A Brief History of a Little Tramp’s Shorts
by Mike Massie
Of all the inimitable auteurs borne from the silent film era (Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, W.C. Fields, Max Linder, Charley Chase, Laurel & Hardy, Fatty Arbuckle), Charles Spencer Chaplin has surely pervaded modern audiences in the most commercial, far-reaching, and accessible manner. If the competition aroused comic-tinged compassion through caricatures of daredevilry-inveigled commoners, henpecked family men, orotund souses, or bashful men-about-town, Chaplin cornered sympathies through his most pathetic yet charming underdog creation: a tramp. In his feigned humbleness, the character was never even documented as the same tramp, or “The Tramp”; rather, he was merely “a” tramp - as if his particular visual styling was representative of the most typical of vagabonds. This persona became, nevertheless, one of the most singular of all movie characters.
Though Chaplin is, today, most celebrated for his feature-length films, it was his lengthy, comprehensive practice with shorts that allowed him to mold such emotionally resonant features. Many of his greatest gags were test-driven in his earlier two-reel productions, before being tirelessly rewritten and revised for the longer classics that debuted from the mid-‘20s through the ‘30s - for which he would receive immeasurable critical, commercial, and retrospective successes. But his humbler origins - beginning as a supporting actor who assumed the role of a swindler, a drunk (or other various, tipsy patrons), a masher, or a city slicker - paved the way for this bit player to move to the director’s chair the very same year he appeared onscreen.
Though born in London (in 1889) and making a name for himself there by his early teens as a performer in Charles Frohman’s stage production of “Sherlock Holmes,” Chaplin would soon visit America with the Fred Karno Repertoire Company, participating in comedy sketches and pantomime for the vaudeville circuit (he scored an immediate hit with American audiences with his characterization in a skit called “A Night in an English Music Hall”). It was during his second tour (in 1913) that he met Mack Sennett, the founder of Keystone Studios, who hired the 24-year-old to appear in the company’s popular one-reel comedies. In 1914, Chaplin made his acting debut in “Making a Living,” before hand-picking his “tramp” costume for his second role (in “Mabel’s Strange Predicament” - though it debuted almost simultaneously with “Kid Auto Races at Venice,” which was shot earlier). He clashed with directors Mabel Normand and Henry Lehrman when they refused to adopt his suggestions for his character, but, during the very same year, he would get an opportunity to direct his own short (“Caught in the Rain”). Its popularity ensured that he would continue to direct the films he worked on - at an astounding rate of approximately one new picture every week (for a total of 35 at Keystone).
Chaplin’s initial salary for Keystone was $150 a week, but his considerable success spurred other producers to negotiate for his services. With 1914 not yet exhausted, Chaplin agreed to a one-year contract with the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company for a staggering $1,250 per week (on top of a $10,000 signing bonus), where he would make another 14 films through 1915. At Essanay, he enjoyed more control over nearly every aspect of filmmaking, including discovering a leading lady in the form of Edna Purviance, who would accompany him (off the screen as well, in a romantic relationship until 1917) over the course of 37 years (regularly from his second Essanay project “A Night Out” in 1915, all the way to “A Woman of Paris” in 1923, before also having cameos in “Monsieur Verdoux” in1947 and “Limelight” in 1952). Chaplin’s Essanay films were very much the building blocks for his eventual masterpieces. In “The Tramp,” he boldly tackles a sad ending (iconically shuffling away alone as the image fades to black); in “The Bank,” his romantic conquest spurns him; in “Police,” ironic social statements are made about the cruel world outside of prison; in “Work,” he demonstrates a kinship with the common man, while also commenting on the exploitation of human laborers, and, alongside “Police,” anticipates themes in “Modern Times”; and in “The Champion,” Chaplin experiments with concepts that would become further embellished in “A Dog’s Life” (here, he has a pet bulldog) and “City Lights” (his sparring partner persona exhibits choreography that clearly presages the famous boxing match).
During his time with Essanay, Chaplin would find reasons for concern (“I don’t use other people’s scripts - I write my own!” he notably snarled when told to pick up a script from Louella Parsons, the head scenario writer) and reasons to depart with bitterness (Essanay continued to re-edit and re-release leftover and discarded footage after his contract expired to further capitalize on the artist). But he would also experience fame beyond anything he could imagine (dubbed “Chaplinitis” by Motion Picture Magazine); by 1915, it’s said that Chaplin became a household name even in places where people didn’t live in houses. He would have the last laugh, too, as Essanay’s profitability peaked with his involvement, yet foundered and folded (in 1918) with his absence. His Essanay shorts may not possess the technical and emotional enlightenment of his eventual features, but they’re less facile and rushed than his Keystone endeavors. And they’re a substantial component of the evolution of a man who was, even then, routinely praised as a genius in written critical assessments.
