Two of the most important Chicago-shot silent movies have been recently restored and will be re-released on Blu-ray in the next year. These releases will hopefully go some way towards giving Chicago the credit it deserves for the important role it played in our nation’s film history.
His New Job The one and only film Charlie Chaplin made in Chicago is this delightful 20-minute comedy, the first he directed for Essanay Studios in 1915 (before fulfilling the rest of his contract at the company’s California branch). The plot sees Chaplin’s familiar “Little Tramp” character showing up to audition for a part in a movie at “Lodestone Studios.” The interior stages at Essanay in Uptown essentially play themselves as Lodestone and the movie becomes a fascinating peak into the process of silent filmmaking, at times achieving a near-documentary quality. The Tramp gets a job first as Production Assistant, then as a carpenter and finally as an extra in what appears to be a prestigious “period” film set in 19th century Russia. Of course, he wreaks havoc on the set and the entire production soon devolves into a state of slapstick anarchy. His New Job will be released on Blu-ray by Flicker Alley this summer.
Within Our Gates The earliest surviving feature directed by an African American is this incendiary drama by the legendary Oscar Micheaux. Evelyn Preer plays Sylvia Landry, a black woman from Chicago trying to raise money to save a school for black children in the rural south. Micheaux’s story alternates between scenes taking place in the North and South as well as the past and present in order to generate a suspenseful climax — a lengthy flashback to the events leading to Sylvia’s adoptive parents being lynched by an angry mob. This lynching scene is intercut with an equally horrifying scene where a villainous middle-aged white man attempts to rape the young Sylvia before recognizing a scar on her chest that identifies her as his own illegitimate daughter. The clever intercutting of this climax intentionally unpacks the racist ideology of D.W. Griffith’s similarly constructed The Birth of a Nation. Within Our Gates will be released on Blu-ray by Kino/Lorber in February 2016.