Chaplin Essanays (1915-1916)

After Keystone and before Mutual, Chaplin spent a year at Essanay Studios in Chicago.


His New Job

Oh man, these Essanay shorts are a half hour long? And there are seventeen of them, so that’s gonna be… about a hundred hours of dudes opening doors into other dudes’ faces and knocking them down. But if I wasn’t amused, I’d quit… the only thing that definitely has to go is the generic silent-film music on the blu-ray. If they’re gonna play music with no regard to the visuals’ mood or editing anyway, next time I might as well just put on something of my own. Anyway, Charlie comes to a film casting office, gets hired as an extra but fucks that up, is made a carpenter until a lead actor is fired, then Charlie replaces that guy in the film-within-film. So many asses get kicked and stabbed and sawed and thwacked, and finally a hammer-wielding Charlie flies into a workplace-violence rage. With Charles “no relation” Hitchcock as the late-arriving male lead, and Gloria Swanson as a background stenographer… I love that extras played movie stars, and stars played extras.

That must be Gloria in the back:


A Night Out

Katy joined me for most of this, making it the first Chaplin we’ve watched since The Gold Rush in 2010. I suppose it’s better than the previous short, but not much. Chaplin plays a fucking asshole, out drinking with his crosseyed friend Ben Turpin, who tries to keep him out of trouble and whom Charlie will later try to murder with a brick. In the meantime he gets into hijinks with Edna Purviance (her first Chaplin film) and hides from her husband Bud Jamison (a Three Stooges sideman who died in the 1940’s from being a Christian Scientist). This one’s more notable for the personnel involved than anything that takes place in it.


The Champion

Charlie is down and out, but still offers a bulldog some of his lunch. He signs up as a human punching bag for boxer Spike Dugan (Ernest Van Pelt, on loan from the Broncho Billy cowboy series) and gets his face kalsomined, then fights back with a horseshoe in his boxing glove. So Charlie is pitted against Bob Uppercut (Bud Jamison) for the championship (featuring some fun long-take boxing shenanigans) and wins with help from the bulldog. Also, the movie stops dead for a while when a shady character arrives (prolific mustache villain Leo White) trying to bribe Charlie into throwing the fight while continually stopping to talk into the camera and do his Snidely mustache thing. Edna appears as an obligatory love interest. I listened to Bill Orcutt, which didn’t really work at all, but I got used to it.

That must be Essanay cofounder Broncho Billy next to our black-hatted villain:

Charlie and Edna heard us looking:


In The Park

In the park are: (2) romance-novel-reading Edna and her would-be-man (Bud Jamison in a short tie), (4) a pair of lovers (Leo White with his nogoodnik mustache, and Leona Anderson, Broncho Billy’s little sister), (5) the world’s most obvious pickpocket (future film director Lloyd Bacon), (7) a couple of violent bumpkins with a pot of sausages, (8) a cop, and (9) Charlie, going around being an absolute ass to everyone. More people get whacked in the head with bricks, the rest get kicked into the lake, and this terror spree is all fun and charming because Charlie is the one doing it.


A Jitney Elopement

Wow, a car chase, with Chaplin driving and being filmed from another car alongside. This is advanced stuff, but not very funny, as he spends 85% of the movie running away from his girl’s dad, her suitor and two cops, pausing to kick them in the ass or throw bricks at their heads. A promising intro section though, Chaplin pretending to be “Count Chloride” to get dinner at Edna’s house, but has table manner troubles. Some prop stuff we didn’t follow – the servants keep destroying the food and dishes, I’m not sure why, and Chaplin is constantly fidgeting with cigarettes. All the same actors as usual, now joined by Irish theater star Paddy “Bungling Bill” McGuire as one of the butlers.


The Tramp

More bricks to heads, in fact there are some worrying head injuries in this one, but now some new actions, as Charlie jump-kicks a guy, gets shot, and sits in a drain pipe cuz his ass is on fire. Naive Edna has two dollars, and everybody wants them, but Charlie wants mostly to protect the girl from his fellow tramps because she is his true love. When it turns out she’s not in love but just helping him out, and he sees her with fiancee Lloyd Bacon (also one of the tramps!), he sneaks away and walks off down the road, an ending he’d keep coming back to.

