Director: Charles Chaplin, GM Anderson, Leo White
Screenplay: Charles Chaplin
Producers: Jesse Jerome Robbins
Starring: Charles Chaplin, Ben Turpin, Edna Purviance, Bud Jamison
Year: 1915 - 1918
BBFC Certification: U
Duration: 386 mins
Across the course of just one year, Charlie Chaplin went from a popular stage actor to screen megastar and box office draw with the films he made at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Company. Keystone turned out fast-paced, broad slapstick comedy shorts which delighted audiences of their day but often look a little crude by modern standards. Nevertheless, Chaplin shone out amongst his contemporaries and when his contract came up for renewal at the end of the year, he demanded a higher wage of $1,000 a year. When Sennett refused this demand, Chaplin negotiated an even higher wage of $1,250 a year (plus a $10,000 signing bonus) with the Essanay Company. Chaplin’s move was not only financially beneficial but also crucial in allowing him the greater creative freedom to refine his art. Though the Essanay films are now seen as a transitional period for Chaplin, it is quickly apparent when watching the films chronologically that he is going from strength to strength and, to audiences who were not aware that even better was to come, the films on the BFI’s new complete overview of Chaplin’s Essanay work were considered the gold standard of screen comedy at the time. While newcomers to Chaplin would be better served by the BFI’s previous collection of Chaplin’s Mutual films, long-term fans interested in the man’s development will find much to enjoy on this new collection, while those approaching this era with a heavy-heart expecting to find nothing but historical interest will be delighted to find several films that are solidly entertaining and worthy of recognition alongside Chaplin’s major works.
HIS NEW JOB
Chaplin’s first film for Essanay, His New Job, toys with self-referential comedy, at least in its title. Acknowledging Chaplin’s move from Mack Sennett’s Keystone company to his new professional home, the title also pointedly parodies the Keystone tradition of titles that began with ‘His’, a rather depersonalising approach for a director/star whose focus on character would revolutionise screen comedy. Tellingly, this was the last of Chaplin’s films to employ the ‘His’ prefix (although he did cameo in GM Anderson’s short His Regeneration, included elsewhere on this set), emphatically cutting ties with Keystone through both impish mockery and a notable stylistic shift. The Keystone comedies often tended towards complete, confusing anarchy generated by a cast of ludicrous characters and nary a straightman in sight. Chaplin favoured the more controlled approach of slowly foregrounding his Tramp character in a situation which was disrupted by his destructive presence. It makes for a far less queasy viewing experience to have this comedic focal point.
That said, His New Job is far from a masterpiece and the smirking title is probably the funniest thing in the film. It seems that the Keystone connections were not as easily severed as this in-joke might have implied and His New Job ultimately descends into high-speed slapstick and mean-spirited violence as a way out of a loose narrative that has no obvious conclusion. The major problem here is the presence of Ben Turpin, a gifted screen comedian who was famous for his crossed-eyes and a deft ability with broad slapstick. Before Chaplin’s arrival, Turpin was one of Essanay’s most promising prospects and it seemed natural to pair him up with their new acquisition. But Chaplin’s desire to move on from the established rules of screen comedy is already clear and Turpin’s presence, though it does result in some beautifully choreographed fights, seems to drag both the narrative towards the more conventional and the spotlight away from the film’s rightful star. Chaplin was not unaware of Turpin’s scene-stealing abilities and ego certainly played a small part in the breakdown of the pair’s working relationship after just three films. But arguably it was Chaplin’s dedication to perfecting his craft that made the Chaplin-Turpin combination unworkable. Chaplin was never meant to be part of a double act and the funniest parts of His New Job are undoubtedly his solo moments, including a nice bit of business with an earpiece and a scene in which he beautifully conveys melodramatic overacting by virtue of his own growing skills as an actor. These flickers of life in His New Job are sadly swallowed up by a crazed finale in which people are kicked up the backside and bonked on the head with mallets in a frenzy of uninspired slapstick. When Chaplin finally gives in to this convention, the impression is that he’s been desperately trying to hold back this tidal wave for the whole runtime and that his Canute act finally fails him.
A NIGHT OUT
For his second Essanay film, Chaplin reworked an old Keystone film called Mabel’s Strange Predicament, which had involved a drunken tramp and bedroom-hopping misunderstandings in a hotel. While the nominal star of that film had been Keystone actress, writer and director Mabel Normand, the female role in A Night Out is marginalised and the romantic misunderstandings saved for the finale. Instead, Chaplin spends a greater portion of the film setting up the source of the Tramp’s drunkenness, in this case a spree with drinking buddy Ben Turpin. Having popped up disruptively throughout Chaplin’s previous film, Turpin is worked into A Night Out’s thin storyline more convincingly and, while they do end up trading blows, the early scenes in which the two stagger around drunkenly as best pals work far better than their ongoing battling in His New Job. This role gives Turpin a chance to work to his strengths, his drunken lurch being one of the finest weapons in his comedy arsenal.
