The Chaplin Revue Review
Charles Chplin spent most of his later years returning to his older work. In 1959, living in Europe in exile from the United States, having recently made A King in New York in England, with just one more new film in him (A Countess from Hong Kong, released 1967), he put out The Chaplin Revue. This assembled three of his earlier short films, A Dog's Life and Shoulder Arms, both from 1918, and The Pilgrim, from 1923. Chaplin re-edited the films slightly, added his own music scores, added a song "I'm Bound for Texas", sung by Matt Monroe, to The Pilgrim, and provided voiceover introductions to each film: over footage from his own short How to Make Movies before A Dog's Life, over archive World War I footage for Shoulder Arms and over the end credits of that film for The Pilgrim.
When his twelve-short-film contract with Mutual expired, Chaplin signed a contract for eight films with First National for $1 million. His primary goal was to be independent: to have the time and money to make his films the way he wanted, as as well as he could. He built his own studio, completed in January 1918. We see some of it in footage from Chaplin's short film How to Make Movies, used as an introduction to A Dog's Life and the whole compilation.
The first film under this contract, A Dog's Life, was released in April 1918. His films were showing an increasing sophistication and complexity in story construction, and were becoming longer: depending on which definition you use, Shoulder Arms and The Pilgrim, both around forty minutes each, are close to feature length, and stretch the definition of "two-reeler" (two projection reels, carrying 2000 feet of 35mm film each) to the limit.
All three films forming part of the Revue co-starred Chaplin's regular leading lady of the later teens and early twenties, Edna Purviance, though they had ceased to be lovers. However, A Dog's Life has another co-star, Scraps the dog, played by a very expressive canine called Mut, who sadly died three weeks after the film was completed. A Dog's Life showed Chaplin incorporating pathos with the comedy, paralleling the dog with Chaplin's by-now world-famous Tramp persona, who is now as much a sad clown than a purely comedic one. Also in the cast is Chaplin's older brother and business manager Syd, in his first acting role for his brother.
After A Dog's Life was completed, Chaplin went on a Liberty Bond tour to raise money for the war effort. His next film, Shoulder Arms, sent the Tramp into the trenches. Plenty of Chaplin's associates warned him of the inadvisability of making comedy from what was by then widely regarded as a disastrous war, one very costly in terms of life. But Chaplin made the film his own way and, following its release in October 1918, it was a considerable success, not least with returning soldiers from the war. Edna Purviance had a smaller role, but also in the cast were Syd Chaplin again (doubling as a sergeant and the Kaiser) and Chaplin's regular supporting actors Henry Bergman and Albert Austin, and also Loyal Underwood, who gets a gag at the expense of his own lack of height (he was noticeably shorter than Chaplin, himself not tall at 5'5") by appearing in a scene with some particularly tall soldiers. The result is masterly, with the real and all too recent horror of war only giving the comedy its edge.
After the success of Shoulder Arms, Chaplin asked for an increase in his contract with First National, but was refused. In a further significant step towards independence, at the beginning of 1919 he and three other actors and filmmakers – Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith – set up their own studio, United Artists. However, First Nation would not let Chaplin buy himself out of his contract with them and insisted that he make the six films he owed them. At the time, he had begun the short-lived first of his four marriages, with seventeen-year-old Mildred Harris. The break-up of the marriage, and the death after three days of their son, contributed to The Kid, made in 1921, originally planned as another short but which became a short feature.
The Pilgrim, in 1923, was Chaplin's final film for First National, and the last film he made below feature-length. Charlie, an escaped convict, disguises himself as a parson and finds himself in Devil's Gulch, Texas, having to play the part of the real parson the townsfolk are expecting. It was the final film as co-star for Edna Purviance, though she played the lead role in the feature A Woman of Paris the same year, which was a flop. (She retired from acting in 1927, though made brief appearances in Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight. Chaplin kept her on his payroll until her death in 1958, aged sixty-two, from cancer.) Disputes with First National held up distribution for a while, and the film had censorship difficulties in some states. The result is an assured work mixing comedy and social comment. Yet it's clear that Chaplin's art had outgrown shorter-length films and from now until the end of his career he only made features.
