by Michael Covino
In the newly restored comedies that Charlie Chaplin made for Mutual Films in 1916 and 1917, Chaplin has rarely looked better—in fact, probably not since 1916 and ‘17. The Mutual two-reelers followed his stints at Keystone, where in 1914 Chaplin introduced the baggy-trousered, mustachioed Tramp with the bowler and the cane, and then at Essanay, where he made his first great comedic short, The Tramp .
The Tramp had evolved from the crude slapstick character of Keystone to a more complex fellow who blends humor, sadness, and humanity. For the Mutual comedies that then followed, many of which feature the Tramp, Chaplin was given complete control and, for the first time, his own studio, the Lone Star Studio in Hollywood. Here, he continued polishing his techniques and deepening his art before moving on to make the great feature-length films, beginning with The Kid in 1921, and featuring The Little Tramp , by then beloved the world over.
The restoration project, presented on two Blu-ray discs and three DVDs by Flicker Alley, is a collaborative labor of love from the Blackhawk Films Collection, Lobster Films and Cineteca Di Bologna, with the blessings of Association Chaplin (the Paris company run by his children), and includes two documentaries, the excellent The Birth of the Tramp (2013) and Chaplin’s Goliath (1996), a portrait of Scottish actor Eric Campbell, Chaplin’s nemesis in most of these films. Numerous people assisted, the footage collected (in sometimes difficult negotiations) from archives and individuals the world over; and then “the technical reconstruction of the Mutual comedies actually took three years,” according to Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films in Paris, who worked with his partner Eric Lange, and in conjunction with L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna. David Shepard of Film Preservation Associates added that the frame-by-frame digital assembly and restoration was made possible by new technologies like the Phoenix Refine System. Shepard would know, having worked on restorations going back to the 1970s (though he didn’t do the hands-on work on these, instead providing many of the 35mm elements used, as well as working with composers for about half the films). And one after another, the films offer a truly gorgeous transfer with excellent detail and contrast, and nearly faultless reconstruction.
Over the years I have seen many of these comedies on the big screen and on video, from the first, the workaday The Floorwalker , to the rich and complex Easy Street , and they have never looked more pristine. Thirty-five-millimeter footage was assembled—with one shot perhaps salvaged from Australia, another from California or South America—from sources that included Shepard’s Blackhawk Films Collections, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles, the Museum of Modern Art (NYC), the Library of Congress, Lobster Films, the British Film Institute’s National Archive, the Paris-based Cinémathèque Française Archive, the Royal Film Archive of Belgium, and elsewhere, as well as from private collectors.
The twelve Mutual comedies, which include both orchestral and piano improvisational scores, are rarely less than a delight, whether Chaplin’s making mayhem with an escalator in The Floorwalker , creating a chase scene with a revolving door in The Cure , or putting on a one-man performance as a gentleman-drunk in One A.M. , where a duplicitous folding Murphy bed replaces Eric Campbell as the villain. The first two films, The Floorwalker and The Fireman , still seem in the early Essanay mode, playing up the roughhousing as characters kick each other in the shins and butt. The Fireman does however feature an impressive early use of reverse film as Charlie drives a horse-driven fire engine backwards into the firehouse, trickery enabled by cameraman William C. Foster and assistant Roland Totheroh, who would take over for the last eight Mutual comedies and go on to shoot all of Chaplin’s classic features.
Picking up where The Tramp left off, The Vagabond finds Chaplin once again rescuing Edna Purviance (who, like Campbell, appears in most of these films), this time from a gypsy camp and then—God help her!—from an artist who wants to paint her as “The Living Shamrock.” The Pawnshop continues the slapstick as he plays a pawnbroker’s assistant who manages to smack people left and right with a ladder over his shoulder. It moves beyond slapstick however in a classic scene where Charlie, with the gravity of an ICU doctor, examines with a stethoscope an alarm clock some poor fellow has brought in to pawn. Completely deadpan and armed with a can-opener, Charlie proceeds to commit medical malpractice on this pathetic alarm clock, who we wind up feeling even sorrier for than the guy who brought it in.
Behind the Screen finds Chaplin playing a property man’s assistant to Campbell, with some madcap stage disaster and an over-the-top pie-throwing scene. But it’s in The Rink , where he plays a hapless waiter, that Chaplin seems to find his new rhythms, serving up the main course to one customer on a bed of dishrags, preparing an absurd cocktail for another by somehow shaking himself a hundred times more violently than the drink, and removing a broiler cover in front of a startled diner from which a live cat—it might as well be a mountain lion—escapes. Yet despite his gargantuan ineptitude as a waiter, when he hits the roller skating rink he is suddenly balletic—Nijinsky himself once said to him, “You’re a dancer!”—literally skating circles around the big lug Campbell.
The Rink turned out to be one of his most popular Mutual films, but the one that followed, Easy Street , proved even more popular and to this day remains one of his most famous. A tramp-like character, he meets Edna Purviance, who plays piano in an Easy Street mission. Home to the homeless, Easy Street is a nonstop riot, a domain presided over by The Bully (Campbell), who sends even the cops running for their lives. Which provides Chaplin employment. Now a cop, he winds up knocking out the bully by quite creatively sticking Campbell’s head inside a gas lamp casing—which becomes a gas chamber, though not quite killing him. Edna however somehow gets kidnaped and left in a room with another bad guy who, hypodermic needle in hand, is about to shoot up when Charlie comes to the rescue. What is in the hypodermic? Apparently not heroin, for when Chaplin accidentally sits down on the needle, he then jumps up so pumped full of energy that he cleans up Easy Street in no time, vanquishing his foes and restoring order. Doctor, can we get that prescription renewed?
