Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) – In 1914 Charlie Chaplin, the most famous comic performer in Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios, was lured away by Essanay Studios with a huge increase in salary and the promise of creative freedom. Chaplin made the most of it and you can watch his evolution over the course of the 14 official shorts (and one unofficial short) of this collection, all produced in 1915. This is the American Blu-ray debut of the films from newly remastered editions, a project undertaken in collaboration with Lobster Films, David Shepard and Blackhawk Films, and the Cineteca Bologna.
Chaplin stars with Ben Turpin in His New Job, set at a movie studio, and A Night Out, where they play a pair of sloppy drunks raising havoc at a posh eatery. Edna Purviance, who co-stars in all subsequent Essanay shorts, joins Chaplin with The Champion, where a hidden horseshoe in a boxing glove promotes the tramp from sparring partner (“This gink wants his face kalsomined,” reads one particularly rich title) to challenger to the boxing title. In the Park, a shapeless gag fest where the tramp crosses paths with a pickpocket (identified as “a biter” in the titles) and a pair of lovers, concludes the tape. This is primitive Chaplin, still very much steeped in the Keystone slapstick tradition of pratfalls and well placed kicks to the rear end. The Tramp an aggressively mischievous character who smokes incessantly, striking matches on the neck of poor bystanders and flicking ashes in everything from tipped hats to open mouths. The Chaplin magic comes through in the timing and the grace.
Flicker Alley releases two more collections of classic silent comedies. Chaplin’s Mutual Comedies 1916-1917 (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) collects the greatest run of comedy shorts in Chaplin’s career in newly restored and remastered editions, and The Mack Sennett Collection: Vol. One (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray) collects 50 comedies of a variety of lengths (including one feature) from Sennett’s studios, from 1909 to 1933 and his early sound comedies.
The Mack Sennett Collection: Vol. One is the goldmine here. It’s not that it necessarily features superior work to the Chaplin classics (those Chaplin Mutuals are among the greatest silent comedies ever made) but that it rescues so many films either previously unavailable or only available in compromised or inferior editions and it encompasses so many silent movie greats that began their respective careers in his studios and, in most cases, remained to flourish there.
It opens on Mack Sennett as writer and star of The Curtain Pole (1909), a nonsense comedy that sends Sennett (in heavy make-up and absurdly overdone facial hair) on a quest to replace the title object and ends with him literally gnawing on the pole to get it down to size. D.W. Griffith directs in perfectly professional mode, keeping the absurdities going with all due haste, but Mack Sennett takes the helm for the next five shorts, slowly removing himself from the frame and giving the star parts over to Mabel Normand and Ford Sterling, two of his most reliable stars for the next decade.
This is slapstick at its most basic, all overcharged energy and wild-eyed mania, but Sennett (who eventually leaves directing to others but still writes many of them and produces them all) slowly perfects the genre through the course of the disc, which takes us through the evolution from one-reel comedies to two- and three-reel pictures with slightly more logical plots and creative comic inventions. And they introduce us to the great Sennett stock company: Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chase, Chester Conklin, Al St. John, Mack Swain, Edgar Kennedy, and a young British comic by the name of Charlie Chaplin.
A Thief Catcher (1914), a proto-Keystone Kops comedy that was thought lost until a print was discovered in 2010, features Chaplin in a supporting role, and he directs and stars in the half-reel Recreation (1914), trying to pick up a girl on a park bench. There are three shorts that revolve around plots involving bombs (the round cannonball type with long fuses, of course), the terrific three-reel Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916, with Sennett’s two greatest stars and Arbuckle directing—he’s the forgotten slapstick master thanks to a career cut short by scandal), and Gloria Swanson and Wallace Beery (as the villain, of course) in Teddy at the Throttle (1917), which ends with Swanson chained to the railroad tracks and her faithful dog rushing to the rescue. It’s ridiculous, sure, but this kind of comedy relies on an internal logic that simply escalates the capers and the desperation of heroes and villains alike. The crazed extremes of this one are really quite charming.
