It's Mutual: Charlie Chaplin Shorts, 1916–1917

THE ADVENTURER
USA, 1917 Director Charles Chaplin
Cast Charles Chaplin (The Convict), Edna Purviance (The Girl), Eric Campbell (The Suitor), Henry Bergman (The Father), Albert Austin (The Butler) Production Lone Star Corporation October 23, 1917 Story Charles Chaplin Photography Roland Totheroh
 
THE PAWN SHOP
USA, 1916 Director Charles Chaplin
Cast Charles Chaplin (Pawnshop Assistant), Henry Bergman (Pawnbroker), Edna Purviance (Pawnbroker’s Daughter), John Rand (Pawnshop Assistant), Albert Austin (Client with clock), Wesley Ruggles (Client with ring), Eric Campbell (Burglar) Production Lone Star Corporation October 2, 1916 Story Charles Chaplin Photography Roland Totheroh
 
THE RINK
USA, 1916 Director Charles Chaplin
Cast Charles Chaplin (Waiter), Edna Purviance (The Girl), James T. Kelley (The Father), Eric Campbell (Mr. Stout), Henry Bergman (Mrs. Stout and Angry Diner), Lloyd Bacon (Guest), Albert Austin (The Cook and Skater) Production Lone Star Corporation December 4, 1916 Photography Roland Totheroh Print Source Film Preservation Associates

Presented at Silent Winter 2011
Musical Accompaniment
Donald Sosin on the grand piano

Essay by Robert Byrne
 
It was a classic rags-to-riches tale that became Hollywood mythology. A young British music hall performer leaves the stage to try his hand at making movies. Two short years later, he is the highest paid entertainer in the world and destined to become history’s most recognizable figure.
 
Charles Spencer Chaplin began his film career at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Film Company, debuting in Making a Living (1914), for which he donned a high hat and droopy moustache to play a comic villain. Just five days later for Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), Chaplin adopted baggy pants, oversized shoes, and a toothbrush moustache, creating the screen persona he would maintain for the next 22 years. Living up to their modern stereotype, early Keystone films were knockabout comedies with thin plotlines usually ending in a chase. As unsophisticated as they were, they provided fertile training ground for the novice who quickly became an audience favorite. After 35 Keystone productions, Chaplin defected to the Essanay Film Company, enticed by a tenfold salary increase.
 
For his first Essanay project, Chaplin directed His New Job (1915), using cameraman Rollie Totheroh, beginning a long association between the two. While Chaplin directed approximately half his own Keystone output, he took the helm at Essanay from the outset and never again submitted to another’s direction. A Night Out (1915), Chaplin’s first comedy shot in the Bay Area, was filmed at Essanay’s studio in Niles, California and on location in downtown Oakland. It also marked the screen debut of 19-year-old Edna Purviance, who was never directed by anyone but Chaplin throughout her career. Chaplin produced a total of 15 films for Essanay, introducing elements of pathos into what had been strictly slapstick routines. One of the most memorable, The Tramp (1915), starts with typical knockabout business but concludes with an iris-out of Charlie, his back to the camera, walking down a road alone. It became an iconic Chaplin image.
 
In April 1916, the month of his 27th birthday, Chaplin changed studios again, signing with the Mutual Film Company. Calling for a dozen two-reel comedies over the course of a year, Chaplin’s new contract stipulated a $670,000 salary, more than ten times the amount he had received at Essanay. The agreement also created Lone Star Studio whose sole purpose was the production of Chaplin’s comedies. The deal cost Mutual a total of $1,530,000, including Chaplin’s pay. An early historian of film Terry Ramsaye correctly called Lone Star “the biggest operation centered about a single star in the history of the motion picture industry.”
 
