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  < Back to Table Of Contents  < Back to Topic: Art forms of a New Country

article number 471
article date 08-04-2015
copyright 2015 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Million Dollar Babies Part 1: Charlie Chaplin 1916
by Terry Ramsaye
   

From the 1926 book, A Million and One Nights.

EDITORS NOTE: This article is decorated with pictures and captions of found in other books published in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

* * *

By the autumn of 1915 Charles Chaplin had become the biggest single fact of the motion pictures.

Developments of the next few months were to make him the most widely famous personality in the history of the world. Yet he had been on the screen only two years.

The peculiar, complex politico-commercial conditions within the plotting rivalries of the film corporations in New York now conspired to give Chaplin’s amazing success an even greater scope.

Chaplin was nearing the end of his one year contract with Essanay, working in the studio at Niles, California. His Essanay pictures were as strikingly successful as the Keystone comedies which had introduced him to the screen the years before.

The old Keystone-Chaplins were working to the limit of the capacity of the supply of old worn prints in the exchanges of the Mutual Film Corporation. Mutual could get no more prints, because of the strained relations with Harry E. Aitken and Kessel and Baumann of Triangle, who owned the negatives.

As the Mutual’s prints of such classics as ’Dough and Dynamite’ wore out they could not be replaced. At the same time the numerous states’ right and independent exchange men were getting a bootleg supply of re-imported Keystone Chaplins. These were prints of the same subjects made for Mutual, sold by Keystone abroad for foreign consumption and shipped back into the United States.

Also a large traffic in “duped” copies of Chaplin comedies, made by screen outlaws by the illegal process of making a negative from a positive print, gained large circulation. The “dupes” went out by the thousands.

No one, not even Mary Pickford in the days of her Biograph one-reelers, had been so often and constantly on the screen.

Some measure of the amazing Chaplin circulation may be gained from consideration of one single theater, the humble little Crystal Hall, operated in Fourteenth street, New York, in connection with a penny arcade. A Chaplin comedy went on the screen there with the release of his Keystone pictures in 1913. From that day until the establishment burned in 1923, ten years later, Chaplin was off that screen a total of one week.

In those four days when Chaplin films were not shown, the management experimented with Chaplin substitutes in the form of comedies made by two of his best imitators. The experiment proved that Fourteenth street would accept nothing but the genuine. In two days the receipts of the film show would drop fifty per cent if the genuine Chaplin was missing.

The reports and letters from Mutual’s sixty-eight exchanges brought this clamor for new prints of the Keystone Chaplins to the desk where John R. Freuler of Mutual sat in the Masonic Temple building, facing out toward the Metropolitan clock tower.

Other great film distributing concerns, and some that hoped to become great, sensed the same demand. Many deep plans were laid for the capture of Chaplin. His Essanay contract was not more than half fulfilled when these plans began to blossom into campaigns.

   
A Night Out. Charlie Chaplin, Ben Turpin, Leo White. Essanay production,1915.

Essanay was soon alert. It became most difficult for strangers and emissaries from the East to see Chaplin. The guards at the Essanay West Coast studio tightened the restrictions and sight seeing parties were held at their distance.

Jay Casey Cairns, the press agent hero of ’The Million Dollar Mystery’ promotion, being in the West, was assigned to investigating the Chaplin situation. His approach to the Essanay studio at Niles by way of the office was repulsed.

Cairns appeared the next day at the Essanay corral attired in sombrero, chaps and spurs. He mingled with the cowboy extras and rode into the studio on an Essanay horse to see Chaplin. It was a victory for the cavalry.

The wire reports back to the seat of strategy at the Mutual offices in New York indicated that Chaplin would listen if the talk was in terms of money.

There was not only Essanay to deal with but the competition of every other large film concern in the business. Also every friend or remote acquaintance of Chaplin was trying to be his agent for a share in the profits.

The business of stalking Chaplin honeycombed the cafés and hotels of the coast with intrigue. Niles and Los Angeles were full of spies and special agents on the Chaplin situation.

The Mutual had relays of watchers, negotiators and emissaries. Harry Caulfield, of previous experience in film diplomacy in the service of P. A. Powers in the Universal war, was chief of the Mutual’s agents.

Chaplin was extremely aware of the situation. When his work for Essanay was done he left for Chicago to see George K. Spoor, head of the company. Spoor offered a profit sharing contract, promising a minimum of $500,000 for the comedian’s share in the next year.

Chaplin was amazed. He headed East to see if they would speak louder in New York. They would.

Chaplin’s signature was not dry on the Plaza’s register when the new campaign, bigger and better than ever, began.

Chaplin never suspected that he had so many, many warm friends. They kept getting warmer. All the delights of Manhattan, with considerable frankincense and myrrh, were laid before him.

The negotiations in behalf of the Mutual were conducted by John R. Freuler, who never shared in the extravagantly ostentatious play life with which many film magnates were fringing their careers.

He was in the motion picture exclusively as a business. His discussions with Chaplin, for this reason, assumed a sensational contrast with the other campaigns.

Freuler was pictorially, too, at an advantage. His imposing height, crowned with white hair and a benignly efficient manner, made his mere mention of a million sound like hard money in the drawer. He looked more like a millionaire than anyone else in the film trade.

