Tag Archives: mack sennett

Charlie Chaplin’s Days

Last night in Santa Clarita’s city council chambers, a motion was approved proclaiming Saturday, February 5, 2011 “Charlie Chaplin Day” in the city.

This was done to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the release of Charlie’s final silent film Modern Times, which was partially shot near Santa Clarita.

The early part of February often proved significant during Chaplin’s long and storied career.

Charlie was a young English music hall performer on tour with the Fred Karno Troupe when he was discovered by producer Mack Sennett and given a contract to work in the flickers. He had not yet turned twenty-five when he first stepped through the gates at Sennett’s Keystone Studios near Glendale in January, 1914.

He was immediately thrust in front of the cameras, and on February 2, 1914 made his film debut in a 15-minute comedy called Making A Living where he plays a swindler who gets apprehended by the Keystone Cops.

Less than a week later, on February 7, Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character debuted in a one-reeler called Kid Auto Races at Venice. Sennett loved to use whatever was happening in Southern California as a backdrop for his hastily constructed plots, and Kid Auto Races was no exception. A soapbox derby race was taking place down by the beach and Sennett hustled his cast and crew to Venice to capture the action. A plot was derived on the site requiring Chaplin to play a camera-crazy spectator at the races who sees the filming and does whatever he can to insert himself in the action.  

Chaplin hurriedly assembled a contrasting mélange of oversized and undersized clothing, dabbed on some greasepaint to create a moustache, doffed a derby, grabbed a cane, and just like that, one of the most enduring characters in cinematic history was born fully-grown.

Chaplin appeared in two more films over the next few days, including one that until recently was thought to have never existed.

On February 19, Charlie played a Keystone Cop in a film called A Thief Catcher. It was soon forgotten and all copies were thought to be lost. Chaplin, possibly because he was unsatisfied with the finished product, later claimed that the film had never been made.

A couple of years ago, a film historian was browsing in an antique shop in Michigan when he discovered the long-lost film. (We will be presenting A Thief Catcher, along with Modern Times on February 5 in Newhall as part of ChaplinFest. Leonard Maltin will be hosting a Q&A session with Tippi Hedren before the film. Ms. Hedren, who is most famous for starring in The Birds for Alfred Hitchcock, also starred in Chaplin’s final film, A Countess From Hong Kong in 1967.)

February 5 also proved significant to Chaplin in 1919. That was the day that he, along with film pals Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith, created United Artists.

It’s interesting that the February 5th “Charlie Chaplin Day” proclamation will be presented in a special ceremony down the hill from the William S. Hart mansion in Santa Clarita since Bill Hart would have been the 5th member of the United Artists team had he not pulled out of the deal at the last moment.

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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.


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)