Legendary screen comedy icon Charlie Chaplin was born 125 years ago this past April and made his movie debut 100 years ago this past January. His first feature-length film appearance premiered in December 1914. Amazingly, almost all of the films he made throughout his five-decade career have survived, even numerous outtakes and abandoned film ideas, and can be seen on home video.
Four years ago Flicker Alley issued a comprehensive DVD set of every surviving film he made at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studio: 35 titles in all from his very first short made in January 1914, “Making a Living,” through his first feature, “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” (in a new restoration), and a couple more shorts from December of the same year. These provide a fascinating look at Chaplin’s development from broad physical slapstick to a more recognizable “tramp” character with numerous variations as he learned how his stage-trained comedy translated to the screen and eventually began directing some of his own films.
By the end of his year at Keystone, Chaplin had become the most famous comedian in the world. In 1915 Chaplin was hired away from Sennett by the Essanay Studio, where he had more control over his films and further refined his tramp character, before signing an even more lucrative contract with the Mutual Studio a year later. All of Chaplin’s Essanay and Mutual films have been on DVD since the late 1990s in a nice box set from Image Entertainment. This summer Flicker Alley released a Blu-ray collection of recently restored editions of the dozen short films he made for Mutual from 1916-17, considered by many historians and Chaplin himself to be his most creative and happiest period.
After earning enough to become fully independent, Chaplin progressed from shorts to making his own feature-length films with “The Kid” in 1921, and he continued directing films every few years at his own pace until his eleventh feature was released in 1967. The Criterion Collection has been gradually releasing outstanding Blu-ray editions of his features, with such timeless classics as “The Gold Rush” (1925), “City Lights” (1931), “Modern Times” (1936), “The Great Dictator” (1940), and “Monsieur Verdoux” (1947) already available, each with a generous selection of supplementary material.
At Mutual, Chaplin had the freedom to experiment with both his character, which had wider variety from film to film, and plots, which became more coherent narratives rather than mere frameworks for gags. Instead of rushing through productions like he was forced to do at Keystone, he could literally rehearse on film, watching and modifying performances, sometimes recasting, and sometimes discarding sequences or starting over completely with an entirely new premise. A few outtakes demonstrating this process can be seen in the two documentaries included with this set.
“The Floorwalker” and “The Fireman” had much the same feeling of his Keystone and Essanay shorts. By “The Vagabond” he was injecting more serious elements with the comedy. In “One A.M.” he reprised the wealthy drunk act he used to do on the British stage. “The Count,” “The Pawnshop,” and “Behind the Screen” further refined his tramp character. His last five Mutuals, “The Rink,” “Easy Street,” “The Cure,” “The Immigrant,” and “The Adventurer,” are miniature masterpieces that rank among the best work of his entire career. “The Cure” and “The Rink” are arguably his funniest films ever. “Easy Street” and “The Immigrant” are especially notable for blending Chaplin’s comic genius with more sophisticated, multi-layered plots and social commentary.
The new Blu-ray set of Chaplin’s Mutual comedies is a genuine revelation to anyone used to seeing soft, blurry, contrasty, and choppy sped-up copies of copies on cheap DVDs or online versions. Even the good DVD set from Image is not as crisp, although some films have better contrast and all have different music scores. Each of the 12 films was scanned in high definition from the best available 35mm nitrate film materials in archives around the world, often with missing pieces filled in from several prints. While certain films still have a few image issues (such as bleaching out highlights, or higher contrast), almost every one is drastically sharper than any previous video edition. Each film also has two alternate music scores newly recorded for this edition: one carefully prepared to follow the action and the other improvised live while the film was playing.
Bonus features include two fine hour-long documentaries, one newly-produced and the other from 1996. The one on Chaplin’s early career, “The Birth of the Tramp” (in HD), is excellent, and “Chaplin’s Goliath” (in SD) focusing on co-star Eric Campbell, is also quite interesting. There’s also a 28-page illustrated booklet of extensive program notes.
CHAPLIN’S MUTUAL COMEDIES on Blu-ray – Movies: A / Video: A / Audio: A / Extras: A
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