Time for a walk down Memory Lane…
Before I moved to Placer County, one of the places I lived in was the city of Fremont, California. It’s a patchwork of five little towns that were incorporated into one big town in 1956, and each of those towns-turned-districts has its own distinct flavor. While they’re all memorable, only the district of Niles can boast that it was once a hotspot for silent filmmakers, including one Charlie Chaplin. I don’t remember who first clued us in that Chaplin had been in Niles–probably the real estate agent when my family moved to Fremont. Whenever we drove down Mission Boulevard and saw the old train depot (it’s since been moved and restored) I would always think of Chaplin because we had been told it was one of his filming locations.
I totally understand why filmmakers would want to work in Niles. It’s a picturesque place with interesting Victorian architecture, and Niles Canyon Road is one of the prettiest drives in the area. Plus, the weather is moderate to cool year round, which makes for nice outdoor shooting. Chaplin was under contract to Essanay Studios, and historians generally agree that he arrived around December of 1914 or January of 1915. While Chaplin was already a big star, he had only been making $150 a week at the Keystone Studios in Hollywood, but at Essanay, he pulled in an unheard-of $1250, as well as a generous signing bonus of $10,000. He was also given creative carte blanche, his choice of casting, and his own crew.
While in Niles, Chaplin made five movies. His first, A Night Out, costarred him with Ben Turpin and features a barroom brawl. It’s Chaplin as the Little Tramp, of course, and he’s a bit naughty, as he’s found in flagrante with another man’s wife. Oops. Turpin’s character keeps the Little Tramp in line, at least at first, and the two of them are decently funny together. Unfortunately, Turpin found Chaplin to be too nitpicky, so their collaboration amounted to two films, A Night Out being the last.
Chaplin’s second Niles film was The Champion. It also starred Edna Purviance, who Chaplin had discovered waiting tables in a restaurant (some sources say she was a secretary), and cast her solely for her looks. Purviance went on to be in thirty-three Chaplin films, as well as being Chaplin’s love interest for several years. As for the film, it’s a rather madcap story of the Tramp as the proverbial 98-pound weakling-turned-sparring partner who finds what he thinks is a lucky horseshoe. He sticks his acqusition into his boxing glove and acts as though he’s got it made…which he does. Everyone he hits goes out for the count. Inserting large metal objects into boxing gloves does give one a certain edge.
On the heels of The Champion was a short film called In the Park, which came out a week after the previous offering. This film is what it sounds like–it’s about an afternoon in the park. Among other hijinks, a thief tries to steal Chaplin’s handkerchief, but then Chaplin steals a cigarette out of the thief’s pocket and uses his neck to strike a match. Ouch. As they say, what goes around comes around. The film was shot in Golden Gate Park, and it’s basically thirty fun minutes of Chaplin annoying everyone.
Next was A Jitney Elopement, a rather intriguing tale about a father who wants to catch his daughter a husband, so he takes out an ad in the paper. Inevitably, he gets an answer from a Count Chloride de Lime, and also inevitably the Tramp ends up impersonating the Count. Once again, the film was shot in Golden Gate Park, only this time at the windmills, which are still in existence today.
Chaplin’s final film made with the Niles Essanay Studio was The Tramp, shot in and around Niles Canyon. In this film, the Tramp meets a beautiful girl and gets a job on her father’s farm. He clicks right along until a trio of rapscallions show up and try to steal from his employer. Unfortunately, the Tramp’s dream girl has a boyfriend, so after disposing of the baddies he takes to the road again. Poor fella. This film seems to be the most polished of all of Chaplin’s Niles productions, and the funniest.
Chaplin’s time in Niles seems like it would have been a sweet deal, but there were only two problems: Charlie didn’t like Niles, and Niles didn’t like him, either. According to Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum curator, David Kiehn, Chaplin used to hide out under the bleachers at baseball games and pinch ladies’ rear ends. He thought Niles was a boring little town, and couldn’t wait to be out of there. By April, he had vamoosed.
A surprising amount of Niles’ silent film history remains, at least in terms of locations, although one does have to scratch around a bit. The studio where Chaplin made his films was torn down in the nineteen-thirties, but some of the bungalows still stand. The town hosts a Charlie Chaplin Day every year in June, and there are little tributes to him everywhere. Additionally, the town boasts the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, one of the primo places to learn about silent films.
Chaplin’s time in Niles may have been a blip, but it was an important blip. Even though he and the town never got along very well, today’s residents consider Chaplin to be a cherished part of their history.
That does it for my contribution to the Charlie Chaplin Blogathon, and anyone who wants more can find it at Christina Wehner’s blog and Little Bits of Classics. Thanks for reading, all, and see you tomorrow for our final blogathon of the weekend, when we have a visit with William Holden!