Three Short Films written, directed by and starring Charlie Chaplin: Easy Street (1917), The Immigrant (1917), A Dog’s Life (1918).
In 1917 and 1918, the years in which Charlie Chaplin appeared in Easy Street, The Immigrant and A Dog’s Life, he was the most famous person in the world, the first international media celebrity. In these films and many others, he played the part of the Little Tramp, a comic character who entranced a wide audience, from famous writers and British royalty to the general movie-going public. Chaplin’s comedies are funny and wildly inventive, but at the same time do not flinch from portraying the down and out world that the youthful comedian had known too well. The people in these three films are homeless, hungry and desperate, but not above sharing a scrounged meal with a fellow vagabond or a stray dog.
Chaplin was born in London, England, April 16, 1889. His childhood was an unhappy one. Although his mother, Hannah, an unsuccessful music hall performer, was briefly married to and then deserted by a man named Charles Chaplin, Sr., it’s unclear whether he was in fact Charlie Chaplin’s father. Hannah was pregnant with another man’s child, Charlie’s older brother Sydney, when she married. Plagued by mental illness that became increasingly debilitating, she often abandoned her children to the schools and workhouses that served the poor while she was institutionalized. Charlie and Sydney’s nomadic life, spotty schooling and the pressure of dealing with an unstable parent were to cause lasting psychological scars. Chaplin endlessly mythologized his childhood, particularly his mother, making the biographers’ task a difficult one. Yet, when he was a rich movie star, he only reluctantly brought her to live near him and rarely visited her. He was surely haunted by the fear that he, too, might become insane. The shabby streets of Lambeth, the London neighborhood where Chaplin and his brother grew up, eventually were razed. Ironically, they now are home to, among other things, the Museum of the Moving Image, where Chaplin’s Little Tramp costume resides as a precious artifact behind glass.
Chaplin’s mother was an inspired mimic and fostered in her son the ability to observe and imitate, a skill that would serve him well. At a young age, little Charlie began performing on street corners, and later toured Britain in stock companies and eventually as one of the star knockabout comedians in Fred Karno’s music hall troupe. Karno brought his company to the U.S. for a tour in 1913 and Chaplin was singled out and hired to be a supporting comedian at the premiere slapstick movie studio, Keystone. Chaplin may have been hired because of his rough-house comedy skills, but he soon realized that cinema offered him a chance for greater character subtlety than the stage. This brought him into conflict with Mack Sennett, Keystone’s founder, who felt film footage used for character development a waste of time and money. Sennett had already decided to fire the upstart Englishman, but the revenues pouring in from Chaplin’s unique films persuaded him to reconsider.
Tramp characters had provided a criminal stereotype in fiction and melodrama since the late 19th century, when a series of economic depressions created widespread unemployment, and many men hit the road in search of work. Tramps were reviled in polite society for their perceived laziness, lawlessness and drunkeness. But Chaplin was attracted to the vagabond’s freedom and saw his character of the Little Tramp as “many-sided—a tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow always hopeful of romance and adventure. He would have you believe he is a scientist, a musician, a duke, a polo player. However, he’s not above picking up a cigarette butt or robbing a baby of his candy.” While his films were admired by aristocrats and intellectuals, his main audience was the common people who shared many of the Little Tramp’s privations. Francois Truffaut notes, “In his chase films for Keystone, Chaplin runs faster and farther than his music-hall colleagues because, if he is not the only filmmaker to have described hunger, he is the only one who knew it at first hand. This is what his audiences all over the world felt when his films began to be circulated in 1914.” Although Chaplin’s character had a fastidious gentility that made him seem ridiculous, his appealing independence transcended the standard tramp cliches. “From coast to coast, audiences responded instantly to his new persona, although not all in the same way. For silent films were much more like dreams than talking pictures would be, and their pantomimes lent themselves to different interpretations”(Lynn).
