The Rise of Hollywood and Stars • City Lights

Greenscreening Series #04

The Edison Trust | The Movies Go West | Charlie Chaplin Becomes a Legend

September 2, 2022

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City Lights (1931) directed by Charles Chaplin

Synopsis: “The most cherished film by Charlie Chaplin, is also his ultimate Little Tramp chronicle. The writer-director-star achieved new levels of grace, in both physical comedy and dramatic poignancy, with this silent tale of a lovable vagrant falling for a young blind woman who sells flowers on the street (a magical Virginia Cherrill) and mistakes him for a millionaire. Though this Depression-era smash was made after the advent of sound, Chaplin remained steadfast in his love for the expressive beauty of the pre-talkie form. The result was the epitome of his art and the crowning achievement of silent comedy.” - The Criterion Collection

You can find it streaming or for rent through ReelGood.

Max Takes a Bath (1908) - available on YouTube. This short film features silent comedy pioneer Max Linder as the titular bath-taker. Linder was a successful filmmaker and actor, and a tremendous influence on Chaplin, but has been largely forgotten by film history until recently. Watch as a good comparison to the last few weeks’ short films - it's much more accomplished storytelling.

Kid Auto Races in Venice (1914) - available on YouTube. This short film is the debut of Charlie Chaplin’s famous Little Tramp character, 17 years before City Lights. A very simple film, but surprisingly funny. You’ll see echoes of so many YouTube videos, memes, and television shows. Also an important display of the "it" factor stars bring to the screen, in contrast to other actors we've seen.

The Rise of Hollywood and the Stars

Last week, we saw how Birth of a Nation blew up the nascent film industry, moving films from nickelodeons to movie theaters, from one-reel to feature-length, and from cheap novelties to big budget spectacles.

Now we’re going to talk about the rise of Hollywood and the emergence of stars, culminating in a close look at one of the biggest movie stars ever, Charlie Chaplin, along with his classic film, City Lights.

To understand the origins of moviemaking in Hollywood, we have to catch up with our old friend, Thomas Edison.

The Trust

By the early 1900s, Edison owned most of the patents governing motion picture cameras, so he was able to squeeze most other movie companies, except for one: The Biograph Company.

Shortly after working on the kinetoscope and making some of the first films for Edison, William K.L. Dickson left and started a new company, Biograph, which developed its own motion picture camera technology and secured a separate patent. Edison was obviously upset by this.

Edison sued and threatened Biograph repeatedly during the early years of motion pictures. In fact, Edison was suing and threatening pretty much everyone, including other distributors and exhibitors, to exploit his patents for every possible cent. There were dozens of movie production companies in the US and Europe, and even though the industry could barely keep up with demand, the litigious Edison was making things difficult for everyone. The Biographical Dictionary of Film says “Edison is almost solely responsible for the film industry employing as many lawyers as light bulbs.”

In 1907, Edison’s major competitors on both sides of the Atlantic banded together and approached Edison about a partnership / truce. This was Edison’s dream scenario, and the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC, aka The Trust) was born.

The MPPC created and exploited a monopoly in the industry, starting with production. With Edison’s patents on motion picture cameras, only MPPC member studios could make films. The Trust also recruited Eastman Kodak, which owned the patent on raw film stock, to join, ensuring only members could buy film stock. The Trust also controlled a significant amount of distribution; through projector patents, the Trust decided which distributors and exhibitors/theaters could rent their films. Additionally, the country’s largest distributor as a member, so the MPPC could standardize rental pricing and duration.

And the MPPC bylaws specified that no other members could join the trust. Which was bad news for Biograph, since Edison insisted that they be excluded.

Except that Biograph bought the patent for a specific piece of camera technology which helped prevent film from jamming within cameras, and which was therefore indispensable. After months of unsuccessful attempts to block the patent, Edison relented and let Biograph join in 1908. This only increased the Trust’s power.

