February 8, 1915--Essanay Film Manufacturing Company--Niles, California

My profession is assembling order out of chaos. In other words, I am a motion picture production manager. It is my job to make sure a film's director, its actors, the cameraman, the helpers, the props, the camera, and the sun all end up on the film stage when it's time to shoot a scene. Oh, and film. We must not forget to load film in the camera!

I perform this lengthy litany of tasks for the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company. I know, the name is confusing. It was someone's brilliant idea to make the company's name up out of the owners' initials: S and A, which stand for Spoor and Anderson, George and Gilbert respectively. They are the guys I work for.

Actually, I work more for Gilbert Anderson than for his partner. While Anderson is in charge of things out here in California, George Spoor runs the other half of the company back in Chicago. By the way, Gilbert Anderson is much better known by the name of the cowpoke hero he portrays in Essanay western picture plays, "Broncho Billy." The kids love him.

Forgive me if I talk and work at the same time. We have a scene to make in a little while and it's for a Chaplin picture, so I am sure to catch pure hell if I don't get the preparations exactly right. The Great Chaplin is a massive pain in the butt.

When Chaplin joined us last December, we were all pretty excited about George Spoor stealing him away from Keystone Studios down in Los Angeles. After dealing with The Great Chaplin's annoying personality for a couple of months, though, I'm not convinced we stole him. I think a much more likely scenario is Mack Sennett was deliriously happy to get they guy out of his hair. The Great Chaplin is impossible to please.

Worse yet, Chaplin negotiated a bunch of special clauses in his contract with Essanay, like he writes and directs all of his own pictures, and Chaplin gets to work at his own pace, which is just plain nuts. Chaplin produced his first Essanay motion picture, His New Job, in Chicago and decided he didn't care for the Windy City, so he came out here to Niles and we've been cranking out two or even three of his two-reelers a month since.

The Great Chaplain also gets to pick and choose his costars. In his first Essanay picture play, His New Job, he worked with fellow comedy actor, Ben Turpin, but you could tell right off, Chaplin doesn't like sharing the stage, especially with an established comedian like Turpin.

While shooting his second project, A Night Out, and Chaplin stopped the entire operation to audition for a new leading lady. He claimed none of the studio's contract actresses were right for the part, including little Gloria Swanson, who had a bit part in His New Job and did a swell job.

I have to admit, though, The Great Chaplin made an excellent choice out of the auditions for a new leading lady. She is a secretary from up in San Francisco by the name of Edna Purviance. This young woman is cute as a bug's ear and actually has a little stage acting experience. I strongly suspect, however, The Great Chaplin picked her for qualities one would not be likely to find in an acting resume.

Please don't read anything into what I just said about Miss Purviance. She's a sweet girl and entirely on the level. It's Chaplin who is out of whack.

February 19, 1915--Essanay Film Manufacturing Company--Niles, California

As you probably know, Essanay released A Night Out at the beginning of the week, and it seems to be doing all right so far. Now we're working on The Champion. In this epic tale The Great Chaplin plays a boxer. With any luck at all, Ernie Van Pelt, who  plays Chaplin's boxing opponent will accidentally knock the Great One on his tail.

Edna Purviance has a part in The Champion, too. She played her role in A Night Out to perfection, proving again that Chaplin picked a winner. Ben Turpin is also in the new project, but The Great Chaplin has him playing a ringside vendor at the boxing matches, a relatively minor role with last billing in the players' credits. That should not come as any surprise when you remember Chaplin is writing and directing all of his own films here.

It's rather amusing to watch the relationship between The Great Chaplin and his new leading lady. Miss Purviance is staying in one of the player cottages here on the lot, and I've heard that Chaplin has flowers delivered to her cottage every day. I hope she isn't allergic to the local flora.

The Great Chaplin's love life, of course, is his own business, but some of us feel bad for Miss Purviance. Just the other day I saw Gil Anderson shaking his head while watching her take Chaplin's arm as he escorted her back to her cottage after shooting a scene. Anderson muttered, "That SOB will do her dirt sure as shootin'."

That was the general consensus of opinion where Edna and The Louse were concerned, and there wasn't much any of us could do about it. We figured Chaplin would show his true colors sooner or later, but by then it might be too late. I vowed to myself, though, if Chaplin broke Miss Purviance's heart, I would personally knock him into the middle next week, which would be a surefire way to lose my job. Despite Gilbert Anderson sharing my opinion of The Great Chaplin, there was little doubt who the loser would be if push came to shove at Essanay.