While at Mutual, Chaplin assembled a dedicated company, the core of which stuck with him their entire careers. Edna Purviance appeared as his leading lady in all 34 films that he made between 1915 and 1923. Screen newcomers Albert Austin and Eric Campbell, whom Chaplin knew from his vaudeville days, also never worked for any other moviemaker. Henry Bergman, the only one of Chaplin’s players who joined Mutual with extensive film experience, appeared in every Chaplin film for the next 20 years. Cameraman Rollie Totheroh photographed Chaplin’s films through 1947’s Monsieur Verdoux.
 
The generous production budgets enabled Chaplin to work unlike any other previous silent comedian. “I used to make things up as we went along,” he wrote in My Autobiography (1964). Unencumbered by studio overseers, he improvised, tinkered, revised, and refined, fleshing out his comedy routines by trial and error. “We never had a continuity,” recalled cameraman Rollie Totheroh in a 1972 interview. “He had a sort of synopsis laid out in his mind but nothing on paper.” Chaplin’s method was not only time consuming, it was also expensive—everything happened with all players in costume and the camera rolling.
 
While Chaplin’s onscreen persona is primarily remembered today as “The Tramp,” each of his Mutual comedies feature Chaplin as a different character in different settings. He intended this variety from the outset, telling interviewer Kitty Kelly on March 10, 1916, “I’ll keep the moustache, but won’t stick to the clothes. It’ll depend on what the circumstances demand.” Chaplin plays a vagrant only in The Vagabond (1916), otherwise casting himself in roles as diverse as policeman, convict, fireman, and socialite.
In The Pawn Shop (1916), Chaplin inspects an alarm clock brought in by a customer (Albert Austin) as collateral for a loan. In what he modestly described as “an inventive business with an alarm clock,” Chaplin exhibits a surgeon’s dexterity and precision while dissecting and ultimately destroying the timepiece. The Pawn Shop also marks the first appearance of Henry Bergman in a Chaplin film, beginning a streak that continued until Bergman’s death in 1946.
 
The Rink (1916) was the eighth of the Mutual comedies and highlighted Chaplin’s virtuosity on roller skates, a skill he had previously demonstrated in the vaudeville skit “Skating.” As he often did with successful bits, he reprised his skate work in Modern Times (1936), wearing roller skates on night patrol in a department store. The Rink also features Henry Bergman playing dual male and female roles for the first time, appearing as an angry moustachioed diner and as Eric Campbell’s portly spouse.
 
Chaplin’s contract at Mutual ended with The Adventurer (1917). It took him four months to complete the film, which included hundreds of takes shot on Santa Monica’s beaches. The Adventurer also marked the end of Eric Campbell’s brief screen career. The six-foot five, 300-pound Scottish actor, who had joined Mutual to play the “heavy” in Chaplin’s comedies, was killed in an automobile accident shortly after the film’s release.
 
Today, Chaplin’s Mutual series is recognized as one of the most inspired creative bursts in film history. Produced during his third year of filmmaking, the 12 Mutual comedies mark not the culmination of a career but merely the closing of a single chapter. Over the 18 months it took to complete the series, his characterizations and scenarios significantly matured. His first Mutual releases, such as The Floorwalker (1916) and The Fireman (1916), consisted primarily of funny business in various settings. Midway through, he was releasing films like The Immigrant (1917), in which he and Edna ride steerage to America, herded like cattle in view of the Statue of Liberty, foreshadowing the mix of pathos and humor of his future feature films.
 
“Fulfilling the Mutual contract, I suppose, was the happiest period of my career,” Chaplin later recalled. “I was light and unencumbered, twenty-seven years old, with fabulous prospects and a friendly, glamorous world before me. Within a short time I would be a millionaire—it all seemed slightly mad.” Mutual sought to retain the comedian by offering him a million dollars for eight additional films, but Chaplin was ready for independence. On November 1917, he gathered up his loyal team and broke ground near a citrus grove at the corner of Le Brea and De Longpre for Charlie Chaplin Studios. He went on to create his masterpieces The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931), and Modern Times (1936), all produced on his own terms.