The second disc takes us from 1917 through 1925, with shorts featuring the lively Louise Fazenda (including the 5-reel / 52-minute Down on the Farm, 1920), Chester Conklin (whose cross-eyed smile is one of the most famous images of silent slapstick), Billy Bevan and Sid Smith. The highlight for me, however, is the feature comedy The Extra Girl (1923), a six-reeler starring Mabel Normand at her most charming. Harry Langdon stars on a couple of shorts and Carole Lombard is one of Sennett’s Bathing Beauties in Run, Girl, Run (1928), and the third disc ends on two of the best shorts to come from Sennett’s studios: The Dentist (1932) and The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933), both featuring W.C. Fields, who made a brilliant transition from silent buffoon to cranky sound comic. Sennett’s comedies were famed for their orchestrated anarchy but Fields is a force of curmudgeon chaos unique unto himself.
These shorts are restored (and sometimes rescued) from a variety of sources and some are downright scruffy, but the wonders of high-definition digital masters still gives us often crisp images under the noise of damage and that kind of care is at least as important as film restoration. For most of the shorts, however, the quality is quite fine. There are films over 100 years old here and it’s astounding that they’ve survived in viewable condition at all. Each short is accompanied by a lovely original score and almost half of them feature optional commentary by a comedy historian. Other supplements include outtakes, archival behind-the-scenes footage, TV clips, and the complete 1954 This Is Your Life episode celebrating Mack Sennett. A 28-page booklet features a guide to the shorts (including shooting locations) and credits.
The two early Chaplin shorts in the Mack Sennett set makes a fine campanion to Chaplin’s Mutual Comedies 1916-1917. Chaplin called his 18 months at Mutual “the happiest period of my life” and these 12 two-reel comedies remain his finest achievements in short filmmaking: slapstick ballets of distilled Chaplin comic genius. He had unprecedented freedom, an enormously lucrative contract, and a company of creative artists at his personal disposal and he turned the studio set into his creative playground, improvising on film to work out his ideas.
Case in point: The Floorwalker, his first film for the studio. Always one to latch onto the comic possibilities of inventive props, he turned an escalator into the centerpiece of the comedy, where his rapscallion clerk continually incites the store’s crooked manager (Eric Campbell). He takes it further in the solo masterpiece One A.M., where he steps out of the Tramp persona to play an inebriated gadfly at war with his home, battling everything from a staircase to a suit of armor to a resistant Murphy bed, all seemingly set on keeping him from getting to sleep. These shorts become a comic workshop as Chaplin investigates the slapstick possibilities of an array of props and situations while refining his persona as the down-but-not-out everyman.
Chaplin refined his trademark character The Little Tramp with the help of his two key co-stars: burly, barrel-chested Eric Campbell, his hulking physical opposite who forever played the bullying nemesis (often behind a positively demonic beard), and sweet faced Edna Purviance, the alternately demure and plucky innocent he’s forever courting, saving, or simply mooning over. Ms. Purviance is featured in The Vagabond, Chaplin’s third Mutual short, a rural melodrama of a young girl saved from abusive guardians by the resourceful Tramp. Favoring pathos over slapstick, it looks forward to the sentimental melodrama of his features to come. In The Count, Chaplin and Campbell crash a society bash under false identities to woo a rich lovely (Purviance, of course), but Chaplin soon reverts to his impulsive instincts and turns the posh gathering into an anarchic free-for-all. And when the Tramp decides to take The Cure, he comes prepared with a trunk full of alcohol which quickly inebriates the guests and staff of the sanitarium. The revolving door becomes a comic centerpiece (like the escalator in The Floorwalker), which befuddles the inebriated Chaplin and infuriates gout stricken nemesis Campbell. It’s another example of Chaplin spinning a 25-minute masterpiece from little more than a character, a setting, and a situation.
Equal parts class clown, downtrodden social outcast, and sentimental softy, Chaplin’s continued appeal lies not merely in his comic invention but his dogged defiance of authority, class, and convention, and these classic shorts preserve the edginess he smoothed out in later features. As a lowly menial in The Fireman, Chaplin is cheerfully oblivious to chaos he causes to the ordered firehouse and still manages to emerge a hero. The Pawnshop shows the Tramp in a more aggressive role than we’re used to, goofing and playing practical jokes on his coworkers, The Rink puts him on roller skates for a burlesque ballet on wheels, and The Adventurer makes him an escaped convict who hides out in a high society party crawling with cops. Behind the Screen thumbs a nose at the movies in general and Mack Sennett (Chaplin’s old boss) in particular with a lampoon of the studios that concludes with the invention of the pie fight (“I don’t like this highbrow stuff,” comments one victim). His Little Tramp is settling into final form by now—equal parts class clown, sneaky bully, downtrodden social outcast, and sentimental softy.
