WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
"Talkies are spoiling the oldest art in the world—the art of pantomime," Charlie Chaplin said of the onset of movie sound. "They're ruining the great beauty of silence." Although the history of motion pictures—not to mention the advent of home-theater surround technology—has proven that sound actually has quite a bit to offer the experience of cinema, Chaplin had a valid argument. After you spend a few days savoring the quiet classics of this Charlie Chaplin Short Comedy Classics box set, you'll have a new appreciation for the genius of silent comedy.
Charlie Chaplin buoyed the spirits of filmgoers worldwide in the early 1900s. It was the time of World War I, and later the Great Depression, and America in particular had fallen on hard times. Chaplin came out of nowhere as something of a savior, achieving the seemingly impossible task of making a depressed public laugh. Chaplin's favorite mode of comedy was satire, and these masterful short films are brimming with it. The films mockingly yet accurately portray the social mores of the time, often with great, barbed cynicism, and the result is unexpectedly hilarious and timeless. With outrageous ferocity, Chaplin will assault a street preacher, slapping his Bible into the dirt, or willingly aid a ridiculously suicidal man toward his demise. And we can't help but laugh at the dressing-down of stereotypes evident in the scenarios. These films are nearly 90 years old, and yet a great deal of their subject matter remains relevant. Plus—let's get right down to it—these films are absolutely filled with some of the most side-splitting physical comedy I've ever seen. Chaplin was a master slapper, shover, and kicker, assaulting his costars with wild abandon whenever they had the gall to irritate his character in any way.
The career of this silent-film legend began in December 1913, when Chaplin signed with the Keystone Film Company. Through 1914, Chaplin made his legendary yet somewhat confining Keystone films, and later that year, having already gathered a significant following, he signed a contract with Essanay Films for a then-whopping $1250 per week. He would make 16 films with Essanay through the year 1915, including his first appearance as his most famous persona, the "tramp." It was at this time that Chaplin quickly became one of the best-known celebrities in the world. So, in early 1916, Chaplin signed with Mutual Films for the unheard-of sum of $10,000 a week, plus a $150,000 signing bonus—an absolute fortune at that time. He remained with Mutual for just over a year, a period that Chaplin would later call the happiest of his career. The contract gave Chaplin complete artistic freedom over his films, letting the young actor/writer/director be as outrageously funny as he dared to be. The 12 films Chaplin made for Mutual—at a prolific speed of about one per month—are considered by many to represent the pinnacle of a mesmerizing career.
Collected in this fabulous box set are all 28 short films that Chaplin made for both Essanay and Mutual. These are the one- and two-reelers that featured Chaplin in all his distilled comic glory, prefiguring many of the sight gags and thematic concerns of his later silent features, The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), and The Great Dictator (1940). The DVDs contained herein were originally available individually (released in 1999), but you can now purchase them in an attractive box case, along with a separate disc that contains Chaplin's Goliath, a 52-minute documentary about Eric Campbell, the memorably enduring villain who was Chaplin's foil in most of the Mutual films. (See the "What Else Is There?" section for more information about this documentary.)
The great thing about this set—besides the wonderful short comedies they contain—is that all of these films have undergone meticulous restorations. For decades, silent-film enthusiasts had to make do with dirty, decomposing footage. Those original nitrate negatives were extremely susceptible to the ravages of time. However, film preservationist David Shepard has carefully restored each film from numerous sources, using the best footage available—some just recently discovered—to present the Essanay and Mutual films in the best condition humanly possible. Also, new music, based on the original synchronized soundtracks, has been recorded for accompaniment. This is not to say that these films are in pristine condition; on the contrary, the image can get downright distracting because of 87-year-old grime and jerky cuts over missing frames. But these discs represent Chaplin's early work in the most watchable form that we will probably ever see. Indeed, the fragile nature of the footage lends the short films a certain poignancy and charm.
Let's go through each of the films, in the order they're presented on the discs, which doesn't appear to be perfectly chronological. But first, a word about distinctions between the Essanay and Mutual films: In the words of the informative essay included with the set, "If the early slapstick of the Keystone comedies represent Charlie Chaplin's cinematic infancy, the films he made for Essanay are his adolescence." On the first three discs of this set, which contain the Essanay films, you'll see a Chaplin who is experimenting with his tramp character, trying out new plot ideas, and adding depth to his physical choreography. On the next three discs, which contain the Mutual films, you'll see a more mature Chaplin who has surrounded himself with a troupe of able performers and who has perfected the art of sublime silent comedy. You're in for a treat!
The Essanay Films
His New Job (31 minutes)
In his aptly titled first movie at Essanay, Chaplin is hired as a prop man for a movie studio but is immediately demoted to carpenter's assistant. Predictably, everything turns disastrous. This film marks the first appearance of cross-eyed comedian Ben Turpin.
