Home Video Reviews
The best way to begin the set is with the Richard Schickel documentary. Considering the sheer volume of Chaplin's artistic output and his tumultuous personal life, Schickel does a good job of condensing it all into a 133-minute running time; he even incorporates a generous selection of clips from Chaplin's most important works. Film historians and Chaplin biographers David Robinson, David Thomson, Jeanine Basinger and Jeffrey Vance lend the film scholarly weight. For me, the most interesting parts of the documentary were the remarkably preserved color home movies and the recollections by several of his children. The testimonies by contemporary filmmakers and actors are generally insightful, though there is perhaps too much of that sort of thing. For example, mime artist Bill Irwin's footage easily could have been removed without compromising the film as a whole.
Thankfully, the documentary doesn't shy away from the more controversial aspects of Chaplin's life, namely his attraction to young women (or rather, girls) and his leftist sympathies. If I do have a criticism of Schickel's documentary in this respect, it is a question of emphasis. The decision by the INS to deny Chaplin the right of re-entry to the U.S. in September 1952 seems somewhat abrupt the way it is presented in the documentary, but it was in fact the culmination of years of harassment by the INS and dogged surveillance by the FBI, to say nothing of soured public opinion toward the actor. Chaplin biographers have reported, for example, that The American Legion picketed Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight (1952), effectively ruining both films' box office prospects. Seen in that light, Chaplin's decision not to return to the U.S. is more readily understandable. Fortunately, this issue is treated in more detail elsewhere in the set. Still, this is a minor quibble with an otherwise absorbing and well-produced documentary.
The 2-disc set titled The Chaplin Revue covers the shorts produced for First National from 1918 to 1923. Shot at the newly constructed Chaplin Studios and distributed by First National Exhibitor's Circuit, these films contain longer and more complex narratives than his earlier two-reelers produced for Essanay and Mutual, and they show Chaplin expanding the boundaries of his screen persona. These films are also noteworthy for their more elaborate production design; Shoulder Arms, for instance, contains surprisingly realistic reconstructions of World War I trenches. In 1959, Chaplin trimmed down A Dog's Life, Shoulder Arms and The Pilgrim and compiled them into a single 2-hour feature--the original The Chaplin Revue--adding a prologue using footage from the unreleased How to Make Movies, brief introductions to each of the films, and musical scores that he himself composed in collaboration with Eric James. It is this version that makes up the second disc, while the first disc contains the remaining four films. On the copy I purchased, the discs are misprinted: Disc 1 is labeled as Disc 2, and vice versa.
In A Dog's Life, the Tramp takes on a canine companion--an abandoned mutt not unlike himself--while he attempts to woo a saloon-hall girl. He stumbles across some stolen loot and plans to take the girl away with him to the country, but the thieves try to steal the money back. One of the best First National shorts, A Dog's Life somehow succeeds at transforming the sordid world of urban poverty and crime into hilarious comic gags, from the Tramp's fruitless attempts to fight his way to the front of the employment line to his stealing food from a street vendor's cart. In its unsparing treatment of poverty and its use of a comic sidekick, the film looks forward to Chaplin's even more accomplished feature-length debut, The Kid. Shoulder Arms uses Charlie's persona to celebrate the courage of ordinary fighting men while poking fun at the ordeals of trench warfare. The film was a tremendous popular success, not least with war veterans. In The Pilgrim, Chaplin plays an escaped convict who steals a preacher's outfit and poses as a minister in a small town. The highlight of this film is a madcap church service culminating in a sermon on David and Goliath delivered in pantomime. Special features on this disc include extended scenes from Shoulder Arms deleted before its initial release; The Bond (1918), a crude but amusing propaganda film promoting the sale of war bonds, and the reconstructed, previously unreleased 16-minute short How to Make Movies (1918), which combines footage of Chaplin's new studio being built with a humorous take on the film production process.
