In 1914, Mack Sennett attempted to persuade Chaplin to renew his contract at Keystone. Chaplin demurred, declaring that he had no need of the Keystone facilities when all he needed to make a comedy was “a park, a policeman and a pretty girl”. And so, Chaplin turned his back on the “fun factory” and signed with the Chicago-based Essanay outfit, for a head-turning $1,250 a week and a frankly astonishing $10,000 handshake.
Despite the generous financial rewards on offer at Essanay (which itself took some time to materialise), Chaplin was largely unimpressed with the bare-bones setup. Still, he discovered a few great comic foils among the Essanay troupe including the rawboned, cross-eyed Ben Turpin. And while working at Essanay’s San Francisco studio, Chaplin first met Edna Purviance, a beautiful, funny young actor who enlivens both his Essanay films and many later works too.
So the 14 films that Chaplin made at Essanay, which are collected on this BFI box set after being restored by Lobster Films and Cineteca di Bologna (a revamp of last year’s Flicker Alley release), are something more than rough diamonds. Chaplin gleams, whatever the setting, although many camera setups and the scenarios betray the fact that these movies were made in less-than-ideal circumstances. Or perhaps they were ideal – much here adheres to the classic “park, policeman, pretty girl” model after all. Chaplin’s earliest films at the studio, free-for-all slapstick parties such as ‘His New Job’ or ‘In the Park’, return to the barely controlled chaos of the Keystone mode, but with a central performance that elevates them to a kind of poetry.
Chaplin is magnetic, whether practising tiny bits of stage business such as flicking a single speck from a grubby jacket (‘Work’), or bouncing around a gymnasium in ornate setpiece gags that anticipate the boxing scenes in City Lights (‘The Champion’). The perfectionism of his stage training (best displayed in the theatre shtick of ‘A Night in the Show’) combine with his graceful movements and his way of spearing the camera lens with a winningly impish look to create an effect that is unmistakably cinematic.
As the films become more complex – see the elaborate comedy escapades in ‘The Bank’ or ‘Shanghaied’ – Chaplin’s character does too. There’s romance in ‘A Jitney Elopement’, with Purviance’s Iona Lott begging a flower-sniffing Chaplin to be her “White Knight”. There’s a jolt of poignancy in ‘The Tramp’, which leaves Chaplin trudging heartbroken down a dusty lane, and cynicism in ‘Police’, which takes aim at the clergy in the form of a hypocritical preacher.
Just over a year after arriving at Essanay, Chaplin would trundle off to Mutual, where he would make many of his finest shorts. This was a period of escalated development for Chaplin, despite his misgivings, and the films collected here reveal a ferocious talent ablaze with creativity.
The high-definition transfers here are all excellent, betraying the skill that has gone into the restoration. Extras on the BFI box set include new essays by Frank Scheide and notes on all the films by Glenn Mitchell and Vic Pratt as well as a generous group of extra features. There’s a new video essay by Glenn Mitchell on Chaplin’s year at Essanay, the British 1944 re-release of ‘Triple Trouble’ and an extended version of ‘A Burlesque on Carmen’ with commentary by Peter Sellers and ‘Charlie Butts In’, assembled in the 20s from unused takes of ‘A Night Out’.
- You can pre-order Charlie Chaplin: the Essanay Comedies online at the BFI shop here.
- Launch event: The Essanay Comedies will be launched at the Cinema Museum in south London on Friday 20 January 2017. The event will begin at 6.30pm with a screening of some of the films, which will be followed by a Q&A with the BFI’s Douglas Weiter, who produced this box set, and Glenn Mitchell, writer, broadcaster and Chaplin expert. Find out more on the Cinema Museum website.