When Charlie Chaplin signed with Essanay Film Manufacturing Company in 1914, he not only received a giant salary, but was provided with a platform to stardom.
Releasing 14 films in his one year at the studios, Chaplin began changing his screen persona to one less brutish, more gentle and romantic. He nailed this in his sixth film for Essanay, The Tramp, which secured his signature style and brought waves of Chaplin fans across the US.
The BFI are now releasing The Essanay Comedies, a two-disc Blu-ray and DVD set. Included in the production of the boxset was the writer and broadcaster Glenn Mitchell. Among numerous projects, he wrote The Chaplin Encyclopedia and, in collaboration, Charlie Chaplin: The Keystone Album. He is also senior advisor and contributor to The Chaplin Review.
Before the release, we asked Mitchell to share his expertise.
What was Essanay like, compared to other film studios of the time?
Essanay was a comparatively large and, for the times, old-established firm. They began in 1907 – five years before Chaplin’s previous employer, Keystone – and had studios both in Chicago and Niles, California, which proved useful when Chaplin became unhappy working at the Chicago studio with its bleak climate.
Unlike Keystone, Essanay produced both comedies and dramas. Their first film was a comedy with Ben Turpin – who later appeared in Chaplin’s first Essanays – but they were probably more closely identified with the dramas starring studio co-founder G.M. Anderson and the team of Francis X. Bushman and Beverly Bayne. As a member of the Motion Picture Patents Organisation, which sought to control film-making in the US, they were very much a part of early cinema’s ‘establishment’.
How did the contract with Charlie Chaplin come about?
G.M. Anderson had spotted Chaplin’s skills and potential for development in his Keystone films and realised that Keystone boss Mack Sennett had failed to appreciate his unique qualities. Aware that Chaplin’s Keystone contract was ending, Anderson made an initial approach through Charlie’s half-brother, Syd Chaplin, who had just arrived from England to replace Charlie at Keystone. Negotiations followed from there.
How was Chaplin able to retain creative control over his films?
Chaplin immediately rebelled at Essanay’s habit of doling out scripts to people each Monday morning and insisted on writing his own material. Anderson had sufficient confidence in Chaplin to allow him creative freedom.
How quickly was he making pictures at Essanay?
The Essanay films totalled 14 during a period lasting just over a year, so it averaged about one a month, a far slower rate than the Keystones. The release pattern was slightly erratic owing to two studio moves and the extra time Chaplin devoted to some of the best films, notably The Bank. The meticulous Chaplin worked at a slower and slower pace as the years went on.
How did Chaplin’s style, both as an actor and director, change as he entered this period?
Chaplin matured visibly and swiftly. He had already introduced moments of drama and emotion at Keystone but the Essanays frequently shifted the balance towards comedy-drama, or at least comedy scenes framed within a dramatic structure, as the series progressed.
He gave his Tramp character time on screen to think and to feel, and for audiences to read his emotions, rather than to maintain a constant stream of comic action and energy. In between these advances in technique – as in The Tramp and The Bank – there were also more slapstick-motivated films (such as Work) but even these afforded his character time to indulge in moments of eccentric whimsy. For the most part, two out of every three Essanays display progress in Chaplin’s methods.