Edna and her two dollars:

Edna’s dad Ernest has more than two dollars:


By The Sea

Filmed at Crystal Pier, reportedly because Chaplin was between studio locations, having found the Essanay sets unacceptably low-rent. Chaplin gets mixed up with a mustache man because their hats, both tied to their coats with string because of the high wind, get tangled. He torments the guy, who ends up punching a cop, they make up then antagonize big Bud Jamison and an ice cream man, while Charlie takes time to flirt with all the wives. After minor roles in the previous films, Billy Armstrong has his big moment as the mustache man, with newcomer Margie Reiger as his wife, and extremely prolific sideman Snub Pollard as the ice cream man. I played a mix of Book Beriah songs, which worked great, especially Banquet of the Spirits.


His Regeneration

What is happening… it’s a crime drama with a cameo by Chaplin but mostly starring Broncho Billy with creepy glowing eyes as a thief and murderer. He gets shot, apparently not too badly, in a bar fight over a girl, then breaking into the same girl’s house that night he kills his partner Lee Willard. Lee was a Broncho regular, likewise the girl Marguerite Clayton, who agrees to tell the cops that she shot the partner breaking in, while Broncho promises that he’ll turn over a new leaf because of her kindness. More Book Beriah: Secret Chiefs and Julian Lage worked fine, but Abraxas just reinforced how unexpected this thing is.


Work

Charlie drives an equipment rickshaw up a steep hill, narrowly missing the streetcar, whipped the whole way by his abusive boss Charles Inslee (he played bosses and professors, made it to 1921’s Adventures of Tarzan before dying at 52). They are meant to wallpaper a house full of its own petty dramas (with the usual suspects plus housewife Marta Golden), but of course these workers are incredibly incompetent – and it’s kinda a mess of a movie too, feels excessively padded. One good bit: Marta puts her silver in the safe, and in response the workers safety-pin their watches into a pants pocket. I played my new guitar+cello CD from Drag City but it proved too dissonant for slapstick, so back to Zorn.


A Woman

Even before the crossdressing second half, this is an improvement in the action. Opens with more messing about in a park – a “flirt” is aggressively picking up guys, and family man Inslee fights Charlie over her and ends up in the lake. Charlie in turn picks up Inslee’s wife Marta and daughter Edna and they invite him home for doughnuts (whatever conditions these movies were filmed in, you can see the table is crawling with flies). When the man of the house comes home and Charlie realizes who it is, he dressed as a woman (even “shaves” his mustache) to escape, pauses to taunt dad and his new friend Billy Armstrong, then declares his love for Edna. Pretty much nonstop activity, with one delicious pause trying to find the perfect lakeside spot to kick in the blindfolded Inslee. One of five Chaplin shorts on the Anthology Film Archives Essentials list.

Edna is not impressed by Charlie’s initial attempt to be a woman:


The Bank

Back into filler territory already… cute bank vault intro, then it’s mostly Charlie feuding with fellow janitor Billy Armstrong and playing havoc with his mop, and a mixup where Edna is in love with a cashier also named Charlie. Things pick up when Lawrence Bowes (a newcomer but wearing the same fake mustache as all the heavies, so who can tell) brings some guys to rob the bank after his meeting with the president goes badly, our Charlie singlehandedly takes them all out while Cashier Charlie hides under a desk, and the girl switches Charlies… but in the apparently deleted final minute, the janitor wakes up kissing his mop, the robbery just a dream. Cashier Charlie was Carl Stockdale, bit actor and alleged murderer of director William Desmond Taylor in 1922.