A Night Out (34 minutes)
This film is reminiscent of an earlier Keystone film, The Rounders (which starred Fatty Arbuckle). This film strengthens Chaplin's partnership with Turpin, as the two of them amble drunkenly from a café to a hotel. As in many of these films, there's a mixup involving a pretty girl. Interestingly, the photography by Henry Ensign uses a sepia filter for indoor shots and a blue filter for outdoor shots—an early approximation of color photography.
The Champion (31 minutes)
The Champion recalls The Knockout, another Arbuckle starrer. The film reflects Chaplin's interest in boxing, as we find the tramp finding employment as a sparring partner to pugilist Spike Dugan. Somehow, he finds himself fighting and winning a championship match. This film seems to hold the first real characterization of the tramp as a poor, down-on-his-luck bum. The fight choreography is inspired, full of pratfalls and long, difficult takes.
In the Park (14 minutes)
This one-reel reworking of the earlier Twenty Minutes of Love finds Chaplin interfering with two star-crossed lovers as they relax on a park bench. It's a very funny and concise collection of pratfalls, projectiles, punches, slaps, thieves, and fat dudes. And, of course, the wooing of a pretty lady. More and more, Chaplin's characterizes the tramp as an aloof victim who's only aggressive and violent because of the actions of people around him.
A Jitney Elopement (26 minutes)
Charlie needs to rescue his strong-willed sweetheart from the clutches of an arranged marriage. To do so, he poses as Count Chloride de Lime to impress the father, but he's soon found out. This film increases the level of physical comedy of Chaplin's films, introducing a spritz bottle and even a car chase into the surprisingly involved plot. The dinner scene is outright hilarious, and check out those doofus cops!
The Tramp (26 minutes)
The Tramp is possibly the most important film of the Essanay collection. Here is where Chaplin really started developing his tramp character in a meaningful way. After Charlie saves a farmer's daughter from some heavies, he falls in love with the girl. But it turns out that the pretty girl is already spoken for. Watch the film's ending closely: Its classically melancholy fade-out on the tramp shuffling off into the distance is one of the most enduring images in film. This film, more than any other Essanay film, won Chaplin his huge audience.
By the Sea (14 minutes)
This one-reeler was shot near Los Angeles in one day. On a windy beach, Charlie improvises physical gags involving hats and fistfights and—oh yeah—a pretty girl.
Work (28 minutes)
Incompetent laborers were a frequent slapstick target. In this film, Charlie plays a wallpaper-hanger's assistant. On a job in a middle-class home, anarchy reigns as the bumbling fools create a spectacular mess and even an explosion. There's a hilarious bit involving a slippery floor and wallpaper glue. Unfortunately, quite a few lost frames interfere with the flow of the comedic action.
A Woman (26 minutes)
Chaplin dons drag (for the final time) in this film, in which he needs to disguise himself as a lady so that he can defy his sweetheart Edna's father. This film also has an interesting use of a sepia filter.
The Bank (25 minutes)
This film again finds Charlie broken-hearted because of his unrequited love for Edna. He plays a janitor at a bank, and Edna is the secretary. Chaplin takes his character to new levels of pathos here, as an extended dream sequence turns out to be only a thing of cruel fantasy.
His Regeneration (15 minutes)
Chaplin has only a brief guest appearance in this Broncho Billy drama. He plays the tramp in a brief dance hall sequence. More interesting use of the sepia filter.
Shanghaied (27 minutes)
This short takes place aboard a boat, on which Charlie must save himself and his castaway sweetheart from certain disaster. This short is notable for Chaplin taking part in an entertaining dance sequence. The film elements are extremely rough in places.
A Night in the Show (23 minutes)
Chaplin plays two parts in this very funny film: the drunken tuxedo-clad Mr. Pest and the working-class bum Mr. Rowdy. Mr. Pest is an upper-class theater patron, and Mr. Rowdy is up in the lower-class balcony. Both of them cause all kinds of chaos inside the theater. There are fat jokes aplenty, as well as an interesting statement on the class division of the time. The film is mostly a hilarious tour de force that follows Mr. Pest through an irritated audience and on the stage, but Mr. Rowdy has some great moments too, particularly involving a firehose at the finale.
