Nov 20, 2015

Flicker Alley: Chaplin's Essanay Comedies, 1915

In 1915, Chaplin spent a fruitful year developing his craft at Essanay Studios in Chicago. While this was a brief contract for the emerging star, wedged between his early Keystone comedies and the more richly diverse films to come, it was a significant period, because he started to explore all the elements that he would eventually combine in his greatest works. Now all fourteen of the Chaplin's Essanay shorts from have been beautifully restored and made available with three bonus shorts on a dual DVD/Blu-ray set from Flicker Alley.

It's always been interesting to me how an effective restoration can make a film more timeless. After all, there's nothing like a lot of scratches and burn marks to remind you that you 're looking at something with a few decades on it. Clean it up and you get closer to the people on screen. They may have longer skirts and crank up their cars to make them go, but they face the same fundamental issues that we do.

Chaplin close-up in A Woman

That feeling of being closer to the performers on the screen was what I found most striking about this collection. I'd seen many of the films before, but I'd never felt the connection I did watching these restorations.

Part of it is being able to really see the nuances of Chaplin and leading lady Edna Purviance's performances. They're funny enough in a broad way, but it's even more exciting to see the flickers of dread, amusement and annoyance in their reactions to the players around them. They are more subtle than the supporting players, who gesticulate and mug dramatically, as was the style common in film acting at the time. I think it is this restraint and sophistication that, much like Mary Pickford, makes them timeless as performers.

In some respects the improved image clarity can be a bit jarring. I found myself distracted by a few flies crawling on the table during a dining scene. I'm sure all those fake beards and giant greasepaint eyebrows were never meant to be seen with as much definition as on Blu-ray either. Sometimes part of the comedy is how crazy some of these guys look. But it's interesting to note that Chaplin and Purviance were also subdued in that manner. Edna's make up would work as well in a film made today, one hundred years later.

That crazy, painted on facial hair
But for the most part the sharper picture brings to life details that add to the humor, even among the bit players and extras. It was amusing to realize for the first time that an actress gives Chaplin the side eye after an interaction with him in His New Job (1915), and in at least a few instances it looked to me like an extra was laughing for real at some of Chaplin's antics.

Image quality ranges from good to remarkably sharp, depending on the mix of elements in the restoration. Scratches are the most significant remaining damage, and these never obscure the action. There are notes on the reels used and restoration process on title cards before each film. Even for those not interested in the particulars of film preservation, it's interesting to see how much goes into the restoration of a 20 minute short.

It's exciting to see Chaplin at work just a few years before his peak, where he created movies like The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925) and City Lights (1931). You can see him progress from slapstick and mischief, to tear-jerking pathos and a kind of humor based more on relationships than pranks. That last element has a lot to do with Edna Purviance, who became Chaplin's frequent leading lady at Essanay. Through his high regard for her, he finds more humanity in himself, which makes him so much more relatable to his audience. You can sense how amused they are with each other in shorts like A Woman, and that delight adds a dimension to the slapstick; it is as if they are inviting the audience to laugh along with them.

Purviance and Chapin laugh together in A Woman

The cross-eyed comic Ben Turpin is another great Chaplin partner during this period. He takes a lot of abuse from the comic, starting with Charlie's first Essanay film, His New Job, and part of the humor is that he never seems to aware enough to take real offense. They tumble around like boys on the playground, but with perfectly-timed precision.

Bonus features on the set include Triple Trouble (1918), a short constructed out of unused footage that Essanay edited together after Chaplin left the studio, without his permission, and much to his irritation. Also included is the DVD/Blu-ray premiere of Charlie Butts In (1915) and a restored version of Charlie Chaplin's Burlesque on Carmen (1916). There's a new final shot in the set's never-before-seen restoration of Police (1916) and a great booklet with lots of behind-the-scenes images and an interesting essay by film historian and Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance that provided a lot of useful background information on the films in the set and that period in the comic's career.

This is a must-have for Chaplin fans, and a great introduction to his early work. If the reception in my house is any indication, it's also a perfect way to introduce kids to Charlie Chaplin and silent comedy in general.

Many thanks to Flicker Alley for providing a copy of the set for review. It can be purchased here.

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