In an age of increasingly precise and highly rendered film experiences, silent film fans are a special breed. While scholars of early cinema often have both funds and access to exclusive film vaults, the average silent cinema fan today trawls a digital marketplace flooded with deteriorating bootlegs of their favorite films. The films almost never have their original soundtrack; often they’ve been reimagined with some contemporary music score that changes the atmosphere completely. Intertitles are often missing, incorrect, or inserted after the fact according to the interpretation of its purveyors.
Charlie Chaplin, with a prolific career spanning more than 75 years from his first Keystone film in 1914 to his last film shortly before his death, has suffered the fate so common to so many early pioneers of narrative cinema. In his 2008 biography of Chaplin, Stephen Weismann writes of Chaplin’s early films that:
in almost all cases, the surviving prints have been so chopped up that, while various copies of the same Chaplin Keystone film may present identical scenes, they are often arranged in different order. In some print versions of a film, entire sequences are omitted. Concentrating on worn-out prints exhausts a viewer. It is tempting to dismiss Chaplin’s entire year output at Keystone as more artistically primitive than it was in reality, on the assumption that those original recorded performances were as crude and inferior as the poorly preserved celluloid strips on which they are viewed ninety years later.
Recently, however, dedicated silent film enthusiasts, historical and film restoration societies have been cooperating in an attempt to restore Chaplin’s early films to their best possible state, allowing film fans and scholars to experience, for the first time, Chaplin’s budding comedic genius and developing narrative artistry in high definition and unprecedented fidelity to its original state. Flicker Alley’s recent release of 15 newly restored comedies from Chaplin’s time at Essanay Studios is a priceless addition to collections of Hollywood history. It promises pleasures not only for the dedicated silent film and/or Chaplin fan, but also for those curious about just what it is about the two that captured the attention of the entire world.
For those familiar with the later feature-length masterpieces for which he is known — The Kid (1921) and City Lights (1931) being my personal favorites — the Essanay comedies reveal a young artist attempting to find his format and perfect his craft. While the early Keystone pictures provide insight into the incipient stages of Chaplin finding his format as an artist, the Essanay comedies show a confident star perfecting the same while continuing to push his work to new depths.
The physical comedy and transposition gags (where a character blindly mistakes one item for another, resulting in a comedic juxtaposition of intent and outcome) are all present, but they are put in service of more sophisticated narrative and attempts at infusing comedy with pathos. The short films, which range from around ten- to 40-minutes, are alternately hilarious and melancholy, and as the viewer follows The Tramp through his various adventures and peccadilloes, they recognize the trials of their own daily lives—the professional misrecognitions, the romantic disappointments, and the hope for always something a little bit better, a little bit sweeter, than what one has now.
The first disc contains, in my opinion, the two standout films of the collection. The first, titled His New Job takes a fun poke at Chaplin’s former Keystone boss Mack Sennett by dramatizing the travails of the Tramp’s everyman on a bustling movie set. It was, by far and away, my favorite of all of the 15 films, though it definitely had competition in its successor A Night Out. The two films pair Chaplin with the fantastic Ben Turpin, a silent comedy star of almost the same caliber. The two play off one another perfectly, as each brings their own amount of clumsy grace to the squabbles they stage on-screen. Chaplin’s funny tramp sneer is balanced out by Turpin’s playing up of his crossed eyes, and altogether the duo strike one of the finest figures in all of early cinema.
Other films make use of the same comedic tropes and gags, though they make use of varying locales in order to diversify the audience’s experience. I loved seeing The Tramp work his way through the various echelons of society, whether he be causing trouble in a park or an orchestra house. Wherever we find him, The Tramp is always the underdog, vying for female attention from more “socially acceptable” (read: upper class) men or attempting to make a buck doing demeaning, menial labor for which he is altogether too brilliant. He is constantly misunderstanding social conventions, and so the films have an anarchic spirit to them. They are not, however, amoral; meanness and cruelty are swiftly punished and The Tramp eventually triumphs over the oppressiveness of his social position, even if it means just walking off toward the horizon of another adventure.
The content of the actual films is so diverse that I hesitate to recap them all. The Woman is a fun romantic farce that begins in a park and ends with Chaplin in drag, a sight that probably titillates more than it inspires laughter. He is, after all, quite a beautiful man. The short By the Sea makes fun of masculine sexual rivalry by means of poking fun at masculine dress habits, specifically, the tendency to attach one’s bowler hat to one’s lapel by means of a small chain. This proves hilariously impractical on the windy beach, as does any attempt that The Tramp makes to hold any job whatsoever, and he does try his hand at several in the collection.
Whether painting, hanging wallpaper, pulling a handcart, cooking aboard a ship, or playing the Spanish guard in Burlesque on Carmen, The Tramp is always a step behind (or ahead of) whatever simple task he is expected to carry out. Like many of us, he seems confused about the actual point behind so many silly, laborious actions, and even when enjoying the fruit of his labors, as in his attending an orchestral performance in A Night in the Show he is ill-equipped to fit into the tight spaces—both literal and figurative—allowed him by bourgeois propriety. He is the pinnacle of the outsider, and he counts on you, the viewer, feeling like an outsider too. As such, in this sublime high definition rendering, he becomes the patron saint of all odd folks out there watching; long live Chaplin in all his glory.
The box set comes with two different collections. One is a set of three DVDs of the 15 restored films, plus the two bonus shorts. The other collection is the same material on two discs in blu-Ray format. The combination of both formats is crucial for film lovers who find themselves moving between their own top-of-the-line home theater set-up and the less progressive ones of their family and friends.
The addition of regular DVDs allowed me to review the films on my laptop while enjoying a pint at my local watering hole. At the table next to me was a group of middle aged Texan men watching Sunday night football. Upon noticing my continuous lapse into fits of giggles, they asked what I was watching. When I told them I was looking at recently restored Chaplin comedies from a 100 years ago, unbelieving that something so old could be so much fun, they came over to my table to watch for a minute or two.
What resulted was a testament to the importance not only Chaplin but of the efforts of organizations like Flicker Alley in preserving historical cinema: as Chaplin’s Tramp defied social convention and returned meanness with absolute absurdity, these men, with whom I had nothing in common, started giggling too. Chaplin is, without a doubt, a timeless pleasure, one that crosses the various boundaries of race, social class, or generation. Society owes a debt to Flicker Alley for preserving that legacy in such charming form.