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On the ghost of Charlie Chaplin

I’ve always loved the silent comedies of Charlie Chaplin, particulary the work he did between 1915 and 1920. When I was a child in England, one of the three TV channels showed all these early films on Saturday mornings, intercut with enthusiastic introductions and set-ups by a then-famous comedian called Bob Monkhouse. I remember watching these with my grandfather, who was in the first audiences for these short one and two-reelers when they were first released. When I grew up, I lost the child’s delight in the broader comedy—the ‘turn-around-when-carrying-a-plank-of-wood-and-slap-a-bystander-in-the-side-of-the-head’ style of humour. But I found, and still find, a depth to Charlie Chaplin’s films, a sharpness, a gleeful anarchy, and an incredible level of technical skill and inventiveness. Films like ‘One A.M.’, ‘The Pawnbroker’, Easy Street’, ‘The Immigrant’, ‘The Floorwalker’, and ‘The Kid’ should, in my opinion, be seen my everyone.

Along with my enduring love of his films, I came to learn about the studios he worked for. He was discovered by Mack Sennett and the Keystone studio, then worked for Essanay, and then in 1916 signed for the Mutual company in a deal which, if translated into 2010 dollars, would have been worth about $14 million. Imagine my delight and astonishment when, about a month after moving to the 1400 block of West Argyle Street, Chicago, in 2007, I discovered the Essanay studio buildings in the 1300 block of West Argyle Street. If I go into the sun room at the front of the apartment and look to the left, I can see the single storey brick buildings, occupying about half a city block, and the portico which still bears the ceramic heads of two Indians and the title ‘Essanay’ over the doorway. The studio took its name from the initial letters of its founders’ surnames, Spoor and Andersen. The Indian heads are there because for years the studio produced some of the earliest westerns, and produced one of the first western stars in Broncho Billy.

Chaplin with the Essanay owners in c. 1915
 How strange life can be sometimes. There I am, in a mining village in the north-east of England in the 1960s, sitting in my grandfather’s living room as a six year old, watching fifty-year old silent comedies on a massive Rediffusion TV with bad reception. Thirty-eight years later, I’m living just steps away from where some of those films were made.

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  1. Very, very nice. Consider this big city: In addition to movies and music, Chicago was once a major stringed instrument center in America (boasting names like Kay, Larson, Regal and Washburn) as well as the mail order capitol of America (Sears and Roebuck, Montgomery Ward), much of the early folk, blues and country music that is the basis for most popular music of the last 60 years was played on instruments built in and shipped from Chicago, Illinois.
    Take a look at an old LIFE or Popular Science magazine. The array of products (shoes and clothes, tools and machines, electronics and home appliances, candy) manufactured in Chicago is amazing.

  2. I also read that between about 1908 and 1918, nearly two thirds of all movies in the USA were produced (if not actually shot) by Chicago studios and production companies. Hollywood as we know it only got going after WWI.


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