Charlie Chaplin: Essanay Comedies [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - British Film Institute
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (20th March 2017).
The Film

Charlie Chaplin: The Essanay Comedies (1915-1916)

In 1907, The Peerless Film Company was established in Chicago, Illinois by George K. Spoor and Gilbert M. Anderson who later renamed the company officially on August 10th, 1907 as Essanay Studios - using their initials “S” & “A”. The studio’s short film subjects ranged from comedies to westerns to dramas, featuring up and coming talent such as Ben Turpin, Wallace Beery, Gloria Swanson, among others to make a series of successful works. The most successful came from the founder Anderson starring in the western series “Broncho Billy”. As for the westerns, Chicago was not an ideal place to recreate the settings so the studio set up an additional studio in Niles, California to take advantage of the near-the-desert location. While the studio was best known for the shorts, they also made a leap into feature films in latter years, with the 1916 “Sherlock Holmes” film being the first American take on the London detective. Essanay continued independently until merging with fellow studios Vitagraph, Lubin, and Selig to create the VLSE Corporation in 1918 which would not prove to be as successful and eventually to be absorbed by Warner Brothers by 1925. During the 11 independent years the Essanay company made more than 1400 films. Many have been lost or forgotten over the years but the ones that still resonate the most were by one of cinema’s biggest figures - Charles Chaplin.

Chaplin made a series of very successful films for Keystone Studios in 1914, appearing in 36 short subjects with 21 of those being Chaplin directed-starring titles. As his popularity increased, so did his demands in creativity and in salary. When it was time to negotiate a second contract with Keystone, the studio balked at Chaplin’s demand of $1000 a week. Essanay Studios made a better offer for a contract: $1,250 a week plush a signing bonus of $10,000. Chaplin had further control of his work as a director and as a star in his own productions. The productions were much more refined with precision in timing and more complex gags which led to a slightly slower pace of filmmaking than at Keystone, but the quality of the productions were obvious. In addition to the direction, the character of “The Tramp” was fully realized during the Essanay contract. Keystone’s Tramp character was a trickster, a rude brute, and it played for sight gags with some cruelty toward the supporting characters which was fun, but some changes came at Essanay. While films like “His New Job” and “A Night Out” show the silly slapstick with supporting characters getting kicked around by the Tramp, later productions show a more sensitive side - “A Jitney Elopement”, “The Bank”, and “Burlesque on ‘Carmen’” show the Tramp character as a love interest - a sweeter side and one that is more relatable on an emotional side. Not to say he was no longer mean. The Tramp was still pushing people into a pond in “A Woman”, running from the law in “Police” and punching boxers with a brick in the glove in “The Champion” so the sight gags of rudeness was still alive and well. It’s easy to point out to the production entitled “The Tramp” as the significant transformation and settling of the Tramp character that people have come accustomed to over the years.

It was also during this time that he met Edna Purviance who worked as Chaplin’s leading lady for nearly all the Essanay films and continuing to act with Chaplin for more than 30 films over the years. The productions also featured the usual Essanay players such as Leo White, Billy Armstrong, Lloyd Bacon, and many more who become familiar faces during all the films made at the studio. Some of the more ambitious films include “A Night at the Show” in which the theater setting completely gets destroyed by two characters played by Chaplin featuring pie in the face gags, the infamous water hose, and a large cast of theater patrons getting wet, as well as “A Burlesque on ‘Carmen’” which Chaplin does his own rendition of “Carmen” on a large scale for a short film that does have comedy to counterbalance the emotion and tragedy. And Chaplin actually does look quite beautiful in drag as he crossdresses to trick a man in “A Woman”, and to see Chaplin on film without the standard mustache during the silent years is a rarity.

Chaplin had a successful run with creative and financially positive films but behind the scenes was not always looking the same direction and Chaplin decided to part ways with Essanay after the contract ended in December 1915 as he was given offers from many other studios. His choice was at The Mutual Film Corporation which gave him a staggering $10,000 a week, making him one of the highest paid actors at the time at only the age of 26. Essanay studios decided to capitalize on the further success of Chaplin which continued to grow by reissuing his older films, recutting and making compilation films such as “The Essanay-Chaplin Revue of 1916”, “Chase Me Charlie”, and “Charlie Butts In” angering Chaplin as they were not approved by him. The company also released “Triple Trouble” which further angered Chaplin, as they used footage shelved by Chaplin for the unfinished film “Life” and cobbled it together from other Chaplin productions and outtakes plus new footage to make a new story. Because of the control taken away and the handling of the films led to lawsuits and bad blood, it’s no wonder that Chaplin did not speak highly of his Essanay productions, even if some staggeringly good quality productions were made there.

