Charlie Chaplin Collectors’ Guide, Part 2


Charlie Chaplin Competition: Win Artificial Eye Blu-rays and DVDs!


  • Covering the most confusing period of Chaplin’s filmography: the Keystone, Essanay and Mutual Years on DVD and Blu-ray
  • Poor quality DVDs of Chaplin’s unrestored, public domain early films proliferate worldwide
  • The number of bad DVDs hugely outweigh the good, but you can learn to tell them apart
  • This guide is kept constantly updated to include the latest releases
The Rink (1916) on the floor – (L-R) Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell and Albert Austin, cropped

The Rink (1916) on the floor: (L-R) Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell and Albert Austin


Contents


Public domain junk

As I said in the first part of this guide, it can’t be emphasised enough that the films from Chaplin’s Keystone, Essanay, Mutual and First National periods (1914–1923) are all available on countless budget DVD collections. These contain low quality, unrestored public domain prints, likewise accompanied by low quality, generic public domain music. However tempting the price may be, avoid at all costs.

Charlie Chaplin - Légendes du Burlesque (Tiffany) French public domain DVD box set

Public domain junk. Pretty on the outside but pretty ugly on the inside… Don’t be fooled by the fancy packaging: this is nothing but highly polished poop! I do love the artwork though; does anyone know the artist or the source?

Their packaging also generally uses non-copyrighted (pre-1918) images of Chaplin and, superficially at least, closely resemble legit releases. With a closer look they’re relatively easy to spot: every time you see films from three or more of Chaplin’s first four studios mixed up in the same collection and especially on the same discs, then they’re almost certainly el cheapo efforts. Another surefire sign is the use of alternate reissue titles for the individual films or just plain made-up ones. Foreign translations aside, if any of the films are called anything other than the names listed in his official filmography, the discs are very unlikely to be kosher. Another important point to bear in mind is that wherever in the world they’re released, all official home video versions of Chaplin’s films retain their original English intertitles, with optional subtitles added when necessary.

Charlie Chaplin: The Little Tramp, public domain DVD box set

More public domain junk

For many years, especially in the case of Chaplin’s Keystones, collectors had to put up with substandard copies as they were the only way to see his early films in any condition, but no longer. Nowadays of course, those worthless old versions have found a second life online. So when streaming or downloading, you’ve a better than even chance of ending up with them and it’s hard to know which versions you’re getting. The only way to be sure is to buy from the companies mentioned here that sell downloads directly.


Now for the good news

Over the past couple of decades all of Chaplin’s films have been restored, rescored and re-released on high quality DVDs, Blu-rays and LaserDiscs, and the innumerable cheapo public domain DVDs don’t hold a candle to them. In fact, it would be a good idea to hold a candle to the public domain DVDs.

Charlie Chaplin Classic Collection Volume 2 German public domain DVD

You guessed it: yet more kindling for the fire

Chaplin’s Keystone films were in a shocking state for years but thankfully they were all recently the subject of a major, eight-year-long restoration project. This was a collaboration between many of the world’s leading archives, with vastly improved results over the many previous awful public domain DVDs. The Essanay and Mutual films have existed for decades in good quality restored editions, thanks to David Shepard of Film Preservation Associates. The good Shepard, their spiritual guardian, has subjected them to periodic restoration, commencing from the mid-1970s. He revisited the Essanays most recently in 1995 and the Mutuals in 1995 and 2006. However, both sets of films have even more recently, finishing between 2013–2017, had their most comprehensive restoration ever, this time involving archives and laboratories worldwide, as well as Shepard himself. He discusses his work on Chaplin’s films, among others, in this extensive interview.


Keystone restorations

The recent restorations were given beautiful customised piano and orchestral scores and issued in a 4-DVD box set, complete with a substantial, informative booklet. Extras consist of Charlie’s White Elephant (1916, 6min), one of many cartoons made at that time reflecting the Little Tramp’s huge popularity; Inside the Keystone Project restoration featurette (2010, 10min); Silent Traces: The Keystone Locations featurette (2010, 12min) and a photo gallery (4min). The latter featurette is an excellent piece by film historian John Bengtson, who specialises in finding and documenting silent era filming locations. He’s written several wonderful books on the subject, including one on Chaplin, and has a great website.