Although generally considered one of the lesser First National films, Sunnyside nonetheless contains some clever gags inspired by its rural setting. Here Chaplin plays a daydreaming clerk at a small-town hotel; he is forced to compete for his girlfriend's attentions with a visiting city slicker. The weakest film of the batch is A Day's Pleasure; hastily shot to appease First National while Chaplin worked on The Kid, its narrative is less solidly constructed and some of its gags, especially those involving seasickness on the boat, are overly reminiscent of earlier films. Even in his major films Chaplin often recycled older routines, but here one doesn't get the same sense of refinement and invention that distinguish his best routines. The strongest film on the second disc is The Idle Class, in which Chaplin plays twin roles: the familiar Tramp and an alcoholic, wealthy husband. It contains one of Chaplin's classic bits as a comedian: we assume that the husband is sobbing when his wife leaves him a note condemning his alcoholism, but in reality he is merely shaking up another cocktail. In Pay Day the setting is a construction site, where Charlie has to labor all day in order to take money home to his shrewish wife. Once again, Chaplin displays a knack for turning a depressing social milieu into rich comic material. Special features on this disc include a deleted scene from Sunnyside, footage of Chaplin clowning around with the British Music Hall comedian Harry Lauder, and footage of visitors to the Chaplin Studio--among them fellow comedian Max Linder and Prince Axel of Denmark.
Chaplin worked for over a year on his first feature, The Kid (1921), and the degree of care that went into it is reflected in the luminous finished product. The film is remarkable for its evocation of poverty; the slum scenes are at times as tellingly detailed as Lewis Hine photographs. Jackie Coogan's performance is rightly regarded as one of the great child performances of all time. Not only does he provide the ideal companion for Chaplin's gags, his more emotional scenes have a conviction and a purity of expression that has never been equaled. An instructive lesson in Chaplin's skill as a director, if only by way of contrast, is provided by My Boy (1921), a subsequent Jackie Coogan vehicle included as a bonus on the second disc of this title. The basic situation is similar: Coogan plays an immigrant orphan boy who is taken in by a crusty old seaman until he is reunited with his wealthy grandmother. However, that film's direction is uninspired compared to The Kid and Coogan, while undeniably talented, does not display nearly the emotional range that Chaplin was able to evoke from him.
A Woman of Paris (1923), Chaplin's second feature and his first film for United Artists, marked a decisive break both in terms of Chaplin's complete absence as an actor--except for an unbilled cameo--and the film's serious intentions. Edna Purviance, Chaplin's favorite leading lady at this time, plays Marie St. Clair, a young French woman who is thrown out of her house when she announces her intention to marry. She takes the train to Paris, where she becomes the mistress of a wealthy playboy (played by a perfectly cast Adolphe Menjou). Tragic complications ensue when her former fiance meets her again years later. At the time, critics regarded it as a milestone in its subtlety of acting, but the public showed little interest in a Chaplin film that didn't star Chaplin himself. In retrospect, A Woman of Paris is one of the best dramatic films of the Twenties; it set the mold for the worldly comedies of Ernst Lubitsch starting with The Marriage Circle (1924), which also starred Adolphe Menjou. Unfortunately, the film's commercial failure, which was deeply painful to Chaplin, foreclosed a promising path in his creative development. Special features on this disc include: deleted shots; footage of Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith signing the contract for United Artists; and Camille (1926), an utterly bizarre home-movie riff on La Dame aux Camelias featuring, among others, such luminaries as Chaplin, Paul Robeson, Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Clarence Darrow, Alfred Knopf, Ethel Barrymore, Dorothy Gish and W. Somerset Maugham!