Thankfully to audiences 100 years later the films are all available on Blu-ray for future generations to enjoy. The BFI’s Blu-ray release of “Charlie Chaplin: The Essanay Comedies” includes the following films spread across two Blu-rays:

DISC ONE
The Films (with Play All) (211:42)
- "His New Job" (1915) (28:57)
- "A Night Out" (1915) (27:27)
- "The Champion" (1915) (31:12)
- "In the Park" (1915) (14:11)
- "A Jitney Elopement" (1915) (25:05)
- "The Tramp" (1915) (26:43)
- "By the Sea" (1915) (14:22)
- "His Regeneration" (1915) (15:10)
- "Work" (1915) (28:30)

DISC TWO (Blu-ray)
The Films (with Play All) (182:18)
- "A Woman" (1915) (23:20)
- "The Bank" (1915) (25:20)
- "Shanghaied" (1915) (27:45)
- "A Night in the Show" (1915) (24:34)
- "Burlesque on 'Carmen'" (1916) (31:26)
- "Police" (1916) (26:03)
- "Triple Trouble" (1918) (23:47)


Included are all 14 films directed by and starring Chaplin, and in addition the Anderson directed “His Generation” which includes a cameo by Chaplin plus the post-contract “Triple Trouble” which as mentioned before was comprised of outtakes and of new footage shot and edited by Leo White.

Note this is a region B Blu-ray set which can only be played back on region B and region free players

Video

The BFI presents the films in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in the original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. Each film has been restored from differing source materials from sources around the world for the best possible picture for each, with some of the films having multiple sources. The films have been restored in 2K by Lobster Films and L’Immagine Ritrova from a 12 year restoration project. Considering the films are over 100 years old, there are obvious defects and damage to expect. Some films have black and white fluxuation such as “A Night Out”, “A Jitney Elopement” has some issues with out of focus shots, “Shanghaied” has extremely damaged markings on the outdoor ship shots, coupled with damage all over. To make things better, some of the films look very good. Sharpness, depth, clarity, and grey levels looks great on a number of titles in the set with digital restoration tools applied to remove the worst of the damage.

Each of the films has a restoration credit at the end of the film, with the exception of “Triple Trouble”. That particular title seems to come from a standard definition source upconverted to 1080p, with very weak grey levels, soft focus, and lack of sharpness to the edges. The press release and the rear inlay does state “All films fully restored in High Definition” so it is unusual that this one, even if unauthorized by Chaplin was not given an HD treatment like the rest of the set.

Audio

Music LPCM 2.0 stereo
The scores are presented in lossless stereo for each film, featuring compositions from Robert Israel, Mont Alto Orchestra, Fotoplayer, and Timothy Brock. Each film only contains one soundtrack option and no alternate scores are provided. Israel’s piano scores sound great with its minimalistic tones while the Brock and Mont Alto Orchestra tracks are presented with a bigger scale in size. Stereo separation sounds great with timing of the scores matching the images without synchronization issues.

The films include English intertitles for all the shorts. The intertitles have been recreated rather than using the originals so they are very sharp and clean with no issues of damage or stability.

Extras

DISC ONE

"Charlie Butts In" short (10:40)
Using alternate takes from “A Night Out” as a single reel version, this unapproved Chaplin short features a few alternate shots exclusive to this short. The picture does have its damage in picture as the film was not remastered like the other main features in this set.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.37:1, Music LPCM 2.0 stereo with English intertitles

DISC TWO

"Charlie's Triple Trouble" featuring the voice of Tommy Handley (1948) (15:33)
This version of “Triple Trouble” is yet another unauthorized version released with narration by Tommy Handley plus newly recorded sound effects. This has been mastered in 2K from a 35mm print held at the BFI Nation Archive - but make no mistake that this has not gone through any extensive restoration. Damage is all over the frame and the soundtrack has issues with defects and cracks. In addition, the booklet and inlay state that this was released in 1944 while the menu states 1948.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

"Burlesque on Carmen" featuring the voice of Peter Sellers (1951) (36:39)
This version of “Burlesque” was assembled from the 4-reel re-edited version. The narration comes from the amazing Peter Sellers who does a lot of vocal impersonations during the film, including what almost sounds like Groucho Marx as the “standard” voice. As the BFI National Archive only had the soundtrack and not the actual print of the 4-reel version with the audio, the Blu-ray presents a newly re-edited reconstruction of the 4-reel version.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, in English LPCM 1.0 with no subtitles

"The Long Year at Essanay" featurette (22:24)
Writer and Chaplin expert Glenn Mitchell narrates this video essay on Chaplin’s time from the offer by Essanay. There are clips of non-Chaplin Essanay films.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

Booklet
There is a 24 page booklet included. The booklet starts with the essay “Chaplin at Essanay” by University professor Frank Scheide giving a basic overview to the year at the studio. Scheide also provides the next essay “About Essanay” which is about the studio’s history. A breakdown of each film comes by writing by Glenn Mitchell, giving information on release dates and criticism plus trivia. Also included are cast and credits listings for each short film, information on the special features, presentation information and acknowledgments.

The extras are good with the featurette and the additional shorts, but the set is a slight disappointment in the extras department compared to the previously released “Charlie Chaplin: The Mutual Comedies” in 2015 included commentaries on each film plus alternate scores for most of the films.

Overall

Even more than a century later, “Charlie Chaplin: The Essanay Comedies” provide lots of laughs, great technical skills, and imaginative work that would resonate with cinema for generations onward. The BFI’s release includes great transfers for the 14 main productions plus additional films and informative extras. The “Triple Trouble” transfer is questionable, but overall the set is very recommended.

The Film: A Video: B Audio: A Extras: C Overall: B+

 


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