Chaplin at Keystone (BFI) UK DVD box set

Chaplin at Keystone (BFI) UK DVD box set

The set has so far been released by these companies:

All have identical content and the same locally translated booklet. However, note that the European and Australian DVDs are actually ahead of the US’s in image quality. This is because the actual restorations were carried out in Europe and PAL (Euro/Oz TV/DVD standard) masters were created from these. To cut costs when transferring PAL-originated material, Flicker Alley don’t create fresh NTSC (US standard) masters; instead they manufacture their discs directly from the unconverted PAL ones. This results in a blurring or ‘ghosting’ of the image, especially noticeable whenever there is any rapid movement onscreen. This policy is most unfortunate; they’re one of the best home video labels in the world and do inestimable good for the world of silent and classic film. But the fact remains that all their PAL-sourced releases are compromised from the start.

Though Chaplin’s restored 1914 Keystones haven’t been issued in their entirety in HD, three of them are available as part of two Flicker Alley Blu-ray sets. The Thief Catcher, long thought lost, and Recreation are included in the superlative 3-Blu-ray-only set, The Mack Sennett Collection Vol. One (2014). It also features three shorts starring Chaplin’s brother Syd who, before giving up his career to manage Charlie full-time, was a film star in his own right. The third, Mabel’s Strange Predicament, is part of the groundbreaking Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology 3-Blu-ray/3-DVD dual format box set (2017).

Incidentally, prior to the complete series’ restoration, only a handful of Keystones were extant in good or even reasonable condition. These few have appeared in various US collections produced by the likes of David Shepard. All have quality transfers and custom scores by top musicians. Naturally, these versions and scores are not available elsewhere, so are essential for the Keystone Kompletist:

American Slapstick Volume 2 (1915–1937) (All Day 3-DVD set 2008) is also of interest, as it contains some 1910s Chaplin cartoons and, as with the Sennett Collection, several films starring Syd Chaplin. Also present are various films featuring Little Tramp knock-off characters, from the likes of Billy West and Harold Lloyd.

Keystone: more US/Can/Euro Amazon links


Early reissues

Before dealing with the restored Essanays and Mutuals, it would be a shame to overlook some earlier versions of both sets of those films that are still very desirable. Once he left them, each of Chaplin’s first three studios recut, retitled and reissued many Chaplin-unauthorised compilations of their holdings to cash in on his ever increasing popularity. The reissued Keystones mostly survive in fragmented, retitled form but the majority of the most significant, widely released Essanay and Mutual reissues are extant in one form or another and available to buy. Most of them contain rare, otherwise unissued footage and soundtracks, so making them essential viewing for the dedicated fan or scholar. Eventually of course, Chaplin re-edited and scored his own First National shorts for reissue, with three of them being compiled into The Chaplin Revue (1959).

Essanay compilations

Immediately after Chaplin’s departure from the company, Essanay released a recut version of his earlier, eponymous Carmen spoof (1915). It was expanded from two to four reels with unrelated, newly shot scenes and retitled A Burlesque on Carmen (1916). Following Chaplin’s failed legal attempt to block it, they continued with a short series of such films. The next, The Essanay-Chaplin Revue of 1916, was just a lazy splicing together of the 1915 shorts The Tramp, His New Job and A Night Out in their entirety.

