By Gary Meyer
“We presented your picture entitled The Rink, featuring Charles Chaplin last night. Persistent laughter and shouting on the part of the audience brought down most of the house… We have been showing pictures many years without loss of life or damage to property. The Rink has proved a menace to real estate improvement, and the result of one day’s run has cost us considerable outlay in repairs. We enclose plasterer’s and carpenter’s bills. We would appreciate a check by return.'” Letter from the manager of the Princess Theatre in Ohio
San Francisco audiences are in for big laughs but hopefully not enough to damage the wonderful Castro movie palace on Saturday, December 3 when the San Francisco Silent Film Festival launches their annual winter “A Day of Silents.” (Read about the entire program elsewhere in EDF)
Though The Rink was made at the Mutual Company just after Charles Chaplin left the Bay Area’s Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, it is very much in the same league of laughter producing shorts as the three two-reelers to be screened in a special program at 10am, “Chaplin at Essanay.”
The three films being screened are packed with laugh-out-loud gags—any more than three films would be overwhelming. But each is unique with different characters in the development of Chaplin persona. As you watch the final film, A Night In The Show, filled with some of the intentionally worst vaudeville acts ever, you might wonder, as I did, what was done to make the audience in the film laugh so genuinely long and (presumably) loud.
The restoration of these films was done at Lobster Films Laboratories in Paris under the supervision of Serge Bromberg with digital scanning accomplished at Cineteca Bologna. David Shepard has been involved in finding, saving and restoring the Chaplins for many years and will introduce the show.
Bromberg explained in an email, “At Essanay, Chaplin developed the comedic themes established at Keystone, deepened his narrative skills and started to combine comedy and sentiment; as Chaplin’s on-screen persona progressed, so did his visual style.
After shooting his first film at Essanay’s Chicago studios, Chaplin moved to Niles, the company’s California lot near Fremont. Here, he began forming a group of supporting players who accompanied him for several years – including Edna Purviance – and with them he brought comedy to a whole new level of perfection. In a little over a year, Chaplin managed to expand and bring to the screen a sketch from Karno, retrieve lost opportunities from the Keystone comedies, infuse them with new ideas and more sophisticated – and equally vital – gags, experiment with choreographic variations as well as complex visual inventions, develop his thoughts on labor relations and class, perfect a whole range of character mime, and shape to a better degree the gallant tramp of the classic years.
By the time he left Essanay, Chaplin had achieved stardom: he had won the heart of the great masses, the adoration of a cultivated audience and the admiration of artists in all fields of creativity and freedom.”
About the December 3 program, Bromberg further comments:
“The Champion survived only as a very good print at the British Film Institute, with some shots missing (that we could grab from a very incomplete fine grain in the Cinémathèque française). This is one of the toughest case of restoration, and for a long time we’ve believed it would not be possible to restore this title. But the results are terrific for this hilarious escapade of the Tramp emerging the winner of a championship fight with the help of his pet bulldog.”
“His New Job comes from the British Film Institute, with some shots added for Blackhawk’s nitrate dupe negative. All the elements were of good photographic quality, but had a lot of defects printed in. One of the longest digital restoration, because we’ve had to correct them one frame at a time.”
“A Night In The Show (my favorite Essanay) was made from MoMA’s fine grain. They got the original camera negative (only two original negs survived of the 65 independent shorts produced by Chaplin, this one and The Bank in an abridged version, cut down to half of what it was, in the UCLA collection). Alas, when they could preserve it, some parts had melted, and we’ve had to use a reissue print of the 30’s to replace the decomposed shots.”
(Film title links above go to the valuable Chaplin: Film by Film site.)
Silent comedy expert and author of three books on Chaplin, Jeffrey Vance offers these descriptions of the films being screened from his book Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema.
The Champion (Released: March 11, 1915)
Inspired by Chaplin’s interest in boxing, as well as the Keystone two-reeler, The Knockout (1914), this comedy has Charlie finding employment as a sparring partner who fights in the prize ring and wins the championship match, with the help of his pet bulldog. In 1915, boxing events were illegal in most states, and films of boxing matches (including comic takes on them) satisfied a pent-up interest in the subject. Chaplin would develop fully the relationship between the Tramp and his dog (previously explored in yet another Keystone two-reeler from the previous year, Caught in a Cabaret) three years later in A Dog’s Life (1918). And Chaplin’s brilliant choreography and hilarious antics in the ring anticipate the famous boxing match in City Lights (1931). G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson and Jesse T. Robbins (Chaplin’s producer for the Essanay comedies) play spectators in the boxing sequence, and Ben Turpin is unbilled in the small part of a vendor. The Champion is among the most famous of the Chaplin-Essanay comedies.
EDF urges you to read John Bengston’s newest article How Chaplin Filmed The Champion – On Location in Niles
His New Job (Released: February 1, 1915)
Chaplin’s first Essanay comedy—and appropriately titled—was the only film he made at Essanay’s Chicago studio located at 1333 West Argyle Street in the city’s north side. As with his Keystone films, A Film Johnnie (1914) and The Masquerader (1914), Chaplin chose to set the action in a film studio. Charlie is hired as a prop man and is soon demoted to a carpenter’s assistant at the Lockstone studio (a play on his former employer, Keystone) before given the chance to act, which ends in disaster. The film was Chaplin’s first pairing with cross-eyed comedian Ben Turpin and features an early appearance by Gloria Swanson as a secretary. (17) Despite Chaplin’s reputation for static cinematography, it is also notable for several tracking shots (the work of cinematographer Jackson Rose), which were seldom used in film comedy of the period. Upon completion of His New Job on January 12, 1915, Chaplin escaped the harsh winter and primitive working conditions of Chicago for California, taking comedians Ben Turpin and Leo White with him.
A Night in the Show (Released: November 15, 1915)
This exceptional comedy owes its existence to Fred Karno’s sketch, Mumming Birds, a burlesque of a music-hall performance with terrible acts and ill-behaved patrons, in which Chaplin had found his great theatrical success playing the Inebriated Swell. Chaplin plays dual roles in the film: a version of his old stage success of the well-to-do drunk Mr. Pest, and Mr. Rowdy, a dissipated working man, both of whom are attending a vaudeville performance. Mr. Pest manages to cause as much disorder in the stalls as does Mr. Rowdy in the gallery. The film carefully reflects the Karno style, although it differs in significant aspects from the Mumming Birds sketch so as to avoid claims of plagiarism. The litigious Karno had some success prosecuting unauthorized stage performances. However, Karno lost his suit against film company Pathé Freres and their film At the Show in English court (Karno v. Pathé Freres Limited, 1908). Chaplin returned to the idea of dual roles in the later The Idle Class (1921) and The Great Dictator (1940).
There are many fine books about Charles Chaplin but we think the best is David Robinson‘s Chaplin: His Life and Art.
Restorations of the 15 films Chaplin made at Essanay are now available on a DVD/BluRay 5 disc set from Flicker Alley and the Blackhawk Film Collection with unique extras – Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies. Also check out their collections of Chaplin’s Keystone and Mutual shorts.
Most of the classic Chaplin features are available from the Criterion Collection.
Also available are his less frequently seen The King in New York and A Women of Paris (a double feature) and his last film, The Countess From Hong Kong
Essential viewing is Kevin Brownlow’s documentary The Unknown Chaplin.
EatDrinkFilms has featured several articles about Charles Chaplin including: