Charlie Chaplin’s Mutual Shorts (1916-1917) Review

In 1916, Charlie Chaplin again changed film studios to produce 12 films over a one-year period at a salary valued at approximately ten times his Essanay salary – $670,000 (or approximately $15.4M in today’s dollars). He was 26 years old. At first he produced a new two-reel short film every four weeks, but soon he began demanding more time to create his films. He was starting building his future production team for his forthcoming feature-length films, as well. In 1917, he produced only four films for Mutual: Easy Street, The Cure, The Immigrant, and The Adventurer. These are widely celebrated today by film scholars as some of his best, and Chaplin would later reflect on his time at Mutual as some of the happiest years of his career. As his contract waned with Mutual, Chaplin amicably parted ways so that he could pursue a more independent schedule. By that point, he had begun to grow concerned with the formulaic nature of his short films.

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#1 The Floorwalker (1916)
In his Mutual debut, The Tramp stumbles into a department store which is under the tyrannical control of a manager and his associate who are embezzling money through the business. Interestingly, the Tramp looks a great deal like the owner. After causing chaos in the store, they decide to trade places just as an investigator arrives to inspect the store’s suspicious financial practices. The film contains a hilarious series of gags involving an escalator inside the store.

#2 The Fireman (1916)
A local businessman creates an arrangement with the local fire chief to allow his house to burn down as part of an insurance fraud scheme. Meanwhile the Tramp chaotically prevents a real fire in town, and when the businessman discovers that his daughter is actually trapped inside his burning house, the Tramp heroically comes to the rescue.

#3 The Vagabond (1916)
The film opens with the Tramp causing a brawl in a bar while trying to musically make some money. He flees to the country where he meets a traveling group of gypsies, and he falls in love with one of them, Edna. He rescues her from the abusive group, but she meets an artist and falls in love with him instead. He paints her and his remarkable painting features her unique shamrock birthmark. Wealthy arts patrons witness the painting and recognize her. They come to rescue her, offering the Tramp money in exchange, which he refuses. She is whisked away in a car only to turn around and ask the Tramp to join her in the end. This short film is extraordinary for its complex plot, more sophisticated cinematic techniques, Urban/Western themes, and melodramatic romantic subplot which will be featured in many later Chaplin productions.

#4 One A.M. (1916)
One A.M.
is unique in the early Chaplin collection. For the most part, Chaplin stars alone in the film. The Tramp, curiously staged as a wealthy man, is a very drunk man returning home from a night of binge-drinking in the city, and the bulk of the film covers the great difficulties he experiences while attempting to break into his own house and get to bed in his drunken state. The film closes as he is unable to sleep in his collapsing bed so he curls up in his bathtub.

#6 The Pawnshop (1916)
The Tramp works in a pawnshop –the film is a classic example of Chaplin’s early physical, slapstick comedy. Several scenes of particular amusement: an endless ladder gag outside the shop, and his famous bit wherein a customer brings in a clock to sell. The Tramp takes the clock and carefully disassembles it, but then puts all the pieces into the man’s hat and informs him they will not accept the clock for sale. Then a crook enters the store and the Tramp comes to the rescue by vanquishing the robber.

#8 The Rink (1916)
This film begins with the-ever-so chaotic Tramp as a waiter, and in the second half he goes to a skating rink where he is actually quite a coordinated skater. However, he accidentally gets into an accident with an attractive young woman which causes a riot, but he narrowly escapes.

#9 Easy Street (1917)
The Tramp lives as a vagrant on the streets but he is spiritually awakened at a church/nonprofit organization by a young woman. He gets a job working on Easy Street and gets into scuffles with a local bully. In the end, he restores peace and order to Easy Street. A new Mission nonprofit church is built in the end.

#11 The Immigrant
The film opens with The Tramp aboard a boat, leaning over the edge catching fish and frolicking around the rocking boat. He meets an attractive woman as they sail past the Statue of Liberty. Upon arrival he loses a coin, and desperately searches for it only for an artist to offer to pay for his meal with the girl, but he politely declines, only to steal the artist’s tip to pay for his own meal. He travels to get his marriage license, carrying the girl in protest.

Charlie Chaplin’s Essanay Shorts (~1915) Review

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.

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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.