Two silent movie classics come to Blu-ray in new, restored editions.
The Lost World (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray) The Last Laugh (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD)
Every larger than life creature feature, from King Kong to Godzilla to Jurassic Park owes a debt to the original The Lost World (1925), the granddaddy of giant monster movies. Based on an adventure fantasy by Arthur Conan Doyle, it’s the story of a maverick scientist and explorer, Professor Challenger (Wallace Beery under a bushy beard), who reports on a land that time forgot on a plateau deep within the South American jungles. When what passes for the National Geographic society jeers his presentation, which is delivered with no evidence, gentleman adventurer and big game hunter Sir John Roxton (Lewis Stone) proposes a new expedition and volunteers to go along. The team is filled out with a somewhat elderly scientist (Arthur Hoyt), a reporter (Lloyd Hughes) representing the paper financing the trip, and the lovely Paula White (Bessie Love), whose father disappeared in that plateau on a previous trip.
Behind the Door (1919) (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) was for decades a film known by reputation only. A good film, yes, but more than that a notorious one, for what lay behind the door was… No spoilers because the film, once known to exist only in incomplete form, has been reconstructed and restored by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and released on disc by Flicker Alley. Its reputation proves well-earned.
Hobart Bosworth plays Captain Oscar Krug, an American seaman of German ancestry who left the sea for life ashore for the love of a woman. But in the opening moments of the film he’s a haunted man returning to the ghosts of the past in his old taxidermy shop, now a ransacked ruin choked by dust and shadow. His story plays out in the shadow of this resignation, a sunnier time when he was in love with banker’s daughter Alice (Jane Novak) and respected by his New England community. A jealous suitor uses the outbreak of World War I to whip up anti-German hysteria (which, in 1919, was not that distant a memory) but the two-fisted patriot wins over the mob with a roundhouse of a brawl and a rousing proclamation to do his duty, as every American should. He bonds with his opponent, McTavish (James Gordon), over the brawl and a few cuts later Krug is captaining an American naval ship, the Perth, with McTavish as his loyal mate and friend. And Alice stows aboard, kicked out by her possibly-crooked, definitely-shady banker father, ready to do her duty as a nurse. Then the unmistakable conning tower of a submarine rises from the surface of the sea and German U-boat commander Brandt (Wallace Beery) torpedoes and sinks the Perth with far too much malicious glee. If director Irvin Willat makes a point of celebrating the patriotism of German-Americans, he brands the German enemy with the familiar stereotype of the bloodthirsty Hun.
The rest of the story is best discovered on your own because it’s a doozy of a portrait of war crimes and gruesome revenge.
Children of Divorce (1927) (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) is one of those silent films that isn’t exactly a classic but possesses an irresistible allure. The star power and cinematic charisma of Clara Bow, the definitive flapper of the silent era, and young Gary Cooper lights up this somewhat silly melodrama of the young, beautiful and idle rich who treat marriage as a game.
It opens on a “divorce colony” in Paris, where the recently single society players goes to pair off once again in hopes of upgrading. To grease the wheels of romantic negotiations, the kids are dropped off in an orphanage filled with the inconvenient children of the newly (and temporarily) single. That’s where little Kitty Flanders is abandoned to the nuns, and where she meets her new best friends: Jean Waddington and Teddy Lambie, also abandoned by divorced parents. It’s heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time.
Jump ahead to “America – Years Later” and Clara Bow is the party girl spitfire Kitty Flanders, raised by an oft-divorced mother to marry into money, and Cooper is her best friend Teddy…
We’ve been hearing people pronounce the death of DVD and Blu-ray for years now. You’d never know it from the astonishing wealth of Blu-ray debuts, restored movies, and lovingly-produced special editions in 2016. The sales numbers are way down from a decade ago, of course, thanks in large part to the demise of the video store, which drove sales of new movies to fill the new release rental racks. The studios still handle their own new releases on disc but many of them have licensed out their back catalog to smaller labels—some new, some longtime players—who have continued to nurture the market for classics, cult films, collectibles, and other films from our recent and distant past. Criterion, Kino Lorber, Shout! Factory / Scream Factory, Twilight Time, Arrow, Olive, Blue Underground, Flicker Alley, Raro, MVD, Cinelicious, and others have continued to reach those of us who value quality and deliver releases that, if anything, continue to improve. We prefer to own rather than rely on compromised quality of streaming video and the vagaries of licensing and contracts when it comes to movies.
