In 1915, Charlie Chaplin struck up a deal with the Essanay Film Company, a small film company based out of Chicago, IL. Through Essanay, Chaplin directed and starred in 14 films in 1915 (there was at least one later film patched together by the studio composed of Chaplin outtakes released in 1918). By the 1920s, Essanay was absorbed by Warner Brothers, Chaplin was always their biggest asset. Essanay would be entirely forgotten today were it not for this series of Chaplin shorts.
Chaplin was lured to Essanay, away from his current contract Keystone, under the promise of a higher salary. At the time, there was a minor bidding war among small studios for Chaplin due to his massive popularity among American audiences. Charlie Chaplin was often criticized by his co-workers as Essanay who found him to be too intensely meticulous. When he first joined Essanay, Chaplin hated his time in Chicago, despising the unpredictable weather, so he only filmed one Essanay movie in Chicago before departing for Hollywood. He left Essanay after only a year in order to find greater creative control elsewhere. His departure effectively spelled the end of Essanay. When all was said and done Chaplin made 14 films in 1915 with Essanay, and today the most celebrated of his Essanay shorts is The Tramp (1915).
The Essanay Chaplin shorts demonstrate a greater sense of sophistication in his movie-making. These films portray a more unique, refined character and improved cinematic techniques which contrast sharply with the static slapstick comedy of his earlier Keystone shorts.
Here is a short sampling of Chaplin’s Essanay films I recently watched as part of my film project:
#1 His New Job (1915)
This is the only film Chaplin made in Chicago before he quickly returned to California where he found the climate more favorable. The title has a double meaning, as it was indeed Chaplin’s own “new job” in his first Essanay film. Chaplin plays his “Tramp” character as a stage hand in line for a disastrous new job -he is unexpectedly promoted to become the main character in a new film (it is a short film about a film).
#2 A Night Out (1915)
This was Chaplin’s first Essanay film made in California. It was also his first film with Edna Purviance, a woman he happened to meet who would become his leading lady in a number of films at the time. She was also his romantic love interest, a frequent theme throughout Chaplin’s career. The short film contains many of the familiar gags – transients, drunkenness, bumbling policemen, and flirtatious women. Chaplin and a friend get drunk and cause a scene at a restaurant only to be thrown out, and they flee to a hotel where they also cause a disturbance. The film lasts just over 30 minutes.
#3 The Champ (1915)
The Champ is one of Chaplin’s more celebrated Essanay films. Chaplin as “the tramp” sits outside a beat-up house and pulls a hotdog out of his pocket that not even his bulldog wants to eat. He finds a “lucky” horseshoe and stumbles onto a boxing match training challenge. With the horseshoe loaded in his glove, he promptly knocks out the chief “pugilist.” He amusingly falls in love with the trainer’s daughter. In the end, he wins the big and chaotic boxing match with the help of his bulldog. He wins a kiss from the girl, as well. As with all of his Essanay shorts, The Champ lasts about 30 minutes.
#6 The Tramp
The Tramp is the most popular of Chaplin’s Essanay films, and the last one shot in Essnay’s Niles studio in California. The film tells the story of “the tramp” who finds the love of his life, a young woman with a boyfriend, but upon realizing they cannot be together, he departs alone. It is notable for introducing a sentimental picture of “the tramp” particularly when the tramp turns to walk down the road at the end, alone. It is a trope that will be re-used again in nearly all of his feature-length filmography. What effect does this give to the audience? Why include a sentimental portrait of the Tramp? Perhaps it gives the viewer a yearning for more of this little fellow, we finally see him as relatable rather than some distant drunken fool. It carries sadness for love’s labor lost (to paraphrase Shakespeare), and it leaves the audience with a desire for the tragicomedy not to end.