Charlie Chaplin: The Mutual Films Review

Charles Spencer Chaplin was born in poverty in London in 1889. He made his first stage appearance at five, at the Aldershot Palace (then a music hall, later a cinema and nightclub, a listed building just walking distance away from where I live). In 1908 he followed his older brother Sydney into Fred Karno's comedy company and by 1910 was touring with them in North America. In 1913 he broke into the film industry at Mack Sennett's Keystone Studios in Los Angeles, making his debut in the one-reeler Making a Living, released in 1914. However, it was in his second film, Kid Auto Races at Venice, the same year, that the "Little Tramp", the character he was best known for, made his first appearance. With Caught in the Rain, also 1914, Chaplin started to direct his first films. He moved on to Essanay Studios at the end of 1914, where he continued to make and star in films, and also met his frequent leading lady, Edna Purviance, who worked with him for eight years and was for two of them his lover. Over the next year, Chaplin became one of the biggest stars in silent comedy, a figure recognised worldwide. When his contract with Essanay expired, he signed with the Mutual Film Corporation for £670,000 ($10,000 a week plus a $150,000 bonus), to make twelve two-reelers (25-29 minutes each at silent speed), all of which he would write, direct and star in, over the space of a year. With this contract, he became one of the highest-paid people in the world.

The twelve Mutual comedies, released in 1916 and 1917, are an explosion of creativity from a man still then in his twenties. He had by then amassed a repertory company of actors: not just Purviance but also his regular antagonist Eric Campbell, a literal "heavy", at 6'5" a foot taller than Chaplin (and towering even more over the 5'2" Purviance), Albert Austin, Henry Bergman and others. On the other side of the camera, Rollie Totheroh became his regular DP, who remained so for over thirty years. While Chaplin delivered the farce that had made him a worldwide star, making use of his abilities for almost balletic movement, he also experimented. You can see Chaplin's work develop over the year, from simple runabouts reminiscent of his Keystone and Essanay films to films counterpointing the comedy with social comment and material drawn from Chaplin's own life and experience. One A.M. is, apart from Albert Austin's role as a taxi driver at the start, a solo performance, the antagonist to Chaplin's rich dipso (drawing on the drunk act which had been a staple of his at Karno's) being the fixtures and fittings of his lavish apartment as he tries to get home and bed after a big night out. Easy Street, one of the greatest of them, draws on his memories of early poverty in the slum (an elaborate studio set) of the title. The Immigrant is the only Chaplin short preserved in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. In the films, Chaplin tries out subjective camera and on occasion undercranking the camera to speed up the action, something less easy to do in sound films due to the need to synchronise dialogue. There is also little of Chaplin's somewhat Victorian-bred tendency to mawkishness which features more in his later work and sits less well with modern sensibilities. Partly because of this, in later years there has been a tendency to knock Chaplin's output in favour of other great comedians of the time, such as Buster Keaton. However, in the Mutual Films you will find a high level of inventiveness, clearly pouring out of the man in so many films in so short a period, and they remain fresh and funny to this day.

The twelve films took longer than the contracted year to produce, as Chaplin took more time over them. With the ending of his contract, Chaplin moved on to First National and in 1923, moved on to feature films with A Woman of Paris, a dramatic vehicle for Purviance which failed at the box office, and the comedy The Gold Rush which was a huge success. Meanwhile, Mutual ceased to be in 1919 and the ownership of the twelve shorts changed hands several times and for many people their first viewings were not in the versions that Chaplin intended, with re-edits and cuts, and the addition of synchronised music soundtracks on the prints cropping the image at one side. There was once a time when a British TV channel, one of only three at the time, could show not just a black and white film but a black and white silent film, but that's how I first saw several of these films, on BBC1 on Saturday mornings in 1978. They certainly didn't look as good as these digital restorations and most likely, if memory serves, were also shown at the wrong speed. The current restorations have gone back to original elements, many of them nitrate, to present the shorts in as complete a version as is possible.


The Discs

Charlie Chaplin: The Mutual Films is a limited-edition two-disc Blu-ray set, six films per disc. There is also a two-disc DVD edition, though it was the Blu-ray which was supplied for review. Each film has a score by Carl Davis. One A.M. has one alternative score, while the eleven other films have two each. In all but one case, one of the options is a piano improvisation. The short films, with notes of the score options (apart from the Davis ones which each one has) plus the person providing the commentary track, are as follows:

Disc One
The Floorwalker (29:25)
Scores: Gabriel Thibaudeau; Antonio Coppola (piano improvisation)
Commentary: Frank Scheide (co-author of Chaplin: The Dictator and the Tramp)
The Fireman (26:26)
Scores: original Fotoplayer music and effects track by Robert Israel; Neil Brand
Commentary: Glenn Mitchell (author of The Chaplin Encycolpaedia)
The Vagabond (26:49)
Scores: The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra; Antonio Coppola (piano improvisation)
Commentary: Glenn Mitchell
One A.M. (27:26)
Score: Gabriel Thibaudeau (piano improvisation)
Commentary: Dan Kamin (author of The Comedy of Charlie Chaplin: Artistry in Motion
The Count (25:15)
Scores: Donald Sosin, Peter Breiner and Richard A. Whiting; Neil Brand (piano improvisation)
Commentary: Frank Scheide
The Pawnshop (26:42)
Scores: Winston Sharples and Gene Rodemich; Donald Sosin (piano improvisation)
Commentary: Dan Kamin

