Charlie Chaplin at Keystone Studios
Charlie Chaplin was only with Keystone Studios for about a year, but it proved to be a very important year for him. It was at Keystone that he created his best known character, The Tramp. It was here that he wrote and directed his first films and acted in a feature film for the first time. A Silhouette tribute on his birth anniversary.
Over 100 years after he appeared in his first film, Charlie Chaplin remains one of the most famous and most respected film makers in Western cinema. His character of The Tramp remains recognisable even to those who have never seen any of his films. Charlie Chaplin’s films, even many from the Silent Era, remain readily available. Mr. Chaplin’s career both as an actor and a director began in 1914 at Keystone Studios. In fact, it was at Keystone Studios that he achieved stardom as well as created the character of The Tramp.
Charlie Chaplin began his career as an entertainer when he was very young. He made his first appearance on stage when he was only five years old. By the time he was ten years old he was performing professionally in British music halls as one of the Eight Lancashire Lads. He had appeared on London’s West End by the time he was 14. It was through his older brother Sydney Chaplin that he became part of theatre impresario Fred Karno’s company when he was 18. It would be Fred Karno who would bring Charlie Chaplin to the United States where he would attract the attention of the film industry there. Young Mr. Chaplin was one of the company whom Fred Karno decided should tour the United States on the vaudeville circuit.
It was while he was performing on the vaudeville circuit that Charlie Chaplin came to the attention of the New York Motion Picture Company, parent company of Keystone Studios. A representative from Keystone Studios had seen Mr. Chaplin perform and thought that he could replace their star, Fred Mace, who planned to leave the studio. Charlie Chaplin signed with Keystone Studios for $150-per-week.
Making a Living
Charlie Chaplin made his film debut in the one-reeler Making a Living, which was released on 2 February 1914. In the film Mr. Chaplin played a “sharper”, essentially someone who swindles others out of money. It would be for the next film he made at Keystone Studios that he would create his best known character, The Tramp. For the one-reeler Mabel’s Strange Predicament, producer and head of Keystone Studios Mack Sennett simply instructed Charlie Chaplin to put on some comedy makeup. Charlie then created the costume that would forever be identified with The Tramp: a bowler hat, a coat that fit too tightly, baggy pants, and oversized shoes.
Mabel’s Strange Predicament
While Charlie Chaplin first played The Tramp in Mabel’s Strange Predicament, it was not the first film in which audiences saw Mr Chaplin in the role. WhileKid Auto Races at Venice was filmed after Mabel’s Strange Predicament, it was released three days before Mabel’s Strange Predicament. The Tramp proved enormously popular, so that there was a growing demand for films starring Charlie Chaplin in the role. Ultimately Charlie Chaplin would play the character of The Tramp in most of the films he made at Keystone Studios.
Of course, Charlie Chaplin would further develop the character of The Tramp for years after he left Keystone Studios. In the early films made at Keystone The Tramp could be and often was greedy, duplicitous, lecherous, and even cruel. While The Tramp would grow and evolve even while Charlie Chaplin was at Keystone, it would be years before he became the familiar character who was simultaneously pathetic and heroic.
The Tramp was by no means the only character Charlie Chaplin played while at Keystone Studios. In Cruel Cruel Love he played a noble who was rather rich. In Mabel at the Wheel he played a villain of the sort sometimes played by fellow Keystone actor Ford Sterling. In Tillie’s Punctured Romance he played a womanising and unscrupulous city slicker.
It was while Charlie Chaplin was at Keystone Studios that he first began writing and directing films. Twenty Minutes of Love, released 20 April 1914, is often credited as the first film Charlie Chaplin ever wrote and directed. That having been said, Joseph Maddern is sometimes credited as the director. If that is the case, then Caught in the Rain, released on 4 May 1914, might be the first film ever directed by Charlie Chaplin. Regardless, Mr. Chaplin would write and direct many of the films in which he starred at Keystone. In fact, starting with Mabel’s Married Life, released on 20 June 1914, he directed every single film in which he appeared except for the feature film Tillie’s Punctured Romance.
Tillie’s Punctured Romance
Tillie’s Punctured Romance would mark Charlie Chaplin’s first appearance in a feature film. Not only was it the first feature film ever made by Keystone Studios, but it was also the first feature length comedy ever made in the United States. Tillie’s Punctured Romance was based on the play Tillie’s Nightmare by A. Baldwin Sloane and Edgar Smith. Marie Dressler, who had played Tillie Banks on stage, recreated the role for the film. It was produced and directed by Mack Sennett. Charlie Chaplin played a city slicker and thief. Tillie’s Punctured Romance proved to be very successful, so much so that it would inspire three sequels.
Tillie’s Punctured Romance would be the only feature film Charlie Chaplin made at Keystone. In fact, following Tillie’s Punctured Romance Charlie Chaplin only made two more films at the studio. The last film Charlie Chaplin made at Keystone was His Prehistoric Past, released on 7 December 1914.
Charlie Chaplin’s contract with Keystone expired at the end of 1914. When the studio wanted to renew his contract, Charlie Chaplin requested that he be paid $1000 a week. Producer Mack Sennett made the remark that this was more than he even earned. Charlie Chaplin pointed out that it was his name that drew people to theatres. Regardless, Keystone Studios did not give into Mr. Chaplin’s demand and so they parted ways. Mr. Chaplin almost immediately signed with Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, who offered him $1250 a week as well as a signing bonus of $10,000.
In the end Charlie Chaplin was only with Keystone Studios for about a year, but it proved to be a very important year for him. It was at Keystone that he created his best known character, The Tramp. It was at Keystone that he wrote and directed his first films. It was even at Keystone that he first appeared in a feature film. Most importantly, it was while Charlie Chaplin was at Keystone that he first became a star. While his time with Keystone was brief, it proved to be a very important time in his career.
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