April 30, 2008
File this — again — under “there’s ALWAYS a San Francisco connection”.
A reader recently alerted me to the fact that Charlie Chaplin, America’s favourite clown (and perhaps the most influential performer in motion picture history), shot one of his bazillion-odd silent movies on location in and around Golden Gate Park.
“A Jitney Elopement” is classic slapstick, featuring a case of mistaken identity, a jitney (think “flivver“), a mustachioed scoundrel and — inevitably — madcap hilarity. This milestone 1915 production has been described as the first “Chaplinesque” Chaplin film, but is that what we’re here for?
Nope … we want to look past the action with San Francisco-tinted glasses and see our city in all its vivid … okay, in all its grainy black and white early-century glory. The first half of the film takes place indoors, but take a look at clip from the second reel, featuring the crucial final ten minutes:
0:0 minutes: We begin somewhere on location in Golden Gate Park; Charlie is about to rescue the Girl from the amorous clutches of the mustachioed Count.
4:53 minutes: The action slowly picks up — over a half century before Steve McQueen will set the standard — with a car chase: high speed Tin-Lizzy!
5:02 minutes: This may be the high point of the film, a rare sight indeed: Golden Gate Park’s fabulous Murphy Windmill, complete with turning vanes! This windmill, the second of the Park’s famous pair, was built in 1905, but the vanes fell off sometime in the ’40s. The magnificent tower is still there, though, slowly rotting away — still unrestored.
6:00 minutes: tearing north past Ocean Beach along the Great Highway, not yet paved (!).
7:46 minutes: In a cinematic maneuver San Franciscans will see countless times over the years to come (hello “Bullitt‘), time and geography are defied with a leap across town into the Mission District. Note the fence advertising “Joe Holle Bicycles” — this handy clue allows us to place the scene precisely at 2336 Folsom Street, right across the street from today’s John O’Connell High School of Technology.
8:30 minutes: A pair of paved roads lead up a hillside … anyone want to take a crack at identifying this spot? Sutro Heights? The Presidio?
9:16 minutes: A major intersection that could be in the Mission, the Richmond or the Sunset districts … anyone recognize the buildings in the background?
9:46 minutes: The car chase finally ends with a splash as Chaplin bumps the villains’ car off a pier and into the bay. Our copy of the film is a little blurry, but our best guess is that this is somewhere around Fort Mason.
But wait, there’s more!
“Chaplinitis” had already infected the entire country, and contests to see who could imitate the Little Tramp’s costume and famous “walk” were all the rage. Legend has it that Chaplin once entered one of these contests … and lost!
The story is true, and it happened in a San Francisco theatre — quite possibly during the shooting of this very film. We don’t know exactly how close to the bottom Chaplin placed, but we do know that he “failed even to make the finals.” In a huff, Charlie informed a local reporter that he was “tempted to give lessons in the Chaplin walk, out of pity as well as in the desire to see the thing done correctly.”
And don’t forget Edna
The story of Chaplin’s comely co-star also has a San Francisco angle. Disgusted with the way his Chicago studio had been treating him, in 1915 Charlie took an offer to head out West and set up shop in Niles, a tiny hamlet an hour east of San Francisco. The first thing Charlie needed was a female co-star who was both a looker and a good sport!
A lengthy search of the local theatre establishment proved fruitless, but then one of Charlie’s cowboy actors happened to spot pretty young stenography-school student Edna Purviance just minding her own business at a local cafe. Edna had just arrived in San Francisco, and though she’d never acted a day in her life, she rose to the occasion. Chaplin’s stay in Niles lasted only three months, but Edna Purviance became Chaplin’s right-hand woman (in life as well as cinema) for the next ten years and thirty-four films.