Charlie Chaplin, Ben Turpin, Charlotte Mineau, Leo White.
Chaplin’s first effort under his new Essanay contract was a throwback to the roughhouse business of his Keystone days. Appropriately enough, the “new job” of the title refers to Charlie becoming an actor at the “Lockstone Studio” (an obvious nod to his former boss). Charlie shows up for an audition, causing no end of frustration for the receptionist as he tries to make his way into the boss’s office. A new co-star is introduced when Ben Turpin shows up for an audition. Though Turpin reportedly disliked working with Chaplin, the two of them work well together and display a comic chemistry that would be better exploited in their following film together, A Night Out. Turpin was a highly talented comic, best known today for his trade-mark crossed eyes and brush mustache. At first, his brand of humor might seem mismatched for Chaplin’s comic universe, but his brash vulgarity makes for a good contrast with Chaplin’s dignified Tramp. In one such moment, Turpin crosses his leg, placing his shoe on Charlie’s knee, which Charlie reacts to with exaggerated disgust. A moment later, after a confrontation, Charlie retaliates by snatching Turpin’s cigarette out of his mouth and lighting it with a match struck on Turpin’s neck.

We then move into the production stages, where an historical drama is being shot. Charlie is hired as a prop man, and wreaks no end of havoc. He is then called in to replace an actor in the historical drama at the last moment. As the crew is setting up, Charlie gets into scrapes with newly-hired prop man Ben Turpin, including kicking him through the scenery and running a handsaw across his backside! There is some funny business with the props, too, including a sword that gets bent out of shape when Charlie whacks himself in the head with it. He then knocks over a pillar which lands on top of him, and before long, chaos ensues when a fight breaks out on the set.

Filmed at the Essanay facilities in Chicago, Illinois, the film is entirely stage-bound, lacking any of the natural outdoor locations regularly seen in the Keystone comedies. As a result, the film feels claustrophobic. Given its film studio setting, this is appropriate, but the contrast between the more freewheeling Keystones and the more structured approach at Essanay is evident. Chaplin was unhappy working at the Chicago studio, and also with some of the production practices there, such as the presence of a scenario department (headed by future columnist Louella Parsons), and having to run the dailies in negative form to save on expenses. Perhaps due to these production conditions, His New Job feels overwritten, suffering from too much plot, and not allowing Charlie as much time to develop bits of character business that the slower pace of the Essanay comedies would afford him in future projects. It’s not surprising, then, that for his next film, Chaplin would re-locate to Essanay’s West Coast studio in Niles, California, located near the San Francisco Bay area.

In Chaplin’s body of work, His New Job is a minor effort, re-visiting material that had already been played more effectively in Keystones such as A Film Johnny and The Masquerader. Chaplin would revisit this “behind the scenes” comedy a year later with the Mutual comedy Behind the Screen, and during his time at First National would begin work on the uncompleted How to Make Movies, a satirical look at the production process at the Chaplin studio which would remain unfinished. His New Job does provide an interesting glimpse of Essanay’s Chicago facility, and includes a couple of interesting camera moves on a dolly, all the more striking because these kinds of shots were so rare even in American dramas of the time, let alone comedies. Chaplin would later avoid this sort of camera movement for its own sake, though in this case, it’s tempting to read their use as a parody of the technique in such historical spectacles as Cabiria and Intolerance. A side note: two future stars make early appearances in this film as extras – Agnes Ayres and Gloria Swanson.

A Night Out
With Charlie Chaplin, Ben Turpin, Edna Purviance, Leo White, Bud Jamison.
If His New Job suffered from too much plot, A Night Out rectifies that problem with a simple two-act setup. The first of Chaplin’s Essanay comedies made in Niles, he is again paired with Ben Turpin, this time to even greater effect. The two play a pair of drunks out for a night on the town. The first part of the film is set in a posh nightclub, where Charlie and Ben run afoul of a French count (played by Leo White, who quickly became one of Chaplin’s most reliable character players). Their drunken behavior erupts into a battle with the count, and the two are eventually tossed out by the headwaiter (played by Bud Jamison, another important player in Chaplin’s stock company at Essanay). The scene brings to mind the nightclub routine in the later City Lights, with Charlie’s bad behavior so out of place in the upscale surroundings. A bit of business that Ben Turpin performs, in which he constantly begins to remove his jacket, ready to fight at the slightest provocation, also recalls Chaplin’s later performance in City Lights’ nightclub sequence. 

The second part of the film takes place in a hotel, which the two inebriates have checked in to for the night. By coincidence, the nightclub headwaiter and his wife are staying at the same hotel. When the wife pursues her runaway dog into Charlie’s room, her husband shows up, and the inevitable complications ensue. After this farcical turn, the film ends with the still-inebriated Charlie and Ben fighting it out in their hotel room.

In his very first scene in the film, Chaplin immediately establishes himself as fastidious yet undeniably brash, picking his teeth with his bamboo cane, then twirling the cane and snapping it into place, before walking out of the shot with his now-iconic shuffle. Chaplin also appears in a slight variation on his usual costume here, with rather more dapper and better-fitting attire, and also a lighter-colored bowler. He still precipitates the chaos, but always manages to somehow stay outside of it. Despite the rough slapstick, Chaplin still finds plenty of moments to engage in little bits of character business, such as brushing his teeth with the stem of a palm leaf at a fountain.

A Night Out marks a number of firsts in Chaplin’s filmography. In addition to being his first film made for Essanay in Niles, it is also the first to feature his long-time leading lady, Edna Purviance. Purviance had a natural charm and beauty, and conveyed a real sense of fun and humor, that perfectly complemented Chaplin’s screen persona. She would work with Chaplin until 1923, at which time he directed her in a dramatic role in A Woman of Paris. After making one more film, Purviance retired, although she remained on the Chaplin studio payroll until her death in 1958.

A Night Out also marks the end of Chaplin’s pairing with Ben Turpin. Although he would later appear in a bit part in The Champion, and in the extended four-reel version of Burlesque on Carmen, Turpin’s screen partnership with Chaplin was short-lived. Their comic by-play recalls Chaplin’s earlier pairing off with Roscoe Arbuckle in films like The Rounders. Turpin had been with Essanay almost since its beginning in Chicago, and would enjoy a long career in films that lasted until his death in 1940. His final appearance was a cameo as the plumber (“It looked alright to me!”) in Laurel and Hardy’s Saps at Sea, and his distinctive look, with his shock of unruly hair, crossed eyes, and brush mustache, would become an iconic emblem of silent comedy. A fitting tribute to his legacy came in 1949 when his photo would make the cover of LIFE Magazine in illustration of James Agee’s seminal appreciation of silent film comedy, “Comedy’s Greatest Era”.

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