Chaplin in Chicago
Charlie Chaplin, 1921
Charlie Chaplin filmed only one movie in Chicago—His New Job in 1915—but it helped catapult him to mega–movie star status. In the burgeoning decades of American cinema, Chicago was the first Hollywood. Its central location made for convenient production and distribution, and travel here made for an affordable trip for budding starlets.
George Spoor and Max “Bronco Billy” Anderson founded Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, named for their initials “S” and “A,” in 1907. They lured the English-born Chaplin away from Keystone, another American film company that specialized in slapstick comedies featuring the popular Keystone Kops characters. Chaplin created a rift at Keystone because as he learned the ropes of movie-making, he longed for greater creative control, resulting in less obvious slapstick and more emotion. That and significantly more money were both part of the deal he signed at Essanay, where Chaplin received an unprecedented salary for a movie actor—his weekly pay rose to $1,250 from about $125 and came with a $10,000 signing bonus.
Chaplin, standing between Essanay actor Francis Bushman (left) and one of the Essanay cofounders Max “Bronco Billy” Anderson (right), shortly after his arrival in Chicago
Spoor, initially reluctant to hire Chaplin, was persuaded by his partner Anderson, who as an actor himself recognized the power of Chaplin’s character. Ultimately, they agreed to give Chaplin tremendous creative influence over many of the films, which became “Essanay–Chaplin” productions ensuring physical comedy and visual puns while also tugging at the heartstrings of viewers. On His New Job and subsequent Essanay films produced under contract, Chaplin is credited as director, editor, and creator of the scenario in addition to his role in the cast. After His New Job, which debuted in theaters in February 1915, the company moved the majority of its production work to its California studio while retaining a Chicago headquarters at 1345 W. Argyle in Uptown.
Essanay Film Manufacturing Company at 1345 W. Argyle, now home to Saint Augustine College, rumored to be haunted by Chaplin
While working in Chicago, Chaplin used this cane to perfect his famous mustachioed character, the Little Tramp, a role inspired by street tramps and hobos in his native England and stock characters in English musical theater, where Chaplin got his start. Clad in a shabby coat and trousers which could alternately be too tight or too baggy, oversize shoes worn on the wrong feet to achieve a shuffling effect, mussed tie, and bowler hat, Chaplin also used a flexible bamboo cane (rather than standard wooden canes carried by earlier incarnations of the character) as a prop for his masterful pratfalls. He was known to have snapped several of them (intentionally and unintentionally) on a single day’s shoot when they finally could not withstand his weight.
Chaplin’s bamboo cane, c. 1915
The success of His New Job sent Chaplin’s fame and potential worth skyrocketing, resulting in an international condition identified as “Chaplinitis” by a critic at Motion Picture Magazine. Perhaps dissatisfied with Essanay leadership as well as the month of brutal Chicago winter he had suffered, Chaplin signed a new contract the following year with the Mutual Film Corporation for a mind-blowing annual salary of $670,000, leaving Essanay in the dust. The Little Tramp, however, remains one of cinema’s iconic characters in part because Essanay took a chance on Chaplin and let his creativity thrive.