The Trust wasn’t all bad. It resulted in quality improvements and standardization across the industry, as the end-to-end control meant they could fix prices and remove bad or degraded prints from circulation. So the public benefited from higher quality films.

However, the MPPC was generally an awful organization who used their position of power to dominate and intimidate. They had the support of federal law enforcement to protect their patents. This meant that any independent studios - and there were dozens in the US alone around 1910 - were operating under the constant threat of a raid. And Edison wasn’t content to follow due process; he would hire mobsters and gangs of enforcers to more violently disrupt competitors, typically mid-production.

Carl Laemmle vs. The Trust

Carl Laemmle was the fiercest of the trust’s opponents.

Laemmle immigrated to the US in the 1880s and worked for years in Chicago and Wisconsin as a bookkeeper and advertiser for a clothing company. He decided to strike out on his own in retail, but changed his mind after going to the movies and instead opened a nickelodeon.

He was an incredibly successful nickelodeon operator, owning at least two dozen, and soon expanded into distribution. He created a film exchange, where members could rent films for a period of time instead of purchasing them. Importantly, Laemmle would help exhibitors (himself included) avoid overpaying the Trust for the right to show their films.

He openly antagonized the Trust in the media, in an attempt to rally support from other exhibitors and embolden independent studios.

Obviously the Trust hated Laemmle, and that would only intensify with his success and expansion.

Laemmle formed his own motion picture company, Independent Moving Pictures (IMP), and moved right into New York, the heart of the Trust’s territory. And he wasn’t done disrupting the Trust.

The Birth of Hollywood

The MPPC companies were mostly headquartered and operating in the New York area, Chicago, and Europe. Independent companies often sprang up from former employees starting new companies, as was the case with Dickson and Biograph, or upstarts from other parts of the supply chain deciding to create their own films to keep more of the profits, as with Laemmle.

To escape Edison’s control and threats, these independent companies sent their productions west, to a suburban neighborhood around Los Angeles.

There were tremendous advantages to this move. First, the weather. In LA, Companies could film almost every day of the year, with consistent, reliable weather, and plenty of natural light for filming. Second, the terrain. Hollywood is surrounded by a much wider variety of terrain than New York or Chicago, with easier transit, which opened up new storytelling possibilities. And lastly, filmmakers could flee to Mexico if they needed to escape Edison’s thugs or Federal law enforcement.

It also didn't hurt that California’s courts were sympathetic to the independents, often refusing to rule in favor of the patent holders.

The Trust Falls

One of the first blows to the Trust was Eastman Kodak’s decision in 1911 to abandon their licensing agreement and begin selling film stock to independent companies. Then by the mid-1910s, most of the camera patents from the 1890s expired, so the Trust lost a significant part of their strategy, and had to focus on monopolizing distribution.

The Trust was also its own worst enemy. They were obsessed with control and profit, and this meant standardizing the length of movies at one reel in order to control costs and maximize profits. As we've seen, this medium was built on novelty, and audiences were gravitating towards the more novel forms – more ambitious, lengthy films telling more complicated stories.

Prior to Birth of a Nation, Europe filled most of the demand for longer films. The European studios gave their filmmakers much greater artistic freedom. And likewise, the Trust relied heavily on European distribution and exploiting a market the independents couldn't touch.

Then came World War I, which basically paused European moviegoing for three years, not unlike the immediate shutdown of the movie industry in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Trust members were deeply hurt, while the Independent studios - thanks to the Trust - were largely insulated from the soft European market.

The final blow came from the US Government, which won an antitrust suit against the MPPC in 1915. Edison's reign of terror was finished, and everyone could focus on making movies.

The First Star, Florence Lawrence

Recall that most actors were initially content to not be named alongside their work, since most people viewed the medium as cheap and unsophisticated, and screen acting could damage one’s stage career.

The Trust was happy to continue this trend of not giving actors any billing, at the risk the actors would demand higher salaries.