Once again lured by more money and greater creative freedom, Chaplin signed with the Mutual Film Corporation on February 15th, 1916, for an unexampled and populace-shocking $670,000 (publicist Terry Ramsaye compared the salary to the cost of the war in Europe), obliging him to make a series of 12 two-reel comedies. With less pressure (a leisurely 18-month schedule), loyal supporting players and production crews (including Purviance, Charlotte Mineau, Lloyd Bacon, and Scotland’s Eric Campbell - known as “Chaplin’s Goliath”), and superior facilities (he was given his own studio, the Lone Star Studio, which would later be utilized extensively by Buster Keaton), Chaplin’s Mutuals are some of the most monumental of his career.
It was at Mutual that Chaplin could focus, with detail and thoroughgoingness, on perfecting his comic routines. Featuring breathtaking slapstick acrobatics and plenty of improvisation, Chaplin concerned himself with crafting an environment and walking around it until something natural took place - to corner the subtle humor inherent in ordinary reality. Uniquely demanding and indicative of a perfectionist, Chaplin guided every actor through every scene, no matter how minuscule; frequently, he would perform each part with specific hand gestures and eyebrow movements for the cast to mimic. Hundreds of takes were shot and printed, each one varying just slightly as he experimented. Although unorthodox due to the expense and inefficiency, it supplied lively and spontaneous footage, which he could analyze virtually microscopically afterward, sometimes prompting a total rewrite. Remaining faithful to his stage origins, he cared little for technical gimmickry or camera tricks; instead, he wanted to convey actions and emotions through actor performances. Especially in his later works, it was not unheard of for him to completely start over with new actors in the middle of a film, having decided that a particular actor wasn’t absolutely perfect for the part. This unyielding attention to detail caused many films to run too long and cost too much, but the public’s enthusiasm assured the studio that his methods worked - granting ever more liberties in filmmaking as his popularity continued to skyrocket. This practically unappeasable work ethic took its toll, however, as he wrote, acted, and directed 52 weeks per year, leaving him drained and depressed to the point that he would be bedridden for a full day after completing every picture.
Many of his most recognizable set pieces and narratives can be seen in his Mutuals. “The Floorwalker” boasted an escalator abounding with comic possibilities; “The Fireman” saw backward-staged action and knockabout slapstick; “The Vagabond” incorporates drama with the comedy to produce the pathos witnessed in his later features “The Kid” and “The Circus”; “The Pawnshop” manifests one of his most natural and flawless bits of comic transposition with the inspection of an alarm clock; “Behind the Screen” reveals a brief homosexual scenario that was incredibly rare for commercial cinema in the 1910s; and “The Rink” features Charlie’s skill with carefully-constructed roller-skating stunts. This collection of specials would serve as a foundation for the multitude of pictures that followed, with many sequences getting appropriated by peers and subsequent comedians, and others borrowed for Chaplin’s own successive enterprises.
In 1917, Chaplin signed with First National Exhibitors’ Circuit, for which he would make eight films (a propaganda piece for fund-raising purposes, called “The Bond,” was also released during his First National contract). The inaugural episode was “A Dog’s Life,” which was itself an accomplishments of many firsts: it was Chaplin’s first three-reeler; it was the first film to be shot at Chaplin’s new studio at Sunset and La Brea in Hollywood; and it was the first film in which his half-brother and business manager Sydney Chaplin would appear. With this film (and feature-length production “The Kid,” also for First National), Chaplin began fully embracing a structural sensibility to his comedies, insisting that if a gag did not conform to the logic of events in his story, it must be cut no matter how funny it might be independently. During his employ at First National, he would also get married to 17-year-old Mildred Harris in 1918, endure the death of their three-day-old baby, and contend with a bothersome divorce in 1920. At the same time, he released the 45-minute war comedy “Shoulder Arms” and the ambiguously-concluded “Sunnyside” (which debatably ended with a dream sequence).
“The Kid,” released in 1921, would mark Chaplin’s feature-length directorial debut, shifting toward a foreseeable end to his short subject efforts, though he would finish up his obligation to First National by 1923 with two-reelers “The Idle Class” and “Pay Day,” and finally the 47-minute “The Pilgrim” - which would partly compose his 1959 ensemble “The Chaplin Revue” (along with “A Dog’s Life” and “Shoulder Arms”). After this, he was free to produce movies independently under the distribution company United Artists, which he founded in 1919 with fellow magnates Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith. At United Artists, Chaplin would create his most enduring features, including “The Gold Rush,” “City Lights,” and “Modern Times.” As a testament to the artistry he so painstakingly, impeccably honed, those last two pictures remained in black-and-white and silent, long after the latter, outmoded technique had become inarguably anachronistic. As an evolutionary, educational, and - above all else - entertaining factor of one of the most far-reaching and durable auteurs ever to make movies, Chaplin’s shorts will surely never be forgotten.