Chaplin was not at all sure that there was any reality in this bombardment of offers in which verbal millions were seemingly tossed about like confetti in the standard cabaret scene.

After the parties began to pall on Chaplin and he had seen the bright lights turned off in the early morning, the Freuler campaign began to take effect. It carried to him more conviction of reality than the rest. He doubted everybody, but doubted Freuler the least.

Chaplin and Freuler came to an agreement one Wednesday night in February, 1916, at the close of a conversation session on the mezzanine floor of the Hotel Astor.

   
CHARLES CHAPLIN and JOHN R. FREULER, president of the Mutual Film Corporation, photographed in 1916 after the signing of the $670,000 contract which marked the recognition of Chaplin as the greatest box office attraction in the world.

The price was $10,000 a week for Chaplin’s services, for a year, payable each Saturday, and a bonus of $150,000 for the signing of the contract, total $670,000 for the year’s work.

Freuler turned to a writing desk in the foyer and wrote Chaplin a check for $5,000 on the First National Bank of Milwaukee. The next day Chaplin received additional checks for $45,000.

Meanwhile Nathan Burkan, attorney for Chaplin, and Samuel Field, attorney for the Mutual Film Corporation, labored over the employment contract which was formally signed two days later at the Mutual offices.

Burkan demonstrated his genius by selling his six dollar fountain pen, with which the contract was signed, to Freuler for thirty-five dollars. It seems that Billie Burke and sundry other stars had signed contracts with that same pen.

Chaplin on this day received another check from Freuler for $100,000, completing the bonus payment.

Chaplin turned to his brother Syd as they reached the street.

“Well, I’ve got this much if they never give me another cent. Guess I’ll go and buy a whole dozen neckties.”

It was a large moment in the emotional life of this young man who makes a joke of the world because it is so sad. A few weeks later, on April 16, Chaplin celebrated, or at least could have celebrated, his twenty-seventh birthday.

It is natural, meanwhile, to wonder why the Essanay concern let the profitable Chaplin pass into other hands so lightly. George K. Spoor calculated that the year of 1916 held promise of a profit of $1,300,000 on Chaplin pictures. Yet Spoor let him walk out the front door.

The “S” of Essanay was at odds with the “A.”

With Chaplin picture profits pouring in, G. M. Anderson’s interest in the concern would have been both valuable and costly. Spoor executed a bear movement by letting Chaplin escape. Then he bought out Anderson.

So ended the screen career of ’Broncho Billy,’ star of ’The Great Train Robbery’ and with a record of 375 weekly one-reel Wild West dramas behind him.

This was also the beginning of the end of the greatness of Essanay. But Spoor had taken millions in profits, and now they were safely anchored in Chicago lake shore real estate.

Chaplin’s salary with the new Lone Star Corporation, which was to make his Mutual pictures, began March 20, 1916.

The publicity announcement of the Chaplin contract and his $670,000 salary was a world sensation, setting the newspapers agog with new excitement about the screen.

Zukor’s $104,000 contract with Pickford had been surprising enough. Now in the news writers’ view this Chaplin salary was something between an outrage and a world wonder.

Chaplin started his Lone Star series with ’The Floorwalker,’ a scenario based on his observations of a department store escalator during the New York negotiations.

The series of twelve two part pictures required, occupied Chaplin eighteen months, half a year longer than was anticipated. He began to proceed more carefully, evolving his technique with vast pains. He often exposed as much as 120,000 feet of negative to get the 1,500 feet required for a subject.

Many of his appreciative critics have held his ’Easy Street,’ made in this series, as his best work.

   
After his contract with Essanay expired, Charlie Chaplin signed up with Mutual for the Lone Star series, at the enormous sum of $670,000 for twelve two-reelers. Here is a scene from one of the best-remembered of these, ’Easy Street,’ made in 1917.

In this period Chaplin began to subdue some of the broader elements of his comedy. Meanwhile he was, by force of his work and the publicity attendant upon his new salary, coming to the attention of literary and artistic persons of authoritative name.

Minnie Maddern Fiske wrote an appreciation of Chaplin which appeared in the moribund but still eminent ’Harper’s Weekly.’ Heywood Broun, then with the ’New York Tribune,’ discovered Chaplin and discussed his comedies in approving words.

Before long the little man with the baggy pants was being solemnly discussed in such dignified journals as ’The New Republic.’ The slap-stick star of the slum nickelodeons of 1913 had begun to be classic and a pet of the philosophizing literati by the end of 1916.

Chaplin’s “fan” mail came from all quarters of the world, from Sweden to the Straits Settlements and from Punta Arenas to Pekin. His message of the ultimate triumph of Meek Inferiority won the world.

The “duping” of Chaplin comedies for domestic consumption and the world trade became a thriving outlaw industry now.

A Chicago darkroom bandit while engaged in counterfeiting Chaplin comedies, observed with appreciative interest the advertising which William Fox was giving to the Brenon-made Kellerman feature entitled ’The Daughter of the Gods.’ The “duper” made careful choice of scenes from several Chaplin comedies and a selection of mermaids, diving scenes and whatnot from Brenon’s production.