Chaplin left Sennett for the Essanay Studio, and when that contract expired signed a year long agreement with the Mutual Film Company. He considered this to be the happiest period of his life, as he relished the new artistic freedom to develop his comedies without outside interference. Easy Street and The Immigrant are Mutual Films. The contract was worth an incredible amount of money, too, $670,000 a year meant almost $13,000 a week, worth ten times as much in current dollar value. No one had ever made as much money as this 26 year old comedian. He hired a cameraman, Rollie Totheroh, who photographed his films until 1954. Chaplin was personally loyal to his collaborators but loathe to acknowledge them publicly. Totheroth, who functioned essentially as a second director for Chaplin, merited only a single mention in Chaplin’s My Autobiography. Mutual refurbished a studio for him at the corner of Lillian Way and Eleanor Avenue in Los Angeles. This studio would become Buster Keaton’s when the Mutual contact expired in 1917, and Chaplin signed one with First National. The new contract guaranteed Chaplin even more money and virtual artistic autonomy. A Dog’s Life was the first film completed for First National.
This is the corner of Lillian Way and Eleanor Avenue in Los Angeles. Chaplin’s and later Keaton’s studio occupied the block with the 1021 address.
Easy Street is set in a despairing world beset by gangs, drug addicts, domestic violence and a tenuous authority represented by the church and police. In this way, as well as visually, it resembles the South London of Chaplin’s youth. The Little Tramp is sleeping rough outside a mission as the story begins, and is soon on the streets of a lawless slum. Chaplin later reflected on his use of a policeman as an adversary of the Little Tramp. “If there is one human type more than any other that the whole wide world has it in for, it is the policeman type. Of course, the policeman isn’t really to blame for the public prejudice against his uniform—it’s just the natural human revulsion against any sort of authority—but just the same everybody loves to see the copper get it where the chicken got the axe.” (Robinson) There will be comic numerous trials in this short film but righteousness, as in most fantasies, will prevail.
The Immigrant has been called “a comic masterpiece, whose qualities of irony and satire and pity survive intact after almost seventy years” (Robinson). The comedy reproduced the experience of many in Chaplin’s audience who crossed the ocean to reach the Land of Liberty. As The Little Tramp discovers, America is not the Golden Land that was promised. Chaplin shot enough footage for the 20 minute (2-reel) The Immigrant to make a 4-hour feature film. In a day when directors felt that shooting more than one take indicated that they had not rehearsed properly and didn’t know what they were doing, Chaplin believed that any sequence in a film could be improved with continual rehearsal and improvisation. The restaurant scenes were shot first, and it was only in thinking backwards about where the characters had originated that Chaplin arrived at the major theme for his film. My grandfather came to this country from Eastern Europe about the time The Immigrant was made. One of my strongest memories of him is his uncontrollable laughter when my brother David showed him an 8mm copy of this film.
Chaplin, Edna Purviance and Kitty Bradbury in “The Immigrant.”
The brief political commentary Chaplin included about the treatment of the immigrants after their arrival in the U.S. was controversial, since WWI had created a xenophobic climate. Chaplin was a British citizen living in the US during WWI and there was some criticism of his not being in the military. But, he not only sold millions of dollars of War Bonds for the government, but his films were important to troop morale. Insisting that Chaplin don a uniform seemed pointless, when he would be just another soldier in a war where thousands of British soldiers might die in a single battle. His important contribution to the war effort was to continue to make comedies. The Little Tramp movies produced the laughter which roared out of makeshift theaters at the front, relieving a bit of the troops’ misery.
Mutual wanted him to sign another contract and offered him a million dollars to make eight films. But, Chaplin felt that he needed more time, more money and less pressure from the front office to make the sort of films he envisioned. When the Mutual contact expired in 1917, he signed instead with First National. A Dog’s Life was the first film completed under this new contract. First National built him his own studio on five acres at the corner of Sunset and LaBrea. The site was then in a suburban neighborhood, about a mile away from the other studios, and the neighbors were appalled at the encroachment of the show people, even one as beloved as Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin’s studio façade design resembled of a row of English cottages, which served to placate the residents. Although it is now surrounded by surging traffic, the studio survives, and has recently become the home of Jim Henson productions, where the site is marked by a statue of Kermit the Frog dressed as the Little Tramp.
