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As his screen popularity grew, Charles Chaplin began to desire greater freedom and independence in making his pictures, so when his contract with Mutual expired in 1917, he started construction of his own studios in the heart of the residential section of Hollywood at La Brea Avenue. Early in 1918, Chaplin entered into an agreement with First National Exhibitors' Circuit to market his films. At this time he also embarked on a national bond tour in support of the war effort and made a film the government used to popularize its Liberty Loan drive. Chaplin followed this with another comedy dealing with the war, Shoulder Arms (1918). He also began work on what would be one of his most famous pictures, the comic tearjerker The Kid (1921), which continued in production even as Chaplin completed two shorter movies, Sunnyside (1919) and A Day's Pleasure (1919).
In April of 1918, Chaplin joined with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith to found the United Artists Corporation, organized as a distributor of the four artists' films, with each of them retaining entire control of his or her individual productions. For the first time, film stars became their own employers and received the profits that had formerly gone to producers. But before he could move ahead with this historic venture, and despite the huge success of The Kid, Chaplin still had to deliver four pictures under his contract to First National. "In a quiet state of desperation," according to his autobiography, he wandered through his studio's prop room hoping to find inspiration for a story idea. He found it in a set of old golf clubs, and golfing sequences from an unfinished Mutual production Chaplin started a few years earlier ("The Golf Links"); it became the genesis of The Idle Class (1921).
Called "Vanity Fair" while still in production, The Idle Class features Chaplin in dual roles as the familiar Tramp character and as a heavy-drinking wealthy man whose wife is feeling badly neglected. The Tramp and the Wife arrive in Miami on the same train (she in a coach, he under it). Upset that her husband has forgotten to meet her train, she moves out, telling her husband he must stop drinking before she returns. That afternoon, while causing mayhem on a nearby golf course, the Tramp spots the Wife and falls in love with her from afar. Running from the law, the Tramp ends up at the Wife's costume party. She mistakes him for her husband, preferring the gentle, attentive man to her true spouse. Mistaken identity forms the basis of the party sequence's comedy before everything is sorted out.
The film features a memorable scene in which Chaplin plays with the audience's perceptions. Upon receiving the message from his wife that she's leaving him unless he quits drinking, the husband gazes longingly at her picture and, shot from behind, appears to be sobbing. As he turns, however, we see he is vigorously working a cocktail shaker.
The Tramp's chief nemesis in this movie is played by Mack Swain, who made nearly two dozen pictures with Chaplin, including most memorably The Gold Rush (1925) as the Tramp's rival prospector Big Jim McKay. The role of the Wife's maid is played by Lita Grey, who became Chaplin's wife from 1924 to 1927.
During production, Chaplin had an accident with a blowtorch that singed his leg through the asbestos pants he was wearing for the scene. The press got hold of the story, and by the next morning, Chaplin was reading that he had been severely burned on his face, hands and body. The studio received hundreds of letters, wires and phone calls, including one from British writer H.G. Wells expressing his great admiration for the star's work and his shock at hearing of the "accident."
Just as The Idle Class was being released, Chaplin sailed for Europe in September 1921, where he received rousing receptions in all the continental capitals he visited (and met the delighted - and much relieved - Wells). Refreshed from this extended vacation, he returned to Hollywood to resume production of his films and start his active association with United Artists.
Note: When this film was re-released in 1971, Chaplin composed the music score.
Producer/Director: Charles Chaplin
Screenplay: Charles Chaplin
Cinematography: Roland Totheroh
Art Direction: Charles D. Hall
Original Music: Charles Chaplin (composed for 1971 re-release)
Cast: Charles Chaplin (Tramp/Husband), Edna Purviance (Wife), Mack Swain (Wife's Father), Lita Grey (Maid).
by Rob Nixon