Today it's hard to realize just how popular Charlie Chaplin was back in the heyday of silent films. There is no current equivalent, and the magnitude of his fame has never really been equaled since. Chaplin's Tramp character was a world-wide sensation since his films were easily exported to non-English speaking countries. His movies were in such high demand that scores of Chaplin imitators emerged, there were Chaplin imitation contests, he was the first actor to be featured on the cover of Time Magazine, and he was one of the highest paid people (of any profession) in the country in the 1910's. His films are still immensely popular today and the last time I saw a Chaplin film on the big screen, it sold out the theater where it was showing.
His features are being released by Criterion on Blu-ray, and Flicker Alley in association with The Blackhawk Films Collection has launched a massive multi-year effort to restore Chaplin's early shorts. The Chaplin's Essanay Comedies is the final release in that effort (the previous collections are Chaplin At Keystone and Chaplin's Mutual Comedies both excellent collections) and it was well worth the wait. 15 classic films along with some great extras make this a must-buy title.
Charlie Chaplin was touring the US with Fred Karno's comedy troupe in 1913 when he was recruited by Mac Sennett's Keystone Films. In September of 1913 Keystone signed him at $150 a week and put him to work making one reel slapstick shorts. He quickly became the star of the lot, with his films becoming more and more popular. With this success Chaplin was able to exert more control on his movies, which led to higher quality films and even bigger demand. Soon he was writing and directing all of his pictures. While at Keystone he came up with the costume for the character that would soon be known around the world.
When his contract was up, Chaplin was a star and wanted a star's salary. Keystone couldn't meet his price, so he signed a one year contract with Essanay in December of 1914 for an astounding $1250 a week. It was during this time that Chaplin came up with the Tramp's personality and character, which lead to even more fame.
It was here at Essanay that Chaplin really bloomed. At Keystone the pace was frantic and the films short and formulaic: Have some people do some funny things and fall about the place, then end with a chase. Once he arrived at Essanay, he had more time to craft his films and to experiment with different styles, pacing, and types of gags. The upshot is that Chaplin had the time and resources to create a persona for the Tramp outfit that he had developed at Keystone.
This didn't happen instantly, of course, and that's why these films are such a treat to watch. You can see Chaplin's comedy style develop and evolve over the course of these 15 films. The film A Woman, for example, harkens back to his days at Keystone with Chaplin doing some knockabout slapstick in the first half and then appearing in drag in the second. It's funny, but you can tell that Chaplin is seeing what he can take from his time with Mack Sennett.
A Night in the Show also harkens back to Chaplin's earlier days, this time to his time playing music halls back in England. Taken from an act that he used to preform, Chaplin doesn't just recreate the scenes. He experiments with the film by planning two roles (something other silent comedians would do too) to great effect. The fact that in neither role does he play The Tramp makes it even more interesting.
One of the most important films that Chaplin made at this time was one of his earlier Essanay efforts: The Tramp. In this film Chaplin comes across the comedy and pathos mixture that he would be known for. There is still a lot of Keystone-like slapstick but he adds in a dash of sadness that makes really makes the film. The homeless tramp saves a young lady from some ruffians and, as a reward, gets a job on her father's farm. There are comic mishaps with the Tramp on the farm, but when the thugs return to rob the house, he rises to the occasion and successfully defends the girl. He gets injured in the process and the attention that girl pay to the hurt hero makes the poor man think that she has fallen in love with him. Unfortunately, that isn't the case as he learns when her boyfriend arrives. Since it would be too painful for him to stay on the farm with a woman who doesn't return his love, he leaves the good job and walks down a lonely road into the sunset.
There isn't a bad short in this collection (with the exception the Bronco Billy Anderson vehicle that Chaplin has a small part in). They're all funny, even the experiments that don't succeed as well as Chaplin was hoping. And the successes outweigh the near-misses by a good margin.
