In 1915, Charlie Chaplin struck up a deal with the Essanay Film Company, a small film company based out of Chicago, IL with another location in California. Through Essanay, Chaplin directed and starred in 14 films in 1915 (there was at least one later film patched together by the studio of Chaplin outtakes during his time at Essanay released in 1918). Later, in the 1920s Essanay was absorbed by Warner Brothers. The company is mainly remembered for the series of Chaplin short silent films.
Chaplin was lured to Essanay away from Keystone by the promise of a higher salary, and he made 14 films in 1915 with Essanay. There was a minor bidding war among small studios for Chaplin due to his massive popularity among American audiences. The most celebrated of his Essanay shorts is The Tramp (1915). Charlie Chaplin was often criticized by his co-workers as Essanay who found him to be too intensely meticulous. Chaplin hated his time in Chicago, despising the unpredictable weather, so he only filmed one Essanay movie in Chicago. He left Essanay after only a year of work to find greater creative control elsewhere. His departure effectively spelled the end of Essanay.
The Essanay Chaplin shorts demonstrate a greater sophistication with character development and cinematic techniques that contrast with the anarchic slapstick violence of the earlier Keystone films.
Here is a short selection of Chaplin Essanay films I recently watched.
#1 His New Job (1915)
This is the only film Chaplin shot in Chicago before he quickly returned to California after finding the climate unfavorable. The title has a double meaning, as it was Chaplin’s “new job” in his first film for Essanay. Chaplin plays his “tramp” character as a stage hand in line for a disastrous new job -he is unexpectedly promoted to a main character in a film.
#2 A Night Out (1915)
This was Chaplin’s first Essanay film in California. It was also his first film with Edna Purviance, a woman he happened to meet who become his leading lady in a number of films at the time. She was also his romantic love interest. 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. It lasts at 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 amusignly 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 their Niles, California studio. The film tells the story of “the tramp” who finds the love of his life, a young woman with a boyfriend, but upon realizing that they cannot be together, he leaves their lives. 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. What effect does this give to the audience? It gives the viewer a yearning for more, a sadness for love’s labor lost (to paraphrase Shakespeare), and a desire for the tragicomedy not to end.