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)
A Night Out (34 minutes)
The Champion (31 minutes)
In the Park (14 minutes)
A Jitney Elopement (26 minutes)
The Tramp (26 minutes)
By the Sea (14 minutes)
Work (28 minutes)
A Woman (26 minutes)
The Bank (25 minutes)
His Regeneration (15 minutes)
Shanghaied (27 minutes)
A Night in the Show (23 minutes)
Burlesque on "Carmen" (31 minutes)
Police (25 minutes)
Triple Trouble (23 minutes)
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)
The Adventurer (23 minutes)
The Cure (23 minutes)
Easy Street (23 minutes)
The Count (24 minutes)
The Vagabond (23 minutes)
The Fireman (23 minutes)
Behind the Screen (23 minutes)
One A.M. (23 minutes)
The Pawn Shop (24 minutes)
The Floorwalker (23 minutes)
The Rink (23 minutes)
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.