Charlie Chaplin Collectors’ Guide

  • Charlie Chaplin is the most popular and enduring star of the silent era, but his films on home video represent a minefield for collectors everywhere
  • Whether new to his oeuvre or an old fan, working out where to start and what to buy can be bewildering
  • Don’t worry: this guide will help you dive in with confidence
  • Kept constantly updated to include the latest releases

Welcome to the most comprehensive worldwide guide to the Little Tramp’s films on home video ever published. The fact it’s the only such guide is beside the point! For Chaplin’s films globally, there are an incalculable number of labels and releases, differing versions of films, and different rights holders – or even no rights holders at all. This guide will enable you to collect his entire official filmography in the best quality versions available. After a brief overview of Chaplin’s career and warning of collecting pitfalls to avoid, I’ll detail all the best DVDs and Blu-rays, country by country. I’ve simplified things as much as possible and kept the tech talk to an absolute minimum, to hopefully be understood by the non-aficionado of Chaplin, silent film or AV. This guide is also kept constantly updated to include the latest releases.

If you just want to know the best Blu-rays or DVDs to buy, feel free to skip to Parts 4–8. But if you do you’ll miss out on a lot of fascinating facts about the history of Chaplin’s catalogue…

Charlie Chaplin's huge back catalogue sets a daunting task for collectors. silhouette montage

Charlie Chaplin’s huge back catalogue sets a daunting task for collectors


Contents


A film primer

One of the great lives of the 20th century – or indeed any century – Charlie Chaplin is perhaps the greatest filmmaker of all time. His success, fame and influence are inestimable and today, more than a century after the Little Tramp made his début, his popularity remains undimmed. He made or appeared in 80-plus films over more than 50 years, spanning the silent era to his final talkie, made in colour and widescreen. Born into abject poverty, Chaplin first stepped on a London stage at the age of 5 and was performing full-time by his 10th birthday. He remained in show business for the rest of his life (1889–1977) and had an active film career of over 60 years (1914–1976).

Charlie Chaplin takes a turn behind the camera: directing Modern Times (1936)

Charlie takes a turn behind the camera: directing Modern Times (1936)

As many as 80% of all films produced during the silent era are estimated to be lost. Luckily, Chaplin is one of the very few actors of that period whose films very nearly all survive in some form or other. This is chiefly for two reasons: of his earlier, mainly shorter films there were so many copies in circulation due to never-ending demand that they’re almost all extant, though in hugely variable condition. For his later, mostly longer, films Chaplin owned the negatives and copyrights and took care to preserve both. There were five main phases in Chaplin’s film career, marked by the studios he worked for:

  • Keystone (1914)
  • Essanay (1915–1916)
  • Mutual (1916–1917)
  • First National (1918–1923)
  • United Artists, Attica-Archway and Universal (1923–1967)

Taken chronologically, to a great extent the films became longer, grander and more sophisticated as Chaplin’s confidence, control and budgets grew.

In almost every way, the silent films starring the Little Tramp between 1916–1936 mark the apex of Chaplin’s career and every one is a solid gold classic. You just can’t go wrong with any of them, in front of virtually any audience, and most new fans should start there.

Charlie Chaplin autographed cartoon from My Trip Abroad aka My Wonderful Visit (1922)

Chaplin: “My favourite autograph” cartoon from his 1922 book My Trip Abroad (US) aka My Wonderful Visit (UK); Gutenberg.


Keystone (1914)

36 films, all shorts of between 5–20 minutes in length with the exception of one full-length feature, Tillie’s Punctured Romance, in which Chaplin co-starred. One film, Her Friend the Bandit, is unfortunately lost while another, A Thief Catcher, only features Chaplin in an uncredited bit part as a Keystone cop. In his autobiography he wrote that when he first arrived at Keystone he played several such roles. They were all thought long lost, but in 2010 this was the first to be discovered.

Charlie Chaplin "Hello world!" Charlie Chaplin mugs for the camera in Keystone's Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), the Little Tramp's first public outing.