Anyway, we had The Champion in the can and released it on March 11. Then we immediately went to work on a one-reeler called In The Park. The cast of players for the new project included Miss Purviance, Ernie Van Pelt, and a raucous redhead named Leona Anderson. We had a week to produce In The Park, and during that week The Great Chaplin proved to everyone on the lot that he was a louse of the first order.

March 12, 1915 --Essanay Film Manufacturing Company--Niles, California

Edna Purviance and I were in my office, where I was going over the scenario for In The Park with her. Chaplin had scribbled pencil notations all over her copy and I was trying to help her make sense of them. We couldn't ask The Louse to decipher them because he was supposedly in the house he rented recovering from a cold. I say "supposedly" because it turned out that wasn't quite the case.

The window in my office overlooks the street on the other side of some railroad tracks next to the studio. A train went by, which made conversation impossible, so there was a lull in our discussion while we waited for the racket to pass. I was studying the scenario, but Edna was looking through the window. When the train was gone, I offered a suggestion as to what one line of Chaplin's scribbles might mean, but Edna didn't reply.

I looked up from the scenario and saw that Edna's attention was still glued to something outside the window, and whatever was out there, clearly did not make her happy. Out of curiosity, I turned to look, too. What I saw was a shiny Pierce-Arrow roadster. I recognized it as one I'd seen The Great Chaplin driving around town. At the moment, though, he wasn't driving. He was too busy kissing the redhead beside him in the Pierce-Arrow's passenger seat. The redhead, of course, was Leona Anderson.

I turned back to look at Edna and saw her expression transform from shock to heartbreak. Clearly, Chaplin kissing another woman was not something Edna expected to see. Even though I was not nearly as surprised as she by Chaplin's behavior and could have predicted something of this sort, I could not help but feel sorry for Edna.

In an feeble effort to take her mind off the love scene being played out in front of the studio, I suggested to Edna we take a break from our efforts to decipher Chaplin's notes on the scenario and ask the man himself what they meant later. She quickly agreed, and after a pause, asked if I would escort her to her player bungalow at the back of the studio lot.

Under the circumstances, I had little choice but to do as she asked. I was glad we did not encounter The Louse on our way to Edna's bungalow. There, she unlocked the door and turned to thank me for walking with her. Instead, she burst into tears. Seconds later Edna was sobbing hysterically in my arms. I quickly escorted her into the bungalow and onto a loveseat in her living room.

It certainly was not that I didn't enjoy holding the beautiful Edna in my arms, I just didn't want The Louse to show up at the still open bungalow door and catch me doing so. Regardless of his abominable behavior, a word from Chaplin could terminate my employment at Essanay in a heartbeat.

April 9, 1915--Essanay Film Manufacturing Company—Niles, California

Despite there being an obvious cooling of Chaplin's relationship with Edna, I managed to keep production on In The Park moving so that we released on the eighteenth of March as scheduled. The next project was a terrible scenario called  A Jitney Elopement in which Chaplin plays a fake count intent on marrying Edna. The rest of the troop consisted of folks we began calling The Chaplin Regulars, a group of actors The Louse decided made him look good and included in every film he did.

There was no role for Leona Anderson in the new project. Whether that was simply due to the lack of a second female lead in the story, or because The Louse was trying to patch things up with Edna I could not say. I did know he was still seeing Leona, but now it was strictly on the sly.

Edna must have figured that was the case because she made it known to me in a coy, but ladylike, fashion she would not mind spending some of her off-time in my company. We did so cautiously, however, because as long as The Louse was still interested in Edna, my job was at risk. For the same reason Edna and I were careful to mind our Ps and Qs during working hours, lest Chaplin get suspicious.

I always enjoyed time spent with Edna. In a word, she was "fun." She turned simple walks in the nearby hills into adventures, sometimes even naughty adventures. Once or twice, we went to see motion pictures at the Edison Theater on Niles Street, and even held hands in the dark while we sat through four or five reels of drama or comedy or whatever the featured presentation happened to be. We called these occasions our bus-mans' holidays.

Most of us at Essanay knew in fairly short order that The Louse's sixth Essanay project was destined for motion picture history.  Called simply The Tramp, it was the first picture in which Chaplin played what would become his signature character. I knew he'd been developing the role the entire time he was in Niles, and Chaplin now decided it was time to trot the character out and see if his rapidly growing multitude of fans across the country liked the little tramp.

Once again, I have to hand it to The Louse. He played the character as a sympathetic little fellow who wants to be a rogue, but the fates seem to be against him. It was love at first sight for legions of movie goers.