Burlesque on "Carmen" (31 minutes)
This two-reel parody of Cecil B. DeMille's popular screen version of Carmen was actually beefed up by Essanay into an incoherent four-reeler by adding deleted material and shooting new scenes under a new director. As a result, in 1915, Chaplin's concise satire became a bloated failure. The betrayal made Chaplin sick, and he even sued, but he lost, so the studio released the overlong feature. Finally, today, we get Burlesque on "Carmen" in its intended form, reconstructed according to court documents. The film carries on the ever-present theme of winning the girl (she looks like a portly Nicole Kidman), and it features Chaplin performing an entertaining dance routine atop a table. There's also an early girl-vs.-girl catfight, professional-wrestling moves, and even drunken boxing that prefigures a Jackie Chan fight style. (In fact, in these films, you'll see a lot of physical comedy that has seemingly inspired Chan.) Interesting use of the sepia and blue filters to designate indoor and outdoor shots.
Police (25 minutes)
Here's another film that's been reconstructed for its DVD audience. Essanay altered the film on its original release. This film finds Charlie just released from prison and "once again in the cruel, cruel world." He meets a former cellmate and proceeds to burglarize the home of a young woman. There are fascinating anti-religious subtexts in this film, as well as an instance of blackface. Also, more of the sepia/blue tinting.
Triple Trouble (23 minutes)
You'll probably get the idea that Essanay screwed Chaplin at the end of his contract with the studio, because here's another betrayal. This film isn't an "official" Chaplin film but rather a hodgepodge of discarded material assembled into a two-reeler, released three years after Chaplin had left the studio. Simply to capitalize on Chaplin's stardom, Essanay gathered deleted material from Police, an alternate ending from Work, and scenes from an abandoned feature-length film called Life. So the only reason to watch this one is to view the footage from Life, which represented Chaplin's first attempt to direct himself in a feature. And to see more footage that probably inspired Jackie Chan—for example, the hilarious physical choreography over and under beds and around a pole.
The Mutual Films
In general, the presentation of the Mutuals is not as user-friendly as the presentation of the Essanays. (There is definitely no consistency in presentation between the sets.) One of the aspects of the Essanays that I really enjoyed is the inclusion of capsule essays about each film, inside the cases. The Mutual discs merely contain an essay that's repeated in the cases of all three discs. Also, the Mutual films are in no chronological order at all, and each disc presents its four films as one long 95-minute program instead of individual films.
The Immigrant (23 minutes)
Chaplin is on a boat, among many other poor travelers, on his way to the freedom of America. Onboard, he quickly falls for a pretty young lady, and when they arrive penniless in New York, they find themselves the object of a mean-spirited waiter at a restaurant. The Immigrant was one of the later Mutuals, and the appearance here of Eric Campbell as the waiter is definitely not the first—but he's hilarious.
The Adventurer (23 minutes)
A hilarious throwback to the Keystone capers, The Adventurer finds Charlie just escaped from prison and fleeing the coppers along a beach. He's chased to an upper-class home, in which he ultimately impersonates a wealthy yachtsman and takes part in an energetic chase, brimming with pratfalls and acrobatics. Great stuff!
The Cure (23 minutes)
Chaplin tackles the societal ill of drunkenness in this short film, once again taking on a serious social malady of the time. Instead of playing the tramp, here Chaplin plays a gentile drying out at a sanitarium. Watch for two great set pieces involving a revolving door, and an acrobatic sequence in which Charlie evades a masseuse.
Easy Street (23 minutes)
In the most famous of his Mutual shorts, Chaplin tackles poverty, drug abuse, urban violence, as well as domestic abuse! And you won't believe how funny all that can be. Chaplin trades in his tramp duds for a policeman's uniform. Eric Campbell plays a ruthless heavy in this film, nearly indestructible, and enjoys the film's best sight gag, when he takes on all the policeman down at the station.
The Count (24 minutes)
This film is reminiscent of an early Keystone film called Caught in a Cabaret. Yet again, Chaplin uses impersonation as a wealthy man to satirize the divide between the rich and the poor. Charlie is a hopelessly inept tailor's assistant who ends up impersonating the wealthy Count Broko in order to win the heart of his sweetheart. Watch Charlie's amazing moves on the dance floor!
The Vagabond (23 minutes)
This short is more drama than comedy, finding Chaplin as a street violinist who rescues his eternal Edna from gypsies. This edition adds some long-lost footage and corrects an age-old editing error.
The Fireman (23 minutes)
Of all the Mutual films, this one recalls the antics of the Keystone films. Charlie is an inept apprentice fireman under the tutelage of Eric Campbell. The best part of this short is the sensational backward footage used for comic effect.
Behind the Screen (23 minutes)
Here's another short set in the movie business, as Charlie is a prop man's assistant who gets into all sorts of trouble wandering from set to set. Watch for an apocalyptic pie fight against Campbell toward the end.
