Charlie Chaplin: The Essanay Comedies Blu-ray Review

January is always a time for silent comedy due to the juggernaut that is Slapstick Festival.  However, our January silent comedy custard pie has an extra layer this year due to the release of the BFI’s highly anticipated Charlie Chaplin: The Essanay Comedies box-set which hits the shops on Monday 23rd January 2017 (the Monday after Slapstick).

So, step in co-director James Harrison, who delves into Chaplin’s Essanay world to see what new delights can be found in this new collection.

This story started back in 2010! In December 2010 in fact! The BFI released what Flicker Alley stated was ‘an International Collaboration’ where we saw key archives working together to release what would be the ultimate Chaplin at Keystone box-set. Released in the US a few months earlier by Flicker Alley in October 2010, the result of such a partnership with the likes of Lobster Films and Blackhawk Films was magnificent and a successful example of what can be accomplished when archives work together. The Keystone box-set was followed up by another successful release in 2015 by the BFI, Charlie Chaplin: The Mutual Films Collection (released a year earlier by Flicker Alley) on both DVD and blu-ray formats. Skip to January 2017 and we have what seems to be the final project in this incredible origins of Chaplin trilogy with Charlie Chaplin: The Essanay Comedies (released by Flicker Alley in November 2015).

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Unlike the previous two box-sets; the Chaplin at Keystone set, where we are able to see Chaplin developing from music hall to film comedian with every film and Charlie Chaplin: The Mutual Films Collection where we get to see Chaplin develop as artist and filmmaker when it comes to Chaplin’s time at Essanay there really isn’t too much to talk about in relation to development. Watching an Essanay title you don’t get the same kind of comic satisfaction as you do with either a Keystone or Mutual film. Compared to those two other periods, there does seem to be a loss of momentum while Chaplin was at Essanay. There is almost a feeling that he somehow stalled while working there.

There could well be a number of reasons for this. Notably the combination of moving to three separate studios within the course of a year, not overly agreeing with key members of Essanay’s management and being rushed by the studio to complete certain projects on time. Chaplin was taking longer and longer to complete films by this point compared to the usual fast turnaround of earlier productions. It’s hard not to think that the sense of quality and development in Chaplin’s output was stretched to the limit while at Essanay. After all, some of the titles found in this period are very much themes and subjects that Chaplin had already covered such as A Night in the Show (1915), A Night Out (1915), By the Sea (1915) and In the Park (1915).

This is not to say that Chaplin’s time at Essanay was a total waste of time and most certainly not worth looking at. Some key elements would come into place in this period, elements which would be incredibly important for his future work. While at the studio Chaplin would work with the likes of Ben Turpin (they didn’t get on), Leo White and Lloyd Bacon (both would continue to work with Chaplin in the future). But most importantly of all, Chaplin found Edna Purviance, a key figure who would work with him for 8 years and become the most famous of the Chaplin’s co-stars.

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The box-set does also contain a few minor classics, His New Job (1915), The Bank (1915), A Night in the Show, The Woman (1915) a film which was most certainly ahead of its time when it came to portraying mixed genders on screen are all very good. But the key title from the Essanay period is The Tramp (1915). The Tramp is the film where we see the first hints of emerging Chaplin formula. It is the first time we see ‘the little fellow’ acknowledged as ‘a tramp’, it is the first time we get the sign of a Chaplin hero with compassion, but who still doesn’t get the girl. And the first time Chaplin concludes a film with our hero walking away towards the horizon, broken hearted. Then, suddenly, ‘the little fellow’ picks himself up and heads off to his next adventure with a new spring in his step. Alas, apart from these five titles, the rest of the Chaplin films found on this box-set are incredibly basic compared to what we would find a few months later when he moved to Mutual.

Is there anything new to be cherished in this beautifully produced box-set? Most certainly! In fact, out of all the three of the box-sets, this has some of the finest restorations as well as quite a few interesting gems when it comes to extras. The extras found on this Essanay release give a very interesting insight into the way in which Chaplin’s later work was manipulated.

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After Chaplin left Essanay at the end of 1915 the studio took advantage of what was left over of his work and made what would become ‘unauthorised’ Chaplin films. These films were made from either outtakes of already completed Chaplin Essanay titles or abandoned projects such as the never completed feature film project, Life.  The films, Charlie Chaplin’s Burlesque on Carmen (1916) and Triple Trouble (1918) are already well known titles among Chaplin fans and it’s good to see them included in the set. But less well known are two other titles; Charlie’s Triple Trouble (1944) a very rare sound version of the 1918 release Triple Trouble which includes commentary by comedian Tommy Handley. Charlie Chaplin’s Burlesque on Carmen also had a sound revamp, this time released in 1951 and renamed as Burlesque on Carmen with an interesting commentary by Peter Sellers, another rare extra which has hardly been seen since its initial release. But for me when it came to the extras the 10 minute short called Charlie Butts In (1920) is wonderful to watch; the short includes what is classed by author Glenn Mitchell as actuality footage of Chaplin conducting a band at Mer Island with scenes from A Night Out added in. A wonderful little film and really worth watching.

But the true champions of this set (like the past two Chaplin box-sets to be honest) are the people behind the restorations. Each time I ended up watching this set I was blown away by how good the restorations are, most of which have been incredibly clear and crisp; just a wonderful job!

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One particular film which stands out is A Night in the Show, where, when comparing the film to the BFI’s past Chaplin Essanay DVDs, released in 2003, you begin to release how much you have missed due to some major cropping involving the film’s framing. One interesting aspect is looking at the actors sitting behind Chaplin at certain moments near the beginning of the film; due to the clean-up and re-scanning you get to see everyone’s faces as clear as day. And in relation to framing, you get to see a lot more of the surroundings, particularity when the snake dancer comes onto the stage and hence a lot more of the performance.

On top of this you also get to see actors you would have never have seen before. One particular shot which involves the show’s audience includes a young girl sitting in as an extra about two rows back from where Chaplin is sitting, in the 2003 BFI edition you just slightly see her face on the odd occasion as she comes into frame and disappears again. In this new 2017 edition not only do you get to see her fully for the entire sequence, but you then realise that there is another girl sitting next to her, who, ends up being her twin sister!

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An incredibly small and not so significant moment in film history I know, but the fact that we can now see these two twins on film is most certainly an important factor when it comes to film restoration and begs the questions, who were they? Why did they end up there? And what happened to them?! This is the magic of film restoration, we get the chance to see things we would have never thought or seen before.

The restoration work found on this boxset really does champion the work by Lobster Films and L’Immagine Ritrovata, Bologna as well as the many collaborators of all the key archives involved. Outstanding work!

So is this Chaplin journey with Flicker Alley and the BFI looking at his early film work at an end now? Well, not quite, after all, the Keystone set released back in 2010 was DVD only. I envision a re-release on the blu-ray format on the horizon. For now however, love it or hate it, dive back into Chaplin’s Essanay years, it’s very much an eye opener in so many ways and will make you rethink not only Chaplin’s time at Essanay but make you rethink the importance of film restoration.

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