Charlie Chaplin’s film career began in late 1913 when he started his one-year contract with the famous Keystone studio in Los Angeles. He made 36 films under that contract (covered in Flicker Alley’s indispensable Chaplin at Keystone, which I wrote about here), but when the contract ended in late 1914 Chaplin was quick to move on to a more lucrative contract that gave him his own production unit with the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, which had a central location in Chicago as well as an offshoot in Niles, California, a town about an hour from San Francisco. “It all happened in a ruthlessly simple way,” said Chaplin of his split with Keystone and move to Essanay. Over 1915, Chaplin made fourteen films with Essanay, further developing his craft and the character of the Tramp.
Flicker Alley has just released Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies, a collection of all of Chaplin’s Essanay films, all newly restored. The dual-format release includes two Blu-rays and three DVDs, containing 405 minutes of material. Following Chaplin at Keystone and Chaplin’s Mutual Comedies (which I wrote about here), this set is the third and final release that comes from The Chaplin Project, a “twelve year endeavor to restore all of Chaplin’s cinematic output from 1914-1917,” lead by Lobster Films and Cineteca di Bologna.
It’s a wonderful set, one of the best home video releases of the 2015 (and Flicker Alley has a few other 2015 releases on the same level). The films are invaluable for the Chaplin fan but — as I’ve found again and again when showing these films to my children — still fresh and funny for those who just want a good laugh. In particular, my kids loved the sadly rare moments when Ben Turpin showed up on screen (time to bust out Flicker Alley’s The Mack Sennett Collection: Volume One, which I wrote about here, so they can see more of Turpin’s work).
But Chaplin’s time at Essanay did not begin smoothly. When he left Keystone, apparently without saying goodbye — “It was a wrench leaving Keystone, for I had grown fond of Sennett and everyone there. I never said goodby, I couldn’t.” — he travelled first to Essanay’s Niles studio, and he got that feeling of sick you get when you think you’ve made a terrible decision with your life.
When I saw it my heart sank, for nothing could have been less inspiring. It had a glassed-in roof, which made it extremely hot when working in the summer.
This first visit was in late 1914, and Gilbert M. Anderson (the “A” from Essanay (“S&A”), the “S” being George K. Spoor), who was escorting Chaplin around, said that Chaplin would be going to the main studio in Chicago, and so that’s where Chaplin went, arriving on December 23, 1914. The first thing he needed to do was purchase his costume since he had to leave the Tramp behind at Keystone. He quickly acquired one and in early January all eyes were on Chaplin as he strode into the studio, apparently annoying — though also impressing — Essanay’s main star at the time, Frank Bushman.
But there is a reason we don’t think of Chicago when we think of Charlie Chaplin. He was there for only a few weeks, freezing in the winter weather, before going back to Essanay’s “less than inspiring” Nile studio to complete his contract. Accompanying him was Ben Turpin, who besides working as an actor for Essanay was also a janitor. Turpin would be in Chaplin’s second Essanay film, the first filmed back in California, “A Night Out.”
But the most significant event that occurred when Chaplin moved back to California was a surprise: when Chaplin was looking for a leading lady for “A Night Out,” he found Edna Purviance. The story of how they came together — a mixture of fortune and attraction — is related in Taschen’s The Charlie Chaplin Archives, which I wrote about here. When they first met, Chaplin thought she was too serious and that she seemed sad; not the attributes he was looking for in a comedy. But soon they hit it off, and they stayed togethe for years. Purviance went with Chaplin to Mutual and then to First National, and they worked together professionally until 1923 (though she apparently appeared as an uncredited extra in Chaplin’s 1947 film Monsieur Verdoux and 1952 film Limelight). Together they appeared in over thirty productions. They were also together romantically until 1917.
While at Essanay, Chaplin started to slow down his production schedule, making less than half the number of films in 1915 as he did in 1914. He was finally in a position of power, and he had control over his productions. It’s in large part thanks to this degree of freedom and control that we got the Tramp we came to know and love. If unrefined and mostly comical at Keystone, the Tramp started its evolution to being the gentler character at Essanay. A particular milestone in this development was in Chaplin’s sixth film at Essanay, “The Tramp.”
I’m about to spoil the film, which at just two reels is short enough anyone concerned can take a break to watch. The Tramp is working on a farm when he meets the farmer’s lovely daughter, played by Purviance. The lowly Tramp is obviously not a good match for the daughter, but hope springs when he helps defend the farm from some bad guys. Its in his moment of triumph that he finds out Purviance is engaged. Selflessly — or because he still has little sense of self-worth — the Tramp walks down the road, leaving a note that says, “I thort your kindness was love but it aint cause I seen him. Goodbye.” With that, Chaplin’s comedy moved from slapstick to something much more sophisticated and artful.
“The Tramp” is probably Chaplin’s most famous Essanay film, and while a milestone it didn’t mark a permanent departure from mere slapstick. I say “mere” because I prefer it when Chaplin adds a bit more narrative and heart to his films, but it shouldn’t be taken to mean that these are somehow unsophisticated or simple films. Chaplin is honing his craft in all of them, adding bits that he will revisit in his later features to great results. And these are, in large part, the films that really got his career flying. He was a star at Keystone — so much so that people at Essanay knew he was going to shake things up for them, but he hadn’t yet come to terms with his fame and he was still finding his artistic voice. Witnessing this portion of his career — especially in these magnificent restorations and with the great contextual material, including a long essay and supplements included in Flicker Alley’s release — makes this an easy recommendation to even the most casual fan. That we also get to see the development of Chaplin’s work with Purviance, some early work from Ben Turpin, and even a bit part by the very new Gloria Swanson, who would do a lovely Chaplin impression in Sunset Boulevard, is icing on top.