By the second half of the film, Turpin has virtually disappeared from the narrative and, while his role this time round was more entertaining, once again his absence confirms that Chaplin works better solo than as part of a double act. Unfortunately, the plotting of the second half of A Night Out, which sees the Tramp accidentally ending up in the same hotel room as a married woman, feels forced and largely devoid of laughs. It’s worth remembering that A Night Out is now over a hundred years old and therefore much of its risqué humour seems not just tame but barely perceptible to audiences bereft of any context. But there is a larger problem with A Night Out, namely that it is severely low on charm. Charm was something that later Chaplin films had in spades but these earlier works not only rely too heavily on violent slapstick (those smacks to the face sometimes look like they really hurt!) but also fail to imbue the Tramp with the sympathetic qualities that counterbalance his more roguish impulses. Plotting problems are also apparent when, like its predecessor, A Night Out ends by simply filling the screen with a whole bunch of characters with flimsy pretexts for attacking each other and allowing itself to descend into chaos before ending with an abruptness that seems to acknowledge that it has merely run out of steam rather than reached a satisfactory conclusion.
A Night Out is encouraging in some ways. It definitely feels like an improvement on His New Job, with Chaplin using his actors and spaces more wisely, even if the plot feels like an ill-considered peg on which to hang endless jokes in which wild gesticulations inadvertently become pugilistic overtures. It also has some historical significance in that the female role marks the film debut of Edna Purviance, a talented and appealing actress who was to become Chaplin’s leading lady for the next eight years, as well as becoming romantically involved with him. Purviance rarely gets to partake in the comedic side of things but she proves to be a hugely effective anchor in the straight roles, her dramatic skills grounding stories that, in the hands of less talented leading ladies, could have spun out of control.
There are some critics who feel that The Champion is Chaplin’s first masterpiece and, while I would stop short of making such a claim, The Champion is clearly a landmark moment in his career as a director. With its stronger plotting, direction and character, The Champion feels like a gigantic leap forward from Chaplin’s first two Essanay comedies. It features a coherent, three act structure in which the Tramp applies for work as a sparring partner for a boxer, trains for a fight against a hulking brute of a champion fighter, and finally takes to the ring to face his opponent. Along the way there’s the promise of romance with his trainer’s daughter and the threat of corruption from a crook who wants to fix the fight. It’s broad stuff to be sure, with Leo White’s villain looking like he’s arrived from a busy day of tying damsels to train tracks, the dumbbell that Chaplin lugs around for much of the second act being one of the most obvious lightweight props imaginable and the large jug from which he swigs alcohol throughout the film prominently marked ‘BEER’ in cartoonishly large writing. But in these larger than life elements there is bags of the charm that was missing from the first two Essansay films and the stronger plotting allows for the audience to actually become involved with what’s going on onscreen, rather than just waiting for a good bit of comedy business to break up the endless string of arse-kicks.
There is also a very important moment in the opening moments of The Champion that is absolutely crucial to Chaplin’s later success. The film opens with the Tramp eating a modest lunch but, despite his own destitution, he ultimately sacrifices his food to feed a hungry dog. This is an early example of Chaplin’s penchant for pathos that he grew so skilful at mixing with comedy and it is an essential ingredient in that it immediately gets the viewer on the Tramp’s side. In previous films, the Tramp may be more defined than the other characters but he is not necessarily more likeable and, in some cases, seems downright cruel and unpleasant. By opening with an act of kindness, Chaplin ensures we root for the Tramp as he takes on his opponents both in and out of the ring. Oddly, for a film based around boxing, the violence in The Champion is toned down, with those mean-spirited face-shoves that dominated earlier efforts replaced by completely unconvincing gloved pummellings. In some cases, the violence this time round is too unrealistic, with a few poorly executed punches clearly missing their mark by a mile. But fortunately Chaplin largely pulls back from the violence until the climactic boxing match.
When it comes to Chaplin films about boxing, the first thing that comes to mind is obviously the exquisite boxing match scene in City Lights, a ballet of comedic timing that is one of Chaplin’s best loved sequences. In The Champion, we get a much more rough-and-ready take on comedy boxing, largely based around semi-conscious stumbling. But while it may not be as mesmerising as his later take on the sport, Chaplin’s direction of the boxing match in The Champion bodes well for future films. His long takes of the ring, while not necessarily giving the audience the ideal vantage point to appreciate the comedy, allows for a more impressive, performance-based sequence which is far preferable to the two-shot fights of the earlier Essanays, in which someone gets punched in one room and is then filmed flying awkwardly into the next. The boxing match culminates in a knockout and a final shot of the Tramp getting the girl, a shot that shows Edna Purviance at her loveliest and reveals the genuine chemistry between her and Chaplin. It also feels like a real ending rather than just a collapse as the film runs out of time and ideas. Chaplin was clearly a filmmaker who was finding his feet and surpassing his tutors.
