FEATURE image: Charles (Charlie) Chaplin (1889-1977), 1918, A Dog’s Life, First National. Public Domain.
Twenty-four-year-old Charlie Chaplin was “discovered” in 1913 when he was touring Stateside in an English pantomime, acrobat and clown show troupe. Chaplin signed up to work for $150 a week in Mack Sennett’s Keystone Comedies. It was a definite pay raise at about triple what he was making in vaudeville and music halls. It opened his eyes to movies’ possibilities for popularity and money making. Chaplin made 35 motion pictures in the first year. The norm of one- and two-reels was a perfect foil for Chaplin’s trademark character – “the Tramp” – and he became an overnight sensation among film-hungry audiences.
Though Sennett wanted to keep his surprising new star, Chaplin was lured away by Essanay Film Manufacturing Company of Chicago for $1,250 a week and the option to direct his own pictures. Whereas Chaplin was making 5 and 6 figures with Essanay, the company was making 7 figures with the artist. Chaplin made 14 films for Essanay and exerted a high level of control of these films before he left for Mutual Film Corporation in early 1916.
Chaplin’s new salary was $670,000 a year or $10,000 a week (equal to a staggering $300,000 plus per week in 2023 dollars) – plus bonuses that amounted to what had about been his collective total salary over two years at Essenay. By 1916 Charlie Chaplin had become the nation and world’s favorite comedian and a very marketable cultural phenomenon. In 1916 Chaplin made 12 films for Mutual which were all comic masterpieces- The Floorwalker, The Fireman, The Vagabond, One A.M., The Count, The Pawnshop, Behind the Screen and The Rink. In 1917 Chaplin made 4 more films. By the beginning of 1918 twenty-something Chaplin had become a world-renown film artist comic/auteur who found entrée to meeting with other international celebrity cultural artists.
Chaplin was a trouper who churned out the work and Mutual looked to keep Chaplin on for another series of profitable films. They presented a generous offer of $20,000 per week which is about $600,000 per week today. The studio would pick up Chaplin’s production costs as well. But, Charlie Chaplin, wanting to keep fresh as well as share in the profits of his pictures, signed with First National. Their deal included matching Mutual’s per week salary requirements as well as a signing bonus of $15,000. Though Chaplin had to pay his production costs with First National, he received the aforesaid profit-sharing for his next 8 pictures. At this point Chaplin was an independent producer with financing and artistic control over his own pictures as well as a 50% share in its box office. One next logical step would be to increase profit margin.
Chaplin’s first picture release for First National was A Dog’s Life. It was a three-reeler (33 minutes) featuring the Tramp that was released in April 1918 and for which Chaplin was its producer, writer, director, and star.
David Robinson, Chaplin: His Life and Art. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company,1985.
Tino Balio, “Stars in Business: The Founding of United Artists” in The American Film Industry, ed. Tino Balio, University of Wisconsin Press, 1976.