Disc Two
Behind the Screen (25:23)
Scores: Robert Israel; Antonio Coppola (piano improvisation)
Commentary: Hooman Mehran (co-author of Chaplin: The Dictator and the Tramp)
The Rink (25:54)
Scores: Antonio Coppola; Maud Nelissen (piano improvisation)
Commentary: Hooman Mehran
Easy Street (27:11)
Scores: Neil Brand; Donald Sosin (piano improvisation)
Commentary: Bryony Dixon (curator of silent film at the BFI National Archive)
The Cure (26:26)
Scores: Stephen Horner; Maud Nelissen (piano improvisation)
Commentary: Glenn Mitchell
The Immigrant (25:11)
Scores: Timothy Broch; Donald Sosin (piano improvisation)
Commentary: Michael Hayde (author of Chaplin's Vintage Year: The History of the Mutual Chaplin Specials)
The Adventurer (26:54)
Scores: Robert Israel; Neil Brand (piano improvisation)
Commentary: Carl Davis

The above running times include restoration logos and captions. The original Mutual logos and opening credits have been replaced with electronic ones, and the Mutual logo at the ends of each film has been electronically recreated. You can't switch score via your remote: each score of each film is on a separate disc title, as the score composer's name is included in the opening electronic credits. The commentaries are on the same titles as the Davis scores, though you can only select them from the disc menus.

All the films were shot in 35mm black and white at a ratio of 1.33:1. Two negatives were shot, one for US release and the other for international. In restoration, the former is favoured and the latter is used to restore missing or severely damaged sections. Sources for the restorations are listed in captions at the start of each film. While there clearly are some damaged sections, with a plethora of tiny scratches, the results are remarkable considering these films are nearly a century old. There is grain, and a lot of it, but that's to be expected. At the time black and white film was orthochromatic, with less sensitivity to parts of the spectrum, and this had an impact on the makeup used on the cast. This results in a look which these films have: closer to actual black and white, with narrower greyscale, than the far greater number of shades of grey enabled by the arrival of panchromatic film in the following decade. The films were shot at around 18 to 20 fps, not unusual for silent films of the era, and the speed has been maintained in 1080p24 by repeating frames, which isn't easily detectable unless you're specifically looking for it.

The soundtracks are music scores for these silent films, presented in LPCM 2.0. And that's actual stereo, playing in the left and right channels, rather than playing as mono through the centre speaker or as surround. The score options are listed above.

Each film has a commentary track and the commentators are listed above. Most of the commentaries are scene-specific, with the various experts pointing out aspects of the film, or items of relevance to Chaplin's life and career which may not be immediately apparent. Most of Scheide's commentary for The Count is drawn from a contemporary article written by Fred Goodwins who visited the set. Carl Davis talks more about his first viewings of Chaplin films as a child, his career working in score composing for silent films (the TV series Hollywood and The Unknown Chaplin) and his project to score all the twelve Chaplin Mutuals, beginning with The Immigrant, which he scored off his own bat rather than being commissioned to do so.

There's one on-disc extra on the first disc, a short piece of film (0:34 including opening caption) showing Chaplin, his brother and business manager Sydney in attendance, signing the Mutual contract with the company head John R. Freuler. On Disc Two, there are two extras. First is "'Charlie' on the Ocean" (5:12), a newsreel from 1921 showing Chaplin's return to England in 1921 as an international star. He is seen entertaining passengers on the ocean liner and being greeted by a large crowd at the London Ritz. Both pieces of film are silent, with music scores by Neil Thomas and J. Schneider respectively. Also on the second disc is an interview to camera by Carl Davis (9:19). This does overlap somewhat with his commentary on The Adventurer and his piece in the booklet, as he talks about watching the Mutual shorts as a child and his approach to scoring the films. As Chaplin did himself, Davis does incorporate other melodies in his scores, such as "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" and Gilbert and Sullivan's "A Policeman's Lot is Not a Happy One", both in Easy Street. He also at times uses the percussion section to provide sound effects.

The booklet runs to thirty-six pages. Michael J. Hayde, Dan Kamin, Glenn Mitchell appear again, the first with "The Mutual Comedies", an overview of the twelve films in the set. Kamin contributes "The Dancing Mutual Comedies", an appreciation of the way Chaplin uses his body and his physicality in an almost balletic way, which particularly impressed Rudolph Nureyev and caused Marcel Marceau to declare him the greatest of all mime artists. Mitchell provides notes on the twelve films, a half-page column for each. After credits for the films, brief notes on the two archival extras and details of commentators (the latter incomplete in the copy received for review), Carl Davis contributes "Scoring the Mutuals", which does overlap with his commentary and interview mentioned above, but does give more details of his orchestration methods. Credits follow for the music scores on these discs, but again this was incomplete in the copy of the booklet received. Finally, there are transfer notes, disc credits and acknowledgements and several stills.

9 out of 10
8 out of 10
7 out of 10
8 out of 10

Chaplin's twelve classic short comedies, made for Mutual in 1916-1917, are released on DVD and limited-edition Blu-ray by the BFI.


out of 10

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