Chase Me Charlie (1918) Essanay Charlie Chaplin compilation US poster

Chase Me Charlie (1918) Essanay Charlie Chaplin compilation US poster

A little more effort was put into Chase Me Charlie (1918), which features highlights from nine of Chaplin’s Essanays and was edited by writer/director Langford Reed for Essanay in England. Chase Me Charlie was itself reissued in the US in 1932 with a new synchronised orchestral  score by Elias Breeskin. Added to that was narration by Teddy Bergman, who later changed his name to Alan Reed and became best known as the voice of Fred Flintstone. In 1966 writer/producer Samuel M. Sherman re-reissued the film, retitling it Chaplin’s Art of Comedy. He retained the Breeskin score but replaced Bergman’s narration comic narration with newly written dialogue and added a short ‘Hollywood then-and-now’ prologue. That version was released on DVD (Image 1999) and there’s a trailer here. To coincide with the 1960s reissue, its soundtrack was released on vinyl and can also be streamed. From the LP’s rear sleeve: “The unique, nostalgic musical moods of the Chaplin’s Art of Comedy score are excellent backgrounds for your home movie shows. Play this record with your favorite silent slapstick comedies (especially those with Charlie Chaplin) and movies you film yourself.”

Triple Trouble (1918) is a two-reeler consisting of outtakes from Police (1916), some of it flipped to ‘disguise’ its origins, Work (1915) and Life, Chaplin’s abandoned first feature. Like A Burlesque on Carmen it was supplemented with newly shot, non-Chaplin scenes. A reasonably artistically successful effort, Chaplin thought enough of it to include it in his official filmography, published in his 1964 autobiography. It’s in all the restored Essanay collections detailed below.

Last is Charlie Butts In (1920), essentially a one reel version of the two reel second Essanay short, A Night Out, incorporating alternate takes and scenes of Chaplin conducting a band at Mer Island. It’s exclusively available on the latest Essanay collections from the US, UK and France.

Van Beuren Mutuals

In 1932 the Van Beuren Studios acquired Chaplin’s 12 Mutual shorts and over the next two years reissued them at sound speed, 24 frames per second, with new synchronised soundtracks. These consisted of specially composed hot jazz scores by bandleader Winston Sharples and composer Gene Rodemich, played by many top session musicians, along with over the top sound effects. These generally very effective versions have remained in circulation, latterly in the public domain, ever since and are many fans’ fondly remembered introduction to these films. You can get an idea of what they’re like from the low quality public domain clips on YouTube here, here and here.

The Cure (1917) with Charlie Chaplin, 1932 Van Beuren reissue poster

The Cure (1917) Van Beuren 1932 reissue poster

In 1938 they were spliced together into three feature-length compilations: the Charlie Chaplin CarnivalCavalcade and Festival, which are available on DVD. While working at Blackhawk Films in the early 1970s, David Shepard set up their acquisition of the library containing the Van Beuren compilations, along with some negatives and other material. He and Bill Lindholm then carried out some minor restoration on them. As no original Mutuals main title cards are known to exist, Shepard created, in his words, “ones in period style that… were designed by me in 1974 and are purely conjectural, although they are nice.” At the same time they copied the intertitles from a set of mid-1920s reissues. These titles, with some additions, then appeared on all versions of the films until the 2013 restorations. Remastered from 16mm at 24fps, these versions of the  Van Beurens were initially issued in 1975 on 8 and 16mm film. Later they appeared on LaserDisc as Charlie Chaplin: The Early Years, volumes 1–4 (Republic Pictures Home Video 1991). Those versions, copied directly from the LaserDiscs, are available in a 2-DVD set (Grapevine, 2010).

In 1984 Shepard again worked on the Van Beurens, this time remastering them from full aperture 35mm at 20fps. The jazz soundtracks were then slowed down to match and returned to their original pitch using an Eventide Harmonizer. These were also released on LaserDisc as Chaplin: Lost and Found, volumes 1–3 (Image 1988). Once again, the LaserDiscs have been copied to DVD, this time in a 3-disc set (Reelclassicdvd, 2010).

