Sounds of Silents (The Essanay Years) came about from an idea from a friend who told me about the late-great silent film studio up on Argyle Street in Chicago. I thought it might make an interesting story, but not much more. Then I started researching it . . . and researching . . . and . . . to make a long story short, the story of Essanay, the famous characters in and around the studio, in fact the whole silent movie-making process was fascinating. Not the least of which was Chicago's place in the history of film. A hundred years ago, one in five movies came from Chicago. Studios like Essanay were pumping out dozens upon dozens of "photo plays" to a movie-mad public. It was a very exciting time, the birth of a new art form chronicled from the start on celluloid. Sounds of Silents (The Essanay Years) chronicles the birth of movies, the particular place of Chicago in that birth, and the stories of so many famous silent screen actors, now long gone but whose stories cry out to be told.
Sounds of Silents (The Essanay Years) opens with the meeting of the studio's founders, George K. Spoor and Gilbert Anderson. Both are con men, to a degree, who have recognized the financial potential of this new art form. They agree to form a company (S-Spoor and A-Anderson--Essanay), Spoor handling the business end and Anderson the artistic.
Cinema, at its birth, is a laughingstock. No self-respecting stage actor would be caught dead posing for film. Thus, Anderson gathered a rag-tag bunch including the cross-eyed janitor, Ben Turpin; a circus strongman, Wallace Beery; a fashion-plate pretty boy, Francis Bushman; and a Wisconsin socialite, Beverly Bayne. One movie after another was improvised on film to comic hilarity, whether it was Turpin roller skating down Wells Street and crashing into people; Beery in drag as Sweedie, the 250-pound Swedish maid always in trouble; or Bayne and Bushman in medieval garb, ever the hammy lovers.
With the studio on the edge financially, drastic steps needed to be taken. Spoor joined forces with eight other studios to create a trust, monopolizing all film production. Anderson stepped in front of the camera to create film's first cowboy hero--Broncho Billy Anderson. A corner was turned as more and more of the vaudeville audience became involved in the movies. As money began to come in, all the vagabond players of Essanay began to attain star status. One who was yet to attain such status, a 15-year-old girl who stumbled onto the lot with her aunt and was signed to a contract, was Gloria Swanson.
Young Gloria, tutored by Bayne, made her first movie, and all could sense a brilliance in her. Beery sensed something else, and the two began a love affair. Anderson, meanwhile, tired of shooting movies in the "wide-open plains" of Rogers Park, went to California to open the Essanay-West studio. There he discovered a young comedian at the Mack Sennett studio. His ten-dollar-a-day contract about to end, Anderson pleaded with Spoor to sign him. The comedian's name was Charlie Chaplin.
Spoor agreed to the unheard-of salary of $750 a week, and Chaplin came to Chicago. Envy greeted Chaplin from some of Essanay's stars, but his allure and comic brilliance became clear as he made his first film, His New Job. All witnessed Chaplin's method of shooting the rehearsals on film and his incredible improvisation and physical abilities. His New Job became a huge hit, and Chaplin's reputation and fame seemed to grow with every film, as did Essanay's profits and power. It was the pinnacle of Chicago's impact on cinema, and it seemed that nothing could stop its growth. But looks were deceiving.
Spoor and the trust could not stop independent film companies from producing films. Distributors, also, began boycotting payments to the trust, calling it blackmail and extortion. The trust hired a "wrecking crew" to smash projectors, wreck nonpaying theatres, and physically beat owners who wouldn't go along with the trust's agenda. Spoor, also, was having major problems with the now ragingly famous Charlie Chaplin. "Chaplinitis" had taken over the country, and Chaplin's star had totally eclipsed every other Essanay player. Independent studios smelling blood lined up incredible offers to Chaplin. Spoor, ruthlessly protecting his interests, organized a west-coast party for Chaplin.
Most of the Essanay stars were already out at the Essanay-West studio. With the advent of the "star-system," the sunshine of Los Angeles and readily available talent, Hollywood had become the new religion. Swanson's talent was recognized by Mack Sennett, who made an offer to the young starlet, who was now married to Beery. Bushman and Bayne, now the famous on-screen (and quietly off-screen) lovers, considered going west for good. All gathered in LA, dressed in Tramp costumes, ready to surprise Chaplin on his arrival from New York.
Spoor and Chaplin, finding themselves alone amidst the partying, began a savage negotiation. Trying to keep Chaplin at all costs, Spoor blackmailed Chaplin with photos of his mother, mad from syphilis and dying in a sanitorium. If Chaplin signed the contract the photos wouldn't go to the Chicago Tribune.
A fight broke out. Anderson broke them apart, only to learn of more Spoor dirty-dealing from Chaplin. When Spoor issued an ultimatum and Chaplin walked out the door, the fate of Essanay was sealed.
Chaplin signed with Metro. Anderson and Spoor split up. The Supreme Court ruled against the trust. Spoor dissolved the trust and sold Essanay. Within 10 years of its founding, after its meteoric rise to the heights of silent cinema, Essanay was over.