Sunday, December 1, 2013

'Chaplin's Vintage Year' offers a history of the star's early Mutual film series

By Doug Gibson

Despite the fact that Charlie Chaplin is generally regarded as the top silent film comic and his persona, as the Little Tramp, is iconic, few realize how incredibly popular he was almost 100 years ago. As Michael J. Hayde notes in his new book, "Chaplin's Vintage Year: The History of the Mutual Chaplin Specials," (Bear Manor Media) it was not uncommon for movie theaters to play a Chaplin short every day of operation. When the British-born star signed to make 12 two-reel shorts for Mutual, a film-exchange group that rented production facilities, he received $670,000 in 1916, an amount akin to about $15 million today.

The Mutual series of films are likely the most accessible of Chaplin's early work. As Hayde explains, they have been by far the most ubiquitous of this era. They were reissued frequently over the next 30 years, in varying formats, with different music, even in one-reel editions. One constant is they tended to make money. For as much as Mutual paid Chaplin for the series, it was a bargain, the 12 films grossed several times what Chaplin earned.

Hayde's book is part of the genre of film and culture where the minutiae of a subject is delved into. For historians, Chaplin enthusiasts, silent film fans, there is a desire to delve deeper into the subject. Hayde, who has authored a book on the Dragnet TV series and co-authored a deep biography of the silent/talkie comedy star Harry Langdon, is capable of fulfilling this duty. The history of the Mutual films, "The Pawnbroker," "The Fireman," "One a.m.," etc., provides a fascinating read. Chaplin was not an actor -- such as Ben Turpin -- who stuck to the same film company. Always seeking bigger paychecks and creative freedom, he moved from Keystone, to Essanay, to Mutual in rapid succession. After the Mutual series, the comic star bolted again. Mutual enjoyed a profitable but short tenure with the Little Tramp, and then faded away.

The "ins and outs" of the early movie-making business is described in loving detail by Hayde as it applies to Chaplin. The efforts to consolidate power by a few in the early days of cinema were doomed as the production spread west to Hollywood and stars realized that they were worth more than assumed only a decade earlier. As Hayde writes, as the 20th century began, films were logged at the bottom rung of entertainment, fir for the poorest of the entertainment clientele.

Even when a production company lost control of a star such as Chaplin, Hayde notes that there were still ways to continue making big dollars. Essanay, for example, used just about every extra stock of its Chaplin film to create longer "films" that piggybacked on the Mutual successes. This grafting annoyed Chaplin and others, who sometimes attempted legal action against the slapdash "films."

Many of the executives, film crew and co-stars of the Mutual films are profiled in Hayde's book. I found the life story of Edna Purviance, co-star of the Mutual film series and Chaplin's paramour at the time, to be most interesting. She eventually tired of Chaplin's roving romantic eye but remained on the Chaplin payroll for years until she married. After her husband died in the 1940s she was slated for a Chaplin-related comeback but it didn't happen. Nevertheless, she was on her former lover's payroll for the rest of her life.

Chaplin appears in Hayde's book to be a man focused on details, wanting more time and money spent than execs were comfortable with. If there is a shortcoming to Hayde's book, it is that the main man, Chaplin himself, remains an elusive figure. He's basically portrayed in the passive sense, reacting to events and personalities. To be fair, though, the subject of the book is on Chaplin's Mutual series, and not on the actor.

As for the movies themselves, they are superb efforts, which can now be seen as easily as surfing to YouTube. Their lives, from debut screens to revivals to additions in documentaries to Blackhawk status for collectors, to video, DVD and finally Internet access, is very interesting reading. An extremely detailed summary of the films, from scenes, titles, production, reviews, etc. takes up much of the second half of the book. My favorite of the films is "The Fireman," which encapsulates Chaplin's ability to create sympathy with the audience, despite his foolishness, by virtue of his inimitable mannerisms and deadpan facial expressions. "One A.M.," however, may be the most interesting of the films because it strays from the most successful formula, as noted in "The Fireman." "One A.M." is almost a one-man show from Chaplin. It's interesting that it was among the least successful of the series, it does underscore, though, that Chaplin was not afraid of expanding his artistic vision.

As Hayde notes, his usage of the term "vintage" means excellence with staying power. That defines the 12 Mutual films. Books such as "Chaplin's Vintage Year" are appreciates as they provide new information on a subject that has already been analysed from likely 1,000 different angles.

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