The Secret History of Chicago Movies: Chaplin at Essanay

While on a recent trip to the Chicago History Museum, I found (much to my embarrassment as a film studies instructor and longtime Chicago resident) that the role Chicago played in early motion pictures was considerably larger than I had ever realized. Most film histories, even reliable ones, tend to describe New York and New Jersey (home of Thomas Edison’s studio, the Biograph Co., the Solax Co., etc.) as the birthplace of American movies, before charting the migration of production talent to southern California in the mid 1910s. However, this glosses over the fact that Chicago was arguably equally as important as the northeastern United States as a center of American film production prior to the rise of Hollywood. Two of the most significant American film studios in the first two decades of the 20th century were located in Chicago: Essanay Studios and Selig Polyscope. Today’s post is the first in what will be a series about the little known history of early film production in Chicago.

Francis X. Bushman, Charlie Chaplin and Broncho Billy Anderson (Photograph: Chicago History Museum)

Between the first, primitive slapstick comedies he made for Mack Sennett’s Keystone Company in 1914 and the immortal comedy shorts he made at the Mutual Film Corporation from 1916 to 1917, Charlie Chaplin made 15 short films for Chicago-based Essanay Studios in 1915. These films were an important evolutionary step for Chaplin as both performer and filmmaker. Fourteen out of these fifteen films were shot at the Essanay studio in Niles, California. This post will focus on His New Job, the first and only movie Chaplin made entirely at Essanay’s studio in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.

Essanay was founded in Chicago in 1907. Originally titled The Peerless Film Manufacturing Company, the name was soon changed to a corruption of the initials of the last names of founders George Spoor and Gilbert Anderson (“S-an’-A”). Between 1907 and 1917, the studio churned out an astonishing 2000-plus shorts and feature films. Among the movie stars under contract to Essanay were Anderson himself (performing under the name “Broncho Billy”), Francis X. Bushman, Gloria Swanson, Wallace Beery and Chaplin. Among the screenwriters under contract were future director Allan Dwan and future gossip columnist Louella Parsons. Among the most significant films produced by Essanay were the first film version of A Christmas Carol (1908), the first American Sherlock Holmes (1916) and the first film about Jesse James, The James Boys of Missouri (1908).

Today the studio is best remembered, if at all, for the Chaplin shorts, of which the Chicago-shot His New Job happily remains a high point. When Chaplin first arrived in Chicago in December 1914, he bunked at Broncho Billy’s luxurious apartment at 1027 W. Lawrence Ave, a building that still stands today. Chaplin’s optimism about living and working in Chicago is reflected in the first newspaper interview he gave to the Chicago Daily Tribune’s film writer, the splendidly and pseudonymously named “Mae Tinee”: “I think I’m going to like it here,” Chaplin told her in early January 1915. “Nice people, nice studio, etc. With conditions favorable, a man can do so much better work, you know.”

Unfortunately, Chaplin’s enthusiasm would not last and he would end up moving back to Hollywood in less than a month. Chaplin recounts in his autobiography that Spoor intentionally avoided coming to the studio, perhaps furious that Anderson had promised Chaplin a $10,000 signing bonus. To make matters worse, Chaplin was horrified when it came time to watch daily rushes of His New Job and realized that Essanay technicians, in an effort to save money, screened the original negative instead of striking a print.

Charlie slept here: Charlie slept across the street from here:

Photograph by Michael Smith

On the other hand, Chaplin was given carte blanche by Spoor and Anderson to use all of the studio’s facilities and complete creative control over his productions. This allowed Chaplin to try new things, in particular the blending of comedy and pathos that would be the hallmark of his mature masterpieces of the 1920s and 1930s. The aptly titled His New Job was shot on Essanay’s impressively large studio complex. Located at 1333 – 1345 W. Argyle St., the buildings, now owned by St. Augustine College, also still stand today.

The Internet Movie Database claims Chaplin and Louella Parsons as co-authors of His New Job but it was most likely improvised. In the film, Chaplin’s familiar “Little Tramp” character shows up to audition for a part in a movie at “Lodestone Studios” (an obvious dig at former employer Keystone). The interior stages at Essanay essentially play themselves as Lodestone and the movie thus becomes a fascinating peak into the process of silent movie-making, at times achieving a near-documentary quality. The Tramp gets a job first as Production Assistant, then as a carpenter and finally as an extra in what appears to be a prestigious “period” film set in 19th century Russia. Of course, he wreaks havoc on the set and the entire production soon devolves into a state of slapstick anarchy.

One of the film’s gags features the Tramp and co-star Ben Turpin rolling dice while waiting for production to begin. This was apparently inspired by the real life dice games played by the cast and crew while lunching at Al Sternberg’s bar and restaurant on the corner of Broadway and Argyle (the loser had to pay the bill). Although His New Job is still quite funny by modern standards, its most interesting aspect today is probably the dramatic moment in the film-within-the-film when the Tramp tearfully pleads for the leading lady not to leave him. From here, the tear-jerking theatrics of The Kid are just a hop, skip and a jump away.

Charlie worked here:

Photograph by Michael Smith

Chaplin’s Essanay contract expired in January of 1916. When Essanay refused to meet his new salary demand of $10,000 per week, Chaplin was signed to Mutual where he went on to achieve greater fame. Essanay, meanwhile, was among the companies sued by the United States Justice Department for violating antitrust laws as part of the Motion Pictures Patents Company. During this time, most of the country’s filmmaking talent permanently settled in southern California where the moderate climate and diverse geographical terrain was ideal for year-round shooting. In 1918, Essanay closed its doors for good.

All of Chaplin’s Essanay films are available on a triple DVD set from Image Entertainment. His New Job can also be viewed in its entirety on YouTube (look sharp for a young Gloria Swanson as the stenographer):

Photogaph by Michael Smith


About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

24 responses to “The Secret History of Chicago Movies: Chaplin at Essanay

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