This January marks the 100th anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s historic month in Chicago, where he shot his first one reel comedy at George K. Spoor and “Bronco Billy” Anderson’s Essanay Studiio for the astronomical salary of $1,250 a week and a $10,000 signing bonus.
In moving to Essanay, Chaplin was seeking more than money. Although he was already writing and directing most of his own films at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Comedy Studios, he wanted the freedom to write and direct all of them. Joining Essanay promised him more autonomy, which he considered critical to his artistic development.
“When Chaplin first arrived at Essanay, he almost stopped the works,” reported the March 1915 Motion Picture Magazine, the nation’s first important movie magazine.
“Every person in the studio — actors and actresses, property men, scenario writers, the publicity department and even the business office — side-stepped their task and stole down to the studio floor to watch the genius apply his methods.
“…And do you know how he started his comedy, “His New Job?” He stood out in the center of his set, pulled three of his fingers out of joint, and then, crouching into the professional dancer’s pose, he executed a clog-dance. He danced for five minutes…
”Ah! he said, sotto voce. “Got to limber up. A little pep, everybody, a little pep. Come on, boys. Shoot your set. I’m ready.”
Two of the actors Chaplin worked with in His New Job, went on to significant careers: Essanay veteran Ben Turpin, the star of the company’s very first film, An Awful Skate (1907), and a fifteen-year old hopeful named Gloria Swanson.
Although Chaplin used Turpin in both His New Job and his next Essanay film, A Night Out, he didn’t feel the cross-eyed comedian was the right foil for him. Turpin looked funny, and Chaplin wanted no competition.
Many of the other actors who appear in His New Job became part of his stock company over the next several years, but he never worked with Turpin again. Turpin went on to make a series of highly successful comic films with Mack Sennett and others during through the silent era.
As for Swanson, Chaplin wanted the beautiful teen to co-star in His New Job. The two spent a difficult hour rehearsing before Chaplin ended up giving her the bit part of a secretary in the film.
The anticipation surrounding Chaplin’s maiden effort for Essanay was justified when the film drew more pre-orders than any film in the company’s history, and when critics praised it as “killingly funny” and “the funniest comedy ever filmed.”
His New Job turned out to be both the first and last film that Chaplin would shoot in Chicago. The chill of a Windy City winter proved too much for him, and he made the rest of his Essanay films in California.
His New Job remains a funny backstage look at the movie business, a favorite subject of comedies of the period, including two of Chaplin’s Keystone films, A Film Johnny and The Masquerader.
The following year he would make his most polished movie spoof, Behind the Screen, for the Mutual Film Company, which had lured Chaplin away from Essanay with an astonishing financial offer of $10,000 a week, plus a $150,000 signing bonus.
This salary made Chaplin the highest paid actor — indeed, the highest paid salaried employee of any kind — in the world, and the news made headlines across the country.
He was under more pressure than ever to be funny.
But Chaplin’s arrival at Essanay was when the spotlight of fame first shined upon him full force, and the Motion Picture Magazine articles provide vivid eyewitness accounts of what it was like.
With reporters on the set and everyone in the studio gawking at him, he had to do something to live up to his advance billing and enormous salary. He brilliantly chose to channel the pressure into an ironic joke, playing an incompetent who bluffs his way into a movie studio and causes chaos.
This allowed him to use the sets and props at hand without wasting a moment, thus giving Essanay what they wanted, a new Chaplin comedy in only two weeks’ time.
He gave movie audiences what they wanted as well, flirting outrageously with every woman in sight, fighting with all the men, and becoming so love-struck by his leading lady that he fails to notice that he’s ripped off the train of her dress and is wiping his tears with it.
Seen at this distance, Chaplin’s inspiration, though it flags now and then in the picture, still blazes. He warmed up that cold Chicago winter, leaving us with an indelible record of what it was like to be a comic genius making a movie in 1915.
“Come on boys. Shoot your set. I’m ready.”
See Chaplin's first and only Chicago film here.
Gary N. Keller, ChicagoNitrate.com co-founder, led St. Augustine College’s restoration and reuse of the iconic entrance and Studios A/Charlie Chaplin Auditorium as VP/Essanay Centers for Early Film. He was president of the Uptown Historical Society based on the area’s history of film.
Janelle Vreeland, Chicagonitrate.com co-founder maintains the “Curtains” blog of silent film-related reviews. She was responsible for the development of the social media, marketing communications and crowdfunding for the Essanay Centers for Early Film.
Dan Kamin is an internationally acclaimed mime and physical comedian and author of The Comedy of Charlie Chaplin: Artistry in Motion. He trained Robert Downey, Jr. for his Oscar-nominated performance in Chaplin and created Johnny Depp’s comedy moves for Benny and Joon.