Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies

| November 15, 2015

Outside of Chicago, Essanay is remembered primarily for one thing and one thing only: Charlie Chaplin. After his tenure at keystone, Chaplin was wooed to come to Chicago by Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, who offered him a then unheard of salary of $1,250 a week with a $10,000 sign-on bonus. Though Chaplin produced none of what are widely considered to be his masterpieces (unless you count “The Tramp”) at Essanay, the 14 films he completed for the studio in 1915 before leaving embody all the hallmarks of Chaplin’s style. At Essanay, he worked toward perfecting his “Little Tramp” character, his use of extensive improvised physical comedy, and the fusion of slapstick and pathos that would make his later work so endearing. In fact, the origins of specific routines from later films can be found in his Essanay pictures, including the “flea routine” in “By the Sea,” which he would revise in his 1952 feature, Limelight.

All this combines to make Flicker Alley and Blackhawk Films’ release of Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies—the final installment in the 12-year, 3-part Chaplin Project aimed at restoring all of Chaplin’s films from 1914-1917—a release of incredible historic significance. For us Chicago cinephiles in the know, this release is made all the more significant given that it spotlights all 14 films Chaplin made in collaboration with Chicago’s own Essanay. Not the least of these is Chaplin’s “His New Job,” the first and only film Chaplin made for Essanay in Chicago before moving to their California studio.

For me personally, this set is extremely important. As a Chicagoan, I’ve made a point of keeping a copy of “His New Job” in my collection for near on a decade now, though it’s always been in some inferior DVD form and nowhere near as striking as this new collection’s HD transfer. This is because, when I moved to Chicago to study cinema, I lived near Essanay’s former home in the Uptown neighborhood (WARNING: personal anecdote incoming). A mere mile away from my first Chicago residence the Essanay building still stands, with its “Essanay”-labeled and stereotypical Native American logo-donned archway fully intact to this day. Knowing Chaplin had walked those halls and that “His New Job” had been filmed there but a few minutes’ stroll from my apartment, a short pilgrimage was inevitable. Though still bearing the Essay moniker over the front entrance, the building is now home to St. Augustine College. I wandered over there one Saturday afternoon after I first moved to Chicago and found the college hosting an open house. Thus, I was able to enter the building under some sort of open house-related pretense or another and walk its halls for the briefest of minutes. To have wandered the same halls as Chaplin even for a short time was enough for that experience to stick with me.

To be there was to experience cinematic history, just as viewing Flicker Alley’s Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies is. For here we have the greatest window possible in to Chaplin’s stylistic development, a look at 14 key transitional works, packaged with three additional pictures. (This is to say nothing of the fact that Chaplin’s year with Essanay was the studio’s penultimate year. Thereafter they’d have a couple successes, including the release of the recently rediscovered Sherlock Holmes (1916), but by 1918, they’d closed up shop for good.) The set’s main program features the 15 one- and two-reel shorts produced by or merely guest starring Chaplin during his year with Essanay in 1915: “His New Job,” “A Night Out,” “The Champion,” “In the Park,” “A Jitney Elopement,” “The Tramp,” “By the Sea,” “His Regeneration” (in which Chaplin guest stars), “Work,” “A Woman,” “The Bank,” “Shanghaied,” “A Night in the Show,” “Charlie Chaplin’s Burlesque on Carmen,” and “Police.”

Bonus materials in the collection boast two films cobbled together without Chaplin’s permission out of unused footage: “Triple Touble” (1918), which incorporates footage from the abandoned work that would have been Chaplin’s first feature-length film, and “Charlie Butts In” (circa 1920’s), a one-reeler composed of alternate takes from his Essanay two-reeler “A Night Out.” The collection comes in a 5-disc Blu-ray/DVD boxed set, packaged with an impressively detailed 28-page booklet loaded with liner notes on the films and their restoration as well as an essay on the history of Chaplin’s tenure at Essanay.  Though these films are certainly not considered among Chaplin’s most significant works, this collection encapsulates an important transitional period in Chaplin’s work that truly deserves your attention.

About the Author:

Jef is a writer and educator in Chicago, Illinois. He holds a degree in Media & Cinema Studies from DePaul University, but sometimes he drops it and picks it back up again. He's also the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com and is fueled entirely by coffee (as if you couldn't tell).
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