The Circus (1928) was Chaplin's most troubled production, drawn out over two years due to interruptions such as an exceptionally ugly divorce case and the complete destruction of the circus set by fire. Miraculously, the resulting film is a perfectly judged balancing act of virtuoso comedy--unmatched to this day for sheer belly laughs--and a poignant, classically structured narrative. The Tramp, wrongly accused of being a pickpocket, flees the police and winds up in a circus. There he befriends and falls in love with a young circus rider who is mistreated by her father, the circus proprietor. The latter is portrayed as a sneering, mustachioed villain. The Tramp's unintentional pratfalls become the hit of the circus, but his plans to woo the daughter are complicated when the dashing high-wire artist Rex joins the troupe. The genius of the film is not that the story or gags break new ground per se--indeed, everything here is already familiar, as Chaplin clearly intended. Rather, Chaplin distills the conventionalized narrative and comic elements into a self-reflexive commentary on the nature of comedy and performance. Although the film was enthusiastically received during its initial release, over the years it has been shamefully neglected by critics, even by Chaplin himself, who associated the film with the difficulties he suffered while making it. Now The Circus can reclaim its rightful place among his masterpieces. Special features on the disc include: a reconstructed, unused sequence in which the Tramp gets into a fistfight with twin boxers; outtakes from the same sequence; excerpts from another Jackie Coogan vehicle, Circus Day; and home movie footage of Chaplin shot by Lord Louis and Lady Mountbatten
City Lights (1931), Chaplin's first film of the sound era, was even longer in production than The Circus because of his meticulous working methods. Once again, this shows in the perfection of the finished product. The film's plot has become legendary: the Tramp befriends a blind flower girl, who mistakes him for a millionaire. He perpetuates her illusion while attempting to raise money for an operation to restore her sight. The finale, in which the Tramp visits the girl after she can see again, is rightly regarded as one of the pinnacles of screen acting; the same material would have been cloyingly sentimental in another director's hands, but in Chaplin's it is sweetly understated and still has lost none of its power to move. Standout gags in the film include the famed boxing match, so often described as "balletic," and the moment when the Tramp, dressed as a wealthy man, jumps out of his convertible to fight with a fellow tramp for a discarded cigar butt. While Chaplin decided that the film would have to be silent--that he couldn't give his Tramp an actual voice--his use of the soundtrack nonetheless demonstrates mastery of the newly developed sound medium: not only did Chaplin compose the score himself, but at several points he cleverly integrated sound effects with the visual gags, such as when he swallows a whistle at a party. Ultimately, I prefer the more energetic pacing and even tighter narrative construction of The Circus, but one can only admire City Lights for its grace and its coherent artistic vision.
Monsieur Verdoux (1947) was one of Chaplin's few flops in the U.S. due to its ruthless black comedy and the political controversies plaguing Chaplin at that time. Inspired by the real-life French serial killer Henri Landru, it depicts a fired bank clerk, Henri Verdoux, who maintains a placid home life while simultaneously wooing, marrying, then murdering several women for their money. In spite of its production constraints, the film is brilliant in the way it manipulates audience identification with the murderer: the victims are largely physically unattractive, crass and shrewish, making us glad to be rid of them. At the same time, Verdoux himself is cultured and supremely sensitive, if a bit dandyish. However, when we see Verdoux at home with his "real" wife, child, and friends, maintaining a facade of innocence and normality, it leaves a queasy feeling in our stomachs. Chaplin jerks the viewer's emotions around further with the sprightly music on the soundtrack that accompanies Verdoux while he concocts his murderous schemes. The culmination of this strategy is probably the moment when Verdoux, having perfected his formula for an untraceable poison, rubs his hands together, faces the camera and says, "And now, for the experiment." Finally, Chaplin uses the figure of Verdoux to make some acidic commentary on the murderous nature of capitalism itself. Fans of Hollywood character actors will particularly relish the presence of comedienne Martha Raye as the loudmouthed lottery winner. Special features include film posters, radio commercials and sketches for the sets.
The last film in the collection is A King in New York (1957), which is packaged together with A Woman in Paris. A rambling satire of American values, it stars Chaplin as King Shadov, who has fled a revolution in his country and settled in New York. Robbed of his finances (or rather, the country's finances) by a corrupt minister, he is reduced to appearing in television commercials. The best part of the film is the second half, which turns into a bitter attack on McCarthyism. King Shadov befriends a precocious--and obnoxious--young boy named Rupert (played pitch-perfect by Chaplin's son Michael) who constantly spouts political diatribes. When the boy's parents are called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and refuse to name names, he is seized by the authorities and King Shadov, tarnished by his association with the child of political outcasts, is summoned before HUAC as well. Given the film's forthright critique of Red Scare paranoia, it's hardly surprising that it wasn't shown in the U.S. until 1976. Special features include deleted scenes and footage of Chaplin conducting the orchestra during rehearsals for the soundtrack recording.
In terms of special features, one of the most distinctive touches on the box set is the series of short films titled Chaplin Today that accompany each of the feature films. About 25 minutes each, they include interviews with contemporary filmmakers such as Abbas Kiarostami, Liv Ullmmann, Claude Chabrol, Emir Kusturica and animator Peter Lord. While not all the interviews are equally illuminating, the episodes usually contain additional background information not covered in the Schickel documentary or in David Robinson's introductions. The installment for A King in New York is probably the best in the collection, providing an excellent overview of the film's controversial reception and an eloquent defense of the film by Jim Jarmusch.