2016 has been as good a year as any I’ve covered in my years as a home video columnist and paring my list of top releases down to 10 was no easy task. In fact, I supplemented it with over two dozen bonus picks and honorable mentions. My approach is a mix of historical importance, aesthetic judgment, quality of presentation, and difficulty of effort. It is an unquantifiable formula influenced by my own subjective values but you’ll see some themes emerge. I favor films that have never been available in the U.S. before, significant restorations, discoveries, and rarities. But I also value a beautiful transfer, well-produced supplements, insightful interviews and essays, and intelligently-curated archival extras. You’ll see all these in the picks below.
1 – Out 1(Kino Lorber / Carlotta, Blu-ray+DVD) – This was my cinematic Holy Grail for years, Jacques Rivette’s legendary 12-hour-plus epic of rival theater companies, an obsessive panhandler, a mercenary street thief, an obscure conspiracy, the post-1968 culture of Paris, puzzles, mysteries, creative improvisation, and the theater of life. The history is too complicated to go into here (check out my review at Parallax View) but apart from periodic special screenings it was impossible to see until a digital restoration in 2015 followed by a limited American release in theaters, streaming access, and finally an amazing Blu-ray+DVD box set featuring both the complete version (Noli me tangere, 1971 / 1989) and the shorter Out 1: Spectre (1974), designed for a theatrical release after French TV balked at his original vision. It was shot on 16mm on the streets with a minimal crew and in a collaborative spirit, incorporating improvisations and accidents and morphing along the way. The disc release embraces the texture of its making and also includes the new documentary “The Mysteries of Paris: Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 Revisited” and an accompanying 120 page bilingual booklet. There were more lavish sets and more beautiful restorations on 2016 home video, but nothing as unique and committed as this cinematic event, which made its American home video debut over 40 years after its first showing. Full review here.
The Film Noir Foundation, creators of the San Francisco-based Noir City Film Festival and its companion travelling version, expanded its purpose a few years ago to raise money to restore orphaned films, those independent productions made outside the studio system in partnerships formed in some cases to make a single film. Two of their most recent restorations have come to disc in lovely sets: the superb Woman on the Run (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) with Ann Sheridan and the fascinating Too Late for Tears (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) with Lizabeth Scott.
In Too Late for Tears (1949), Lizabeth Scott plays one of the most ruthless heroines in film noir in, a status-conscious middle-class wife who will do anything to keep her hands on a suitcase of cash that lands in her lap by accident. Arthur Kennedy is her husband who wants to take it to the police but is tempted enough to hold onto it for a night or two (just to think over the ramifications, you know) and Dan Duryea is a mercenary crook who comes looking for the cash (payment in a blackmail scheme) and ends up her wary partner. Scott has played her share of heroines and villains both but here she’s pure avarice and cold-blooded greed. She stares at the money piled on the bed with wolfish hunger and childish ecstasy and she’s ready to murder to keep it. The money doesn’t corrupt her, it merely unleashes her suppressed greed. She’s nervous and perhaps even reluctant to carry out the first—fate steps in with a nudge when she hesitates—but she follows through without a regret and doesn’t even flinch the second time. Scott may be a poor man’s Bacall but is no man’s fool. Duryea is in fine form as a weasel of an opportunist, sneering his dialogue in the early scenes and then slipping into disgust and drink as Scott slowly takes control of the partnership. In a genre defined by corrupt, ruthless, and conniving characters, this film features two of the most reprehensible and cold-blooded. Don DeFore is the old “army buddy” who hides his own secrets.
The 1923 French feature L’Inhumaine (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray), which translates to The Inhuman Woman, is not exactly about a femme fatale, though singer and social diva Claire Lescot (played by real-life opera star Georgette Leblanc) does enjoy the power she wields over the rich and famous men who attend her exclusive salons. They compete for her attentions and affections, which she withholds with a twisted smile. Leblanc doesn’t quite convince us of her overpowering charms—she’s confident and even commanding on the screen playing the arrogant superstar but she radiates little sex appeal—but then the melodrama itself is a conventional construct used to show off director Marcel L’Herbier’s ambitions. There’s a suicide, a scandal, a romance, and a resurrection, plus jealousy and vengeance, and forgiveness rolled through the two hour drama.
Jaque Catelain plays the young engineer and scientist Einar Norsen, a figure of youthful idealism and emotional impulsiveness who proves to be much more formidable and visionary than his initial impressions suggest. His angular face could be carved from stone and he cuts a striking figure in both his tuxedo and his laboratory coveralls, which look more like a space suit than a jumpsuit. His amazing laboratory all but wins the heart of Claire, who proves less inhuman than simply arrogant and haughty. But she also has a stalker or two among her spurned suitors and they plot their revenge against her, one of them in a plot that he could have stolen from Fantomas.
