06 June 2009

Chaplin at Essanay (1915-1916)

d. Charles Chaplin / USA / Four selected shorts, 118 mins.

Conventional wisdom would lead one to expect Charles Chaplin's short comedies at Essanay Studios to be better than his work for Keystone but still not as tight and brilliant as his work for Mutual; for once, conventional wisdom doesn't disappoint. Frustrated with the rules of Keystone, Chaplin left the studio for a lucrative contract at Essanay, which afforded slightly more of the creative control he desired. In effect, Essanay was as particular as Keystone's Mack Sennett, but Chaplin could more easily ignore and avert their story demands as long as he stayed punctual in production. (Trying to shape Chaplin's output to their own preferences is seen as somewhat ironic today because, as Gary Johnson notes, "If not for Chaplin's comedies for Essanay, it's doubtful if more than a handful of people would now recognize the Essanay name.")

At Essanay, Chaplin's short films grew from one reel to two, he began developing a cast of regulars, and without the pressure to abandon story for silliness, he amplified the narrative and brought what would become one of his signatures — a healthy amount of pathos — into the daylight. What speaks to that fact the best is the sense that in his first film for Essanay, His New Job, the Tramp is already fully formed. We follow the Tramp taking up employment at a movie studio and is a not-so-veiled riff on leaving Keystone for somewhere new. It is one of his two great short films at Essanay, and a proper appreciation of it comes after watching undeveloped films like The Rounders and Tillie's Punctured Romance from Keystone.

His New Job shows a Tramp virtually indistinguishable from the character who would appear through the 1920s: tricky, naive, klutzy, ready to make a fool of himself or of anyone else. Like many plots involving the Tramp and work of some sort, he makes the job miserable for everyone else involved. There are antics you would expect to occur when you give the Tramp a two-by-four or a sword to go with a Renaissance costume, but already the difference from Keystone is made clear: Chaplin realized the Tramp had become strong enough to warrant time on screen alone, small moments of quiet comedy that could nevertheless make us smile. Chaplin does take full advantage of multiple person slapstick, particularly in the Tramp's relationship to a rotund director and a leading prop man, but His New Job does something remarkable off the bat by allowing us to observe the Tramp in solitude. What Chaplin gained by increasing the running time from one reel to two reels is an ability to include a scene of like the one in His New Job where the Tramp wanders curiously around inside a star's dressing room and eventually dons the costume intended for the star. It delivers insight into the Tramp but fits into the narrative in preparation for antics that will arise when the star arrives on set looking for his costume.

Chaplin never had much of an interest in dazzling technique as a director (which speaks well to how great they are, relative camera stasis aside), but there are a couple moments in His New Job that are important enough to illustrate that his mind was nonetheless thinking about technique. For starters, the camera moves — simply, of course, but the effect is lovely. As the later portion of the short shifts to focus on the crew characters trying to make their movie, Chaplin keeps the director character and the cameraman character in the frame. The lone exception is a splendid dolly in where you can see the director and cameraman on the left side of the screen until the frame tightens exclusively on the actors, creating a splendid illusion of the actors now performing for Chaplin's camera as well as the now-unseen camera out of frame. And Chaplin is able to surprise us with locations, too. His Now Job occupies approximately five sets, and the relation of one to another is generally clear; but Chaplin earns a big laugh in the second half by cutting back and forth between two sets that it's possible we have forgotten are actually separated by a thin curtain. Once somebody on the other side of the curtain gets the tip of a sword into his rear end, it all clicks in marvelous timing.

At Essanay Chaplin also produced what many believe is his first masterpiece, albeit a minor one: The Tramp. Chaplin resembles more of a vagabond than ever in The Tramp, where he saves a young woman (Edna Purviance, who Chaplin first began casting and wooing in these early comedies at Essanay) walking along the road from a band of bullying hobos, and as a reward earns the hospice of the young woman and a spot on the workforce of her father's farm. Like His New Job, the superficial appeal of The Tramp is what sort of trouble can Chaplin cause with a pitchfork, with a ladder, with a bucket of cow's milk, etc. But on a deeper level, The Tramp allows Chaplin's character to lovable good guy we know him to be. When the hobos finally track down the woman and her father, it is up to Chaplin's Tramp to save the day.

The Tramp ends with perhaps the most iconic images we associate with the Chaplin: walking down a lonely road by himself. By the end of the short, the young woman's beau has returned to the farm and it becomes clear that the Tramp had mistaken her kindness and thankfulness for love. Losing the girl that was never really his in the first place is a motif that recurs regularly through Chaplin's films, and it is an ending we often conclude is bittersweet. More appropriately, we should consider it a form a cinematic courage; these endings where the hero doesn't get the girl bear a stronger semblance to reality than many Hollywood films would dare. And the fleeting final shots in The Tramp, as the iris is in the process of shrinking inward, instruct us how to read these finales. We assume the Tramp must be forlorn, and perhaps he is, but suddenly he shakes himself and does a silly jump. It allows the ending to remain ambiguous and open-ended, and lends an unexpected sense of continuity between the Tramp films. There's always something else down the road — more trouble, more police officers, more unrequited love, and always more laughs.

Many of the Chaplin shorts at Essanay (aside from the two already mentioned) feel calculated to an extreme, revealing an underlying formula that is functional enough with a wide array of stories. Police (1916), for example, shows the Tramp being released from jail only to anger patrol officers on the outside and fall back in with his old cellmate who convinces him to help rob a woman (Purviance). But of course we know the Tramp will come around, and when the cellmate threatens the woman, the Tramp fends him away and saves her. It ends with the aforementioned patented Chaplin loneliness: the woman rewards him for his bravery with some money and sends him on his lonesome way.

The lone standout among the Essanay crowd in strict terms of subject matter is The Burlesque on Carmen, a strange and unmoving parody of Georges Bizet's opera and contemporaneous film adaptations. Chaplin doesn't play the Tramp, but uses that perception of aloofness in his character Corporal Darn Hosiery, who is seduced by Carmen (who else but Purviance?) in an effort to distract him from the nefarious deeds of gypsies. It is sort of a mishmash of slapstick and swashbuckling that doesn't deliver, and I would assume those unfamiliar with Bizet would most likely have a difficult time gleaning the humor of the parody. In the sense that it's largely different from Chaplin's other films at Essanay, watching it as a Chaplin fan might be satisfying — but His New Job and The Tramp are more rewarding and more representative of the high-quality filmmaking that would soon be in store for Chaplin.

Note: The Chaplin short films at Essanay are in public domain and are widely available, but the transfers from Kino are the best there are. If you're interested in The Burlesque on Carmen, the Kino transfer is particularly important because it most closely resembles the two-reel version originally envisioned by Chaplin instead of the four-reel version created by Essanay after he had parted ways with them to go work at Mutual Studios.


John 07 June, 2009  

T.S. Another excellent article. I totally agree on Chaplin’ s “The Burlesque of Carmen”, I am one of those not familiar with the opera being parodied so maybe I just did not get it but there did not seem to be many laughs and the film just looks strained. Overall, his work at Essanay reflects a growing maturity in his work, though not all of the films are equal. In “The Tramp”, Charlie takes some giant leaps forward with pathos appearing I believe for the first time in one of his films. His walking off in the end with his back to the camera would reappear in later more mature works and of course, during this period he found Edna Purviance.

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