Home Video Hovel: Chaplin’s Mutual Comedies, by Scott Nye
While we continue to delight in, and eagerly await the remainder of, the Charles Chaplin features Criterion has released in spectacularly ornate Blu-ray editions, Flicker Alley has given the filmmaker’s earlier efforts rather stunning treatment in the here and now, bringing us all the closer to an age in which all of his major works might be viewed in a format that can properly accommodate their genius. Though better-known, and respected, for those mid-period sentimental works, his work at Mutual represents, in many ways, the man at the absolute height of his abilities.
The year before he went to Mutual, Motion Picture Magazine wrote that “Chaplinitis” had consumed America – her was merchandised, lampooned and celebrated in comic strips, sung about, and, when he signed a deal for $670,000 per year with his new studio, became one of the highest-paid people in any industry in the world. He would later describe his time there as the happiest of his career. And it shows onscreen. With no specific demands on the Tramp as a fully-formed character, Chaplin could morph that persona – the walk, the faces, the ill-fitting clothes and awkwardly-trimmed mustache – to suit each two-reel subject. He could be blindly heroic, madly erotic, greedy, lovesick, clueless, lazy, drunk, or cowardly. His films were mildly amoral, running towards each successive gag with increasing glee, and casually underplaying whatever dignity the Tramp may assume by their conclusion. Pie fights, kicks, pratfalls, chases, deception, and disguises were all that mattered; cleverness, invention, and timing the top priority. The results are beautiful, as only the purest works can be.
As part of the quickness with which the films were, at least initially, produced (one two-reel film every four weeks), Chaplin worked with a stock company of actors and technicians, most notably Eric Campbell, a giant of a man who, with over a foot on him and weighing more than twice as much, made a perfect foil to Chaplin’s slight, diminutive frame. He features in nearly all of them, as Chaplin’s boss, romantic rival, bully, or any other manner of adversary that may be called for. He is mostly called upon to look foolish, but does it so very well. In their best showdown, 1917’s Easy Street, Chaplin plays a beat cop who unknowingly agrees to walk the streets ravaged by Campbell, who has been sending dozens of officers back to the station with all manner of injuries. One look at the man and you understand why. Chaplin contorts his body around Campbell, keeping himself just barely out of the reach of the man’s lumbering frame, besting the man through confusion and innovation. The film plays out like an extended Popeye cartoon, with drugs eventually substituting for spinach. The ‘10s were a strange time for the cinema.
There are many other masterpieces here. The Pawnshop, Behind the Screen, The Floorwalker, and One A.M. are models of economy, using limited sets to maximum effect, and precise editing to watch people and pies fly from room to room without missing a beat, let alone their target. He’d pick, at most, two head-to-toe camera set-ups per location that could serve nearly any event that need be captured in that space, often letting whole scenes play out in a single shot, all the better to capture the ways people make themselves ridiculous. The Immigrant and The Adventurer, his final two for Mutual, take on considerably grander scale, but suffer not for their ambition. It merely gives him more room to run. The Cure, The Rink, The Vagabond, The Fireman, and The Count fill out the release, and better it is for their presence.
Each film has been painstakingly, gorgeously restored by Lobster FIlms and L’Immagine Ritrovata. They culled all available sources, sometimes resulting in images that vary wildly from frame to frame, but which, all told, are really quite breathtaking. Naturally, there is a good bit of damage, but depth, clarity, and contrast are expertly rendered, grain carefully managed so as to neither obscure nor detract, while remaining, from all available evidence, astoundingly true to what Chaplin captured nearly a century ago. I was in awe of what was accomplished here.
Each film comes with two choices for score – either an orchestral arrangement composed by some of the most accomplished silent film accompanists around today (including the Mont Alto Orchestra, Carl Davis, Gabriel Thibaudeau, and Robert Israel), or improvisational piano by a few of the same. I always chose the orchestral pieces first, and would recommend the same with a couple of exceptions – though he has produced incredible work in the past (most notably for Criterion’s 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg set), Israel’s work is not very good here, opting for a few sound effects that feel poorly-placed or completely unmotivated; also, Timothy Brock’s score for The Immigrant was recorded live, with laughter and other noise from the audience occasionally polluting the soundtrack. The piano alternatives are uniformly compelling, and if the idea that they are purely improvisational seems off-putting, I recommend you see one of these guys do this live, in-person. Their reflexes and instincts are quite inspired.
Special features are limited to a pair of documentaries, both of which come highly recommended. First is The Birth of the Tramp, produced for this release (and others like it) by Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange of Lobster Films, who take an intuitive, personally-engaged look at Chaplin’s life, career, and legacy, interspersed with clips from both his films and other from the time. These guys do some of the most important work in the world in preserving and restoring silent films, and their depth of knowledge greatly emboldens their work here without becoming overbearing. After that is Chaplin’s Goliath, Kevin Macdonald’s 1996 documentary on Campbell, Chaplin’s good friend (after Campbell’s divorce, he moved into the room next door to Chaplin’s at the Los Angeles Athletic Club) and collaborator, whose life ended tragically, and far too soon. Also included is a booklet with an essay and notes by Jeffrey Vance.
Both by dint of my purchasing predilections and my capacity as a home video blogger, a good number of discs promising revelatory engagements with classic cinema hit my doorstep. Many of them deliver on that promise; we live in an incredible age for fans of old movies. Very few from this year have met the standards Flicker Alley has hit with this release; none have exceeded it. With twelve films totalling nearly six hours of adventurous, spirited comedy from one of its true masters, magnificent restorations, twenty-four scores, and two stellar documentaries, all presented here on both Blu-ray and DVD on region-free discs, presented in a gorgeous steelbook case, this is one of the best and most important home video releases of the year.