Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies (1915-1918, 2015)
Worldcat link for Inter-library loan: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/50062265
Most of the DVD reviews on this blog have been about collections that have been available for years, that I got through a library. This set from Flicker Alley is a rare exception – a still quite new release that I purchased with my own money. It seemed necessary in order to assess Charlie Chaplin’s 1915 work before the Century Awards were over for that year. As I’ve indicated above, there are libraries carrying it now, but I don’t know what the wait list would have been like in November.
So, what did I get for my hard-earned librarian’s pay? This is a three disc set of Chaplin’s critical “second year” in movies (it also comes with a Blu-ray version, which I won’t review since I own neither a Blu-Ray player nor a digital television). The movies are absolutely beautifully restored and digitized. There are other releases of the movies from this period, but I don’t think you will find any of comparable picture quality. In cases like “Burlesque on Carmen” and “Police,” where the studio released butchered versions, the movies have been re-edited and restored as closely as possible to Charlie’s original vision. No doubt there will be disputes about some of the those decisions from people more knowledgeable than I, but it seemed to me that every movie I saw here was an original Chaplin, and having them restored made it much easier to track his progress as a filmmaker. In addition to the fifteen titles Charlie legitimately produced in his year at Essanay Studios, there are also two later releases which the studio patched together from unused footage: “Triple Trouble” (which draws from “Police”) and “Charlie Butts In” (which is a sort of re-edit of “A Night Out”). These are less interesting movies, and lower-quality prints, but they give an idea of the kinds of “inauthentic” Chaplin movies audiences were subjected to at the time.
The other “feature” is a nice glossy booklet with an essay by Jeffrey Vance (author of Chaplin: Genius of Cinema) on the work of Chaplin at this point in his career, and with brief discussions of each movie and information about the restorations (some of which is repeated in the credits for the movies). It is attractive and very nicely done, although it doesn’t take the place of commentaries, which I was surprised not to find. Considering the range of talent brought in to work on this release, it would have been nice to get Vance into a sound stage with David Shepard and a couple of the restorationists to talk about at least one of the movies (“Police” would have been my choice). But, really, that’s picking nits. There’s plenty here without it, and they probably would have needed more time and money to make that happen. Lest you think that there is no audio on these “silent” films, I should also mention the marvelous original scores by Robert Israel, Timothy Brock, and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Israel’s work, in particular, captures the range of Chaplin’s emotional development in these films.
In all, this is definitely the collection for serious Chaplin fans to get, and for those who are just meeting Chaplin for the first time to see. The movies are there in better shape than anyone’s seen them for 100 years, possibly better than what you’d have seen in most theaters at the time, and Chaplin’s genius shines through in its fullest glory.