One of the great things about owning this collection is that you can binge watch all of these films and if you do you'll start to see something interesting: Chaplin's acting evolves as well as the type of comedy he's doing. He becomes more subtle and learns that less can be more. It's especially noticeable when you compare Chaplin's style to the actors who surround him. In the early films they all have the same technique and demeanor: loud and brash. It's funny and works, but as the series progresses the supporting actors continue to act that way, while Chaplin reins in his style and becomes more understated and refined. Just compare The Police (his last Essanay film) with his first one (His New Job) and it's fairly apparent. This subtlety is a trait that will serve him well in the coming years.
The films in this collection include:
His New Job
A Night Out
In the Park
A Jitney Elopement
By the Sea
His Regeneration (not an actual Chaplin short, this is a film starring Billy Anderson (co-founder of Essnay) where Chaplin has a cameo)
A Night in the Show
Charlie Chaplin's Burlesque on Carmen (restoration of Chaplin's original 2-reel version. After the star left Essanay the company reedited it into a 4-reel feature by adding some new scenes with Ben Turpin and Wesley Ruggles and including some footage that Chaplin had discarded.)
Aftermath: While at Essanay he became a national sensation and his shorts started becoming more popular than the feature films that they were opening for. When his contract was up, Charlie Chaplin was the most in demand actor in the world. He was wined and dined by several companies bidding for his service, but Chaplin ended up signing with Mutual in 1916 where he made $10,000 a week, plus bonuses. He was not only the highest paid actor; he had a higher salary than anyone in the country. At Mutual Chaplin made a series of 12 hilarious shorts including The Immigrant, The Pawn Shop and The Rink the cemented his reputation as a top box-office draw.
A year later, in June of 1917 Chaplin signed an incredibly lucrative contract with First National Picture Corporation that would make him an independent contractor. Chaplin agreed to make eight two-reel comedies over the next eighteen months. He would receive $125,000 for each picture, but he had to pay for all cost of producing the movies. He would then split the profits from the distribution of the pictures 50/50. In addition to this he was giving a $75,000 signing bonus. The biggest part of the contract though was that he would retain the copyright on his films, and in five years he would also own the worldwide distribution rights. A very sweet deal that made Chaplin very wealthy.
Following his time at First National, Charlie Chaplin no longer wanted to be shackled to a studio, so he made his own. He joined Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D. W. Griffith to form United Artists. That was in January of 1919, a little over five years after he signed his first movie contract.
These films were made a century ago. It's pretty amazing that they exist at all, but thanks to film archivists around the world who preserved the film elements and the work of the people who labored to bring together the best existing examples of the films and restore them they are here for us to enjoy. And enjoy them you will. While the AVC encoded 1.33:1 black and white image varies quite a bit, they generally look very good. The detail is fine and the contrast is overall excellent. There is some print damage, scratches and lines, which is to be expected from movies this old, but I really can't complain about the way these look. A very good presentation.
The films are accompanied by a DTS-HD Master Audio stereo score composed and performed by a variety of top rate musicians including The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (one of my favorites), Timothy Brock, and Robert Israel. Being recent recordings the sound quality is superb and this fun music adds a lot to the whole presentation.
Flicker Alley often fills their discs with great extras, and this release is no exception. Along with the official Chaplin Essanay films themselves there is a copy of Triple Trouble (1918), a movie created at Essanay after Chaplin left from outtakes that the star himself left on the cutting room floor. Made without Chaplin's approval, it's not great but it is an interesting artifact that's worth watching and a great addition to this collection. The same goes for Charlie Butts In, a one-reel edit of A Night Out that Essanay cobbled together to milk some more cash out of their one-time star.
There is also a booklet that's very nice and includes behind-the-scenes photos along with an essay but film historian Jeffrey Vance.
Altogether this is a fantastic collection. Along with Flicker Alley's other two sets of early Chaplin films this is a great chronicle (arguably the most important in tracing the evolution of the star's on-screen persona) of a true genius. These aren't just dusty historical documents though; they're very funny and entertaining even a century after they were made. Highly Recommended.