IN THE PARK
After the leap forward of The Champion, it’s hard not to feel disappointed with In the Park, a one-reel comedy the like of which Chaplin was moving away from as his ideas became more ambitious. At half the length of the previous three Essanay films, In the Park feels like little more than a stretched sketch and, as such, there is no time for the subtle establishment of character seen in The Champion. Instead, we dive headlong into the action as the Tramp is pickpocketed by another tramp. Although this new tramp is more ferocious, Chaplin’s Tramp is far from the more likeable version he was evolving into, and has reverted to hurling bricks at innocent bystanders and even assisting a man in his suicide attempt, if somewhat reluctantly. This would all be forgiveable if In the Park were only funnier but it never really gets going and, though it is encouraging to see a coherent through-line involving a stolen bag, it’s a pretty thin concept to hang even a fourteen minute film on. Chaplin would make just one more one-reeler, a wise move considering he had obviously outgrown them and in this case working within their confines undoubtedly stifles his creativity.
A JITNEY ELOPEMENT
A Jitney Elopement has often be characterised as one of Chaplin’s weaker Essanay efforts but it does, to some extent, get things back on track after the feeble distraction of In the Park. In terms of structure, A Jitney Elopement certainly has more in common with the tighter plotting of The Champion than with the shapeless antics of the earlier films. In fact, Chaplin spends a couple of minutes at the beginning of the film setting up the dramatic plot before he even brings out the Tramp. These sequences, which show Edna Purviance’s father preparing to marry her off to a rich Count, show the Chaplin had learned much about dramatic as well as comedic storytelling, something that would prominently come to fruition in his next film, The Tramp. It also shows Chaplin’s awareness of the impact his Tramp character was having, since he now shows an inclination to build up to his introduction rather than have him simply amble into the scene immediately.
When the Tramp does show up, the stage is set for a clash-of-the-classes farce as he impersonates the Count in order to rescue Edna from her unwanted nuptials. Impersonation of an upper class figure is a premise that Chaplin has used before and would return to again in his more polished Mutual film The Count. Here, he doesn’t sell the premise as convincingly, since he remains in his iconic, ragged suit and bowler hat but still manages to convince his host that he is a wealthy aristocrat. Nevertheless, this opening portion of the film is the strongest, with Chaplin taking his time with the gags and allowing payoffs to emerge slowly, such as when a bundle of cigars he stuffed under his hat tumble out minutes later when he raises it in greeting. A Jitney Elopement’s best sequence is around a dinner table, in which a nervous Chaplin struggles with hot tea, tough meat and confusing condiments. In a brief piece of business worthy of consideration among his finest moments, Chaplin absentmindedly carves his way through a bread loaf which he then plays like a concertina. The appeal of this small gag is that it is kept small. A lesser comedian would have focused in on such an intricate piece of clowning and topped it off with a victory dance but Chaplin performs it and then pushes it aside to continue with the next joke. This skill for not telegraphing or showing pride in even the greatest gags is one of the elements that made Chaplin’s comedy so richly satisfying as it headed increasingly down this elegant path.
Sadly, a promising comedy falls apart as Chaplin move the action out of the house and into his old stomping ground, the park. Park settings seem to bring out the Keystone in Chaplin and, while he opens the scene with a nice, intricate piece of business with a meagre cigarette, he soon descends into lobbing bricks and hitting people in the face. Even the usually demure Purviance gets caught up in some slapstick, twice taking a tumble from a tree branch. Chaplin at least shows some inclination to continue moving the plot forward but he does so by veering way out of his comfort zone into a car chase. Chases are a rarity in Chaplin films and he admitted that he didn’t like them because he felt the characters’ personalities got lost and they just assumed the roles of chaser and chasee. While Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd both proved adept at tremendous chase sequences in which they retained their personalities, Chaplin’s contention proves correct where his own characters are concerned and the chase at the end of A Jitney Elopement is a non-starter, with much chaotic driving around and few gags to justify it. A climax of sorts is reached but by this point the winning clowning of the film’s early portion seems a long time ago indeed. It’s little wonder that Chaplin was so rarely seen behind the wheel of a vehicle.
By far the most famous film from Chaplin’s time at Essanay, The Tramp is a cinematic milestone for several reasons. For one, it gave Chaplin’s famous character a definitive identity of sorts, establishing him as a tramp by vocation. It also built upon character traits vaguely established in earlier films that would come to define the Tramp in his fully-realised incarnation. Rather than the amoral, sometimes vicious antagonist he appeared to be in previous outings, the Tramp was evolving traits such as heroism, modesty and a moral code which would ultimately make him a more rounded, believable character, allowing audiences to engage more deeply on an emotional level which, in turn, made his antics all the funnier. Emotional engagement is perhaps the thing for which The Tramp is most famous, since it represents Chaplin’s first real attempt to inject genuine pathos into a film. In the final moments, believing he has found love and security with Edna Purviance’s farmer’s daughter, the Tramp witnesses the arrival of a boyfriend of whom he had no previous knowledge. Realising he has misread Edna’s platonic affections, the Tramp regards his scruffy clothes with a new sense of realisation and takes to the road once more. His initially dejected saunter away from the camera down the dusty track transforms through the smallest of subtle shrugs into happy anticipation as he kicks up his heels, back where he feels most comfortable. This ending is one of the most famous shots in silent cinema and is executed with incredible skill. Chaplin would return to variations of it several times in later films, most notably The Circus which recreates it with close adherence.
