Charlie Chaplin Collectors’ Guide, Part 5

Essanay and Mutual 1980s–2000s restorations

  • For many years the Little Tramp’s mid-1910s films were inaccessible and languished in poor condition
  • Film preservationist David Shepard fully restored them for the first time in the 1980s
  • They continued to be reworked and improved over the next two decades
  • This has resulted in many unique and interesting versions for collectors 

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

The Adventurer (1917, Charlie Chaplin) US poster

The Adventurer (1917) US poster


Essanay and Mutual 1995 restorations

Building on the work he began in the 1970s, David Shepard’s restored Essanays made their digital début via his 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).


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 versions 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:

  • US: Image (region 0/NTSC) 6 separate volumes: Essanays 1–3 (1999); Mutuals 1–3 (1997), also in a 7-DVD box set (2003)
  • UK: BFI 4 separate volumes: Essanays Vol1 and Vol2 (2003); Mutuals Vol1 and Vol2 with Carl Davis scores (2003/2005)
  • Germany: Icestorm/EuroArts 6 separate volumes: Essanays 1–3 and Mutuals 4–6 (2003), also in a 6-DVD box set (2006)
  • France: Arte Éditions 6 separate volumes: Essanays 1–3 and Mutuals 4–6 (2000), also in a 6-DVD box set (2003)
  • Spain: Divisa 4-DVD box set (2007, reissued 2013)
  • Benelux: Living Colour 6-DVD box set (2007)

The US sets are best overall. The UK Essanay DVDs mark a rare lapse in quality for the usually assiduous BFI: they use unconverted NTSC-PAL masters and the stereo soundtracks have been folded down to mono. The French and German discs are identical and have subtitles in both languages. Though in stereo, they also apper to be NTSC-PAL. Of the Euro sets, the French box is overall best and cheapest, unless you crave the BFI Mutuals’ Carl Davis scores, which can be had on many more recently restored releases anyway.

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

Some of these versions also appeared elsewhere:

There’s just one other restored Essanay worthy of mention: producer/director Don McGlynn’s unique but controversial reconstruction of Police (1916, 35min), included as part of The Chaplin Puzzle documentary (Denmark 1992). It was executive-produced by Shepard, using his materials, and scored by Søren Hyldgaard. Only available on a bonus disc with the now-otherwise dispensible Charlie Chaplin: 57 Classics 5+1-DVD box set (Brentwood/BCI Eclipse 2004), and as a single Czech DVD. For the record, 57 Classics has the dubious distinction of being perhaps the single most comprehensisive collection of unrestored public domain Chaplin films ever issued. Among its numerous lo-res, lo-fi treasures are 26 of the 35 surviving Keystones, which helped make it pretty much indispensable to collectors (including me) in the dark days before their restoration. Hyldgaard’s lovely – and definitely uncontroversial – Chaplin Puzzle/Police score is also available on CD.

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). Packaged as two keepcases inside a cardboard slipcase, 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 single case, minus the slipcase and 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 in HD:

  • A 9min chunk of The Champion (1915) is on Criterion’s 2013 BD and DVD of City Lights (1931), foreshadowing as it did the latter film’s famed boxing scene.
  • The Rink (1916) is on Criterion’s 2010 BD and DVD of Modern Times (1936).
  • The Immigrant (1917) is on Criterion’s Au revoir les enfants (1987) BD. 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 BDs they’re all in HD, encoded in 1080i HD (25fps), making them run 4% faster than normal, as with 25fps PAL DVDs:

The Vagabond (1916, Charlie Chaplin) US Mutual trade ad

The Vagabond (1916) US Mutual trade ad

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 love, joy and laughter.

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

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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