"The Happiest Days of My Life": Mutual
As Chaplin's contract with Essanay approached its end, all the major Hollywood distributors and studios vied to engage him. Finally on 26 February 1916 he signed with the Mutual Film Corporation to make twelve two-reel pictures in a year, at a salary of $1000 per week with a bonus on signing of $150,000 - sums which drew envy from bank presidents and condemnation from more uptight moralists. Chaplin was given his own studio: the former Climax Studio on Lillian Way and Eleanor Avenue, Los Angeles was appropriately renamed The Lone Star Studio. Working with his own technical unit (Roland Totheroh became his regular cameraman with the fourth film) and his own stock company of players, including his beloved Edna Purviance, he was later to call the Mutual period "the happiest days of my life". It was also a phenomenally creative period. The films were markedly superior in structure, style and content to any previous comedy films. At first he stuck to his contract, turning them out at the rate of one a month. Later he asserted his independence by taking three months over each picture.
For his first film, The Floorwalker, set in a modern department store, he discovered a magnificent comedy prop in an escalator. While generally following the comedy tradition of basing each comedy upon a particular occupation or location - The Fireman, The Pawnshop, Behind the Screen, The Bank, The Cure (set in a health spa) - he gave new comedic twists to every situation, for example the extended autopsy on an alarm clock in The Pawnshop. One A.M. was unique and unprecedented - a virtually solo performance as a drunk returning home and battling, for 20 minutes, with the inanimate objects which prevent him from mounting the stairs to his bed.
The films were developed without scripts, through improvisation on the set, yet the best have the structure of classics: Easy Street, an impressionist recollection of the poor streets of Chaplin's early London, and The Immigrant, a sometimes sharply ironic view of the immigrant situation.
The accomplishment of these films was enforcing a new view of Chaplin and cinema in general. The great American actress Minnie Maddern Fiske startled intellectual America in May 1916 when she wrote, "It will surprise numbers of well-meaning Americans to learn that a constantly increasing body of cultured, artistic people are beginning to regard the young English buffoon, Charles Chaplin, as an extraordinary artist, as well as a comic genius."