It’s easy to see in light of its importance to the evolution of his craft how The Tramp has gained the reputation of Chaplin’s first true classic. However, watching the film in light of his later work, The Tramp feels like a work of peaks and troughs, the triumphs of innovation balanced by a tonal inconsistency which betrays a continued reliance on the predictable slapstick of which Chaplin was gradually letting go. The opening moments, in which the Tramp ambles towards the screen down the same dust road on which he will make his iconic exit, show a continued awareness of this character’s potential to become the legendary figure he went on to be. His arrival is dwelt upon with the same anticipation as the Tramp himself shows for his subsequent adventures at the end of the film. Chaplin then carefully layers in the character-establishing routines: when his precious sandwich is stolen, the resilient Tramp feasts on grass; when a gang of violent thugs attempt to steal Edna’s money, the Tramp fights them off, but not before having to fight off his own roguish inclinations to take the money himself. It’s masterful stuff, showing the Tramp to be a flawed hero. The character from His New Job or A Night Out probably would have just taken the money and run. Unfortunately, as the Tramp is rewarded for his heroism by being allowed to work on Edna’s father’s farm, The Tramp descends into uninspired antics with more than a hint of the meanness of the Keystone era comedies. The Tramp repeatedly and tediously jabs a surprisingly tolerant and entirely benign farmhand with a pitchfork, at first mistakenly and then with unmotivated sadism. This half-baked double act drags several more scenes in The Tramp down, including one in which Chaplin, in the process of heroically trying to foil a burglary, keeps battering the farmhand with a large mallet seemingly just for the hell of it!
The attempted burglary by the gang of tramps who Chaplin fought off at the beginning of the film is the narrative drive of the film’s final third and, while it doesn’t provide either the dramatic tension or the laughs that it needs to, it at least drags The Tramp back from the wandering Charlie-down-on-the-farm routine it has slipped into. The famous finale goes some way to making up for the film’s flaws, although there is a sense that the unrequited love element has been undersold. The Tramp seems fond of Edna in their scenes together but more time needed to be spent layering in the hopeful expectations of romance when he was instead off poking arses with a pitchfork. Nevertheless, there is a sense of satisfaction at the end of The Tramp that has only been previously achieved in The Champion. While I still prefer the former film, the bliss of watching the final moments of The Tramp, even in isolation from the rest of the film, cannot be understated.
BY THE SEA
Having made some leaps forward with the growing sophistication of The Champion and The Tramp, Chaplin took a definite backwards stumble with By the Sea, the last of his one-reeler shorts. The film was made as something of an interim measure during a switch of studio spaces and was filmed on location at Crystal Pier in Los Angeles. Chaplin definitely seems to be marking time here, with a variation on his previous park comedies transplanted to a seaside setting. The majority of the film is spent on Keystone-esque scuffles between Chaplin and Billy Armstrong, who very much seems to be filling the role of the long-gone Ben Turpin. Chaplin’s more recent films had begun to appreciate that there was very little that’s intrinsically amusing about two men knocking hell out of each other and the seemingly endless knockabout violence in By the Sea leaves little room for any of the character comedy or subtle business that was starting to make Chaplin’s work stand out from that of his contemporaries. For Chaplin’s detractors, By the Sea might be the perfect film to hold up in support of accusations that he is tedious, repetitive and unfunny and, while there are ample films to disprove these oft-levelled charges, if fighting out this point based on By the Sea alone, one would have to concede. Fortunately, every film Chaplin made from hereon in would be two-reels at least, giving him the space he required to prevent himself falling back into comedically detrimental ways.
Barely a footnote in the Chaplin filmography, His Regeneration is not a Chaplin directed film but a film by western star, director and Essanay co-owner GM ‘Broncho Billy’ Anderson. Anderson had made a cameo in The Champion as an overenthusiastic spectator at the Tramp’s climactic boxing match so Chaplin returned the favour by making an equally brief cameo in Anderson’s film. Chaplin’s presence has often led to His Regeneration being mislabelled as a comedy but it is actually a melodrama. Chaplin, in full Tramp regalia, provides the only humour and his appearance is immediate, fleeting and perfunctory. Given its minor link with Chaplin, it is surprising to see His Regeneration amongst the main list of films on this set, when it seems more suited as a curio to confine to the special features section. Still, it is significant for a couple of reasons. For one, Chaplin essentially remade the film as a comedy with his final Essanay film Police. But perhaps more significant is His Regeneration’s usefulness as a comparative piece. While Anderson was a director of much experience, it is easy to see how superior Chaplin is in the directorial role, even when viewing Anderson’s film immediately after By the Sea, which represents Chaplin at his worst. Too often Anderson clutters the screen with confusing superfluous detail or fails to frame shots in order to draw the viewer’s eye to the main action. The frustration of trying to follow the story illustrates just how easy it is to take Chaplin’s directorial skills for granted, especially during these years of cinema’s infancy.
