Home Video Hovel: Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies 1915, by David Bax
One of the astounding things about Flicker Alley’s collections, Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies 1915, is right there in the title. The nearly seven hours of films contained in this two Blu-ray/three DVD box set were released in a single calendar year. All were directed or co-directed by, as well as feature on screen, Charles Chaplin himself. It’s a staggering amount of output by today’s standards. It’s even more impressive, when watching the films in the chronological order in which they are presented here, to note how quickly and how drastically Chaplin improved as a filmmaker in his year with the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company.
In the early works like “A Night Out,” Chaplin’s film language is clumsy. Shots don’t flow naturally from one to the next, confusing the modern brain that has been sophisticated by a century of cinematic progress and occasionally leading to confusion about which direction a character is going to or coming from. Still, those distractions are few given that Chaplin mostly presents scenes as under a proscenium, unfolding in long, single takes like many silent films of the time, the comedies in particular. It is also interesting to note that the Tramp character is not quite fully formed. The look is there, with the ill-fitting suit of clothes and the little mustache (in fact, there’s notably outlandish facial hair on many of the characters) but the personality has not yet calcified. The early character is impish to the point of sociopathy, often solving his frustrations with casual violence, usually visited upon a character played by one of the many recurring actors in Chaplin’s company (Ben Turpin, Leo White, Bud Jamison, even Edna Purviance).
Soon, though, in films like “In the Park,” Chaplin stars to vary his aesthetic, allowing in more technique and nuance. There are close-ups and there are long shots, including the iconic ones of the Tramp walking either away from or toward the camera. The character is a bit more refined here but still with some odd exceptions, such as “The Woman,” in which Chaplin appears without a mustache. He is nearly unrecognizable.
By the end of the set, we start to see something close to the Chaplin we know. “The Bank,” perhaps the set’s best film, features more cleverness and subtlety alongside the grand physical set-pieces, including bits of humor in the dialogue shown in intertitles, while also executing a clear, three act mini-narrative, though the hilariously downer ending does not fit with the sentimentalist we would come to know. Eventually, he even becomes confident enough in his Tramp character to repurpose him into unlikely narratives, casting him as Don José (here named Darn Hosiery) in the parodic “Burlesque on Carmen.” By the end of all those hours, this box set has not only provided a bevy of laughs, it’s also served a crucial biographical purpose in the story of Charles Chaplin the filmmaker.
The 2K transfers, from various 35mm sources located all over the world, is up to Flicker Alley’s high standard. The images are mostly sharp and clear, not just in terms of contrast or dirt but also in the area of stabilization.
Special features include an extra, unofficial Chaplin film called “Triple Trouble,” a restored short called “Charlie Butts” and a booklet featuring fascinating behind-the-scenes shots and an essay by Jeffrey Vance.