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How To Become The Most Famous Man in the World: Chaplin at Essanay on Blu-ray

  Charlie Chaplin was the most celebrated of the silent comedians to emerge from the Hollywood of the nineteen-tens, and had got his big break as part of producer Mack Sennett's Keystone comedies, as an entertainer everyone had an opinion on at the time, love him or hate him, yet as the middle of the decade approached he was feeling the need to spread his wings and exercise more creative control over his short films, that same old story, only it was a newer story back in 1914. Quite often when that happens the talent has grown too big for their boots and away from the people who started and nurtured their careers they flounder, but not Chaplin: he had a very clear idea of what he wanted and what would be successful.

He struck a deal with the Essanay studio, which had locations in Chicago as well as Los Angeles, and the result was a series of comic shorts around half an hour long (though some were shorter), the first of which was His New Job. In a rather meta development, it depicted Chaplin, retaining his "Little Tramp" costume from Keystone, recognising its "trademark" quality, trying to break into the movies and causing chaos at a studio, though his efforts lead to disaster which they did not at the actual Essanay studio. With a bit part for future superstar Gloria Swanson, soon to be established Ben Turpin also showed up as a foil (Charlie even takes a saw to his arse at one point - ouch), and the production displayed a confidence in setting out the gags with precision and aplomb.

Next was A Night Out, a far more basic outing for Chaplin's drunk act, here accompanied by Turpin who seemed to be presented as double act material for him, as if Essanay were not quite confident in their new star as a solo performer. They could both deliver this sort of thing in their sleep, and as they stumbled about the screen with eyes half-closed it did look like they were about to, but the havoc they caused supplied a few chuckles, even though this was hardly the most adventurous of Chaplin's shorts. It was most interesting historically, as it was the first to feature one of his favourite leading ladies, Edna Purviance, who showed up as a wife of the headwaiter (the prolific Bud Jamison) who carries a grudge against Charlie: naturally, misunderstandings of adultery ensued.

Boxing comedies were always popular in the silent era, Buster Keaton's endeavours in that area were probably the most celebrated but Chaplin got in early with The Champion, a half hour of pugilist humour where he was forced through lack of funds to apply to be the sparring partner of a bruiser. His secret weapon? A horseshoe hidden in his glove, which sees to it his opponent flees in defeat and Charlie goes on to train for a prize fight, which was the grand finale. Possibly the funniest part was that training (with our hero regularly supping from a jug of beer) as Leo White, a regular foil, tries to interfere with the outcome and suffers indignity after indignity; you could see Chaplin, directing again, was increasing in confidence and his own drawing power.

Chaplin once said all he needed to make a comedy was a park, a policeman and a pretty girl, which he would prove with In the Park, not the first of his films to use this location, as if for this one-reeler he was falling back on what he already knew rather than breaking any new ground. The plot was so simple as to be practically non-existent: the Little Tramp hangs around in the park, interacting with the visitors there, who included Purviance again as a maid or nanny, Leo White as a Count whose love life is blighted with a thief who steals his fiancée's purse, and that cop who tries to sort it all out. By this time the humour was notable for how often characters were booted up the arse: it was more or less a means of communication here and fortunately the bricks to the head didn't catch on.

He was on firmer ground with A Jitney Elopement, which entertained more of a structure to its plot and demonstrated how Chaplin was beginning to aim his filmmaking towards greater sophistication while maintaining an easy to understand persona. Here it was his fascination with class that provided the premise, as he had been brought up in incredibly impoverished London surroundings but was beginning to make a lot of money which would have him rubbing shoulders with the great and good. He posed as a Count to try and save Edna (getting more to do) from an unwanted, arranged marriage, and his bits of business at the dinner table were the highlight, the chase finale in the titular Jitney (a make of car) more Keystone than he was perhaps comfortable with.

However, with his following short he had a brainwave: how about giving the audience a richer experience by including a little pathos in with the laughs? This would become the trademark of his later work, that belief if you felt great sympathy with his main character you might even tear up come the end of whichever one of his adventures you had been watching, and so it was in The Tramp this initially became apparent. The story also packed in some thriller material as Charlie saved Edna from some thieves, was rewarded with a job on her father's farm, and thwarted them again for the finale - ah, but not quite, as he thinks he has found somewhere to settle with a woman he has fallen in love with, and it is not to be. The style was unrefined, but getting there.

His next, By the Sea, would appear to be a retrograde step, as it was a one-reeler of extremely simple description, merely Charlie visiting the beach (which looks notably underpopulated, maybe it was too windy for sunbathers) and getting into a fight with Billy Armstrong (a tragically shortlived supporting artiste in comedy) over their hats which blow off. These are attached by strings to their shirts presumably so they would not lose them in such a situation. However much Chaplin was treading over old ground, his humour instincts were well-used, generously allowing the other players (including Purviance and Jamison) to stay in the limelight with him as they fell about in classic slapstick fashion.

In between that and his next production, Chaplin did a favour to his boss at Essanay, Gilbert Anderson, aka Broncho Billy, one of the most prolific of the cowboy stars in the early years of the movies, though he is largely forgotten now. His Regeneration was not a Western, however, it was a moral tale of a criminal who decides to give up his life of wrongdoing thanks to a moment of kindness from a young lady which reforms him. What did this have to do with Charlie? He appeared early in the one-reeler, apparently as a favour (though he did make a variant of this the following year), getting jostled in a bar dance scene. It wasn't much, but he was present, though for his fans you'd need to be a completist to get anything out of it.