Chaplin’s studio at Sunset and La Brea, photographed from a car window in a traffic jam.
Chaplin’s first film for First National has been called “the cinema’s first total work of art” (Louis Delluc). It recreates the grimly shabby aura of many of his Mutual comedies with renewed force. As David Robinson describes it, “It is about street life, low life, poverty and hunger, prostitution and exploitation.” The life of the stray dog, Scraps, echoes that of the human strays, the tramp and the bar girl, and the episodes drive home the struggles of life’s unfortunates. This movie contains great comic set-pieces, but also a poignancy he would continue to include in his later feature films. He’d been looking for a dog co-star for a while without finding a natural actor. “What I really want is a mongrel dog. The funniest ‘purps’ I ever set eyes one were mongrels. These studio beasts are too well kept. What I want is a dog that can appreciate a bone and is hungry enough to be funny for his feed. I’m watching all the alleys and some day I’ll come home with a comedy dog that will fill the bill” (Robinson). The Los Angeles pound supplied a number of applicants, and the eventual dog actor, Mut, became a member of the studio team. Shortly after the completion of A Dog’s Life Chaplin left for a tour selling War Bonds. Mut had become so attached to Chaplin that he refused to eat and pined away. He was buried on the studio grounds under the marker ‘Mutt—died April 29—a broken heart.”
Chaplin and Mut
Chaplin worked repeatedly with the same actors. Eric Campbell, the scary waiter in The Immigrant and the bully in Easy Street was 6 foot 4, more than a foot taller than the slight Chaplin, who was about 5’3” and weighed about 125 pounds. Campbell met an early death in a 1917 automobile accident. At the screening at the Durham Public Library, the kids in the audience identified strongly with the Little Tramp’s conflicts with the hulking Campbell. Henry Bergman, Albert Austin (a friend from the Karno troupe) and others played multiple roles in his films. Chaplin’s brother Sydney was his business manager, as well as an actor. He plays the owner of the lunch wagon in A Dog’s Life.
Edna Purviance was Chaplin’s leading lady in these three films and worked with him for 8 years. She had a romantic relationship with Chaplin and probably hoped to marry him, although this was not to be. Her career did not stretch much beyond their films together, although he kept her on his payroll until she died in 1958.
Chaplin’s films were not scripted and he improvised while the camera rolled. He acted out all the characters in rehearsal, and expected his cast to copy him exactly. If he had a creative block, he shut the studio down and waited until he had an inspiration. Miraculously, many of these filmed improvisations were not destroyed (although Chaplin meant for them to be). Years later, historian Kevin Brownlow made a fascinating documentary called The Unknown Chaplin using those discarded shots to reconstruct the working techniques of one of cinema’s pre-eminent geniuses.
These three films take situations that could have been played for tragedy and transform them into comedy. Homelessness and hunger are not laughing matters, but Chaplin suggests there is more than one way of looking at misfortune. Some critics admired the vulgar impulsiveness of the Little Tramp, while others found him too close to the gutter. You can see that Chaplin never forgot the sting and shame of poverty.
Kevin Brownlow, in Hollywood: The Pioneers, notes that Chaplin is currently out of fashion, as comedians like Keaton and Lloyd have temporarily eclipsed him in the public taste. Brownlow sees this as a passing phase. “Fashion will change again and so long as Chaplin’s films survive, so will his genius. He was, and he will always remain, the greatest comedian in the history of motion pictures.”
(Color photos from Moviediva’s trip to LA. Chaplin photos from The Silent Clowns. Sources include, Charlie Chaplin and his Times by Kenneth Schuyler Lynn, Chaplin: His Life and Art by David Robinson, Charlie Chaplin: The Art of Comedy by David Robinson, The Films in My Life by Francois Truffaut, The Silent Clowns by Walter Kerr, Comedy is a Man in Trouble by Alan Dale, Classic Movie Comedians by Neil Sinyard)