Back at the helm of a two-reeler, Chaplin showed both further signs of promise and a worrying inability to shake off the bland slapstick influences of Keystone with the vaguely titled Work. This time round Chaplin plays a decorator’s assistant who arrives to spruce up the home of a haughty, dysfunctional upper class family. The most fascinating thing about Work is the increasing mechanical complexity of some of the routines. Chaplin works extensively with props in this short, most memorably in his opening moments as he struggles to drag an overloaded cart up a steep hill. The cart sequence betrays an ambition to introduce more elaborate gags, confirmed by a sequence in which Chaplin attempts to carry an enormous amount of equipment about his person, inevitably tripping over a bearskin rug and scattering it everywhere. Unfortunately, this scattering of tools is mirrored by the sudden switch from promising ingenuity to haphazard, routine slapstick. The best gags in Work are little moments of social commentary, as when Chaplin, offended by his employer’s ostentatious display of locking away her valuables, tucks his own meagre valuables into an inside pocket. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the film tends towards jokes about buckets on heads and flailing paintbrushes to the face. It just about holds together as an enjoyable enough short until the closing minutes, when for no reason at all Chaplin introduces a wrinkle about a secret lover whose unexpected arrival at the house sets off another intolerably chaotic ending. Unlike other endings of this kind however, Work at least reaches a logical conclusion which provides satisfying closure rather than an abrupt curtain-down.
A Woman was one of the more controversial of Chaplin’s Essanay films due to its cross-dressing themes, although Chaplin had donned women’s clothes for the purposes of trickery before in The Masquerader and even played the role of a real woman in his third film A Busy Day. A Woman begins, yet again, in the park but any fear of a replay of the tedious antics of In the Park or the lesser portions of A Jitney Elopement are dispelled by a fairly solid five minute routine involving a walrus-faced philanderer (Charles Inslee, in an extensive and effective role) who abandons his sleeping wife and daughter to pursue a pretty young woman. When the Tramp wanders into the middle of these proceedings he gets brained by a bottle for his trouble. So begins an ongoing tussle as, having ditched the philanderer in the lake, the Tramp charms his wife and daughter and, unaware of their identities, accepts an invitation back to their house. When the wringing-wet man of the house arrives home, the Tramp is forced to swap his own clothes for those of a woman which he procures from an upstairs bedroom. But he quickly discovers that hubby’s affections extend to practically anything in a dress!
Though it sounds very broad, A Woman shows signs of Chaplin’s growing maturity. The plot unfolds steadily, its pace varying from the bottle-breaking slapstick of the park sequence to some lovely smaller moments of business as the action moves into the house. Of particular note is a superb joke in which, having sat on a feathered hat with a protruding pin, Chaplin momentarily transforms himself into a chicken, strutting in pain with the hat as a tail. Later on, while he changes into the women’s clothes, he sheepishly flirts with the dummy torso from which he removes them. This is the Chaplin that critics would fall in love with as heavily as the public did, although when he removes his moustache he becomes virtually unrecognisable and disappears into his convincing act of femininity. Though it moves the story satisfyingly towards its conclusion, the drag act is actually the least amusing portion of A Woman but it's fascinating to watch this most iconic of screen presences hide himself in plain sight.
There was a slight delay between the release of A Woman and Chaplin’s next film, The Bank, which many critics put down to suspicions that he was having censorship problems after The Bank’s slightly more risqué predecessor. The truth, in fact, was that Chaplin took extra time to make The Bank in order to realise its full potential. The extra effort was well worth it, resulting in by far Chaplin’s greatest film up to that point and to my mind a greater contender for his first proper classic than The Tramp. The Bank features Chaplin as the janitor of a large bank who mistakenly believes Edna Purviance’s typist is in love with him when he finds her birthday present for a cashier who happens to share his name. Responding in kind with a gift of his own, the janitor is devastated to see it regarded with disdain. But when a gang of crooks attempt to stage a robbery, he seizes the chance to prove who is the better man.
The Bank reinstates the pathos that Chaplin introduced in The Tramp but which had been absent from subsequent works. The scene in which the janitor realises his love is unrequited is genuinely heart-rending, beautifully performed by Chaplin, and it is followed through with a subsequent sense of heartbreak, rather than shrugged off in the face of further adventures like in The Tramp. But this is not the only tonal shift in the film. What begins as a solid slapstick comedy in which Chaplin brawls with a rival janitor over buckets, litter and accidental mop-slaps segues first into a romantic drama and then into an adventure film, the latter two parts only punctuated by the occasional joke. The Bank even tags on a double ending, in which triumph quickly and devastatingly gives way to defeat. With The Bank, Chaplin was challenging his audience, refusing to give them what they thought they wanted and instead imbuing his film with a rich emotional diversity which makes for a much better film. Considerably improving on his previous Essanay films and a million miles ahead of his Keystone films, The Bank plays more like one of the highly sophisticated shorts Chaplin would soon be making for Mutual.