But as cameras and lenses improved, and actors began appearing in more close-ups, fans began wondering about the people they were seeing on screen. As the first movie critics began writing about films, they would describe actors and performances vaguely. Letters began pouring into the studios and newspapers asking questions about stars. In particular, fans were drawn to an actress they called, “the Biograph Girl.” The Biograph Girl was Florence Lawrence.

Lawrence was in demand for three main reasons. 1) she was pretty. 2) she could act as well as others. 3) she knew how to ride a horse. She caught the eye of D.W. Griffith, who hired her away from another studio. She appeared in nearly all of Griffith’s 60 films in 1908, and hundreds of films throughout her career.

Florence Lawrence in 1908 *Public Domain*

Due to her popularity as the Biograph Girl, and the success of her pictures, Lawrence was able to command double her salary. Soon she was negotiating a move to another studio, to both act and direct pictures.

When Biograph learned about this, they fired Lawrence, and so she suddenly vanished from the screen.

But then Lawrence met Carl Laemmle. Laemmle offered to give Lawrence marquee billing in films for his company.

Laemmle was a shrewd promoter and tried just about everything to get people to see his films. With Lawrence, he devised one of the most famous publicity stunts in the history of Hollywood.

Rumors began circulating that Lawrence's strange disappearance from film was because she had been killed in a streetcar accident. The press picked up this story and perpetuated the rumor.

Laemmle then placed ads in the newspapers denouncing the rumor, and announcing that Lawrence was very much alive, including a photo and introducing Lawrence as the star of IMP’s next film.

Laemmle’s advertisement debunking the hoax of Florence Lawrence’s death. *Public Domain*

Laemmle’s advertisement debunking the hoax of Florence Lawrence’s death. Public Domain

The most brilliant part of the plan? Laemmle had started the rumor.

As a result of this publicity, Lawrence's films for Laemmle's IMP were hugely successful. Lawrence received marquee billing above the titles of the movies, and the star system was born. Still to this day, it's the most consistently effective way to market a film.

Then came Charlie Chaplin, who took stardom to a different level.

Chaplin, the first icon

Picture Charlie Chaplin. I’m betting you can. And you’re picturing his Little Tramp character, right? Black and white image. Small white guy in a bowler hat, with a little tuft of a mustache. Maybe he's wearing a tattered suit with baggy pants and shoes that are a bit too large. That's Chaplin.

From around 1915-1936, Chaplin’s Little Tramp was the most famous image in the world. Chaplin’s films were a hit everywhere films were exhibited, which was increasingly worldwide beginning in the 1920s.

The Little Tramp appeared in dozens of short films and several features between 1914 and 1936, and was an immediate sensation with audiences.

Chaplin was born into a family of performers, a working class family in London. Terrible circumstances surrounded him - poverty, alcoholism, infidelities, mental health. He never had stability, and his education ended at age 13.

He found the stage, though. His father had been a musician, and his mother an actress, and Charlie was drawn to performance.

In those days, vaudeville theaters and music halls usually traded in variety shows. Charlie worked in short performances (pantomimes) as well as taking roles in feature-length plays. He learned from a very early age how to read an audience and gained a quick understanding of what worked and what didn't.

In 1913, Chaplin was working in New York (for an English theater company), and a scout from the Keystone Film Company caught his performance, and offered him a job.

Chaplin would later recount that at the time of joining Keystone, he already felt cinema was destined to become the dominant popular entertainment, and leapt at the opportunity. But other accounts indicate he was skeptical of the medium, but leapt at the promise of steady income and something different.

Given what we've already discussed about nickelodeon attendance and actors' perceptions about working in cinema, Chaplin would have certainly been aware of what was going on in cinema, particularly in comedy. And we can also assume that Chaplin, a gifted stage comedian and a diligent student of comedy, would have been skeptical of the overacting, cheap laughs, and sight gags that dominated the nickelodeon era.

The Keystone Company traded in those kinds of films. If you want an example, have a look at The Speed Kings (1913). But it’s also fine if you skip it. The film is fairly boring as silent comedies come, mostly just big goofy facial expressions and some unconvincing scuffling.