The 1970s versions are rougher looking and cropped on the left edge to accommodate the optical soundtrack. The latter versions, while having better image quality, are missing some footage compared to the earlier versions and due to the alterations have slower, occasionally unsynchronised audio. If it’s image quality you’re looking for, stick to the Mutuals’ more recent restorations. If you’re mainly in it for the Van Beuren scores, the 1975 versions, now on Grapevine, are the overall best ones to go for. Ignore claims by either DVD label to have made any improvements to these films themselves: all they’ve done is copy the LaserDiscs without authorisation and chopped off their original credits in a clumsy attempt to hide the sources. Both DVD sets are region 0/NTSC and will play anywhere in the world.

Incidentally, in the latest Mutual restorationsThe Pawnshop (1916) has had its Van Beuren score faithfully recreated by Eric Beheim and Robert Israel.


Essanay and Mutual 1995 restorations

The restored Essanays made their digital début via the David Shepard-produced, two-volume Chaplin Lost and Found: Essanay LaserDiscs (1988). The following year he performed additional work on the Mutuals to commemorate Chaplin’s centenary and commissioned custom ‘orchestral’ synthesizer scores by Michael Mortilla. The fruits of their labours were released as a LaserDisc box set, The Chaplin Mutuals (1991).

"Charlie

In 1995 Shepard remastered and extensively ovehauled both sets of films; the new Mutuals were initially issued in the US by Image on LaserDisc (1995) and later alongside the revamped Essanays on region 0/NTSC DVD. The Essanays were supplied with piano scores by Eric James (1913–2006) and orchestral scores by Robert Israel, while Michael Mortilla re-recorded and expanded on his previous scores for the Mutuals. All the Image DVDs were then collected into a 7-disc box set, Short Comedy Classics: The Complete Restored Essanay & Mutual Collection. The seventh disc features a great documentary, Chaplin’s Goliath: In Search of Scotland’s Forgotten Star (1996, 55min). It focuses on the too-short life of Eric Campbell (1880–1917), who played opposite Chaplin as the heavy throughout his Mutual period.

Shepard chose to sequence the Mutuals, with Mortilla’s re-recorded scores, as three continuous, non-chronological programmes titled the Charlie Chaplin FestivalCarnival and Cavalcade respectively, as per their 1938 Van Bueren reissues. These are the ones issued in all other countries except for the UK. There, Shepard’s restorations had some missing snippets added by film historian Kevin Brownlow from BFI Archive materials, then were given new orchestral scores by Carl Davis. The BFI DVDs present the films separately and in chronological order, though due to a mix-up the first six are on Volume 2 and the second six on Volume 1! These are all the known releases:

Some of these versions also appeared elsewhere:

Charlie Chaplin 1915–1917 Essanay and Mutual Comedies Collection (Arte Éditions) French DVD box set

Charlie Chaplin 1915–1917 Essanay and Mutual Comedies Collection (Arte Éditions) French DVD box set

Essanay and Mutual 1995: more US/Can/Euro Amazon links

There’s just one other restored Essanay worthy of mention: producer/director Don McGlynn’s unique reconstruction of Police (1916, 35min), included as part of The Chaplin Puzzle documentary (Denmark 1992, 2 x 49min). It was executive-produced by Shepard, using his materials, and scored by Søren Hyldgaard. Only available on a bonus disc with the otherwise dispensible public domain Charlie Chaplin: 57 Classics 5+1-DVD box set (Brentwood/BCI Eclipse 2004), and as a single Czech DVD.


Mutual 2006 restorations

David Shepard eventually carried out even further restoration, building on Kevin Brownlow’s improvements to his 1995 versions. The results were released in the US as a 4-DVD box set, The Chaplin Mutual Comedies: 90th Anniversary Edition (Image 2006). It features the previous Carl Davis orchestral scores and two substantial booklets. Discs 3 and 4 contain two documentaries: The Gentleman Tramp (1975) and the aforementioned Chaplin’s Goliath. Note that this set was later reissued in a slimmer case and minus the booklets, so be careful which version you buy. Shepard goes into detail about all his work on the Mutuals to date in this 2006 interview.