With Shanghaied, Chaplin showed signs of continued ambition in some respects but unfortunately the material and plot just aren’t as strong as in his best work. A major early problem with Shanghaied is that the Tramp, rapidly becoming a much more sympathetic character than the amoral rogue he once was, almost immediately colludes with the bad guys in order to help them shanghai three reluctant sailors onto a doomed voyage by clonking them on the head with a mallet. When the Tramp himself inevitably gets shanghaied alongside them, it’s very difficult to sympathise with his plight, which immediately throws the film’s moral compass out of whack. Even if you’re not too bothered about character though, Shanghaied is weak in the jokes department. The set pieces here, such as the initial shanghaiing or the Tramp’s faulty direction of a crane which ends up dumping his shipmates in the water, seem to go on too long for very little payoff. Ideas are spread thinly, such as the rocking boat sequences in which Chaplin has the camera move from side to side as he stumbles around an obviously stationary deck. He would use this trick more sparingly and to better effect in the classic Mutual film The Immigrant but here the only effect is to make the audience feels as seasick as the characters. The final nail in Shanghaied’s coffin is the plot, a thin slice of pastry about a boat owner who intends to destroy his boat to collect on the insurance, until he realises his daughter has stowed away on the voyage. The premise, though it raises a few questions (did he intend to murder the crew alongside the destruction of the boat, in which case his final dunking in the ocean feels disproportionately kind) could have made for a strong central thrust has Chaplin given it any time. Instead, the storyline only appears very fleetingly at the beginning and end of the film, providing too flimsy a skeleton to support the baggy skin of the set-pieces.
A NIGHT IN THE SHOW
A Night in the Show could be seen as a step backwards for Chaplin but in fact it is a touching tribute to his theatrical roots, a filmed recreation of the musical hall sketch Mumming Birds which Chaplin used to perform on stage with the Fred Karno company and which played a major role in landing him a contract with Keystone. Consequently, there is an obvious reversion to an earlier form of the comedy style Chaplin was currently in the process of revolutionising with his more complex, considered films. Perhaps he sensed, given the direction his comedy was taking, that this might be his last chance to bring a portion of his early life to the screen in the form of a broader, plotless comic sketch.
A Night in the Show is also unusual in that Chaplin takes a break from playing the Tramp. Although critics and audiences differ on when they think Chaplin is or isn’t playing the Tramp, I tend to favour the idea that whenever he wears the iconic suit and bowler hat (which is in most of his films) he is a version of that character. So, while he spends most of The Bank in a janitor’s costume, the fact that he arrives at the beginning of the film wearing the Tramp costume suggests to me that he is that character in a period of time where he has managed to secure employment. But in A Night in the Show, the Tramp costume is not glimpsed. Instead, Chaplin plays a man at the other end of the social scale, Mr. Pest, a tipsy upper class irritant whose half-cut blunderings disrupt and, eventually, enhance a stage revue. Chaplin also plays the role of Mr. Rowdy, a lower class man in the gallery who heckles from afar. In a shabby suit and behind a different moustache, Chaplin is fairly unrecognisable until his hat comes off, revealing his famous curls.
There’s an argument to be made that A Night in the Show is a valuable historical document for several reasons. It gives us a glimpse at satirical attitudes to class in the early 20th century, with the upper class seen as oblivious, hedonistic asses and the lower class as uncultured, boisterous annoyances. It also presents us with an approximation of a night in a music hall, with glimpses of a range of acts and an immersive focus on the audience. Finally, it presents us with a version of Chaplin’s very earliest work, before the cameras began rolling. But for all its points of interest, A Night in the Show just isn’t funny enough to sustain its two reels. There are moments of fun but after a good start (I laughed at both characters’ short introductory skits) it all gets a little repetitive and irritating. With films as comparatively sophisticated as The Bank and The Champion now out there, and ironically given that it is one of his few films not to feature the iconic battered bowler, A Night in the Show must have felt a bit old hat.
A BURLESQUE ON CARMEN
With A Burlesque on Carmen, Chaplin made his most ambitious Essanay film, a parody of two popular film versions of Carmen released that same year by Raoul Walsh and Cecil B DeMille. As a then topical joke about specific films of which audiences had most likely seen one or the other, A Burlesque on Carmen was probably more riotously funny when it first came out but to modern audiences (myself included) who have seen neither of the versions of Carmen being parodied, Chaplin’s film still plays as an effective spoof of melodramatic adventure films of the silent era in general. Like all successful send-ups, A Burlesque on Carmen takes great pains to get the details right, with impressive sets, costumes and appropriately exaggerated acting. The bonus of making such a faithful parody is that Chaplin had an engaging and well-structured plot ready-made in which to insert his comedy business. In one of his finest Essanay performances Chaplin plays Darn Hosiery, the guard charged with preventing smugglers from entering the city of Sevilla. As the titular Carmen, Edna Purviance is finally given a role to match her talents, casting aside her usual sweet-natured but narratively sidelined love interest to play a duplicitous gypsy woman who uses her feminine wiles to try and charm Chaplin’s guard away from his duties.
