Chaplin's Essanay Comedies


Charlie gets in trouble with the law in "In the Park."

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Most of Charlie Chaplin's famous short comedies come from his tenure at Mutual Film Corporation. During 1916 and 1917, he turned out a series of 12 outstanding, influential comedies that placed him among the most popular of all silent film stars. But before Mutual (and after his brief, hectic tenure at Keystone Studios), Chaplin worked for one year at a largely forgotten film company called Essanay Film Manufacturng Company. If not for Chaplin's comedies for Essanay, it's doubtful if more than a handful of people would now recognize the Essanay name.

Unlike the Mutual comedies, the films he produced at Essanay are rarely studied in film schools--with the exception of "The Tramp," the one unqualified gem in Chaplin's work at Essanay. However, these comedies are important films in the development of Chaplin's screen comedy. Many of the ideas that he develops in the Essanay comedies would become dead ends. But others, as in "The Tramp"--with its closing shot of Charlie wandering down a road by himself--would become key moments in the development of Chaplin's screen persona.

Thanks to Kino on Video, these Chaplin comedies are now available again in excellent transfers. Several of these shorts were previously available from Kino, but the new transfers, available on both DVD and VHS, have been made from newly restored prints with re-recorded musical accompaniment. Included in this set are some real surprises for Chaplin fans: among the previously unavailable material, you'll find a reconstructed two-reel version of Chaplin's "Burlesque on Carmen" (after Chaplin left Essanay, the company filmed new scenes and extended the film to four reels); a comedy released three years after Chaplin left Essanay called "Triple Trouble," assembled from discarded portions of Chaplin's "Police" and the ending of "Work," as well as portions of an abandoned feature length film entitled Life; and a Chaplin cameo in a G.M. ("Broncho Billy) Anderson short entitled "His Regeneration." (Anderson was one of the two owners of Essanay.)

The quality of the source material varies. At times, the prints are relatively free of wear, but at other times, obviously well-worn segments appear. This is part of the nature of restoring works of silent cinema now over 80 years old. Scraps of films were frequently discarded as shorts were re-released. And negatives frequently were left to deteriorate in film vaults. Entire reels decomposed. However, thanks to the work of David Shepard of Film Preservation Associates, Chaplin's Essanay comedies have been pieced back together again from choice material discovered around the world. They haven't looked this good in many decades. This is the definite edition of these comedies.

Upon Chaplin's arrival at Essany, he immediately encountered difficulties with the producers, who weren't interested in giving him the freedom that he desired. He was even given scripts to work from. (Louella Parsons, who would become one of Hollywood's most famous gossip column writers, was the head scenario writer at Essanay at this time.) However, Chaplin rejected most tampering and worked with his own stories--although the pressure to produce a new comedy every two weeks frequently shows in the slight, directionless premises on display in many of Chaplin's Essanay comedies.

Many of the comedies feature similar stories, just the locales change. Each new short would feature Chaplin causing havoc in a new location. The titles of the shorts frequently give away the settings, as in "By the Sea," "The Bank," and "In the Park." Even Chaplin's best Essanay comedy, "The Tramp," could have been called "On the Farm." So the formula became obvious very early on in Chaplin's solo work. But he successfully avoided becoming a victim of the formula by allowing his character room to grow. In "The Tramp," for example, we get one of the first examples of the pathos that would become a hallmark of his later comedies: Charlie is injured while saving a woman (frequent co-star Edna Purviance) from thieves. When she cares for him, he mistakes her kindness as love. But when her boyfriend returns to town, he hits the road and leaves a message behind: "I thort your kindness was love but it ain't cause I seen him." This scenario could easily have drifted into maudlin sentiment; however, Chaplin tempers the effect. The camera focuses upon the tramp as he wanders down a road by himself: at first, he moves slowly, as if he's dejected, but then suddenly his pace picks up, as if he accepts what has happened and now he's ready to face whatever life will deal him. It's a wonderful moment that Chaplin would return to on several occasions throughout his career. Modern Times features a variation where Chaplin and Paulette Goddard walk off together down a road in the film's final shot.

We also see growth of the tramp character in "The Bank." Charlie plays a janitor who develops a crush on a cashier (Edna again). But when he leaves her a present, she assumes it's from another co-worker named "Charles." Even after Charlie saves the bank from thieves and "Charles" is revealed as a coward (he cowers under a desk), Edna reconciles with Charles, leaving Charlie alone for the final fadeout. "The Bank" also features a wonderful opening gag where Charlie arrives at the bank and opens the main vault (the first lock combination is on his cuff and the second is on the waistband of his pants), looking very much like he's in charge. But when he emerges from the vault, he's carrying a mop and bucket.

Lest anyone feel too sorry for the little tramp, Chaplin provides many opportunities for the tramp to display a mean streak. In "Police," for example, the tramp encounters a preacher immediately after having been released from prison: "Let me help you to go straight," says the preacher. But Charlie soon discovers the preacher is actually a pickpocket. When he next encounters a street preacher (this time a legitimate one), Charlie angrily runs him off. Or in "The Tramp," Charlie's idea of helping out around the farm is to use a pitchfork to prod another farm worker who carries a sack of grain. Or in "Triple Trouble," when Charlie puts a noisy drunk to bed in a flop house, he carefully rolls down the bedding, sets the drunk in bed, and then clobbers him over the head with a bottle. Or in "A Woman," Charlie leads a blindfolded man to a lake and then he pushes him in.

In "A Woman," Chaplin also displays a great facility for working with dinner table props (a talent that would pay off big time in this classic comedy The Gold Rush): he serves doughnuts by spearing them with a foot-long knife. The doughnuts slide down the blade, over the handle, and (voila!) onto the plate. He thinks he's being sophisticated. "A Woman" also features an effective scene where Charlie dresses in drag in order to sneak out of a house; however, the father (and that's who he's trying to avoid) takes a liking to him/her.

Not all of the comedies in this set are as effective as "The Tramp" or "The Bank." In particular, "A Night Out" and "By the Sea" are somewhat tedious. And "Burlesque of Carmen" even plays its climatic scene straight (where Chaplin and Carmen apear to kill themselves with a knife), as if Chaplin had no idea how to approach this scene comically (the scene's weak punch line reveals the knife's blade is retractable). However, these are fascinating shorts because they allow us to see Chaplin at work developing and honing the character of the little tramp. And thanks to Kino and David Shepherd of Film Preservation Associates, we can now experience these early Chaplin comedies in remarkably sharp and detailed video transfers.

 


Chaplin's Essanay Comedies is available on DVD (a three disc set) and VHS (a four video set) from Kino On Video (DVD distribution by Image Entertainment). Suggested retail price: $19.95 per volume for VHS and $24.95 per volume for DVD. For additional information, check out the Kino On Video Web site and the Image Entertainment Web site.