The aptly-named Work was Chaplin back in charge, or rather for the first few minutes he was not, far from it, as he has a job with a decorator (Charles Inslee) who is forcing him to do the work of a horse by pulling his cart full of materials. This harsh taskmaster's ill-treatment of Charlie - whipping him, making him take a "short cut" up a steep hill, nearly getting him killed by a tram not once but three or four times - has us wanting to see him get his comeuppance, and the household they are going to be carrying out the decoration for are little better. So when in the second reel things start getting messy, including a variation on the old favourite routine of papering a parlour with disastrous results, it’s peculiarly satisfying, especially with this explosive ending.

The title of the next short, A Woman, was not a reference to Edna Purviance, it was about someone completely different as you would realise after the first ten minutes or so detailed Chaplin's usual business in a park, where he makes a couple of enemies of a lecherous older gentleman (Inslee) and his friend (Armstrong) by pushing them into the pond. Edna is the daughter who helps him escape once his trousers have been ripped off by dressing him as a woman (the 'tache is shaved off), which results in surprising sexual subversion as Chaplin was obviously aiming to present himself as desirable as possible, with flattering close-ups and coquettish looks to camera as the two men fall for him. Controversial in its day, it remains pretty funny for a simple idea.

It seems odd that instead of spending the previous few shorts developing his techniques with tugging on the audience's heartstrings, Chaplin would revert back to the slapstick that had made his name, but with The Bank he evidently returned to that fresh idea and turned it to his advantage in one of the best regarded examples of his way with the bittersweet. It began simply enough, with Charlie as a janitor in the bank feuding with fellow janitor Armstrong, some nice tit for tat there, but once we become aware he has an unrequited crush on stenographer Purviance the way is clear for the emotional element. Naturally, with this setting there would be bank robbers to overcome, but he pulled the rug from under the audience in the final minute, effectively too.

Charlie's fortunes were again mixed but with a more benevolent resolution in Shanghaied!, a seafaring effort which saw him tricked into press ganging various fellows onto a small ship, then joining them against his will when the crew pull the same stunt on him, though he has been seeking to go away for a while after Edna's ship owner father prevents their love going any further. This was an excuse for a bunch of gags on the subject of a life on the ocean wave, many excellent, in particular the over the top movement of the vessel in a storm which is quite hilarious. It was also notable for the remarkable (fake) facial furniture on the male cast members, there was a lot of this in early silents, but few as prevalent as here.

Chaplin was not afraid to take inspiration from what he had done before, hence A Night in the Show, based around a music hall routine he would perform from his nascent days in the Fred Karno players, though taking full advantage of the medium of film to garland it with his own improvements, or at least variations. He was not playing his Little Tramp character this time around, as he essayed two roles, one the tipsy, upper crust troublemaker named Mr Pest, and the other the working class, disruptive Mr Rowdy, less recognisable as Chaplin. They attended a comically dreadful show and react accordingly, thus taking surrogate revenge for every audience who had wanted their money back after a terrible performance; this wasn't terrible, far more accomplished.

Chaplin's parodies were few and far between, the most celebrated being The Great Dictator which was a send-up of a leader and philosophy, but with Burlesque on Carmen he sought to spoof Cecil B. DeMille and Theda Bara movies of Carmen that had seemed to him ripe for lampooning. It sticks fairly closely in a half hour to the plot of a temptress who turns the head of a soldier to assist her in a smuggling operation with tragic consequences, though the ending was naturally subverted. It was fun to see Purviance playing it seductive and alluring, different from her usual prim persona, but one thing this wasn't was particularly funny, more clever in concept than provoking gales of laughter. It was expanded by Essanay shortly after Chaplin's contract expired, but the original is the one to see.

The comedian was on firmer ground, and back in his tramp costume, with His Regeneration remake Police, but was his last with Essanay thanks to professional relations with the company growing fractious over the studio insisting on recutting his work and foiling his ambition to make a feature called Life. You'd never know all that from this, however, which combined Chaplin's increasing interest in pathos and humour together with a blatant support of the underdog: the Tramp emerges from prison that poverty has landed him in, and finds a way to go straight when Edna, whose house he has been forced to rob by his old cellmate, makes him see the light, though there are still pointed digs at the cops who are shown to be cigar-puffing layabouts and troublemakers.

After this, Chaplin left for a better deal, and indeed better films, at Mutual, but Essanay were not quite finished with him as in 1918, two years after they had parted company, they produced a supposedly new short called Triple Trouble. They had already presented two compilations of his work as features, but this edited new footage directed by and starring White as a mad scientist and Keystone Cops rip-off slapstick with clips of Chaplin's abandoned Life as well as other bits and pieces. The results have been lambasted as a hopeless mishmash ever since, but they do hold interest for the rare scenes they portray. After this, Essanay wound down and was relegated to history, their Chaplin association keeping them alive in the memories of silent cinema buffs.

Watching these shorts in the BFI's fully restored Blu-ray compilation, you appreciate what a one-man revolution Chaplin was as he moved from his earliest Keystone antics to a more emotionally substantial form of humour and drama. It is also instructive to see him assemble his screen team around him, with charming Purviance his preferred leading lady for almost a decade until she effectively retired due to her problems with the bottle, and others like Leo White especially standing out as excellent support. The restorations can only do so much, and being these films are over a century old there are still scratches and jumps, but the view you get of a world gone by is absolutely fascinating, not only historically but also how they can prompt laughter even this far away in time.

Also on this two-disc set are later edits of three shorts, one narrated by radio legend Tommy Handley and another by Peter Sellers, and a video essay that compliments the detailed booklet included. For the seasoned silents fan or an intrigued newcomer, this is a fine collection, full of interest.
Author: Graeme Clark

 

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Last Updated: 18 March, 2006