However, Chaplin appreciated at least one early movie comic, Max Linder, who heavily influenced Chaplin’s work. Linder was a French actor and filmmaker, and was one of the first film stars who appeared by name, typically in a series of “Max” films, such as Max Takes a Bath (1908).

Max Takes a Bath is an interesting contrast to the early films we've watched thus far. Notice how much easier it is to follow the story. Max is clearly the main character of the film, and it’s clear throughout most of the film exactly what he’s trying to do. Contrast that with A Corner in Wheat, where it was difficult to follow who was who, and what exactly was going on in each scene, even with intertitles. In Max Takes a Bath, there are very few intertitles. Also note the use of close-ups, especially when Max is in the tub. That's a shot we haven't really seen used, apart from a few shots in Birth of a Nation, and here it makes the film much more watchable.

This is a much more sophisticated film than others we’ve seen. And it’s still pretty funny, all these years later. It feels kind of like a Looney Toons cartoon or a children's show. These are some of the hallmarks of Chaplin’s work as well.

Chaplin first appeared for Keystone in early 1914, and after a few films, created the character which became his trademark and a world icon: the Little Tramp.

Chaplin as the Little Tramp in 1915. *Public Domain*

Be sure to watch Chaplin's first appearance as the Little Tramp, in the short Kid Auto Races in Venice. While the film is a bit short on plot, the jokes are still pretty funny and reminiscent of humor you might see on YouTube, TikTok, or in sketch comedy. The quality is certainly miles ahead of Keystone’s The Speed Kings from the previous year.

And Chaplin’s appearance in Kid Auto Races in Venice gives us, I think, one of the first examples of star quality - the inexplicable special something that screen icons possess. We haven’t seen this level of charisma or poise on screen. It really doesn’t matter what’s going on around the star, because all we care about is watching this amazing talent.

Almost immediately, Chaplin became a star. And almost immediately, Chaplin began directing his own films, after clashing with a director. Chaplin had vision, ego, and power, and he flexed all of them in his filmmaking. He was notoriously ambitious and demanding as a filmmaker, often requiring dozens of takes to get things just right.

Chaplin also jumped between different studios. As we saw with Florence Lawrence, studios were getting pretty ruthless about poaching each other’s talent. After the fall of the Trust, it was a seller’s market for talent, and Chaplin was a hot commodity and could demand a higher salary and more creative control.

Chaplin continued playing the Little Tramp for the next two decades, moving from shorts to features. It’s significant that Chaplin continued to have success in silent comedy, with the Little Tramp, even as sound took over the film industry. The character’s last feature film appearance was Modern Times, in 1936, a full nine years after the first sound feature. Chaplin never let the Little Tramp speak, because he felt part of the appeal was that the Little Tramp was everyman - audiences had all imagined what he sounded like, and that he spoke their language, and Chaplin didn’t want to break that connection.

Which brings us to City Lights.

This is a wonderful film, for many reasons. It’s remarkable first because it was made four years after the first sound picture, and yet Chaplin remained committed to making silent comedy, albeit with a score and some sound effects, and it was still a massive hit. I think this film is also a great introduction to Chaplin and the ultimate example of Chaplin’s greatness, because it captures his comedic genius, but is matched by a deeply emotional core. As the Criterion essay points out, this was one of the first films to marry comedy and pathos, which is fairly common in film comedies today. I’m not alone in this opinion, but I think the ending is one of the most beautiful, moving scenes in film history.

It’s worth noting as well that Chaplin composed the score for City Lights, along with writing, directing, and producing. This is all the more interesting as he was largely self-taught. And even more interesting because “composing” the score probably meant humming his ideas for the melodies for his music team to interpret and polish. Chaplin took over 2 years to make City Lights, and it’s probably because Chaplin sweated over so many of the film’s details.

Chaplin's Legacy

Charlie Chaplin undeniably created some of the greatest works of cinematic art. He helped elevate film comedy to an art form. He wasn’t alone in doing so, but he was the biggest and the best at it.

