The film’s entire running gag consisted of Chaplin trying to get into the newsreel footage of the race and being repeatedly thrown out by irate officials in the process. Sennett also invented the famous Keystone Kops troupe, a group of slapstick performers who pretended to be policemen, and whose exploits invariably included wild chases, car crashes, pie fights, and spectacular stunts. But Chaplin was easily Keystone’s biggest star, and his rise was meteoric. Sennett hired him in 1913 at $150 a week for Keystone; by 1918, he had signed a $1 million deal for eight films a year with First National Studios, after moving rapidly through Keystone, Essanay Studios, and Mutual Pictures on his way to international superstardom. The silent film was the perfect medium for Chaplin’s Little Tramp character and his delicate pantomime. Over time, however, Chaplin’s portrayals grew more expressive and less frenetic as he began to exert more control over his work, serving as producer, writer, director, and star on his best short films.
Chaplin, too, was one of the first stars to take over the day-to-day operation of his own business affairs, founding United Artists Studios with Griffith, action star Douglas Fairbanks Sr., and silent ingénue Mary Pickford in 1919. His first feature, The Kid (1921), was an international success, and he soon moved on to make the masterful comedy The Gold Rush (1925), which many consider his finest film. The deeply felt romance City Lights (1931), a silent with musical accompaniment (scored by Chaplin himself), was also a hit with critics and audiences. Chaplin was one of the last American holdouts against sound, convinced that the introduction of spoken dialogue would rob the Little Tramp of much of his pathos, humor, and universal humanity.
It was during the teens in Hollywood, too, that the major studios as we know them today began to take shape. Carl Laemmle folded his IMP Company into a group of smaller companies to create Universal Pictures in 1912; the aforementioned William Fox, Laemmle’s ally in the war against the Edison Trust, created the Fox Film Corporation in 1915; it would later merge with Twentieth Century Pictures in 1935, under impresario Darryl F. Zanuck. Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM), with its famous lion logo at the start of each film and the motto “Ars Gratia Artis” (Art for Art’s Sake) boldly emblazoned across the screen, followed in 1924, rising out the combined talents of Samuel Goldwyn, Marcus Loew, Louis B. Mayer, and financial wizard Nicholas Schenck. Goldwyn would soon leave the group to form the eponymous Goldwyn Pictures, and Louis B. Mayer would become undisputed chief of production for decades, although he, too, had to answer to Schenck, whose offices were in New York, on all major financial matters.
Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players merged with Jesse Lasky’s Feature Play Company to form Paramount Pictures (also known as Paramount Publix), using the Paramount distribution exchange to market their pictures to a series of wholly owned theaters across the United States; by the mid-1930s, Paramount would effectively have a monopoly on film production and distribution through Zukor’s strategy of “vertical integration,” in which studio-owned theaters could play only Paramount product, thus ensuring a steady market for the studio’s films.
Jack, Sam, Albert, and Harry Warner formed Warner Bros. in 1923; soon, Jack L. Warner emerged as the head of production in Hollywood though he also had to answer to a higher power—in his case his brother Harry—on matters of finance. United Artists was moving along at a solid clip, buoyed by the success of Mary Pickford’s star vehicles and Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s swashbucklers. Columbia Pictures was founded by Jack and Harry Cohn in 1924, with Jack emerging as the financial czar and Harry as perhaps the most ruthless studio boss in Hollywood, eventually nicknamed “White Fang” by writer Ben Hecht and later “King Cohn” for his brutal manner of doing business. But although Harry Cohn may have been the most abrasive of the studio bosses, all these men were exceptionally tough businessmen in a business that was rapidly consolidating its hold on the American public.
In addition to the majors, a number of minor studios would eventually join the Hollywood roster. These included Herbert J. Yates’s Republic Pictures, which specialized in westerns and children’s serials and absorbed the smaller Mascot Pictures corporation of Nat Levine, which also dealt primarily in action fare; Monogram, which would come to its greatest prominence in the 1940s as the home of an interminable series of Bela Lugosi horror movies and Bowery Boys comedies; and Producers’ Releasing Corporation (PRC), reputedly the cheapest studio in Hollywood history, where two-day westerns were cranked out with alarming regularity in the 1940s, along with five-day film noirs dealing with the darker side of human existence. RKO Radio Pictures joined this group of minor studios in the early 1930s, and thus the players in the American film industry for the greater part of the twentieth century was set in a matter of a few years. In the 1950s, such independents as American International Pictures would come along to challenge the system, but from the 1910s through 1955, the majors reigned supreme.
There were, of course, exceptions. Although he released his films through United Artists, Chaplin remained a true independent, with his own studio facility in Los Angeles (now the home of A M Records).