100 years since Chaplin filmed at Essanay …

his new jobThis January marks the 100th anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s historic month in Chicago, where he shot his first one reel comedy at George K. Spoor and “Bronco Billy” Anderson’s Essanay Studio for the astronomical salary of $1,250 a week and a $10,000 signing bonus.

In  moving to Essanay, Chaplin was seeking more than money.  Although he was already writing and directing most of his own films  at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Comedy Studios, he wanted the freedom to  write and direct all of them.  Joining Essanay promised him more autonomy, which  he considered critical to his artistic development. 

“When  Chaplin first arrived at Essanay, he almost stopped the works,” reported  the March 1915 Motion Picture Magazine, the nation’s first important movie magazine.

“Every person in the studio — actors and actresses, property men, scenario  writers, the publicity department and even the business office — side-stepped  their task and stole down to the studio floor to watch the genius apply  his methods.

 “…And do you know how he started his comedy, His New Job He stood out in the center of his set, pulled  three of his fingers out of joint, and then, crouching into the professional  dancer’s pose, he executed a clog-dance.  He danced for five minutes…

 ”Ah!  he said, sotto voce.  “Got to limber up.  A little pep, everybody,  a little pep.  Come on, boys.  Shoot your set.  I’m ready.”

 

Two  of the actors Chaplin worked with in His New Job, went on to significant careers:  Essanay  veteran Ben Turpin, the star of the company’s very first film, An Awful Skate (1907), and a fifteen-year old hopeful named Gloria Swanson. 

Although  Chaplin used Turpin in both His New Job and his next Essanay film, A Night Out, he didn’t feel the cross-eyed comedian was the  right foil for him.  Turpin looked funny, and Chaplin wanted no competition. 

Many  of the other actors who appear in His New Job became part of his stock company over the next  several years, but he never worked with Turpin again.  Turpin went  on to make a series of highly successful comic films with Mack Sennett  and others during through the silent era. 

As  for Swanson, Chaplin wanted the beautiful teen to co-star in His New Job.  The two spent a difficult hour rehearsing  before Chaplin ended up giving her the bit part of a secretary in the film. 

The  anticipation surrounding Chaplin’s maiden effort for Essanay was justified when the film drew more pre-orders than any film in the company’s history, and when critics praised it as “killingly funny” and “the funniest comedy ever filmed.” 

His New Job turned out to be both the first and last film that  Chaplin would shoot in Chicago.  The chill of a Windy City winter proved  too much for him, and he made the rest of his Essanay films in California.  

His New Job remains a funny backstage look at the movie business, a favorite subject of comedies of the period, including two of Chaplin’s Keystone films, A Film Johnny and The Masquerader

The  following year he would make his most polished movie spoof, Behind the Screen, for the Mutual Film Company, which had lured Chaplin away from Essanay with an astonishing financial offer of $10,000  a week, plus a $150,000 signing bonus.

This  salary made Chaplin the highest paid actor — indeed, the highest paid  salaried employee of any kind — in the world, and the news made headlines  across the country. 

He was under more pressure than ever to be funny.

But  Chaplin’s arrival at Essanay was when the spotlight of fame first  shined upon him full force, and the Motion Picture Magazine articles provide vivid eyewitness accounts of what it was like. 

With  reporters on the set and everyone in the studio gawking at him, he had  to do something to live up to his advance billing and enormous salary.  He brilliantly chose to channel the pressure into an ironic joke, playing  an incompetent who bluffs his way into a movie studio and causes chaos. 

This  allowed him to use the sets and props at hand without wasting a moment, thus giving Essanay what they wanted, a new Chaplin comedy in only two  weeks’ time. 

He  gave movie audiences what they wanted as well, flirting outrageously  with every woman in sight, fighting with all the men, and becoming so love-struck by his leading lady that he fails to notice that he’s  ripped off the train of her dress and is wiping his tears with it. 

Seen  at this distance, Chaplin’s inspiration, though it flags now and then  in the picture, still blazes.  He warmed up that cold Chicago winter, leaving us with an indelible record of what it was like to be a comic  genius making a movie in 1915.

 “Come  on boys. Shoot your set. I’m ready.”

 

See Chaplin's first and only Chicago film here.

 

 

By Gary Keller, Janelle Vreeland and Dan Kamin                             January 13, 2015

Gary N. Keller, ChicagoNitrate.com co-founder, led St. Augustine College’s restoration and reuse of the  iconic entrance and Studios A/Charlie Chaplin Auditorium as VP/Essanay  Centers for Early Film.  He was president of the Uptown Historical Society  based on the area’s history of film.

Janelle Vreeland, Chicagonitrate.com co-founder maintains the “Curtains” blog  of silent film-related reviews.  She was responsible for the development  of the social media, marketing communications and crowdfunding for the  Essanay Centers for Early Film.

Dan Kamin  is an internationally acclaimed mime and physical comedian and author  of The Comedy of Charlie Chaplin: Artistry in Motion.  He trained Robert Downey, Jr. for his Oscar-nominated performance  in Chaplin and created Johnny Depp’s comedy moves for Benny and Joon.

 

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