Combustible Celluloid
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With: Charles Chaplin, Eric Campbell, Edna Purviance, Lloyd Bacon, Albert Austin, Henry Bergman
Written by: Charles Chaplin, Vincent Bryan, Maverick Terrell
Directed by: Charles Chaplin
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 400
Date: 08/19/2014

Chaplin's Mutual Comedies 1916-1917 (2014)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Tramp of Genius

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Many of the world's greatest film writers, and many of the world's great writers, period, have expounded upon the genius of Charles Chaplin, (he was recently chosen as the greatest filmmaker of all time by yours truly), while others have written negatively of this supreme showman, this supreme poet of the cinema. But it occurs to me that, for a long time, it was not possible to see Chaplin's films in the proper way. Many of them had fallen into public domain, or were shown on 16mm prints at the wrong speed, or transferred to gloomy-looking VHS tapes in the early days of home video. It could be entirely possible that a number of Chaplin's detractors have seen these substandard examples of his work -- with the grace and timing lost -- and made their judgment call.

That marvelous, applause-worthy distributor Flicker Alley gave us, in 2010, a complete DVD box set of Chaplin's earliest films at Keystone Studios, working throughout 1914 as an actor-for-hire, finding and refining his "Tramp" persona, and working his way up to director. His next stop was Essanay Studios, where he stayed through the spring of 1916 before moving to Mutual Studios. There he made twelve incredible two-reel films that further developed his genius. Flicker Alley has now released a remarkable, absolutely essential box set, Chaplin's Mutual Comedies 1916-1917, containing two Blu-rays and three DVDs of these twelve films, all newly restored.

What can I say about the films except that they not only look stunning, but also positively refreshing? The films are nearly 100 years old, and there's some wear and tear, but they look glorious, and the orchestral scores are worthy of the films.

The films are The Floorwalker, The Fireman, The Vagabond, One A.M., The Count, The Pawnshop, Behind the Screen, and The Rink (all 1916), and Easy Street, The Cure, The Immigrant, and The Adventurer (all 1917). They all run between 20 and 30 minutes. Chaplin filmed them all in a studio that had been built specifically for him, and all of them focus on certain kinds of occupations.

Among the standouts, there is One A.M. -- one of my favorites -- a masterful one-man show highlighting a drunken Chaplin simply trying to get upstairs and into bed, with various inventive props barring his way and Chaplin interacting with them in an incredible combination of drunken weaving and balletic dance. The Immigrant, which has a place in the Library of Congress's National Film Registry, is one of Chaplin's most touching films, funny, but also perhaps an early attempt at social commentary (and a sore spot with the House Un-American Activities Committee years later). The Pawnshop contains an amazing sequence in which the Tramp examines an alarm clock, inspecting it in several different ways over the course of a few minutes, and revealing a huge array of comic ideas in one compact scene. In The Rink, he shows off his skating abilities, which would later be put to good use in Modern Times.

The Mutual comedies featured the debut of the king-sized bad guy Eric Campbell, as well as Lloyd Bacon, who plays Chaplin's "twin" in The Floorwalker and would go on to direct Busby Berkeley musicals like 42nd Street (1933) and Footlight Parade (1933).

All I can say is, please, please see these shorts. They are much funnier than you can even guess, and it takes less time to watch any one of them than it would take to watch a handful of cat videos or Justin Bieber videos on YouTube, yet so much more fulfilling.

Extras include a 34-page booklet with photos and an essay by film historian Jeffrey Vance. There are also two hour-long documentaries, Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange's new The Birth of the Tramp, and Chaplin's Goliath (1996). The latter is all about the aforementioned Campbell, and is directed by future Oscar-winner Kevin Macdonald (One Day in September).

In addition, Flicker Alley has also released a great three-disc Blu-ray set, The Mack Sennett Collection, Vol. One. Known as the "King of Comedy," Mack Sennett started as an actor, rose through the ranks as a writer and director, and then a mighty producer. Many of the greatest silent-era comedians under his guidance. This incredible collection showcases early works by Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Fatty Arbuckle, Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon, Mabel Normand, Gloria Swanson, Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler, Ben Turpin, Ford Sterling, Charley Chase, Al St. John, Mack Swain, Edgar Kennedy, and W.C. Fields in a couple of his brilliant early talkies. All the films are remastered in high-def. The set comes with a full-color booklet, new scores, commentary tracks, memorabilia galleries, and other rarities.

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