“Hello world!” Charlie mugs for the camera in Keystone’s Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), the Little Tramp’s first public outing.

These are necessarily low on plot and character development but contain lots of pure comedy, both broad and subtle. Fascinatingly, they also chart Chaplin, already an accomplished stage actor and performer, learning at an exponential rate how to act in front of the camera as well as direct himself and others. The Little Tramp grows up before our very eyes, as does film comedy itself! The unprecedented rise in Chaplin’s popularity was truly stratospheric: he began 1914 as a relative unknown and ended it as arguably the most famous man on earth. By the following year there was no disputing it. Keystone could not afford to keep him once his initial contract expired and thereafter each time he switched studios it was for more pay and more control. Within two years he had left his poverty-stricken roots far behind for good to become one of the highest-paid people in the world.


Essanay (1915–1916)

14 shorts, each 15–30 minutes long, with an extra one, Triple Trouble, assembled by the studio from unused footage and released to capitalise on Chaplin’s name two years after his departure. Chaplin wasn’t the lead, but he makes a lengthy guest appearance in His Regeneration (1915), a film by fellow studio star “Broncho Billy” Anderson. It was in return for a favour when Anderson appeared in Chaplin’s The Champion two months earlier. The Essanays are more deeply plotted and mark the emergence of the Little Tramp as a consistently sympathetic character, often thwarted in love. In the second film, A Night Out, Chaplin recruited 19-year-old secretary Edna Purviance to be his leading lady and she became his longest running and best known onscreen partner, appearing in over 30 films.

Charlie Chaplin and Charles Inslee in His New Job (1915)

A tale of two Charlies: Chaplin and Inslee in the Tramp’s Essanay début, titled, appropriately enough, His New Job (1915)


Mutual (1916–1917)

12 shorts, each around 25 minutes in length. These cement the consolidation of the Little Tramp persona and are all mini-masterpieces. Chaplin wrote in his 1964 autobiography that “Fulfilling the Mutual contract… was the happiest period of my career.”

Charlie Chaplin laughing during his time with Mutual Films, circa 1916, by Fred Hartsook

The Little Tramp at his happiest, circa 1916


First National (1918–1923)

Nine films, most 20–45 minutes long, with the exception of two: The Bond (1918), a short promoting war bonds, usually around 11 minutes, and The Kid (1921). The latter, demonstrating Chaplin’s burgeoning artistic ambitions, became his first feature length film as writer, producer, director and star. All of these films, as with those for the preceding three studios, are in the public domain. Many years after the First Nationals were made, Chaplin re-edited most of them for re-release, as well as composing and recording new scores. He also spliced three shorts together with some previously unreleased connecting material and released them as a feature, The Chaplin Revue (1959). These altered “Daddy” versions, as they are known, are copyrighted and available in high quality editions.

Edna Purviance, Scraps and Charlie Chaplin in A Dog's Life (1918), 1920s Pathé Pictures reissue photo

Edna, Scraps and Charlie say “Sausages!” in A Dog’s Life (1918), 1920s Pathé Pictures reissue


United Artists, Attica–Archway and Universal (1923–1967)

10 feature-length films, most of which form the  bedrock of Chaplin’s latterday critical and commercial reputation. All but the last two were distributed by United Artists, a studio founded in 1919 by Chaplin himself alongside D. W. Griffith, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Interestingly, though Chaplin wrote, produced, directed and scored them, he chose not to star in the first and last of these, A Woman of Paris (1923) and A Countess from Hong Kong (1967). Instead, he confined himself to a fleeting cameo appearance in each. His last two films were made in England after he left the US for good in 1952.

A Countess from Hong Kong (1967) starring Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren, marked Chaplin's final film appearance

A Countess from Hong Kong (1967) starring Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren, marked Chaplin’s final film appearance


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Del Frost
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Del Frost

Hi. I’ve had a good read of the complete Chaplin guide but, in case I missed it, would I be right in thinking that the Keystone & Essanay films are not currently available on blu-ray?

Luka
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Luka

We are finally getting another Criterion release. The Circus is due in September 2019.

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