Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Films of Charlie Chaplin at Essanay Studios

The Tramp (1915) the first film to include Charlie's most iconic image: The Tramp walking off into the horizon.
It was 1915. Charlie Chaplin had just found success and fame with over thirty films at Keystone Studios. Although he got the opportunity to write and direct almost half of them, Charlie still didn't have the type of creative control he wanted. That would soon change. Well, for the most part.

While his contract with Keystone was going along, Charlie's phone rang off the hook. He was getting countless offers left and right. And when Essanay Studios offered him a much larger salary, as well his own studio, Charlie jumped at the opportunity.

Charlie's work at Essanay marks the point in his journey when he began to find his mark. His work at Keystone was far too crude and rough, and despite being very popular and successful at the time, most modern viewers may find them inaccessible. But Essanay is when Charlie's genius would begin to surface. But only just begin.

Charlie ran his own studio, but he still wasn't producing his films. So, it was more like he was finding his way but not quite there yet. If you would permit me to use an analogy, think of Charlie's creative process and his overall career like a boxing match. Keystone was the first round, a round where most fighters "feel out" their opponent, trying to find their range, trying to get a feel for their opponent. Essanay is like the second round. Where the fighters have become more comfortable each other, and now possess the proper tools to fight. They'll usually land a great deal of punches at this point, but it's usually not anything damaging. The same can be said for Charlie's work at Essanay. Its where Charlie's began to really hone his skills, showcase his talent as a comedian/writer/director but it wasn't where he made any real timeless masterpieces. DId you get it? Oh, not a boxing fan? Then I guess that was just a waste of time. I'm sorry.

Essanay would also be where Charlie would meet his star leading lady, Edna Purviance. Trying to find a new actress to play opposite him, Charlie was introduced to the girl, who actually was just a secretary and never even acted before. But that's what Charlie wanted. He has been quoted saying, (and forgive me, I'm paraphrasing a bit) "It's good that you don't know anything about acting. Because I would've made you unlearn everything." This sort of risky move would be something Charlie would later repeat with his leading ladies. But Edna was his shining star. She would go on to star in over thirty films opposite Charlie. Which has got to be some kinda record. Charlie loved everything about her, he found something in her face and facial expression that was unique. It wasn't just beauty, there was something delicate and innocent about her that drew Charlie to her. That affection would later manifest itself in reality when they did become romantically involved. But nothing serious became of it.

Charlie did 15 films for Essanay and wrote, directed, and starred in all of them. Again, I don't want to get into every single film, so I'll include seven reviews of Charlie's most notable work. Enjoy.

His New Job (Charlie's New Job) (1915)
Producer: Jess Robins

Writer/Director: Charlie Chaplin

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Ben Turpin, Leo White

RATING: 70/100
The aptly titled His New Job (get it? It's because it's Charlie's new job at Essanay too, after leaving Keystone! Clever!) has Charlie playing a bumbling clumsy stagehand working on a film set. When one of the actors becomes indisposed, Charlie is hired to replace him. And as you might expect, he doesn't exactly do an ideal job.

His New Job is fairly mediocre for Chaplin, especially considering how great most of his other Essanay shorts would be. There are some great moments, and the entire film is pretty funny overall, but it's not exactly spectacular. And there's not as many funny jokes as usual and the story isn't that interesting and there's not much going on.

Despite all this, there's still some great moments of physical comedy and the overall experience is pretty fun. A tad disappointing but it's all forgivable, because Charlie is just, well, he's just great.

A Night Out (Champagne Charlie)(Charlie's Drunken Daze)(His Night Out) (1915)
Producer: Jess Robins

Writer/Director: Charlie Chaplin
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Ben Turpin
RATING: 90/100
In this Essanay short, the Tramp meets up with an old friend and they decide to have a night out. Oh, so that's where they got the title. Clever! Anyway, they get wasted, have crazy adventures with a cute girl from a hotel, and act a fool. Thanks Ludacris for learning us nice grammar!

A Night Out is absolutely hilarious. It's like a physical comedy masterclass, in both good ways and bad. It's good because the film is just 34 minutes of jokes and gags with laughter and silliness. It's bad because that's all it is. Not much story to it, but it shouldn't bother you at all. Charlie displays his unfaltering talent and showcases his famous drunk character (incarnated into The Tramp) from his heydays with Fred Karno with perfect precision. He is just on point here, at the top of his game. His co-stars are brilliant as well. Ben Turpin plays off Chaplin's character fantastically, and Edna Purviance's film debut is delightful. It's not as captivating or gripping as Charlie's masterpieces, but it's just wholly entertaining and fun. So much so, that I wouldn't feel right about giving it a score lower than 90.

The Champion (Charlie The Champion)(Battling Charlie)(Champion Charlie) (1915)
Producer: Jess Robins
Writer/Director: Charlie Chaplin
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Leo White
RATING: 85/100
The Tramp is down on his luck, like usual, and tries his hand at boxing to make some money. This gag would be later revisited in City Lights, and it's just as great there as it is here.
It's Charlie in top comedic form. Charlie has such an amusing and unique physical presence, that adding boxing to the equation is a formula for hilarity. Man, that was lame. I'm sorry. But it's true. The story isn't the most riveting but it's pretty damn fun and enjoyable. After a series of lackluster efforts in Keystone, it's a relief to see Charlie let loose and really entertain you every millisecond he appears on screen. The Champion is a hilarious and fun good time. Don't miss out on this one.

