Friday, March 30, 2012

Chaplin in Chicago

This post was originally published on the lonelybrand blog as part of an ongoing silent film series.

Last week, I mentioned that Chicago played host to many large, well-known studios from the silent film era, including Essanay Studios which claimed Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson and Ben Turpin as their own for a period of time. In the brief time that Chaplin lived in Chicago, he starred in a short film that featured Turpin *and* Swanson. That film was “His New Job.”

When Chaplin joined Essanay in 1915 it was huge news in the world of film. Chaplin had grown tired of Mack Sennett’s knockabout, slapstick Keystone comedies and longed for more subtle and clever gags than Sennett wanted. By joining Essanay, he was beginning to gain the freedom he would need to create his later masterpieces, and Essanay was reaping the benefits of having an internationally known comedian as part of their stock. And Essanay didn’t hold back when it came to announcing their acquisition.

Charlie Chaplin at Essanay

But while he was in Chicago, Chaplin remained somewhat restricted. He wasn’t yet the director of his films, and he was still expected to churn out product on a regular basis to satisfy the public’s demand for him. To make matters worse for Chaplin, Ben Turpin was pushed to be his second banana, even though the pair shared very different ideas of what was comedy and didn’t get along very well. The partnership didn’t last long, though. Upon completion, Chaplin headed for the California branch of Essanay and remained there until his contract ended and he joined Mutual the following year.

Charlie Chaplin at Essanay

“His New Job” is the only film that Chaplin filmed while in Chicago. The film doesn’t make use of its Midwest metropolitan setting, but it’s still entertaining to view as Chaplin takes a funny backstage look at the movie business, a subject that would continue to appear in comedies of the period. At the time of its release, critics were calling it the funniest comedy ever filmed. By this time, Chaplin had firmly cemented his Little Tramp character as his primary persona and was beginning to hone his characteristics and mannerisms.

Charlie Chaplin at Essanay

You can watch the full short, featuring Chaplin, Turpin and Gloria Swanson, in an uncredited role, below.

For more silent film ads from Essanay and Chaplin, check out my Pinterest boards.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Chicago's Silent Film Past

This post was originally published on the lonelybrand blog as part of an ongoing silent film series.

Chicago has had its fair share of films. Of course, the John Hughes films rank at the top of the list, along with the likes of “The Dark Knight” and, as much as I hate to acknowledge it, “Transformers.” What you might not realize, though, is that in the early days of silent film, Chicago ranked with the likes of Hollywood and Fort Lee, New Jersey in terms of film production.

In addition to other studios, Essanay, American Film Manufacturing Company and Selig Polyscope Company all originated in Chicago. Because of the unpredictability of Midwestern weather, and imposition from The Motion Picture Patents Company, they all eventually expanded into California with western branches of their offices. While they were in Illinois, though, many films were actually produced in the city and featured stars of the day including Ben Turpin, Gloria Swanson and Colleen Moore.
Essanay was founded by George K. Spoor and G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson in 1907. Originally, the company’s biggest film attractions were the sagas of Broncho Billy, but when the company was able to steal Charlie Chaplin away from Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios, the string of films he made for them became their biggest, most popular hits (a subject I’ll address more in a future blog post!).

The American Film Manufacturing Company was founded in 1910 by Samuel Hutchinson, John Freuler, Charles Hite and Harry Aitken. After the studio moved to Santa Barbara, it enjoyed the height of its power and popularity and was the home of the incredibly popular actress Mary Miles Minter. Not only did Essanay and American share a birth place, they also shared talent. Allan Dwan, one of the top directors of the period, was originally a scriptwriter for Essanay and then went on to operate Flying A for a year.
American Film Manufacturing company

The elder statesman of the group, and the least known, though would be the Selig Polyscope Company. It was founded in 1896 by William Selig and became the first studio to erect a permanent studio in Southern California. Selig had introduced a zoo to the California branch, and when the company ended film production in 1918, the zoo was maintained into the 1930s. Apparently, Selig was a mysterious figure. Few photos of him were published, leading to fun sketches like this “artist’s conception.”
W.N. Selig

Many of the Selig Polyscope films have been destroyed over time, but one that remains is “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” Selig helped produce “The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays,” an early adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s “Oz” works, but the show was canned after only a few months. “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was created to fulfill a contractual obligation and made without direct input from Baum.

Intrigued by a 1910 version of “The Wizard of Oz?” Then check out the restored version of the film below. 

You can also see more vintage silent film ads over on my Pinterest boards.