The Chaplin Mutual Comedies: 90th Anniversary Edition (Image) US DVD set

The Chaplin Mutual Comedies: 90th Anniversary Edition (Image) US DVD set

Three of these versions have also been released elsewhere:

  • A 9min chunk of The Champion (1915) is on Criterion’s 2013 DVD and Blu-ray of City Lights (1931), foreshadowing as it did the latter film’s famed boxing scene.
  • The Rink (1916) is on Criterion’s 2010 DVD and Blu-ray of Modern Times (1936).
  • The Immigrant (1917) is on Criterion’s Au revoir les enfants (1987) Blu-ray. It’s also included in their 3 Films by Louis Malle DVD box set and the German Concorde DVD, titled Auf Wiedersehen, Kinder.

On the Blu-rays they’re all in HD, transferred in 1080i HD (25fps), making them run 4% faster than normal, as with 25fps PAL DVDs:


Mutual 2006: more US/Can/Euro Amazon links


Essanay 2014 restorations

The most recent all-new restorations are truly revelatory and in terms of quality and completeness, way beyond anything previously issued, especially in their Blu-ray editions, all of which feature lossless audio. They also have all-new scores by Robert Israel, Timothy Brock and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, and will remain the definitive versions for some time to come.

Charlie Chaplin The Essanay Comedies UK BFI Blu-ray

Charlie Chaplin: The Essanay Comedies UK (BFI) Blu-ray set

They first saw release in mainland Europe but even those versions were considerably improved on for their later US release and yet further for the UK. In fact, the UK edition also contains everything in the US set and more besides. They both have all 14 films with two extra shorts, the later-issued cash-ins Triple Trouble (1918, 23min) and Charlie Butts In (c.1920, 11min). The UK BFI set additionally includes Charlie’s Triple Trouble (16min), a 194os British recut reissue of the former film featuring the voice of comedian Tommy Handley. In a similar vein is a recut longer version of Burlesque on Carmen (37min), aligned to a Peter Sellers-narrated 1951 reissue soundtrack. Last of all is The Long Year at Essanay (22min), a new video essay by film historian Glenn Mitchell. Both sets feature substantial booklets with many rare photos, essays and descriptions of the films, but here too the BFI has the edge.

The Spanish Blu-ray set is region 0 (sleeve wrongly states region B) and transferred in 1080i (25fps) so runs 4% faster than the other two. Its standard definition PAL extras include Comment Chaplin est devenu Charlot (How Chaplin Became Charlie, 2013, 60min), a French documentary with optional Spanish or Portuguese subtitles. It also features a restoration featurette (20min) and six early Chaplin-connected shorts.

So far they’ve been issued in:

Criterion’s release of Chaplin’s Limelight (1952) includes the restored A Night in the Show (1915) as an extra. As with the Divisa set, it’s transferred at 1080i.

Charlie Chaplin's Essanay Comedies 1915 (Flicker Alley) US Blu-ray and DVD box set

Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies 1915 (Flicker Alley) US Blu-ray and DVD box set

Essanay 2014: more US/Can/Euro Amazon links


Mutual 2013 restorations

These restorations get closer than ever to the films in their original state, and in by far the best quality yet. For the first time, according to David Shepard, “exact reproductions of the original 1916–1917 intertitles” have been added, but as no original main title cards have ever been found, generic ones are used. “Archival restoration practices have come a long way in the past forty years and it is now more or less set in stone that if you cannot authenticate, you do not fake.” He discusses the restoration process in more detail here.

Charlie Chaplin - The Mutual Comedies 1916-1917 UK (BFI) Blu-ray set

Charlie Chaplin: The Mutual Comedies 1916–1917 UK (BFI) Blu-ray set

They’ve so far seen the following releases:

As with the latest Essanay restorations, the US, UK and Spain are the only countries to get them in HD. The scores vary a lot between the different sets:

  • The US, Italian, German and French sets have two new scores per film: a default small orchestra or period score, and a second option of an improvised piano accompaniment. Apart from One A.M. (1916) that is, which reuses the previous orchestral Carl Davis score, again paired with a new piano accompaniment.
  • The UK set features all 23 new scores, as well as the rest of the Carl Davis ones. So except in the case of One A.M., which has two, every film has three scores; that’s a total of 35 soundtrack choices between the 12 films! We are truly spoiled.
  • The Spanish set ‘only’ contains the brilliant Carl Davis scores.