The Tramp (1915)
Producer: Jess RobinsWriter/Director: Charlie Chaplin
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance
RATING: 95/100
The Tramp is most likely Charlie's most famous and important film up to that point. It marks Charlie's first dip into the pool that is his true genius. It was daring and revolutionary in every sense. It would be the first time anyone tried to mingle comedy with drama and pathos, or in other words, a mixture of comedy and emotions. It's what made him famous, and it's what he would be remembered for, a trademark that would appear in Charlie's later masterpieces which would become some of the greatest comedy films (and general greatest films) of all time.
In this silent short, Charlie's Tramp plays his usual vagabond self, traveling the countryside looking for a place to stay. When he gets caught up in a situation with a group of thieves, he gets shot. He's rescued by a beautiful farmer girl, whom Charlie falls for.
In The Tramp we get a glimpse (and a rather perfect glimpse at that) at the brilliance, perfection, and mastery that Chaplin would exude in his future masterpieces. It's a thoroughly joyous experience with some great funny moments, and the Chaplin-esque heart-wrenching ending. It's not one of his funniest films, but it's funny moments are just great. and it's almost impossible not to enjoy yourself. It's a wonderful film, but it doesn't quite reach that level of perfection and precision that his best films have. It's got the same sort of formula, but it's not executed perfectly as his masterpieces. Oh, and this film is where Charlie unleashed one of his most famous trademark images: The Tramp walking his goofy little walk into the horizon. Which you can see in the photo above.

A Woman (Charlie's Perfect Lady) (1915)
Producer: Jess Robins
Writer/Director: Charlie Chaplin
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Charles Inslee
RATING: 85/100
In this Chaplin short, the Tramp interferes with a family's day out, and gets into some trouble with the father when he goes after his wife and daughter.
A Woman is another short where Charlie is in top form and it's glorious. There are handfuls and handfuls of great gags and jokes here, but the pièce de résistance is what happens towards the end. Bit of a SPOILER but, all you need to know is three words: Charlie.In.Drag. Oh, and one more word: Hilarity. Charlie is so funny in drag, even though it's something that all comedians of the time (and of all time) had done. But don't doubt that Charlie brought his own special brand of brilliance to it. He's a pretty good looking girl too!This film would actually be the third and last time Charlie would do drag (he had done so in two Keystone films). The story is a bit hard to follow, and isn't anything to write home about, but it's pretty amusing. It's not as consistent with the jokes either but the entire experience is a blast.
A Woman is just plain funny. There's nothing revolutionary about it, and it still doesn't hold a candle to Charlie's best, but it's definitely one of his funniest and is a wonderful wonderful time.
On a side note, that last sentence I wrote got me thinking about the idiom "doesn't hold a candle to." Which, if you didn't know, means that something is incomparable to something else. I was curious about what the origins of it was, so I googled it. I found out that it's a reference to the pre-electricity days when assistants to the wealthy would hold candles for them whenever they did anything. And so, somebody who isn't even fit to hold a candle, isn't worth much. But I don't mean to say that this film isn't worth much. In that case, I suppose I should change the idiom I used. But then, you would never have learned this fascinating fun fact. What the hell, I'll leave it in. Well, there you go. Hope you enjoyed all that.

A Burlesque on Carmen (1916)
Producer: Jess Robins
Writer/Director: Charlie Chaplin, Prosper Mérimée (novel)
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Jack Henderson
RATING: 75/100
When a film adaptation of the famous opera Carmen was released 1915, it inspired Chaplin to create a comedy version. And what resulted is this very strange parody/spoof of the opera. If you're not familiar with the opera, it's the story of Don Jose (played by Charlie) and Carmen (played by Edna Purviance) falling in love. But Don Jose is heartbroken when she abandons him for another.

This Chaplin short is a rather peculiarly intriguing film. What's so simultaneously peculiar and intriguing about it is that it may very well be the first parody film ever made. And I don't think anybody even realized or appreciated it at the time, but this film could be the first parody. But seeing as that may be the case, it's very rough which is something to be expected. When the film first started, I felt like Chaplin was somewhat out of his element. The comic stylings set to Carmen felt strange and although there were some pretty funny moments, it actually felt a tad uncomfortable. But it all sort of culminated into a staggering ending.
SPOILERS, WILL ROBINSON, SPOILERS. Charlie creates a joke that is quite possibly his most different joke of his career. If you don't know the ending of the original,it ends with Don Jose killing his beloved Carmen out of rage but then, quickly realizing his mistake, takes his own life out of grief. The same thing happens in Charlie's version, but in an incredible almost post-modern twist (for it's time at least) Charlie and Edna break the fourth wall, standing up and revealing that they're not hurt and that the knife used to take their lives is fake. They just joke and laugh to one another as if none of it every happened, even laughing and pointing at the camera. Nearly 100 years later, the joke isn't that shocking, but it must have blown people's minds back then. Because it seems to me that this is the absolute first time anything like this was ever done. Considering that, it's hard not have great respect for Charlie, even if the film isn't all that great. END OF SPOILERS.

It gets a bit boring at times, and as I mentioned, the humor isn't that solid, but the ending practically ties the film together and allows you to better appreciate the rest of the film (an attribute that all of Charlie's best films have). And just like that, all of the uncomfortable oddities you felt while watching are nearly gone.

Charlie's Essanay shorts are great that any fan should enjoy. There are many DVD collections that are worth a buy, you can find most of them at Amazon.

Essanay was one of the most pivotal points in Charlie's life and career. It's where he learned to stretch his creative wings, and really began to find his way as an artist. He wasn't quite there yet, but he was undoubtedly well on his way. He would take that next step that would take him to the next level of his game. That next step would be at Mutual Films.






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