He doubled these subjects, superimposing Chaplin upon a Kellerman background. The composite product, in which Chaplin shambled and cavorted through the eerie Brenon fantasies, was issued to the underground trade entitled: ’Charlie, Son of the Gods.’

Competitors who lost in the bidding for Chaplin engaged in propaganda campaigns aimed at impairing his value to the Mutual. Censorships were agitated. Scandals were circulated and imitators were launched, all to little effect.

The anti-Chaplin war was even waged overseas by the same unfriendly competitors. It was discovered that Chaplin’s contract provided that he was not to pass beyond the borders of the continental United States. This was a simple safeguard against the war situation and the possible whimsicalities of some British draft officer.

On this provocation an uproar was raised in the London press, intended to hold Chaplin up as a slacker and seeking to cast shame on him and the Mutual Film Corporation because he was not offered up for cannon fodder. In spite of this, however, the rights on the Lone Star Chaplin pictures for the British Empire were sold for a total which paid his salary.

The twelve comedies of the Lone Star series, including Chaplin’s salary, cost approximately $100,000 each, which was considerably more than the average five or six reel feature of the period.

It has been estimated with reasonable accuracy that the motion picture theatres of the world have paid $5,000,000 in film rentals for those pictures, which would mean that the public has spent perhaps twenty-five millions at the box office for them—nearly twice the box office price of ’The Birth of a Nation.’

   
Keystone had featured Chaplin, but had not starred him. Now, as a star under Essanay, he soon became world-famous. This is a scene from a two-reeler, ’The Immigrant,’ made for Mutual in 1917. The others are (left) Henry Bergman, Edna Purviance, and Eric Campbell.

These comedies are however still working and their final total can not be estimated. The earning power of Chaplin pictures is apparently limited only by the physical life of the negatives.

Theatres which paid fifty dollars a day for Lone Star Chaplins in the week of their issue in 1916 paid four times that price for the same pictures six or seven years later. The like is true of no other film product.

In sequel to Chaplin’s rocket success came a chapter of mingled comedy and tragedy. George K. Spoor of Essanay, who had surrendered Chaplin to the market a few months before, joined in the last united stand of the Patents Company’s surviving producers, Kleine, Edison, Selig, Essanay, known as the K. E. S. E. This concern now announced, in terms but thinly veiled, a rival for Chaplin, in the person of Max Linder.

Linder, a Frenchman, was the screen’s first famous comedian. He appeared in Pathé pictures in the pre-Trust days. Linder’s fame was greater within the industry than with the public. His heyday had been nearly ten years before.

The advertising of the return of Linder and accompanying press propaganda was shot directly at Chaplin, and it was laden with innuendo. It inferred that Chaplin was sloppy, unclean and sordid on the screen, whereas M. Linder in his new Essanay comedies was to be revealed a Beau Brummel, a Chesterfield—and very funny.

’Max Comes Across’ was the title of the initial effort, following the Essanay pattern laid down with Chaplin in ’Charlie’s New Job.’ This picture was released February 6, 1917.

Max came across, but he did not go over. Two more pictures were made and nothing happened at the box office. It was then given out that M. Linder was ill, and near unto death as the aftermath of wounds and hardships in the trenches of the World War.

Linder went to Hollywood and shook hands with Chaplin under an orange tree. He sailed for France. The Linder experiment cost Essanay $87,000.

In a hotel in Paris, Linder and his wife, a beauty with whom he had eloped two years before, committed suicide October 31, 1925.

   
CHARLES CHAPLIN and MAX LINDER — the day that Linder, vanquished in a war of comedy on the American screen, called at the Lone Star studio to say goodbye.

Among the screen comedians developing as contemporaries of Chaplin, Harold Lloyd is the most conspicuously successful. Lloyd began his theatrical career as a boy in Omaha, playing parts with the Burwood stock company, going thence to Chicago.

In his travels Lloyd picked up a part as an extra with the Edison company and was inspired to move to Los Angeles to make a try for a screen career. Working in ’Samson and Delilah’ at Universal City he met Hal Roach, a young man with an ambition to direct.

Roach inherited $3,000 and plunged into production with Lloyd to play leads. ’Just Nuts’ resulted and from it a contract with Pathé.

Lloyd began as an imitator of Chaplin, then rose in his pride and became original.

Lloyd was amazingly ambitious. He wanted to make enough money to indulge his fancy for striped silk shirts without limit.

The young comedian’s first long stride came when he hit upon the notion of portraying the youth always wearing tortoise shell rimmed spectacles—one of the outstanding aspects of Young America.

This decision came near to ending Lloyd’s screen career. The Pathé concern insisted on a continuance of his eccentric character of ’Lonesome Luke.’ Lloyd threatened to quit, and won. In consequence his balloon tired spectacles are in a fair way to become as world famous as Chaplin’s shoes.

In 1923 Lloyd became his own producer. His comedies have attained gross figures comparing favorably with the million dollar successes of Chaplin.

   
Charlie Chaplin and John R. Freuler on the set while ’The Cure’ was being made for Mutual, in 1917.
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