In her crucial central role, Purviance shows as great an understanding of the intrinsic ludicrousness of melodrama and she manages to have enormous fun with eyeball rolling eccentricities to the fore, while also knowing that the key to the comedy’s success is playing the part as if she believes she’s playing it straight. Chaplin also has a complex acting challenge, since he must play a role significantly different from that of the Tramp, differentiating the character while also retaining those qualities that made audiences fall for him in the first place. He does so with aplomb, making Darn Hosiery both mildly pompous and sympathetic, ineffectual but also heroic. There is a risqué running joke in which Darn Hosiery’s lengthy sword-sheath is revealed to house only a stumpy little dagger but when he does finally get his hands on a lengthier weapon, Chaplin deftly turns a sword fight into a game of pool, chalking the tip of his weapon with an onion. While little touches like this ensure the laughs keep coming, Chaplin is careful to dedicate equal attention to the plot, disappearing from the action for periods of time in order to move the story forwards.
With such dedication to recreating DeMille’s film in miniature, A Burlesque on Carmen does not shy away from taking the story to its tragic climax, which it does in an almost sincere melodramatic style, until Chaplin amusingly undermines it with an inspired final gag which allows the artifice of the production to come to the fore at the climactic moment. One other small detail in the final reel cleverly tips the audience a sly wink: having realised he has been duped by his lady love, Darn Hosiery is seen sadly wandering down the street wearing the famous bowler hat of the Tramp. Seconds later, with a small gesture, Chaplin knocks the hat off his head. Though he has taken great pains to establish Darn Hosiery as different from the Tramp, this small connection suggests perhaps he could be an ancestor and allows Chaplin, in his character’s moment of wretched heartbreak, to channel the pathos that was slowly becoming associated with his most iconic creation. It’s a superb self-referential moment, akin to a later joke in Buster Keaton’s feature Steamboat Bill Jr. in which Keaton, in the role of a foppish young man, tries on a series of different hats and, when his famous pork pie hat is placed on his head, casts it aside immediately with disgust.
A Burlesque on Carmen was further evidence of Chaplin’s continued growth and ambition but unfortunately it is a film that has suffered great mistreatment down the years. Shortly after its release in its intended two-reel form, Chaplin left Essanay. In order to try and get more out of the star, Essanay withdrew the film and rereleased it as a four-reel feature. They extended the film by adding in new scenes filmed with Ben Turpin, who had not been seen in a Chaplin film since his minuscule cameo as a hot-dog vendor in The Champion. Turpin and Chaplin never mixed that well but, considering they could not even appear in the same scenes here, setting Turpin up as a second star of sorts was even worse, distracting from the film’s tight storytelling and accurate recreation of its satirical target. Further running time was achieved by using footage Chaplin had discarded, extending well-timed jokes way beyond their lifespan and further sullying a wonderful film. While this bastardised version of A Burlesque on Carmen has harmed its reputation down the years, sometimes being the only version audiences have seen, thankfully this set restores the film to its original runtime, excising the extraneous material and recreating a classic short in its intended form.
By the time Chaplin’s final Essanay film Police was released he had already moved on and reportedly Essanay fiddled with his intended version of this film too. Allegedly, Chaplin had been planning to shoot an ambitious feature film called Life but Essanay discouraged this, fearing it would result in eager theatre owners having to wait longer for more Chaplin product. As a result, Chaplin is said to have incorporated a sequence meant for Life set in a flophouse into his final Essanay two-reeler Police. It is this scene that Essanay were said to have removed, finally reusing it in their own cobbled together short Triple Trouble (see below). However, while Chaplin made a great deal of fuss and filed legal proceedings against Essanay over both their butchered version of A Burlesque on Carmen and their awkwardly nailed together Triple Trouble, there is little to no evidence suggesting he complained about what they are supposed to have done to Police. Watching Police now, it flows extremely well and does not seem to be missing anything. More, the idea of inserting an extra scene into it seems like a bad one in terms of pacing and coherence and some critics have suggested that Chaplin himself may have altered the flophouse sequence to be the shorter, less disruptive presence it is in the widely-seen version of Police.
