Over a century ago Charles Chaplin was the biggest box office draw in theaters across America. Getting on the popularity bandwagon were three film studios that turned out nearly 30 Charlie Chaplin cartoons from 1915 to 1923. My latest Cartoon Research book, The Chaplin Animated Silent Cartoons, explores them, and the talented folks behind their production.In 1915, Movca Film Service released 17. Movca was a Central and South film producer who was looking for a foothold in the United States. American John C. Terry and Hugh Michael Shields established an animation studio for Movca, in San Francisco, in the fall of 1914. John Terry was the brother of Paul Terry, founder of Terrytoons. Variety reported on October 10, that Terry and Shields’ studio would represent “the only pictures that will be made in the U. S. A.” by the company. The periodical also stated the subject matter would be “special comic cartoon films.”
Motion Picture News reported on October 24, 1914, “An invention of importance in the manufacture of comic cartoon films is controlled by this concern [Movca], and it is claimed that pictures of this kind can be turned out in one-tenth the time now required.”
The secretive “invention” involved eliminating frame-by-frame exposures to create movement and replacing it using an art image that moved, or rotated, in actual time when filmed.
Terry and Shields had Charlie Chaplin’s blessing to do the series, figuring it would allow him more publicity, and draw patrons into theaters to see his live-action shorts.Only a few of the Movca Chaplin cartoons survive today, including Charlie and the Windmill, that often is misidentified on the internet as being produced by Pat Sullivan. If the Chaplin cartoon includes Mabel Normand and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, which Windmill does, it’s Movca produced. The Essanay and Sullivan cartoons did not include Normand and Arbuckle in their little tramp cartoon offerings.
The same time Movca was cranking out Chaplin cartoons, Essanay, where the real Chaplin worked at the time, released Dreamy Dud Sees Charlie Chaplin. The work of Wallace Carlson, his character Dreamy Dud discovers a dime on the sidewalk outside of a theater playing a Chaplin film. He buys a ticket for he and dog, Wag, gaining entry. Dud doesn’t interact with Chaplin, as the star appears only in the context of a projected film. But things do fly out of the screen.
Pat Sullivan’s entry into the animated Chaplin field began, ceased, and was rebooted. Sullivan had been lured by Patrick Powers, treasurer of Universal Pictures, and encouraged to open a studio for the production of cartoons. Power’s initial goal was to get an animated version of William Marriner’s “Sambo and His Funny Noises” comic strip. Sullivan had worked on it as an assistant artist, and with Marriner’s intoxicated death in a house fire of his own doing, the artist came up with an imitation, Sammie Johnsin.Sullivan reached out to Charlie Chaplin in the spring of 1917, expressing interest in creating an animated cartoon starring the comedian. Chaplin liked the idea and was cooperative, supplying around 30 photographs of himself to serve as models for cartoon artwork. Otto Messmer, on Sullivan’s staff, was a big Chaplin fan, and work commenced with other employees on the animated project, in which Chaplin would enter World War I to defeat the Germans and capture the Kaiser.
Then two things happened. In June, Messmer was drafted into World War I and served as a private behind enemy lines in France, and Sullivan was convicted of raping a 14-year-old, Alice McCleary, and served time behind bars in Sing Sing. In short order, the studio shut down, until Sullivan was released after a nine month sentence.Sullivan then reopened his studio and rebooted the Chaplin project. Motion Picture News, July 6, 1918, wrote that “Pat Sullivan, the artist, has returned to the business of producing animated cartoons.” Having some 8,500 “completed drawings” at the time, Sullivan picked up where the project had been left off, and set forth on the ambitious path of producing the very first feature-length film of its kind. “When this is completed it will be the longest animated cartoon ever produced,” the magazine stated.
Universal Pictures quickly welcomed Sullivan back, agreeing to distribute his studio cartoon output and release them as part of their Nestor line. As the feature-length epic still required more work, in the interest of expediency, and to increase a profit margin, Sullivan broke the project up into four single-reel cartoons. Each would represent a chapter in the continuing war saga. The first film, How Charlie Captured the Kaiser, was released on September 2.
Otto Messmer, returning to the states after the war, rejoined Sullivan that fall and continued his work on what had now become a Chaplin series. It concluded after reaching 10 adventures in October 1919. Chaplin returned to Sullivan’s cartoons in 1923, when he made a cameo in Felix in Hollywood, a Felix the Cat cartoon featuring notable stars like Gloria Swanson, Ben Turpin, Tom Mix and Cecil B. DeMille.
Charlie Chaplin in animated cartoons continued after the dawn of sound films. The unique thing about the silents is they represent two series, and a couple one-shots. They also are a reflection of Chaplin’s success at that time. America just couldn’t get enough of the little tramp and his antics.
EDITORS NOTE: Here it is. On sale now. Click here or the cover below. Highly Recommended! – Jerry Beck