The Chaplin Revue is released on Blu-ray and DVD by Curzon Artificial Eye. It was a checkdisc of the former which was received for review.
As I have mentioned before in these reviews, Chaplin's films were first released on DVD in the UK as two box sets by Warner Home Video in 2003. The Chaplin Revue is an exception, as it was released separately in 2005, as a two-disc DVD containing the present feature and other short films. I do not have a copy of that edition to hand, but I don't doubt that many of its extras have been brought forward to this Blu-ray. Two of the short films on that DVD release, Sunnyside and Pay Day, are extras on Curzon Artificial Eye's release of A Woman of Paris.
The feature is transferred in a ratio of 1.33:1. That's certainly the correct ratio for the three short films, and also the extract from How to Make Movies and the World War I archive footage. So no complaints there, and we gain over audiences from 1959 who would have seen this film cropped or maybe reframed into a wider ratio, likely as wide as 1.85:1. On the other hand, the film would have been shown at the sound speed of twenty-four frames per second which is faster than silent speed. What that speed should be is open to question, as Chaplin frequently undercranked the camera to speed up the action, and continued to do this for non-dialogue sequences in his sound films. It's likely that A Dog's Life and Shoulder Arms were shot at either sixteen or eighteen frames per second. The Pilgrim seems less speeded up than the other shorts, so may have been shot at twenty frames per second, as were many silents from the 1920s. The condition of the original materials seems to have been variable, given that the original negatives would have been used to create a negative – or maybe an internegative – for The Chaplin Revue. There are some dupey-looking sections and some clear damage. There's also a strange transfer glitch of a vertical white line at extreme frame right in a couple of places – that's to the right of the 16:9 frame of this Blu-ray, outside the picture area and in the black pillarbox bar.
The soundtrack is the original mono, just a music score, Chaplin's brief voiceover introductions and Matt Monroe's singing voice. There are no issues here: it's clear and well-balanced.
The extras begin with a David Robinson introduction (4:51), along similar lines to his other introductions, giving a runthrough of the making each of the three shorts. The full How to Make Movies (15:55) is next, but this is an example of an extra repeated over Curzon Artificial Eye's discs: if you own The Kid, you have it already. A deleted scene (10:24) from Shoulder Arms is in fact a deleted opening sequence, which shows Charlie at home, receiving his call-up papers. It is presented mute.
The Bond (9:39), also mute, is a short film Chaplin made as part of his tour with the Liberty Bonds campaign. It features Chaplin with his brother Syd, Edna Purviance and regular member of his acting repertory company Albert Austin. The actors are filmed against a black set and illustrate a number of bonds, of friendship, of marriage, and ultimately the Liberty Bond, designed so that American can give a – quite literal – knockout blow to the Kaiser.
A Day's Pleasure (18:18) was made during a pause in the production of The Kid, to continue his contract with First National and to slake the demand for new Chaplin films. It features Chaplin and Edna Purviance as a couple on a family outing to the countryside, and Jackie Coogan also appears. It was something of a rush job and critics were none too impressed Still, it is included here so you can judge for yourself. It is presented with Chaplin's music score and is the only extra on these discs so far in HD rather than upscaled SD.
Also on the disc is an unfinished film Chaplin made with the great Scottish music-hall comedian Harry Lauder (8:41). This was intended to raise money for Scottish servicemen and was begun when Lauder visited Chaplin's studios in 1917, but it was never completed. It is presented mute. A French trailer (1:44) for The Chaplin Revue reveals that France at least had a two-film version of the feature, comprising Charlot soldat and Le pèlerin, but not A Dog's Life for reasons unknown. Finally, there are five stills and poster galleries, all self-navigating: stills for A Dog's Life (1:23), Shoulder Arms (1:11), The Pilgrim (2:27) and "miscellaneous" (0:32) and posters from various countries (0:41). The French-language title for Shoulder Arms in one of the posters is something of a plot spoiler. The compilation of extracts from films in the Chaplin Collection is not present on this disc.