Charlie Chaplin: The Essanay Films Volumes 1 & 2 Review
Had Charlie Chaplin’s cinematic legacy extended solely to the efforts made at the Keystone and Essanay studios, that is until the December of 1915, it would intriguing to discover whether they had gained in critical favour. As it stands, in the context of his wider career, these early productions enjoy only a lukewarm reputation - one which acknowledges their importance in terms of academic interest (as the “first steps” of any culturally significant figure would), but makes scant mention as to whether or not they actually entertain. Certainly, when compared to City Lights (1931) or even near-contemporary Shoulder Arms (1918) these pieces often demonstrate an undeniable crudeness, yet they also prove to be genuinely funny.
Any reappraisal of the Keystone period on R2 DVD is currently hampered by poor availability; only a handful of titles are on offer, and these generally exist in a near unwatchable condition (or, as in the case of Tillie’s Punctured Romance, come with an irritatingly hokey voice-over and inappropriate sound effects). The Essanay pictures, on the other hand, have now been compiled onto two volumes by the BFI - though some of the films have been previously available, occasionally with the same David Shepherd restorations as found here - offering a complete overview of Chaplin’s work for the studio with all of the films being presented in generally fine condition (considering that they date from 1915), with tinting where applicable and worthy piano/orchestral accompaniment.
The most immediate aspect upon reacquainting oneself with the works (and I would suspect that the effect is even stronger for those aware Chaplin only through the features films) is how the character of the Little Tramp seems only vaguely familiar. All of the hallmarks are present and correct - the cane, the walk, the moustache - yet these earlier incarnations are a much tougher assortment, ones who demonstrate little of the sentimentality that would later become so intrinsic. Admittedly, there has been a softening up since the Keystone productions - there’s little to compare with the shooting spree which forms A Film Johnnie’s centrepiece, or even level of annoyance provoked in the character’s debut, Kid Auto Races at Venice - though Chaplin still finds room for the malicious use of a pitchfork (as in The Tramp), the old horseshoe-in-a-boxing-glove routine (The Champion) and numerous other instances of more direct physical violence. Indeed, the only respite comes when the tramp’s attentions are distracted by a female presence, usually Edna Purviance (though her mother will often do). Given his later dalliances with overt political messages it could be construed from some of the shorts that Chaplin is enacting a form of class warfare: the lower class tramp taking his revenge on the pompous upper classes by tossing them in the river and romancing their wives and daughters. More often than not, however, it is a simply a case of whoever has the ill-fortune to enter the same frame as our “hero” who is deemed fair game; the only people who are overlooked are women who are either overtly fat or, as is the case with the bizarre feat of make-up who populates A Night in the Show, hideously grotesque.
If this suggests that the films are rather two-dimensional and lacking in depth then that wouldn’t necessarily be incorrect nor, perhaps, unfair on Chaplin. Despite only a year’s employment within the film industry, he was serving as writer and director on 14 of the 16 shorted included on these discs, plus performing and retaining final cut. (The other two shorts, His Regeneration and Triple Trouble present a cameo for the tramp and a 1918 cynical cash-in utilising discarded outtakes, respectively.) With such responsibility and relative inexperience, not to mention an intense workload with some of the films being released barely weeks apart, it is unsurprising that Chaplin should only focus his attentions on certain aspects. For the most part, the general aim is simply to make each short as funny as possible, and the simplicity of the plotting provides him with an easily adaptable framework in order to do so. As a result, a number of titles are barely distinguishable from each other (In the Park and By the Sea, the two most freewheeling shorts, have only their titular locales to separate them), but each succeeds in being highly entertaining.
Key to this - and, indeed, one of the areas where Chaplin has focused his attentions fully - is the impressive ensemble casting. Unlike may of his later works, which were often essentially one man shows save for the occasional scene stealing cameo (Martha Raye in Monsieur Verdoux, say, or Buster Keaton in Limelight), each of the Essanay shorts sees the director being extremely generous towards his co-stars. Surprisingly, Purviance aside, each is also a gifted comedian in their own right and perfectly capable of both being Chaplin’s comic equal and stealing some of his thunder. Indeed, the sleeve notes reveal a certain cautionary tale in which Ben Turpin found himself sidelined after only a handful of appearances (most notably his wonderful turn as a drunk about town in A Night Out) owing to Chaplin’s jealousy (though little animosity ever manifests itself onscreen, even amongst such high levels of violence).