As he neared the conclusion of his contract he became increasingly more ambitious and mixed his tried and true comic formula with social commentary for two of his most enduring works. Easy Street is Chaplin’s most successful mix of social issues and slapstick comedy. As a rookie cop in the city’s toughest neighborhood, a slum overrun with bullies, drug addicts and gangsters, the goodhearted Chaplin isn’t above a little unconventional policing—when his Billy club proves ineffective on gargantuan Eric Campbell’s thick skull he resorts to gassing him with a compliant street lamp. And The Immigrant finds the Promised Land less than rosy for peasants herded like cattle on the ship and wandering the streets of New York looking for work and food, but the Tramp’s ingenuity and resilience becomes a symbol of hope for the future as well as a comic riposte.
The five-disc set features each and every short and supplement on both Blu-ray and DVD, collected in a sturdy steelbook package. These short have all been released on DVD in fine editions from Image. These new editions, all remastered from 35mm elements from the Blackhawk Collection and Film Preservation Associates, have a more nuanced gray scale than the earlier DVD release, which has a more pronounced contrast (which helps cover the imperfections). The clarity of this set reveals the imperfections in the source prints but the added definition also reveals previously unseen or obscured details and offers a sharpness unseen in the earlier release. They are truer to the originals and to the archival source materials and give viewers something approaching a 35mm experience at home. These digital masters look like film prints.
Each short features a new original score performed by small combo or small orchestra (many of them recorded from live theatrical performances), with Carl Davis’ 1995 score for One A.M. carried over from the Image DVD release. I miss the Carl Davis scores from the previous disc and some of these new scores are a bit out of synch with the film (I actually didn’t notice while watching them the first time through but was alerted by the keen-eyed viewers on various home video forums and found that yes, it drifts on The Floorwalker, for one; to be honest, it’s not as important to me as the image quality). The new scores, however, are marvelous in their own right and there’s an alternate improvised piano score for each film as well.
It also features the American home video premier of the documentary The Birth of the Tramp, directed by Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange, and the 1996 documentary Chaplin’s Goliath, Kevin Macdonald’sloving portrait of the burly Scottish comic Eric Campbell, Chaplin’s giant nemesis in 11 of his 12 classic Mutual shorts. He was one of the most famous screen comics in the world when he died in 1917, yet is almost forgotten today. The accompanying booklet features an essay and notes on each short by silent film historian Jeffrey Vance, updated from the essay in the Image DVD set, plus credits for the restoration, music and archival sources.
[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 55, September 1977]
I can’t recall ever being so disappointed by a film.
I was surprised. After all, the black, cruel jokes Chaplin is so fond of tend to appeal to me more than the pathos; the true story of Henri Landru is a fascinating one; comedies of murder have often beguiled me, from Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets toJack Smight’s No Way to Treat a Lady;and, of course, quite simply, Verdouxhas an immense reputation. My appetite for it was whetted as far back as 1964, when I was a schoolboy and when Douglas McVay eulogized it in the November films & filming. A couple of years later, I read James Agee’s famous series of articles about the film and they impressed me as some of the finest criticism of any kind that I’d ever read, and I still feel that way. So my optimism, when BBC-TV gave the film its first-ever showing on British television in February of 1977, couldn’t have been higher.