THE VERSIONS USED
The versions of the silent films used on this box set were those prepared for reissue by Chaplin himself, mostly created in the 1970s with the exception of the 1959 Chaplin Revue. For these versions Chaplin often cut brief scenes, added his own musical scores, and in some cases used stretch printing to slow the action, since most modern film projectors run only at 24 frames per second. While on the surface it would seem that using the "authorized" versions is the preferred way to present Chaplin's films, this in fact does not always show the films to their best advantage. First, it must be said up front that Chaplin did not always display the best judgment later in life when reworking his own films. The most notorious example of this is his 1942 reissue version of The Gold Rush (1923), which is contained in Volume 1 of The Chaplin Collection. Hoping to create a version that would play better to modern audiences, Chaplin removed the title cards and added his own voiceover narration explaining the action. Today the result is all but unwatchable, but fortunately in that set a restored print of the original silent version has been included as a bonus on the second disc.
The cuts Chaplin made in the films included on Volume 2 may have tightened up their pacing, but sometimes at the expense of character development. A good example of this is in the original version of A Woman of Paris: during the confrontation between Marie and her father we see a close-up of a photograph of Marie's mother; the frame is decorated with a black ribbon. This shot was cut from the reissue version, in which we see the portrait only in long shot. While this detail may seem superfluous, the close-up serves to emphasize the motivation behind the father's harsh treatment of his daughter: after losing his wife, he is afraid to be left alone and thus doesn't want Marie to get married. This touch is in keeping with the generous humanistic vision of Chaplin's film, which encourages sympathy toward all the characters, even when they are doing things hurtful to others. Without the added emphasis of the close-up, the father comes off as somewhat less sympathetic. While such deleted shots are often included as extras on the Warner/MK2 box set, they have not been included in every case. Besides, I would argue that the original release versions in most cases still play better as films. In that respect, I tend to prefer the now out-of-print 1993 versions of the same films prepared by David Shepard for CBS Fox on laserdisc and subsequently released on DVD by Image Entertainment. One notable exception is A King in New York, where Chaplin's cuts arguably improved the film's pacing without losing anything essential.
Considering the remarkable improvements in video transfer technology over the last decade, one would expect the transfers for the new MK2/Warner set to be superior to the older DVD releases. Surprisingly, this is not always the case. On the whole, the new transfers do display the increased sharpness and improved rendering of contrast that one would expect; this is especially true for the full-length feature films. However, because the MK2/Warner set transfers were originally made in PAL and simply converted to NTSC for the American release, there is slight but persistent "ghosting," especially in scenes with fast motion. In addition, in the First National films, particularly A Dog's Life and The Idle Class, the actors' movement appears jerky compared to the Shepard transfers; most likely this is because of the aforementioned stretch printing. Unfortunately, the combination of stretch printing and PAL-NTSC ghosting really hurts some of the First National films, since the distorted movements detract from Chaplin's performance as an actor.
The film that comes off the worst in the MK2/Warner is A Woman of Paris. While the occasional moments of film element damage visible in the older Shepard transfer have been completely removed through digital restoration techniques, the new transfer is somewhat irritating to the eyes due to excessive edge enhancement and contrast boosting (the latter resulting in blown-out highlights), combined with the aforementioned PAL-NTSC ghosting. While the Shepard transfer has weaker contrast and is slightly softer, its look is more film-like and ultimately more satisfying, particularly with its more subtle range of grays. The Shepard version also plays more effectively from a dramatic standpoint due to its slightly slower projection speed. A minor disadvantage to the Shepard version is that phrases from Chaplin's score have been repeated, sometimes awkwardly, to stretch the music out to the longer running time, but that is not enough to deter me from preferring the out-of-print Shepard version on the whole.
The impact of Chaplin on the development of film as an art form can never be overestimated. Besides creating the most recognizable persona in cinema (alongside Mickey Mouse) and setting standards for physical comedy that have never been equaled (excepting, perhaps, Buster Keaton), he infused his films with humaneness and enlivened them with subtle details that make his work appealing even today. Volume 2 of The Chaplin Collection is indispensable for both the casual DVD collector and the serious film scholar, even if the transfers in some cases are not quite what they could have been. Collectors who own the Shepard-produced laserdiscs or DVDs are strongly advised to hold onto them, and serious Chaplin buffs might want to try locating the Shepard/Image Entertainment DVDs of The First National films and A Woman of Paris on the out-of-print market.
For more information about The Chaplin Collection, Volume 2, visit Warner Video. To order The Chaplin Collection, Volume 2, go to TCM Shopping.
by James Steffen