Tag Archives: keystone studios

From Niles to Newhallywood

The ending of "The Tramp" in 1915.

At the conclusion of the Charlie Chaplin film, The Tramp (1915), Chaplin’s “little tramp” character, heartbroken after losing the girl, shuffles off alone down a winding dirt road.

The situation was much different twenty-one years later in the final scene from Modern Times when Chaplin retired the iconic character.

Charlie Chaplin was an English music hall performer in his early twenties when discovered by Mack Sennett and brought to Hollywood to star in the “flickers.” During his first year in the business in 1914, Chaplin made 35 films at Sennett’s Keystone Studios near Glendale, and rose from complete obscurity to become the most recognized man in the world.

Chaplin was only earning $175 per week at Keystone and got lured away to Essanay Studios the following year with the offer of a 700% raise (to $1250 per week) plus a $10,000 signing bonus.

Essanay Studios was named after the initials “S & A” of its two main partners, George Spoor and Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson. It was based in Chicago but Broncho Billy, who was one of early cinema’s first cowboy stars, later came west to set up a second facility in the town of Niles, California to shoot Westerns.

After signing with Essanay, Chaplin first filmed in Chicago before coming to Niles. He wasn’t impressed with the town when he got there. The East Bay village was far too rural for the young man who had only ever lived in the big cities of London and Los Angeles.

Chaplin would only stay in Niles long enough to make a handful of films, but one of them, The Tramp, is today considered to be his first masterpiece.

In the film, Charlie stars in the role of his “little tramp” character, which he had created for Keystone. Sennett’s frenetic filming schedule had prevented him from developing the character fully, relying mostly on slapstick to get a laugh. At Essanay, Chaplin was able to add pathos to the character, making him more sympathetic.

At the end of The Tramp, Chaplin has been rejected by his lady (played by Edna Purviance) and walks off through the Niles Canyon alone. Dejected at first, he then shrugs his shoulders, picks up his pace, and hustles off in search of his next adventure.

When Chaplin decided to retire the character at the end of Modern Times in 1936, he came to the Santa Clarita Valley, which was known to early filmmakers as Newhallywood. In Modern Times, Chaplin paid homage to the final scene of The Tramp with a twist. He again walks off, but this time the road is straight and paved, and most importantly … he’s got his girl at his side. The Little Tramp’s days of facing the world alone have ended.

Chaplin and his works will be honored at the 2011 Santa Clarita Valley ChaplinFest on February 4 and 5 in Newhall, California, with films, lectures, book signings, and the dedication of a monument honoring the 75th anniversary of the release of Modern Times.

Some citizens of Niles will be on-hand to represent their town that day, including musician Michael McNevin.

The Little Tramp and his girl at the conclusion of "Modern Times" (1936).

To learn more about ChaplinFest, click here.

To learn more about Niles, click here.

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Catching It All

“I went from playing ball, to catching it all … I was the man behind the lens.”  I Shot Broncho Billy, Michael McNevin

Charlie Chaplin with Rollie Totheroh (center) on location in Truckee, California, during filming of "The Gold Rush" (1925).

The entire world is familiar with the films of Charlie Chaplin, but only hardcore Chaplin fans know of the man behind the lens, Rollie Totheroh, one of the men most responsible for the Little Tramp’s success. Totheroh, who was born 120 years ago today on November 29, 1890, was a true pioneer in the field of cinematography, and was Chaplin’s principal cameraman for the better part of four decades!

Charlie Chaplin first rose to stardom in 1914 at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios in the Los Feliz district of Los Angeles. During the year he was at Keystone, Chaplin appeared in 35 films, and went from obscurity to worldwide fame in the process. At the start of 1915, Chaplin went to work for Essanay Studios, which was owned by two men, George K. Spoor and “Broncho” Billy Anderson, one of the first Western stars of silent film. (Their initials, “S and A,” gave their studio its name.) Essanay was based in Chicago, but had a studio in the East Bay area of Northern California, in the town of Niles. Essanay was able to hire Chaplin away from Sennett by giving him a boost in salary to $1250 per week from the $150 per week he was making at Keystone. It was in Niles that Chaplin made such films as The Champion and The Tramp.

Totheroh was a former semi-pro baseball player who had first joined Essanay in 1911 as a “ringer” for the company baseball team. He was quickly put to work acting in some of the four hundred Westerns produced at the studio before moving behind the camera. In those days the work of the cameraman was a grueling one, requiring the steady cranking of the camera with one hand, while focusing the lens with the other. When Chaplin joined Essanay, Totheroh was assigned to be his personal cameraman, and the relationship stuck. They ended up working together until 1952, when Chaplin was exiled from America.

Chaplin was unimpressed with the facilities in Niles and left for greener pastures the following year, taking Totheroh with him. Before leaving Niles, Totheroh got married and had a son named Jack, who in 1915 appeared as a nine-month old female infant in the Broncho Billy film, The Bachelor’s Baby. 92 years later, Jack appeared in the feature, Weekend King. His nine-decade-plus film career is the longest in history, earning Mr. Totheroh a spot in the Guinness Book of Records. Jack is still with us at age 95, living in the Santa Paula area. He and his son David appeared in cameo roles in the 1992 film Chaplin, starring Robert Downey, Jr.