I was left wishing James Agee had written and directed MonsieurVerdouxinstead. Horrid as it is for a grown-up film buff to discover himself agreeing with Dwight Macdonald, I find Chaplin’s film a drab and essentially false achievement. Its philosophical ideas are not carried through with anything like sufficient rigour, and certainly not with the trenchant satire that might have made them work. The Sadean justification of murder (“Numbers sanctify…”) is, frankly, juvenile (since when did two wrongs make a right?), and is made more so by the insistence on what Chaplin would no doubt feel was “good taste.” It’s hard to feel the sting of death in this movie, partly because no one in it seems very much alive apart from the Martha Raye character, and partly because we are not given the horror of murder. The meaning of slaughter is far clearer in, say, Frenzy,where Hitchcock reverses the Bonnie and Clydelaugh-and-then-gasp trick, so that our revulsion for killer Bob Rusk turns, horribly but truthfully, into a kind of complicity. Our guilty mirth at Rusk’s struggles amidst the potatoes is a kind of fellow-feeling, and if we can recognize a little bit of ourselves in a murderous madman, then we might just possibly understand the darker side of human nature a little bit better. But with MonsieurVerdoux,we are denied ambiguities. Would we have any sympathy for Verdoux if we had actually seen him polishing off his unprepossessing spouses? I doubt it; and that is, I suspect, the main reason for Chaplin’s circumspection, whether consciously or not. He denies himself the hard part, skirts round the really tricky questions. Monsieur Verdoux becomes a figurehead for fuzzy ideas about morality and stops being a real human being. I didn’t sympathise with him a bit.
An embarrassment of riches and due to combination of late arrivals, a weekend without movies, a pesky head cold and a time-consuming website upgrade, I had less time with them than I would have liked and and my coverage is late. Thus, a major box from a seminal American director (released November 9) and two previously available essentials getting the Criterion treatment on DVD and debuting on Blu-ray (released on November 16). Submitted for your approval.
The Elia Kazan Collection (Fox)
To call this exhaustive box set a labor of love from Martin Scorsese risks understating its importance to Scorsese. The filmmaker cineaste and film preservation activist is overflowing with labors of love. And while in some ways this is a celebration of one director’s tremendous legacy in the American cinema, it’s also a gift from a child of the fifties to a man he identifies as a father figure solely because of his cinema.
Along with the fifteen films in the set, Scorsese contributes a personal tribute to the director with a new documentary. The hour-long A Letter to Elia, written and directed by Scorsese and Kent Jones and narrated by Scorsese, is not a conventional survey of the director and his work or a simple tribute from another admiring director. This is a first-person reflection on the films and the creator, a mix of history, biography and aesthetic appreciation informed by the personal connection that one can have with films. Scorsese explores the powerful connection he made with Kazan’s art and vision, especially On the Waterfront, which Scorsese remarks was set in the urban New York world he lived in, and East of Eden, two formative films in Scorsese’s coming-of-age as an artist and a person: “It spoke to me in a way that no one else I knew in my life seemed to be able to,” he says of Eden. “The more I saw the picture, the more I became aware of the presence of an artist behind the picture.”
British music hall comedian Charles Chaplin made his screen debut in February 1914, playing a threadbare dandy with all physical cues of a cad in the Mack Sennett one-reel comedy Making a Living. The Tramp was born in his second screen appearance—the signature costume (baggy pants, tight cutaway coat, too-big shoes, too-small derby, bamboo cane and toothbrush mustache) built by Chaplin for his role in Mabel’s Strange Predicament—but audiences first saw him in the split-reel special Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal., an improvised film shot in an afternoon with Chaplin’s tramp character constantly intruding on newsreel crews trying to shoot the races. Fitting that a comedy based on the fascination of movies and the yearn for celebrity via the screen introduced the figure who would become the biggest movie star in the world in a few short years.
All this biographical information and historical detail is explored in Jeffrey Vance’s excellent essay and film notes in the accompanying 40-page booklet of Flicker Alley’s Chaplin At Keystone (Flicker Alley), a remarkable box set that collects the 33 surviving shorts (one-reel, two-reel and a couple of shorter split-reel films) and the feature-length comedy, Tillie’s Punctured Romance, that he made for Sennett’s Keystone Film Company in 1914. (Only one Chaplin Keystone remains lost, but Vance helpfully provides notes on the short anyway.) Over the course of the year 1914, working with Mack Sennett, Mabel Normand and the rest of the directors and ensemble players in the Keystone company, Chaplin evolved from screen comedy debutante to Keystone star, even though he never received screen credit. In fact, no one at Keystone got screen credit or even images in the posters (Sennett wanted to keep them interchangeable) but Chaplin stood out and this distinctive (yet nameless to them) figure was a sought-after attraction. The exhibitors, who knew the value of a star, would simply put a cut-out of Chaplin out to let people know another of his Keystone films was playing, and audiences responded.