Early filmmakers flocked to Hollywood and it wasn’t just because it never rains in Southern California. It was because it was close to the Mexican border, early filmmakers made dodgy deals to get their films made and sometimes they found it necessary to take a sudden vacation. Hollywood was a recipe for scandal.
Besides that, arrive in Southern California they did. The first Hollywood-type studio, however, was called Inceville, built by a producer named Thomas Ince. Ince started with at American Biograph where he met D.W.Griffith. They became partners, with another man we’ll discuss later, in a venture called Triangle Film corporation. When that failed three years later, Ince built Inceville. Here’s a silent documentary tour of Inceville.
He made a number of films there before he died in 1924. Here’s a brief clip from one his films. No sound so turn up those tunes.
The third member of Triangle Film Corporation was Mack Sennett. Sennett was an actor in many of Griffith’s films. He started directing for American Biograph but he wasn’t given enough creative freedom. In 1912 he started Keystone Studios with the financial backing of two bookies, are you ready for that border crossing Mack?
Luckily, Sennett decided to produce comedies, lots and lots of one- and two-reelers and they were popular world-wide. He liked slapstick and sight-gags. The hallmark of the studio was the Keystone Cops.
But he also produced and directed several parodies – of Griffith films. He didn’t direct much after the first two years at Keystone. Instead, he sat back and discovered an amazing list of comedy actors and directors: Charlie Chaplin, Harry Langdon, Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Ben Turpin, Gloria Swanson, Carole Lombard, Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler, W.C. Fields, Malcolm St. Clair, George Stevens, Roy Del Ruth and Frank Capra.
Keystone went bankrupt in 1935.
Charile Chaplin was Sennett’s most important protégé. Charlie’s most endearing and enduring screen character was the tramp, which he introduced in Kid Auto Races at Venice(1914).
He made a thirty-four shorts and one feature for Sennett but he found the humour expected by Keystone not subtle enough for his tastes. In 1915 he accepted a contract with Essanay to make fourteen two-reelers. He continued the Tramp character through those films, the character was extremely popular. In 1917 Chaplin had enough star power to sign a deal with First National – his most known film there being The Kid(1921).
Charlie’s star power and his irrepressible sexual appetite made him an easy target for scandal as well. It started during World War I when he continued to make films rather than fight the war with the British army. He was labelled a coward in his own country. Then in 1918, he had an affair and then married (perhaps forced to) the 16 year old child star Mildred Harris. That ended in messy divorce in 1919 with a huge settlement and lots of press.
It’s rumoured he had an affair with Marion Davies who was William Randolph Hearst’s squeeze. That supposedly ended in the very mysterious fatal shooting of none other than Thomas Ince. Hearst pulled the trigger and missed Charlie – or so it’s told. Among other things I sure this didn’t help the press’ image of Charlie.
After First National Charlie was free to do his own thing once again and he release of number of his masterpieces though a company called United Artists. He founded UA with Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks in 1923. His first film with them being A Woman of Paris(1923) then a return to the screen by the tramp in The Gold Rush(1925). His personal favourite was The Circus(1928).
Around this time Charlie started adding some additional social commentary to his films, having them say more than the story: City Lights(1931), Modern Times(1936) and his first talkie The Great Dictator(1940). City Lights is often cited by screenwriting books as one of the finest examples of screenwriting during the silent era – people especially liked the end.
In 1943 actress Joan Barry filed a paternity suit against Charlie and even though a blood test proved it was not his child he was found guilty and forced to pay support. Then they tried to charge Charlie with the Mann Act in 1944, he was eventually acquitted of those charges but his reputation was tarnished forever.
His last two films Monsieur Verdoux(1947) and Limelight(1952) were not received well publically. Very soon after the release of Limelight Charlie left for a visit to England on the Queen Mary. The U.S. Government almost immediately revoked his permission to re-enter the country and he was not allowed to set foot in the US until 1972.
But there was more trouble brewing in Hollywood during the silent’s heyday – coming up next.
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