Carl Davis’ re-recorded highlights of his Mutuals scores are compiled on a CD, Loitering Without Intent (2015, also on MP3), released to coincide with the BFI sets.

As with the latest Essanays, the sets in mainland Europe were first out of the gate and the US set was delayed while even more work was done and some prints were replaced with superior copies. In particular, The Rink (1916) and Easy Street (1917) initially had dark, dupey prints that were cropped on the left edge to carry the optical soundtrack of later sound reissues. These were replaced with earlier generation, full aperture silent prints. The tweaking of the US set’s prints had the unfortunate effect of throwing some of the pre-recorded scores out of sync. The UK set’s release was delayed further still for yet more work, including correcting most of the new sync issues, and as a result it features the best audio and video of the lot.

The extras vary wildly too but are uniformly excellent, with little or no overlap between them. For instance, the US set has two documentaries: the twice-previously released Chaplin’s Goliath and The Birth of The Tramp (2013, 59min), an English language version of the French-made La naissance de Charlot. The UK has full length audio commentaries by a variety of leading Chaplin experts for all 12 films. It also has some short video extras: two short newsreels, “Chaplin Signs the Mutual Contract” (1916, 34sec) and  “Charlie on the Ocean” (1921, 5min), and an interview with composer Carl Davis (9min). Both also have substantial glossy booklets. Meanwhile, the Spanish set has The Birth of The Tramp documentary (Blu-ray only) and two Chaplin Essanays, His Regeneration (1918) and Triple Trouble (1915). It also has five Keystone and Essanay shorts starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Mabel Normand and Ben Turpin, and an early Chaplin cartoon. Of the Blu-rays, the US set is region A, the UK region B and the Spanish region 0, despite again saying  region B on the sleeve. The latter runs 4% faster, being transferred in 1080i (25fps) as opposed to the 1080p (24fps) of the other two. and its bonus shorts are in standard definition PAL. The US Blu-rays have the 2.0 stereo scores in lossy Dolby Digital, while the UK and Spanish sets have superior lossless LPCM audio.

The UK BFI Blu-rays are definitely the ones to go for, but in all honesty they’re all pretty fantastic. I and many longterm Chaplin fans never dreamed we’d ever see such wonderful versions as these, let alone actually be so spoilt for choice. Happy times.

Mutual 2013: more US/Can/Euro Amazon links


Summary

Chaplin’s early catalogue is in a constant state of flux and ever being improved. This occurs as new and better quality film materials and home video formats became available, and as restoration techniques become cheaper yet more sophisticated. Though their quality improves overall from the earliest editions to the last, any of the releases listed in this guide are excellent representations of these films and will be more than satisfactory.  Hopefully one day the restored Keystones will appear in HD but at least for now we have the US region A, UK region B and Spanish region 0 Blu-rays. While box sets of the latest restorations should form the basis of any Chaplin collection, it’s also important to bear in mind that most of the earlier restorations feature unique alternate takes, title cards and scores. Particularly notable among these are the Van Beuren Mutuals, but whichever releases you choose, you’re in for a lifetime of laughter – happy viewing!

Right, that’s most of the shorts covered – see Part 3 for the rest of them and Charlie’s features from 1921–1967!


See DVDCompare for more in-depth details of many of the discs mentioned.

If you’ve any questions or suggestions, post in the comments below.


Grateful thanks to David Shepard (1940–2017) for his help with this article. And a life well-lived, in pursuit of preserving our past and spreading joy, love and laughter.

About Brent Reid

I started Brenton Film because I love silent film – quelle surprise! For more, see this site's About page.

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