In Newhall, California, on the weekend of February 5, 2011, Kimi and I will be helping to host the 2011 Santa Clarita Valley ChaplinFest to honor the 75th anniversary of the release of his epic silent feature, Modern Times. Chaplin came to the Santa Clarita Valley to capture the last scene of the film nearby. It was the final scene of the entire silent era.

Rollie Totheroh, of course, was behind the lens that day.

Rollie Totheroh's grave in North Hollywood's Vallhalla Cemetery.

For more information about ChaplinFest, check out www.scvchaplinfest.org. You can also friend us on Facebook at “Modern Times” Plaque – Santa Clarita Valley ChaplinFest.”

BTW, if you would like to hear the phenomenal Michael McNevin perform live, we hope to have him at ChaplinFest. Click here to see a clip of Michael playing Two Feet Ahead of the Train for us in Niles.


Long Live the King! – Part Two

November, 1960 was a tough month for Hollywood’s “kings.”

Yesterday, I wrote about the 50th anniversary of the passing of Clark Gable, the “King of Hollywood,” who died on November 16, 1960. His death came just eleven days after the passing of Mack Sennett, Hollywood’s “King of Comedy,” at age 80.

Mack Sennett, the ribald silent comedy producer who brought the “pie fight” and the wild car chase to the masses, was born in Canada in 1880. After his family relocated to New England when Sennett was a teenager, young Mack decided to go into vaudeville. He later claimed that his mother and some of her friends, including future U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, tried to talk him out of his decision.

Sennett migrated to New York where he got work at Biograph Studios as an actor and director. By 1912, he was on the move again, this time to the West Coast, where he founded Keystone Studios near Echo Park. This hyper-manic lot became the birthplace of the entire genre of silent film slapstick comedy, launching the careers of such stars as Fatty Arbuckle, Ben Turpin, Mabel Normand, Ford Sterling, the Keystone Cops, and a young English music hall veteran named Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin arrived at Keystone in 1914 and by the end of that year he had made 35 films for Sennett, becoming the world’s biggest box office star in the process.

The Keystone Cops, with Ford Sterling on the phone, and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle at the far right.

Chaplin left Keystone in 1915 and Sennett eventually moved his operations to a new complex in Studio City. He continued cranking out comedies at a furious rate at his new laugh factory, launching several more notable careers.

Sennett’s fortune, along with his studio, was lost in the Great Depression. He retired from filmmaking at the age of 55 after having produced a roster of over 1000 silent and talkie films over a 25-year career.

Like yesterday’s fallen king Clark Gable, Sennett was quite a philanderer in his time and is sometimes credited with the creation of the “casting couch.”

Sennett’s old stomping grounds in Studio City was for a time the home of Republic Pictures, and is now known as the CBS Studio Center. This is the home of several long-running television series, including Gilligan’s Island, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, WKRP in Cincinnati, Leave It To Beaver, CSI: NY, Boston Common, and Seinfeld.

The site of Sennett’s Keystone Studio is today a storage facility.


Ford Sterling: The Forgotten Kop

Ford Sterling, behind the desk as “Chief Teeheezal,” captains the madcap “Keystone Kops.” Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle is seen at the far right.

It must have been thrilling having one of the most recognizable faces on Earth, with millions of fans laughing at your films every week in nickelodeons around the world. It must have been something altogether different watching your career fizzle and dying penniless, forgotten by a world which once adored you.

This was the sad fate of Ford Sterling.

Sterling, born George Ford Stich in Wisconsin in 1883, began his show business career when he literally ran away from home to join the circus. His experience as a clown translated well to early slapstick silent film comedies, which he began making in 1911.

Sterling made 270 screen appearances during a film career that lasted for twenty-five years, bridging both the silent and talkie eras. His greatest success came in the role of “Chief Teeheezal,” the leader of Mack Sennett’s madcap “Keystone Kops,” who were extremely popular in the 1910s.

Sterling’s popularity was unsurpassed until he was replaced as the main Keystone star in 1914 by a young Englishman named Charlie Chaplin. His career flourished at other studios for many years, and the nattily-dressed Sterling maintained his reputation as Hollywood’s best-dressed man by spending fortunes on new clothes during European shopping sprees.

By the late 1930s, poor health had sapped his vitality and remaining resources, and he died penniless from a heart attack at the age of 55 in 1939. His ashes were placed in a cardboard box and interred in an unmarked crypt in a mausoleum at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

Ford Sterling's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6612 Hollywood Boulevard.

For the past 70 years Sterling’s legacy has been largely forgotten, but recent developments may change all that.

An unknown Keystone Kop film starring Sterling was recently discovered by a film preservationist at a Michigan antique sale. The film is generating lots of interest among film historians because of its co-star, Charlie Chaplin – the comic who replaced Sterling as big-man-on-the-Keystone-campus.

The 10-minute film, entitled A Thief Catcher, was thought to exist, because Chaplin had written in his autobiography that he once appeared as a Keystone Kop, but no one knew the title, and most historians believed it to be forever lost.

The film was reintroduced to the world at the Slapsticon Festival in Virginia earlier this month. It is hoped that the film will be released to wide distribution soon, giving legions of slapstick comedy fans a peek at a forgotten Chaplin short, and a fresh look at Ford Sterling.

And who knows? Maybe after 70 years, all those fans will get together and purchase a decent burial place for this early pioneer in silent film comedy. Who’s with me?

(If you would like to learn more about early Hollywood, check out my new book entitled Early Warner Bros. Studios)