Chaplin’s own favorite, The Immigrant—and one of the best in its classic blend of comedy, pathos, romance, and social commentary—finds him in steerage traveling to America. On board he befriends another immigrant (Purviance). Meanwhile, the ship rocks madly enough to make most viewers seasick (hold onto those empty popcorn bags!), a trick accomplished through both ingenious camerawork and stagecraft. Entering New York Harbor, they pass the Statue of Liberty, get herded like sheep by customs officials (is that young Vito Corleone a few passengers away?), part ways, then meet again by chance in a café where, a bit short of money, they’re menaced again, this time by the waiter. Yet it ends with the wistful consummation, a rain-soaked marriage, of the immigrants (something Purviance never got in real life with her lover, Charlie).
In the last Mutual film, The Adventurer , Chaplin plays an escaped convict dodging the cops along coastal California who then poses as a yachtman and winds up rescuing at sea Edna and Campbell. It’s slick, fast-paced, heavy with chase scenes and slapstick, and turned out to be the most popular upon its release. It also features one of his most hilarious scenes—not a chase scene. On a restaurant balcony he’s eating ice cream with Edna when a piece slips off his spoon and down his baggy trouser leg—naturally he struggles ferociously to keep his discomfort to himself. Then the ice cream slips out his leg cuff, through the open floor, and drops down the neck of a stout well-dressed middle-aged woman dining below them who shrieks and leaps up. It’s a two-for-the-price-of-one beauty.
Often in these films Chaplin doesn’t just play the underdog but the runt-sized assistant to someone else: a tailor’s apprentice in The Count , a pawnbroker’s assistant in The Pawnshop , a property man’s assistant in Behind the Screen . But behind the camera, the 5’6″ Chaplin was the giant, the boss, the great dictator, the great director. For myself, every one of these films contains some comedic gems. And historically, they form the bridge between the best film he did at Essanay, The Tramp , and the great feature films that were to come.
In addition to the beautifully restored Mutual comedies, the set includes two documentaries, one of which is the 63-minute The Birth of the Tramp (2013), written and directed by Bromberg and Lange of Lobster Films. An altogether excellent portrait, it traces both Chaplin’s life—his start in poverty in London and his work as a youngster in vaudeville, then his rise to international celebrity—and the development of his most beloved character, from the rough-and- tumble days at Keystone, through The Tramp’s refinement at Essanay, then Mutual, and on to his final development in the mature feature-length comedies. Expertly integrating historical footage and photographs with illustrative scenes from Chaplin’s life and films, and intercutting interviews with scholars and historians, the documentary presents a compelling portrait of one of the most important characters of 20th century cinema. Finally, it takes a look at the effort to reedit, repair, clean, and restore Chaplin’s films to their original ideal.
The second documentary in the set, Chaplin’s Goliath (1996), written and directed by Kevin MacDonald with support from the Scottish Film Council, deals with Eric Campbell, “Scotland’s forgotten star.” Born in 1880, the Scottish actor stood 6’4″ and weighed close to 300 pounds, and with gleeful sadism played Chaplin’s nemesis, Goliath to his David, in most of the Mutual comedies. A Scottish tribute to the Scottish actor, the film traces his short but lively career to its abrupt end when, drunk, he crashed his car in Los Angeles and was killed, soon after completing the last Mutual comedy, The Adventurer . Campbell was 37, and it was too bad. Chaplin liked him and he might well have wound up as the prospector hungrily chasing after Charlie in the Yukon cabin in The Gold Rush .
There was no one else like Chaplin. That’s why he was so widely imitated in his day, and why, a century later, film enthusiasts are still working hard in the newest digital labs with the latest digital technology to catch up to him. “The most complex [to reconstruct] was probably The Adventurer ,” says archivist and historian Bromberg from Paris, “which seems everywhere to be in good condition, but not up to our quality standards. The reconstruction was literally made from wrecks—L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna did the scan of the bits and pieces, and the reconstruction was carried out in our own laboratories in 2013. There are many issues with reconstruction. The choice of elements is always complex, and of course assembling different frames from different prints or dupe negatives in the same shot and make it unnoticeable is always some kind of miracle.”
Which is to say, these new digital reissues of Chaplin’s Mutual films aren’t just labors of love. They are some kind of miracle.
That said, these are still not necessarily the final word, if there even is such a thing. “These choices,” Bromberg goes on to say, “are really tough to make, and they of course give us a big responsibility. But we always document what we do, and what we have done can always be undone if, one day, a good element turns up with the part we were missing in the original negative A.”
To wit, the Little Tramp has a lot of staying power, and it’s taking him a long, long time to disappear with his bowler and his cane down that long and dusty road that vanishes over the horizon. The iris shrinks but it refuses to fade out.
Note: The Chaplin’s Mutual Comedies DVD/Blu-ray collection is a valuable addition to any film enthusiast’s home collection. This deluxe set comes in a handsome metal box and features a terrific 28 page illustrated booklet written by film historian/author Jeffrey Vance with an excellent essay and details about every film included.
Screenings of Chaplin’s films accompanied by live music can often be enjoyed at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, the Essanay Silent Film Museum in Niles, Fremont, the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, and the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. The annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival celebrates its 20th Anniversary May 28-June 1, 2015 and it is a great week of silent treasures with live musical accompaniment. Festival passes have just gone on sale.
Visit Lobster Films at www.lobsterfilms.com.
Flicker Alley is offering EatDrinkFilms readers an additional 5% discount off their already deep discounts making it the lowest price you will find anywhere. Use discount code EATDRINKFILMS when you order CHAPLIN’S MUTUAL COMEDIES or the delightful companion box set THE MACK SENNETT COLLECTION, VOL. ONE on www.FlickerAlley.com.
Michael Covino, an award-winning fiction writer, is the author of three books including the novel The Negative . He reviewed films for the East Bay Express for many years.