L’Herbier, the director of The Late Mathias Pascal (1924) (released on Blu-ray and DVD by Flicker Alley in 2012), was a modernist and an innovator in the lively culture of French cinema in the twenties. L’Inhumaine is, as the credits read, “A fantasia by Marcel L’Herbier,” and he gathered an impressive collection of collaborators. The modern mansions (seen from the outside as delightful miniatures, complete with toy cars crawling past to park) are designed by architect Robert Mallet-Stevens with the interiors given expressionist grandeur by future filmmakers Alberto Cavalcanti and Claude Autant-Lara and a magnificent fantasy of a modern laboratory, more spectacular than functional with its moving parts and electrical arcs zapping across the screen, designed and constructed by painter Fernand Léger, who also designed the animated credits. The next year he made his own directorial debut with the avant-garde classic Ballet Mécanique (1924). These elements are marvelous but it’s L’Herbier who brings it all together with cinematic brio and dazzling visual intensity.
The film has been tinted as originally conceived by L’Herbier, using archival notes. Features French intertitles with English subtitles, choice of two excellent musical scores (both newly composed for this release), and two featurettes, plus a booklet with notes on the director and the film.
We never stop recovering our film history. Lost movies are being found and older films on the verge of self-destruction are getting preserved and in many cases painstakingly restored, thanks to the digital tools that give filmmakers, producers, studios, and film archivists and restorers the ability to resurrect damaged prints and rescue damaged footage previously beyond the scope of physical and chemical methods.
The preservation of our film legacy is essential, but it’s just an ideal until the preserved films become available for viewers at large to watch, not just limited to brief festival appearances. Film history needs to be living history, and thanks to DVD and Blu-ray, streaming and digital downloads, and (ironically) the shift from celluloid to digital projection, classic films are more available than ever.
This list is focused on debuts and rediscoveries of classic films and cinema landmarks, restorations of great films, and revivals of previously unavailable movies that became available to viewers in 2015 in theaters, on home video, or via streaming services. Not just a countdown of the best, it’s a survey of the breadth of restorations and rediscoveries that film lovers across the country now have a chance to see regardless of where they live.
1 – Out 1
Set in “Paris and its double,” Jacques Rivette’s Nouvelle Vague epic (a staggering 12 ½ hours long!) is a film of doubles and reflections: two rival theater groups each rehearsing a different play by Aeschylus (“Prometheus Bound” and “The Seven Against Thebes”), two theater group leaders who were once lovers, two street hustlers (Jean-Pierre Leaud and Juliet Berto) who stumble into the conspiracy of “The Thirteen,” which turns out to be both a fictional creation by Balzac and a contemporary cabal that includes some of the characters in the film. Rivette, who collaborated with the cast to fill out his outline of a script, musters the energy and enthusiasm and free-spirited filmmaking of the Nouvelle Vague that his more famous colleagues left as the moved into their own comfort zones (Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer) or, in the case of Godard, discomfort zones. His engagement with actors is there on the screen, creating energy even in simple conversational scenes, and they are co-conspirators in his hide-and-seek narratives, where characters circle conspiracies and play blind man’s bluff through mysteries that may have no solution. Meanwhile their lives go on, even if their projects are sidelined, shut down, or simply left to evaporate as they move on to their next project.
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.
Sherlock Holmes (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) – The 1916 Sherlock Holmes was not the first film based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s great detective but it is by all accounts the first Holmes feature and in many ways it remains the most important Holmes film ever made. It’s an adaptation of the popular stage play written and produced by William Gillette, who drew his script from a collection of Holmes tales with the blessing of Doyle. Gillette toured England and the U.S. in the title role for years before hanging it up but revived the play one final time 1915. It was a smash on Broadway and Gillette took it on tour, ending up in Chicago where the Essanay Film Company struck a deal to bring the stage play to the big screen and bring Gillette’s signature performance before the cameras in a cast featuring both his roadshow actors and members of the Essanay stock company.
We’re not talking resurrected masterpiece here, mind you, but it is a fine piece of filmmaking and an entertaining feature from an era when features were still finding their form. More importantly, it is the sole film performance of William Gillette, a stage legend in his own right and the first definitive Sherlock Holmes, as conferred upon him by both audiences and the author Doyle himself. His interpretation not only informed the performances that followed but the screen mythology itself. Gillette elevated Moriarty (played in the film by French actor and Essanay company regular Ernest Maupain) from minor Doyle character to defining nemesis (and in some ways anticipated Lang’s Dr. Mabuse), gave Holmes his signature curved pipe, and added the term “elementary” to his repertoire. In other ways his version is unlike the Holmes of the page or later screen versions. He’s a cultivated patrician in elegant evening clothes and dressing robes before donning the signature deerstalker cap and familiar tools of the trade, he falls in love, and he even marries (with Doyle’s blessing).
