Charlie Chaplin Collectors’ Guide, Part 2

Choosing the best

  • Continuing this unique roadmap to Chaplin’s vast back catalogue
  • We’ve covered the what it is; now for the how and why it is
  • There’s a lot of good but even more bad and ugly; here’s where you learn to tell the difference

If you’ve landed directly on this page I strongly recommend you start from the Part 1 introduction.

Charlie Chaplin: Les aventures de Charlot (Tiffany) French public domain DVD

This French DVD isn’t all it appears to be…


Contents


So many labels…

Technically speaking, all of Chaplin’s pre-United Artists films (Keystone, Essanay, Mutual and First National) are out of copyright and in the public domain. This means that anyone can make copies and sell them freely – and many do. However, new copyright can be invoked if an artistic work is altered sufficiently that it is classifiable as a new, distinctly separate piece of work. Copyright can also apply to restored, re-edited or rescored public domain films; especially with the latter, if a new soundtrack is added. This is exactly what canny old Charlie did in later life to all his First Nationals and his ‘altered’ versions remain in copyright to this day. His versions have inherently vastly superior quality as he preserved the best extant original elements on all those films.

To control and market Chaplin’s name, image and copyrighted films dating from 1918 onwards, several of his children founded the Association Chaplin company in 1996. Every decade or so, they’ve sought new contracts for the right to manufacture and distribute home video and theatrical reissues of his films. This explains why, ever since the days of VHS and LaserDisc, Chaplin’s films are reissued on a semi-regular basis. What’s more, different companies secure the rights in different countries. It’s obviously impossible to cover every legitimate release worldwide, let alone the incalculable illegitimate ones. I’ll mainly focus on major releases from the US and Europe which, unsurprisingly, generally happen to be the best anywhere. This is on account of three factors: the original film materials are vaulted in those territories and the various preservations and restorations have all been carried out there. Also, as we’ll see, many of the world’s leading home video labels, also based either side of the Atlantic, have released superlative editions of his work.


Public domain junk

Pictured below are some of the plethora of too-good-to-be-true, cheapo Chaplin collections available. Nice packaging but it’s all style over substance. There are literally countless numbers of dirt-cheap DVD sets flooding the market due to the endless recycling of public domain material. Don’t waste your time or money on any of them, as attractive or legit as some may appear. They mostly contain awful quality, atrocious, unwatchable and unrestored prints from his 1914–1923 period.

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

Pretty on the outside but pretty ugly on the inside… Don’t be fooled by the fancy packaging: this is nothing but highly polished public domain poop! I do love the artwork though: it’s by the brilliant Laurent Melki, as is the DVD above. Here’s more of it but be careful – look but don’t touch!

Their packaging also often uses non-copyrighted (pre-1918) images of Chaplin and, superficially at least, closely resembles 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 definitely el cheapo efforts. Another surefire sign is the use of alternate reissue titles for the individual films or even 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. Most obvious of all, look for packaging credits for Roy Export or Bubbles Inc, two subsidiary Chaplin companies who handle all his licensing and merchandising.

Charlie Chaplin Collector's Edition, US public domain DVD box set

US public domain DVD box set


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 BDs and DVDs, 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: The Little Tramp, public domain DVD box set

More public domain junk

Silent films on public domain issues seldom come with custom made scores. Instead, if there are any soundtracks at all, they’re usually comprised of lo-fi, generic public domain music taken from scratchy old 78 rpm records and suchlike. These are known as ‘needle-drop’ scores and can be anything: jazz, ragtime, classical, etc. Whatever they are, they rarely fit the action on screen and all but kill any film stone dead. Be warned: if you’re tempted to sample Chaplin’s genius this way, you’ll simply end up wondering what all the fuss was about.

Conversely, the restored Keystones, Essanays and Mutuals have superb looking prints and 150-odd different specially recorded scores between them, all performed by the cream of the world’s silent film musicians. Chaplin’s copyrighted First National and United Artists silents are only ever sold with his own later recorded soundtracks or Chaplin estate-approved re-recordings. Likewise, if the Chaplin-copyrighted films are screened with live musical accompaniment, his scores must be played.

Charlie Chaplin Classic Collection Volume 2 German public domain DVD

You guessed it: yet more kindling for the fire

Chaplin’s Keystones 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 poor public domain DVDs. The Essanay and Mutual films have existed for decades in good quality restored versions, 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. An 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 foreign subtitles added where necessary.


Where to start

Most BDs and DVDs are region-coded, which means they won’t play on all machines everywhere. When it comes to sourcing the best quality discs available worldwide, life becomes a lot easier if you equip yourself with a multi-region player and display. The video and audio quality, extra features and packaging can vary widely, even between different official releases: all BDs and DVDs are not created equal. The larger your display, the more apparent this becomes. Here are some screenshots from different official releases of The Great Dictator (1940):

The Great Dictator (1940), UK (mk2/Warner) region 2 DVD screengrab

UK (mk2/Warner) region 2 DVD

The Great Dictator (1940) US (mk2/Warner) region 1 DVD screengrab – note motion blurring due to incorrect PAL-NTSC transfer

US (mk2/Warner) region 1 DVD – note motion blurring due to incorrect PAL-NTSC transfer

The Great Dictator (1940), US (Image) region 0 DVD screengrab

US (Image) region 0 DVD

The Great Dictator (1940) German (Kinowelt) Blu-ray screengrab (click for full size)

German (Kinowelt) region B BD (click for full size)

It can’t be emphasised enough: the films from Chaplin’s Keystone, Essanay, Mutual and First National periods (1914–1923) are all available on countless budget DVD collections, so beware of them. They 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: you only get what you pay for.

Obviously, if you’re in the habit of streaming or downloading films, you also usually have no way of knowing exactly what source they originate from. 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. The only way to be sure is to buy from legit companies, like those mentioned here, that also sell digital versions directly. As well as Chaplin’s output this applies to most films and especially those from the silent era. Just check out these widely disparate screenshots and specifications:

…Which is why you need this guide. Now on with the show!


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

Les Premières Années de Charlie Chaplin French public domain DVD box set

Nowhere near close and definitely no cigar. A handsome beast, to be sure, but still just another poor quality public domain DVD set – stay well away!

I started Brenton Film because I love film – quelle surprise! The silent era, 1930s and 1940s especially get my literary juices flowing though. So you’ll see a lot about those. For more, see this site’s About page.

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2 Comments

  1. md
    June 17, 13:02 Reply
    Why cant you just say what is the best restored collection... Much to read with no conclusion.. just further confusion..
  2. Brent Reid
    June 17, 14:29 Reply
    You're wrong. I do say what the best restored collections are for each of the four main studios Chaplin worked for. Those conclusions are exactly where you'd expect to find them: at the conclusion of each relevant section. Have a good day.

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