A Tale of Two Charlies:


Shanghaied

More intricate than usual, and with some good acrobatics, mostly involving keeping things upright while a boat sways – even while doing flips! – then smashing everything anyway, because the general public didn’t pay their five cents to see Chaplin carefully protect a bunch of dishes. Ship owner pays captain (Bowes again) to destroy his boat for the insurance, captain needs a bunch of men onboard who I guess are supposed to drown to make it look convincing, so he pays Charlie to bonk sailors on the head and toss them into the boat until the sailor pile is large enough to go out to sea. Charlie was also dating the owner’s daughter Edna, so everyone ends up on board along with a barrel full of gunpowder. Newcomers: the cook in the best scene (Charlie absolutely ruining the soup) is John Rand, who would get minor parts in Chaplin films through Modern Times, cabin boy Fred Goodwins, who would make the jump to the Mutuals before dying of bronchitis at 32, and as the owner: Wesley Ruggles! After ten more Chaplin shorts, Wesley started directing, made about 50 movies in the 1920’s, then won best picture with Cimarron and directed Mae West in her censor-defying I’m No Angel.

Conspirators Bowes and Ruggles:


A Night in the Show

A very drunk Posh Chaplin, predating his excellent drunken Mutual short One AM, is seated up front in the richie section for a variety show, while a Poor Chaplin with completely different mustache and eyebrows sits in the balcony cheap seats. On the plus side, it’s all very funny – on the minus, there’s Leo White in blackface. Newcomers: As the chuckling fat boy who brings two pies to the performance (guess where those end up) we’ve got Dee Lampton, whose final film would be the Harold Lloyd short Haunted Spooks before he died at age 20 of appendicitis. May White (no relation to Leo?) plays a performer, and Carrie Clark Ward (woman with the feather hat that Charlie destroys) appeared in the first screen version of The Awful Truth (the Cary Grant was its second remake).

Cheap Charlie grabs the firehose:


A Burlesque on Carmen

Atypical Chaplin short for a number of reasons… for one, his character has a name: Darn Hosiery. He’s a guard who turns on his fellow officer Leo White for the love of Carmen Edna, who has seduced him into helping him admit her smuggler friends through the gates. She runs off with bullfighter John Rand and Chaplin chases her to Seville, demanding that she belongs to him, then murder-suicides (kind of – it’s the second movie I watched this month to end with a gag knife trick). Added to the usual gang of idiots is Jack Henderson as a barkeep – his career of bit parts would fizzle after the silent era. Based on the famous novel/opera, which has also been filmed by Lubitsch, DeMille, Raoul Walsh (twice!), Jacques Feyder, Christian-Jaque, Charles Vidor, Otto Preminger, Terence Young, Radley Metzger, Carlos Saura, Francesco Rosi, Joseph Ga├» Ramaka, Mark Dornford-May, Alexander Payne, Jean-Luc Godard, and Lotte Reiniger. I played an excellent Roberto Rodriguez album.


Police

“Each man kills the thing he loves” – I didn’t realize this Mike Patton & Jean-Claude Vannier album would have lyrics, but they’re appropriate, Patton croaking “where’s the money at” during the heist scene. Charlie gets robbed on his way out of prison by a fake preacher and fails to get into a flophouse. Why does he put an alarm clock in his pocket? A costarring role for Wesley Ruggles as Chaplin’s ex-cellmate who ropes him into burglarizing Edna’s house, and who later shoots Charlie multiple times in the butt. Charlie takes Edna’s side during the ensuing tussle, so when the cops arrive, she acts like he is her husband – shades of the fake-Chaplin His Regeneration. Consistently good movie – they’ve come a long way since the plotless slapstick nonsense of the earlier films.


Triple Trouble

The most poorly restored and shoddily edited of the bunch, cobbled together by Essanay after Chaplin had left the studio from outtakes stitched together with a newly-filmed framework starring unknown actors. I listened to Steve Gunn and William Tyler in honor of Hanukkah night one. Chaplin works as a janitor for explosives inventor Nutt, torments Edna the maid then retires to the flophouse from Police, where Billy Armstrong is robbing the residents and chewing the scenery. This ends in a pretty good brawl, then we’re out of fresh Chaplin footage, as he meets Ruggles in a couple scenes directly recycled from Police to get back into the inventor’s house, where a bunch of cops are flailing about. Thus ended Chaplin’s Essanay era. It’s a considerable amount of output for a single year. Essanay barely lasted past the Chaplin year as a studio; signed Max Linder and merged with Vitagraph before becoming part of Warner Bros.

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