Back to the Future: 30th Anniversary Trilogy (Universal, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD) – “The future is whatever you make it, so make it a good one.”
October 21, 2015, is a date foretold… in Back to the Future II! That’s right, it’s not just the 30th anniversary of the original Back to the Future, it’s the day that Marty travels to in the second installment of the time-traveling trilogy.
Of course there’s a new 30th Anniversary special edition trilogy edition on Blu-ray and DVD to mark the occasion, and for the entire month of October, Amazon Prime members can stream all three films as part of their subscription.
Michael J. Fox goes backwards, forwards, and sideways through time as Marty McFly in a souped-up DeLorean for the first time in Back to the Future (1985), where he jaunts back to 1955, meets his parents (Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson), and finds a younger (but just as crazy) Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd), the genius inventor who builds the time travel device and has to concoct a way to get Marty back to 1985. The film’s hopped-up energy, action movie slapstick and tongue-in-cheek cheek social commentary spoofing helped turn it into a blockbuster hit and a pop-culture sensation so director Robert Zemeckis and co-writer / producer Bob Gale came back with two sequels.
Dziga Vertov: The Man with the Movie Camera and Other Newly-Restored Works (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray) presents four features (and one newsreel short) by the great Soviet filmmaker, all making their American Blu-ray debut. They have been newly scanned from the best sources available and digitally remastered by Lobster Films in France. The collection is a collaboration between Lobster, Film Preservations Associates (and the Blackhawk Films Collection), EYE Film Institute, Cinémathèque de Toulouse, and the Centre National de la Cinématographie and is presented in the U.S. by Flicker Alley.
The Soviet Union’s revolutionary documentarian and film theorist, Dziga Vertov was the head of production and editing of the Kino-Pravda newsreel unit between 1922 and 1925. He put his years of experimentation in weekly newsreels to work in the 1924 feature film with Kino Eye / The Life Unexpected (1924), a continuation of his work on the Kino-Pravda series. The mixture of slice of life observations (often captured with a hidden camera) with documentary studies and playful cinematic tricks was his first attempt to create a new kind of filmmaking celebrating life in the Soviet Union under communism. The episodic film is structured something like a variety show, with the recurring thread of “Young Pioneers,” a youth brigade of Soviet boys and girls dedicated to helping the poor and needy, running through the film as a kind of narrative glue. Nestled between these uplifting sequences are glimpses into taverns and bars, a state home for the mentally ill, and the black market, fanciful documentary investigations into the origins of bread and meat (from the slaughterhouse to the farm), and a scene of kids at play in the water that turns into a gorgeous diving montage that presages Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia by over ten years.
The House of Mystery (La Maison du Mystère) (Flicker Alley, DVD) – Serials—the adventure cliffhangers what would play out in theaters before the main feature at a chapter a week—are commonly dismissed as kid stuff, glorified B-movies cranked out with little thought for story or character. France, however, produced some serials with high production values for adult audiences. Louis Feuillaude was a master at making surreal pulp thrillers like Fantomas and Les Vampires but Judex moved him toward epic storytelling with more mature themes (his later serials, which are even more adult if less exciting, are sadly unavailable in the U.S.).
Albatross, a French studio founded by Russian immigrants who fled the communist revolution, produced some of the most sophisticated films on the twenties, including the serial The House of Mystery (1923), an epic story of love, jealousy, murder, blackmail, and injustice. The opening credits tease the audience by presenting our hero in multiple disguises before revealing the face of Ivan Mosjoukine, suggesting he is something of a Judex or Fantomas. In fact he’s Julien Villandrit, the scion of a manufacturing family who marries his sweetheart Régine (Hélène Darly) and takes over the family textile mill. All seems well as we jump to “Seven Years Later” and find his longtime associate Henri (Charles Vanel) going all Iago, planting the seeds of doubt in Julien’s mind over the attentions of an elderly banker (Sylvia Gray) toward his wife. What seems unseemly has a rather touching explanation but it takes a dramatic turn when Julien is framed for murder and sent to prison while Henri remains free to pursue Régine. Nicolas Koline plays the woodsman Rudeberg, a photographer whose hobby gives him the leverage to blackmail his way into a steady job. It’s not quite as mercenary as it seems—it’s all to give his troubled son a shot at an education and a better life than him—but it means hiding the evidence proving Julien’s innocence and incriminating the true killer.
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.