Whatever the truth of the matter, Police is another excellent short. It is not as bold or ambitious as the likes of The Bank or A Burlesque on Carmen but it seems to employ all the lessons Chaplin had learned at Essanay to create a fast, funny, enjoyable and well-structured piece which, when placed next to His New Job, shows just how far Chaplin had come in one short year. Significantly, Police begins with the Tramp being released from prison, a theme Chaplin would repeat in his final Mutual film The Adventurer in which he played an escaped convict, leading many commentators to draw comparisons between Chaplin’s studio-hopping and the feeling of freedom after incarceration. Police then follows the Tramp through a series of misadventures as he fails to readapt to life on the streets. Bumping into an old cell mate, the Tramp is drawn into a plot to burgle a large house but, when they encounter the owner (Edna Purviance), who requests only that they do not disturb her sick mother, the Tramp turns on his uncooperative accomplice. It’s a fine, simple tale heavily influence by His Regeneration in which Chaplin had cameoed, but significantly superior to that film in both its humorous treatment of the subject matter and its elements of pathos, as the Tramp, burned before by bogus reformers, finds the faith in the kind, caring Edna to rediscover his conscience. The final shot, of Chaplin wandering, arms-astride, towards new adventures, is a wonderful ending but the sudden interruption of this denouement by an angry police officer seems to foreshadow Chaplin’s subsequent legal battles with Essanay as he extricated himself from his contract and found that, in this case, the law was not on his side.
It seems like a shame to end the official list of films included on this set with the dire patchwork of Triple Trouble. In some ways, like His Regeneration, it seems more suited for inclusion as an extra feature, allowing for only the 100% Chaplin-directed material to make up the core attraction. However, while Chaplin denounced Triple Trouble on its release and attempted unsuccessfully to sue Essanay for tampering with his work, he did eventually include the film as part of his official filmography when compiling the list for inclusion in his autobiography. Perhaps this inclusion was down to the fact that Triple Trouble does at least contain some footage Chaplin shot himself. There is an ongoing argument amongst critics and commentators as to where all the footage used to make this feeble film came from. Essanay reportedly cobbled together bits from Chaplin’s aborted feature film Life, outtakes from Police and even the famous closing shot from Work, clearly identifiable to all but the most gullible of viewers. Nevertheless, Essanay claimed to have held back Triple Trouble for release because they knew its value would rise as Chaplin’s star ascended ever further. They released the film claiming it was a genuine work.
Even a cursory watch of Triple Trouble identifies it as a half-hearted con. Essanay merely attempted to string together a series of offcuts with newly shot material directed by Chaplin’s collaborator Leo White (there is some evidence that White was strong-armed into the task and Chaplin certainly didn’t hold it against him, continuing to use him as a supporting player in later films). As a result, Triple Trouble makes very little sense at all, imposing a weird story about a wireless explosive device, a villainous German Count, an easily confused pickpocket and Chaplin’s janitor onto a series of scenes that clearly have no relation to one another. Most critics agree that the main value of Triple Trouble is the opportunity to have a glimpse at some of the material from Life but robbed of context, it seems… well, Life-less! Part of the joy of watching Chaplin’s Essanay films was seeing how much he learned about the importance of character and plot to enhancing comedy potential. Because of its slapped-together nature, there is no consistency with regards to either in Triple Trouble.
As with the BFI’s previous set of Chaplin’s Mutual films, it is an absolute joy to have the Essanay comedies compiled in one place, beautifully presented and enhanced by informative and enjoyable features. As previously stated, the Essanay films are not as polished or generally as strong as the Mutual films but viewed in their proper context they are fascinating to budding film historians and Chaplin enthusiasts. But more than this, several of the Essanay films are genuinely entertaining, funny and satisfying for any audience open to the idea of watching silent cinema. To keep harping on about context and history, as I have found myself doing, is to do these films a great disservice in terms of entertainment value. The second disc in particular features a handful of very fine films and a couple of real classics. If you’re new to Chaplin, this set should be approached with caution and perhaps a guiding hand to ensure that you’re not put off before your love affair with the great man can even begin. But if you’ve seen the feature films, the First National and Mutual shorts then this release is the next treasure to uncover. You may arrive believing you’ve already seen all the truly essential Chaplin films. You may be surprised!
Charlie Chaplin: The Essanay Comedies is released on Blu-ray and DVD on 23 January 2017. Special features are as follows:
- All films fully restored in High Definition
- Charlie Chaplin: The Long Year at Essanay – informative 23 minute video essay by writer and broadcaster Glenn Mitchell which gives a concise overview of Chaplin’s Essanay period accompanied with appropriate film clips and images.
- Charlie’s Triple Trouble – the rereleased 1944 UK version of Triple Trouble with a voiceover by comedian Tommy Handley. The original weak film is barely enhanced by Handley’s likeable but largely unfunny gags and the experience of seeing a silent film with sound added is rarely effective.
- Burlesque on Carmen – a 1951 version of A Burlesque on Carmen which features elements of the four-reel version and a voiceover from comedian and actor Peter Sellers. Like the Handley voiceover, there are vaguely amusing moments but the experience is jarring and, despite anything involving Sellers being of interest to comedy fans, the novelty quickly runs out of steam.
- Charlie Butts In – an interesting ten minute short compiled from a public appearance of Chaplin, in character as the Tramp, conducting an orchestra intercut with outtakes and alternative shots from A Night Out.
- The usual excellent accompanying booklet, the like of which can be found with most BFI releases. This one contains essays by Frank Scheide, Glenn Mitchell and Vic Pratt as well as full credits for all films included on the set.