Central to this generosity is the decidedly democratic nature of the shooting style. Intentionally or not (and I would aver towards the latter given that this was 1915, early days for cinema, plus Chaplin’s own relative inexperience behind the camera) the shorts are filmed in a basic, unfussy manner consisting almost entirely of medium shots interrupted only by a change in location. Exceptions do occur, of course, such as the close-ups Chaplin allows his ‘tache-less drag act in A Woman - a very bizarre sight - but the theatrical approach is the norm. Given his stage background (and that of many of his co-stars), this techniques, or rather lack thereof, rarely prove detrimental to Chaplin’s comedy stylings as they would in the case of, say, Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton. Indeed, only in A Jitney Elopement, which traps the star firstly behind a table and then behind the wheel of an automobile for much of its duration, does the restrictive nature of this method become apparent. More importantly, however, it also gives all of the onscreen participants an equal footing, pitting only their ample talents against each other and thus explaining Turpin’s untimely banishment.
Turpin’s situation is also important insofar as it offers positive proof that Chaplin was gauging the audiences’ reactions to each short despite being in a state of almost constant production throughout 1915. That said, there is however no concrete progression from film to film, rather we have Chaplin flirting with ideas and experimenting with concepts, allowing most of the shorts to take on an individuality beyond the general middle ground discussed in the majority of this review. Burlesque on ‘Carmen’, for example, sees a dalliance with parody (mostly of Cecil B. DeMille’s then-recent adaptation of the Prosper Merimee tale) alongside the more familiar clowning, whilst The Tramp proffers the familiar exiting into the horizon ending for the first time. Interestingly, this was the only instance of the famous Chaplin calling card during the entire Essanay period (and note that it was the seventh short he made there, allowing plenty of time for it to be employed again), suggesting that it was only once the move to the Mutual Film Corporation came about that Chaplin was genuinely able to take a more distanced look back at his oeuvre to date and then decide where to develop to next.
The back sleeve blurb to accompany these two volumes is somewhat misleading. Despite claiming that the Essanay shorts “have only previously been available in poor or incomplete versions”, a number of the David Shepherd restorations, i.e. ones identical to those found here, could already be purchased on Stonevision’s various R0 Chaplin DVDs. That said, those discs also housed some which were shorter than the ones found on these BFI discs, in appalling condition or, as was the case with Work, came with a relentlessly obnoxious voice-over. Moreover, the soundtracks occasionally differed, instead offering often inappropriate ragtime jazz no matter what was occurring on-screen. As such these two-disc volumes undoubtedly represent the better option. Of course, the restorations are not free from damage, plus the decision to provide the most complete editions has resulted in often dramatic shifts in quality from shot to shot, but this is to be expected. In the context of films from this era - especially in comparison with the currently available prints of Chaplin’s Keystone works - the results are generally pleasing, especially with the applied tinting (not a feature on any of the Stonevision presentations) and the piano/orchestral scoring. The latter have been composed by either Robert Israel (in the case of the orchestral works) or Eric James (piano) - except for Burlesque on ‘Carmen’ which is accompanied by a selection of Bizet, of course - and incidentally provide a guide to which works have the better critical reputation; the generally better favoured works (The Bank, The Champion, etc.) receive orchestral accompaniment, the others a simple piano track. In either case, both are presented in two-channel mono are provide no discernible problems.
As special features, the BFI discs again better Stonevisions. Whereas the latter could muster only a typo-ridden filmography (A Wmoan, Burlesque on ‘Garmen’), these volumes provide a number of text-based extras plus a photo gallery of Chaplin with various contemporaries (D.W. Griffith, et al). Not too extensive, perhaps, but they do provide some context, both for Chaplin and the Essanay company as a whole. Moreover, the kind of archive and documentary footage that has accompanied the BFI’s Mutual disc and Warner Bros’ excellent releases of the various feature films simply doesn’t exist for this period and as such it would churlish to expect it.