In his role as the leading character in The Tramp, Chaplin wooed Edna in scene after scene. In his role as the film's director, however, The Louse criticized everything she did. Edna simply could not please him, no matter how hard she tried, and I knew she was trying as hard as she could. Sadly, I thought I knew what The Louse was up to. It turned out I had him pegged.

April 16, 1915--Essanay Film Manufacturing Company--Niles, California

Essanay released The Tramp on the eleventh of April, and within a week we all knew Chaplin's future was signed sealed and delivered. Motion picture fans throughout the country immediately fell in love with The Louse's tramp character.

The final scene shows the sad little tramp walking dejectedly away from the camera along a lonely country road near the studio, and then his posture perks up and we know he has shrugged off the loss of his sweetheart and is heading for a new adventure. As trite as it seemed, that scene brought tears to the eyes of countless audiences.

There were also tears in Edna Purviance's eyes, but for quite a different reason. The Louse was making her miserable with his constant criticism, which now continued into the production of Chaplin's next project, a one-reeler called By The Sea. In an effort to cheer her up, I suggested we go for a drive one evening, but Edna said she would rather just go to my house and relax in privacy.

As things turned out, Edna spent the night with me, but everything she did and said seemed strained. The Louse was successfully lousing things up without even being there.

The next day Gilbert Anderson gathered several of his top production people for a meeting. It seems many of Essanay's contract players were threatening to walk out if something wasn't done about Chaplin. Their complaint was that The Louse's projects were dominating the studio's facilities and other films were either taking much longer to produce or not being made at all.

We all knew the facts of life when it came to the motion picture business. In this case, Chaplin was the goose that lays golden eggs, and from overheard comments reported to Anderson it was seeming less and less likely that Essanay would be able to match offers anticipated from bigger Los Angeles studios to lure Chaplin down there when his one year contract with Essanay ended in December.

That left us with two options. One was to let the other actors walk out and make hay with Chaplin projects while he was still under contract. The Second option was to reign Chaplin in and shift more of the studio's resources to making pictures with the unhappy contract players.

The real purpose of our meeting was to inform us Gilbert Anderson and his partner, George Spoor, were sticking with Chaplin as long as they held his contract, and to hell with everyone else. I, along with most of the other men in the room, knew that choice sounded the death knell for Essanay. Sure, none of us would be unemployed for a while yet, but the handwriting was on the wall. Unless something changed, Spoor and Anderson would bank the huge profits The Louse brought in and let Essanay go the way of the dodo bird.

The other shoe dropped that evening when Edna showed up at my office wearing a very sad face. Her news was she'd decided to go back to The Louse, so it would have to strictly business between us from then on. It seemed strange she felt that way when Chaplin chased skirts no matter who he was "seeing." I wished her luck and meant it.

November 17, 1927--Warner Brothers Pictures, Hollywood, California

Everybody at Warner Brothers Pictures, my current employer, was walking around with their fingers crossed. So far our Vitaphone talkie, The Jazz Singer was doing a land office business, but the studio risked everything to produce the film, so it had to keep going as a top box office draw a little longer to break even.

Trying to take my mind off of the pins and needles I was on, I spent the afternoon catching up on the motion picture industry news as reported in a half-dozen trade journals I'd been neglecting while working as a second unit director on The Jazz Singer. That's where I ran across Edna's name in an article about the release of a French film in which she played a role. The main subject of the article, however, was her announced retirement from acting.

Prior to making the French film Edna was still working for The Louse. Counting the films she made at Essanay, and then at Mutual and First National, Edna appeared in 33 films with Chaplin between 1915 and 1917. One of those was Chaplin's biggest hit to date, The Kid.

Interestingly, Chaplin had married twice since 1915. Since both of his wives were actresses, but neither was named Edna, I had to wonder if she went back to Chaplin in 1915 because she loved him or because he told her she had to play the game his way if she wanted to keep making films as his leading lady, or both. Remembering her face when she came into my office that afternoon in April of 1915—and yes, I remember her face and that final meeting very well—I suspected The Louse expected a lot more than acting from her for the paychecks he signed.

The article about her retirement mentioned Edna had never married. For a moment I thought about tracking her down and sending a note. When I thought about it further, though, I decided to let sleeping dogs lie. Edna Purviance made a choice twelve years ago and she was living with the consequences. I hoped she was happy with her decision.

As for The Louse, I hoped his comeuppance would catch up with him someday, but it seemed unlikely. According to Variety Charles Spencer Chaplin was thought to be the richest man in the world. Still, money isn't everything.


Story and design © Steve Eitzen
Header graphic & HPO logo © HPO Productions
All celebrity, poster, and production still images modified from photos in the public domain
All rights reserved by copyright owners

This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, locations, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.