Charlie Chaplin at Essanay
A celebratory dance and a hefty paycheck signaled the start of Charlie Chaplin’s stay with the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, but his year-and-a-half stay with the studio produced more than that. It was the start of Chaplin as writer, director, actor and producer in total control of his work. It was the start of Chaplin as clown as well as an emotional actor. And it was the start of the actor as a major draw, not a nameless face.
Chaplin Poster for Essanay Studios
When G.M. Anderson and George K. Spoor signed “The funny man of the films” in December of 1914, it made headlines. Not just because he was arguably the most popular star in the world, but because he was courted with a salary that confirmed that status. Chicago was abuzz with the news, and Essanay co-founder Anderson (who had moved to California years earlier) returned to the city for the occasion. He even donned his Broncho Billy makeup alongside a fully makeuped Chaplin and performed a celebratory dance that Motography dubbed “one of the weirdest and funniest stunts on or off the stage.”
From the moment the news was announced, critics and fans were anxious to see what this new partnership would produce. Chaplin’s fellow photoplayers at the Chicago branch of Essanay put their own projects on hold to see him, and reigning king of the studio, Francis X. Bushman, was even curious to see what this up-and-comer had to offer. As Motion Picture Magazine described in a piece appropriately called “Chaplinitis,”
"When Chaplin first came to the Essanay studio, he almost stopped the works. Every person in the studio -- actors and actresses, property men, scenario writers, the publicity department and even the business office -- side-stepped their task and stole down to the studio floor to watch the genius apply his methods. Even then he was comparatively unknown. The world had just begun to recognize that the funny little man with original methods could make whole audiences hold their abdominal muscles and go home sore from uncontrolled laughter."
The first and only film Chaplin produced at the Chicago branch was the appropriately titled “His New Job,” featuring an unknown Gloria Swanson in an extra role and Essanay veteran Ben Turpin — the star of the company’s very first film “An Awful Skate.” The anticipation surrounding this first effort was justified when critics praised it as “killingly funny” and “the funniest comedy ever filmed.”
Although the original plan was to base Chaplin in Chicago, working in the dead of the Windy City winter wasn’t exactly agreeable to the young star. Within a matter of weeks he had made the move west, joining G.M. Anderson at his Niles, California studio, and by May he had moved his entire company to Los Angeles. Although Anderson made the trip to LA often to keep tabs on the productions, Chaplin largely maintained the company under his own direction. While other studios maintained some transparency, Chaplin’s LA studio was surrounded by an air of secrecy, broken only when his latest film was released. Filming without scenarios, but with definite outlines and ideas in mind, these Essanay-produced 1 and 2-reelers felt spontaneous and fun, something that the rest of the Essanay catalog didn’t necessarily share.
Although stars like Francis X. Bushman and Beverly Bayne were very popular and well-loved by critics and fans alike, Chaplin’s films were the films exhibitors wanted. In order to satisfy the exhibitors, but also push the rest of the Essanay stock, Spoor began to stipulate that exhibitors wanting a Chaplin 2-reeler must also take other Essanay productions (a practice that shrewd businesswoman and star Mary Pickford would later encounter and protest against). The combination of “Essanay” and “Chaplin” was so powerful and such a draw that exhibitors who weren’t fortunate enough to carry the “Essanay Chaplins” re-labeled his Keystone films with intertitles saying “Essanay Presents.”
All told, Chaplin made 14 films for Essanay (15 including the infamous “Triple Trouble”). Although that’s less than half the number of films he made in his year with Keystone, and the Essanays aren’t as well-remembered as his later productions, these films represent a turning point for Chaplin. He was largely under his own direction, he was able to slow down and take his time with these productions, and, perhaps most significantly, he was able to begin experimenting with the idea of intertwining comedy and pathos. It was a risk, and one that certainly didn’t go unnoticed. When the element of pathos was introduced in “The Tramp,” Motion Picture Magazine noted, “The tramp discarded humor and became pathetic.” It was this time at Essanay that allowed Chaplin to begin to evolve as an actor and a filmmaker and ask, “Say, did you see ‘The Tramp?’ I know I took an awful chance, but did it get across?”
You can help save one of the first and last remaining silent film studios in the world. Act now and donate to the restoration and reuse of the historic Essanay Studios. Click here to visit the Essanay Indiegogo Campaign page.
–Janelle Vreeland for Classic Movie Hub
THANK YOU Janelle for sharing some of Essanay’s historic past with Classic Movie Hub. You can follow Janelle on Twitter at @Essanay .