One A.M. (23 minutes)
This amazing film is unique among all these films in that it is essentially a one-man show in which Chaplin shows off incredible solo pantomime. Charlie comes home drunk after a night out on the town and struggles with downright strange props throughout his home. This is probably my favorite of all the films. It's the only Mutual film to use a blue filter for its brief outdoor shots.
The Pawn Shop (24 minutes)
Charlie gets work as a pawnshop's assistant and gets into all sorts of trouble with a plethora of imaginative props around the shop. There's an extended scene involving Charlie's destruction of an alarm clock that will leave you out of breath laughing.
The Floorwalker (23 minutes)
This is actually the first Mutual film Chaplin made, and it definitely recalls the slapstick of his earlier Keystone and Essanay works. Charlie is a department store clerk who becomes unwittingly involved in an embezzlement scheme. This film contains what is probably the single most hilarious set piece, which takes place on an escalator.
The Rink (23 minutes)
Charlie is a waiter who, of course, finds himself the target of heavy Eric Campbell amidst his pining for the beautiful Edna, and the troupe ultimately finds itself rolling about on a roller-skating rink. This film is notable for its broad slapstick, abundant pratfalls, and entertaining physical choreography. Charlie's skill with skating foreshadows Modern Times.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
All these films are presented in full frame, which is an accurate representation of their original 1.33:1 theatrical presentation. As I mentioned earlier, the films have been assembled from the very best vintage footage available, gathered together from multiple sources over nine years. Each film is digitally mastered, speed-corrected, and restored.
The result is probably the best we'll see these nearly 90-year-old films, but of course, problems are abundant. Particularly in the earlier Essanay films, you'll see that frames are frequently lost—sometimes to the point of confusing the narrative flow or messing up a sight gag—and the grime and dirt of age are ever-present. That being said, wear and tear is certainly understandable and even expected, so we should appreciate what we have. Only occasionally did image deterioration distract me from the content of any given film.
You have to keep in mind that these films were made during the infancy of cinema. The elements used (e.g., nitrate) were highly susceptible to ruin. It's something of a miracle that we can still enjoy these films at all. So it is with gladness that I report the generally vivid detail of these transfers, which is the most important element. These are highly watchable films.
Unfortunately, I did notice several instances of edge enhancement, particularly during By the Sea, in which the halos are quite distracting. In the later Mutuals, I noticed an ever-present but slight ringing, as well as some shimmering.
In general, though, you'll notice a striking improvement in image quality when you move from the Essanay discs to the Mutual discs. The Mutuals seem to have undergone a more thorough restoration. The image seems cleaner and more stable. Or perhaps it's simply that the Mutual film stock has survived a little better.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
Again, we can't ask for a lot here, considering that these are silent films. However, I should say a few words about the piano (Essanay) and orchestral (Mutual) accompaniments.
In the case of the Essanays, the original piano compositions (by Chaplin's musical associate Eric James) have been newly recorded by Robert Israel, a prominent practitioner of authentic silent-film accompaniment. They become repetitive but are a wonderful counterpart to the goofy energy of the films, and they're timed well with the action. The presentation is stereo, but you won't notice a great deal of depth or separation. After all, we're talking about one instrument. The music lacks a low end, coming across as a bit hollow and tinny, but the low-fidelity quality of the music generates a feeling of nostalgia.
In the case of the Mutuals, we get new digital-stereo orchestral scores composed by Michael Mortilla. Here, the sound presentation has much more depth, simply because these are much more recent tracks. A bonus is that sound effects have been placed throughout to echo onscreen action, such as a cat's meow and comical squeaks. But I'm left wondering if these are accurate representations of what original audiences heard. Are the soundtracks gimmicky?
Although the Mutual scores sound fuller, I actually prefer the nostalgic feel of the Essanay accompaniments.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The Essanay discs each give you a complete Chaplin Filmography, a nice addition to the set. This list lets you view the chronology of the films.
But the primary supplement in this set is the inclusion of a separate disc that contains the documentary Chaplin's Goliath, a 52-minute piece that is a biographical look at the Mutual "heavy" Eric Campbell. The documentary starts with some talking-head interviews with his ancestors, who sweetly reminisce about the man and tour us through Campbell's home town in Scotland. It's when the documentary focuses on how he became involved in show business that it becomes interesting. We see how he became involved with Chaplin, and most fascinating, we see fantastic behind-the-scenes footage that shows Chaplin directing action, as well as Campbell resting and joking between takes. There's also great shots of flubbed lines. This is truly wonderful stuff!
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
I can't tell you how much joy this set brought me. These films are brimming with brilliant pantomime and will show you exactly why Chaplin's name is a thing of film legend. This is probably the most impressive presentation we'll see of these early films, so invest wisely in this terrific set that will at once educate you about the origins of cinema as well as endlessly entertain.