Chaplin left a tremendous legacy on film marketing. We saw earlier the creation of the star system with Laemmle and Florence Lawrence. Chaplin took star power to a whole different level. But it wasn’t Chaplin the man; it was the Little Tramp character. Chaplin played the Little Tramp character in various films for 20 years. This is perhaps the most obvious example of how the public interacts with the work of movie stars. Movie stars are almost always typecast as a single persona. John Wayne could never not be John Wayne. Marilyn Monroe was always Marilyn Monroe. This was a feature of the star system, not a bug. When a star appeared at the top of the bill, people knew what those stars would bring to their pictures. Those stars were their on-screen persona. Today, we still see some semblance of this – Tom Cruise is one of the last true movie stars, always playing some version of Tom Cruise, eternally Maverick, even when he’s Ethan Hunt in Mission Impossible or whats-his-face in Edge of Tomorrow. And off-screen, we expect Tom Cruise to be Tom Cruise, which is why it was so weird to see him jumping on Oprah's couch.

One of Chaplin’s most interesting contributions to film history was his role in creating a studio, United Artists. In 1919, Chaplin entered a partnership with DW Griffith and the stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. They all left their studio contracts in favor of pooling their collective star power and controlling their own interests. This gave them more artistic freedom and greater financial upside. This also increased the tension that still exists today between stars vs. studios, both vying for creative control and over the share of financial returns from their projects.

Recently, more attention has been given to Chaplin's working style. Chaplin was awful to work with. Over his career, he fired or pushed out many crew members and actors. His co-star in City Lights was a first-time actress, and Chaplin ran her through countless takes to get what he wanted. One scene famously required 342 takes and at least one firing / re-hiring. So Chaplin’s legacy also includes contributing to a culture of creative work where a star / creative genius gets away with abusive or toxic behavior in the interest of their art.

The rest of Chaplin’s story is interesting, but I'll be brief. Like so many stars since, he struggled to maintain greatness and relevance as times and tastes changed, lived a morally repugnant life off screen, and influenced countless subsequent filmmakers and actors. There were marriages and divorces, paternity lawsuits, run-ins with the US government and the House Un-American Activities Committee, and eventually an exile in Switzerland.

As critic Richard Brody wrote in The New Yorker, “Chaplin’s art overflowed the bounds of cinema and raised the tides of history; but Chaplin’s life also overflowed the bounds of law and norms and submerged those who stood in the path of his desires. The story of Chaplin’s success is the story of the cinema itself—an accidental art that raises the infinitesimal to the infinite, that sees through modest or constrained circumstances to capture and exalt the essence of character. The titanic force of his character admitted no distinction between creator and destroyer...”

In case you’re keeping score at home, that’s three editions in a row where our focus has been on figures who achieved tremendous success in the movie business, whose personal conduct was problematic. Should we expect better from artists whose work we admire? Soon, we’ll meet a few people who thought so, and decided to do something about it, which would change the course of the movie industry for 30+ years.

Supplemental Materials

Alternative Films: If you’ve already seen City Lights, consider watching one of the following:

  • Modern Times (1936) directed by Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin wasn’t done making silent comedies with the Little Tramp.
  • The Gold Rush (1925) directed by Charlie Chaplin. Many consider this to be Chaplin’s masterpiece.
  • Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) directed by Charles Reisner and Buster Keaton. Another classic silent star, Buster Keaton, at his best.
  • Safety Last (1923) directed by Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor. Silent star Harold Lloyd in one of the many films Scorsese referenced in Hugo.


Shooting City Lights - Criterion produced this short documentary with footage of Chaplin behind the scenes, directing an important scene from the film. 


Next Up

We take a trip overseas to look at a few key artistic movements born in the aftermath of WWI, which are still highly influential today. First, German Expressionism, with the classic science fiction film Metropolis, followed by a trip to the early Soviet Union to discuss Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and the influential theory of film editing: montage.

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