Charlie Chaplin Collectors’ Guide: A Burlesque on Carmen (1915)

  • Two big budget, dramatic versions of Carmen hit cinemas in 1915, inspiring Chaplin’s brilliant spoof.
  • But immediately on completion Chaplin’s original version disappeared, destroyed for decades
  • It was known only by mangled reissue edits, ruining its reputation with years of TV and cinema screenings
  • Laterits routine appearance on cheap public domain videos and DVDs further diminished its aura
  • Now its star shines once more, thanks to David Shepard’s great restorations

By 1915, Chaplin’s star power was ascending astronomically, as was his earning potential and subsequent wage demands. As keen as they were to hang on to ther biggest star, like Keystone before them, a modestly sized studio like Essanay could not afford to hold on to the Little Tramp for long. Immediately after his contract was up and he left at the end of December 1915, the studio decided to cash in by releasing a recut version of his newly completed Carmen spoof, first previewed on 18 December 1915. It was to be the first of many…

A Burlesque on Carmen aka Charlot joue Carmen (1915, Charlie Chaplin) French reissue poster

French reissue poster


Essanay re-edit

A Burlesque on Carmen (1916, Charlie Chaplin) US poster

US 1916 poster. Of course, the Little Tramp is nowhere to be seen in the actual film, but his was still deemed to be the stronger marketing image.

Once their biggest star departed, instead of honouring his penultimate film’s original release date, Essanay held it back for reworking. Finally premièred on 2 April 1916, their revamp was expanded from two to four reels (longer films meant higher rental fees from theatres) and marketed as his second feature! Chaplin rightly took Essanay to court to try and block the release of their corrupted version. His failure to do so opened the floodgates to a stream of similar releases from Essanay and paved the way to Carmen‘s exploitation in ever-worsening versions right up to the present day.

The 1916 version’s padding came via outtakes and unrelated, newly shot scenes directed by Leo White, who had acted in every Chaplin Essanay, bar By the Sea. Essanay’s four-reel version is now not known to survive exactly in its original form but that’s really no big deal, as it ruined Chaplin’s original. Several of the characters were renamed and the new footage featured May White, who was also in the first version, appearing alongside comedian Ben Turpin playing a gypsy in a pointless slapstick subplot. Though the new scenes technically match up to the original ones very well, artistically they make the film a muddled mess. Apparently none of this butchery hurt the film’s business at all: on opening it continued to pack houses everywhere. Evidently Chaplin later forgave both Whites’ complicity, as May went on to appear in a few more of his films, while he cast Leo as Hynkel’s barber in The Great Dictator.

A tale of two rivals

A word about the title of Chaplin’s film: a little confusingly, both versions were generally advertised as Charlie Chaplin’s Burlesque on Carmen[1][2][3][4]. Though as with the poster above, it was occasionally abbreviated to A Burlesque on Carmen, sometimes dropping the “A“. Many original foreign releases were content to go with plain ol’ Carmen, while subsequent international reissues threw a whole lot of spurious titles into the mix. Nowadays it’s usually referred to by both original titles interchangeably, though the latter’s more common. Either way, at least all permutations of the Burlesque names serve to distinguish it from the two identically titled films it parodied. They were competing, big budget dramatic versions of Carmen, premièred simultaneously with great fanfare on 31 October 1915. One was directed by Cecil B. DeMille and marked the film début of popular opera singer Geraldine Farrar, reprising her famous stage role. The other was written and directed by Raoul Walsh and featured Theda Bara, the quintessential silent era vamp. Sadly, like the overwhelming majority of her films, the latter version is now lost.

Theda Bara in Carmen (1915)

Theda Bara in Carmen (1915)

In case you’re wondering how or why on earth they chose to make a silent adaptation of a renowned opera in the first place, the simple answer is… they didn’t. Both films were actually based on Prosper Mérimée’s 1845 novella, rather than the 1875 opera it inspired by Georges Bizet. In a neat example of print, stage and screen cross-pollination, Farrar’s onscreen portrayal of Carmen was more overtly sexual, selfish and violent than how she had played the role previously. This was due to the scenario being based on the racier public domain novella, rather than DeMille’s first choice of the then-copyrighted but somewhat watered-down opera libretto. Farrar maintained this racier depiction on returning to the stage, and it’s that incarnation of the titular character that has become the standard ever since.

Jeanie Macpherson (L centre) and Geraldine Farrar fight in Carmen (1915)

Scene but not heard: Jeanie Macpherson (L centre) and Geraldine Farrar settle their differences like civilised young ladies in Carmen (1915)

The Eastman House-restored version of Farrar’s Carmen has appeared in two guises on home video. The first was scored by Gillian Anderson in 1996 and released on US VHS and DVD, with her full score also on CD. The second was scored by Timothy Brock in 1997 and released on US and UK VHS, and a very handy DVD (reissued 2015). The latter also included Chaplin’s take on the subject and a third, thematically related film, DeMille’s The Cheat (1915). The Brock-scored version can also be found in the latest restored Chaplin Essanay collections from France and Italy. Both sets of accompaniments are based on an arrangement of Bizet’s score by famed film composer Hugo Riesenfeld, which was itself commissioned for the film’s original Boston première.

Geraldine Farrar (top) and Jeanie Macpherson in Carmen (1915)

Geraldine Farrar (top) and Jeanie Macpherson, still bonding.

1928 sound reissue

A Burlesque on Carmen (1916, Charlie Chaplin) US 1928 reissue lobby card

US 1928 reissue lobby card

The 1916 Essanay reissue version of Chaplin’s spoof was itself recut, retitled and reissued numerous times worldwide over the following 60 years, and three of the resultant unique versions are available on home video. As with all silent films, sound era reissues were transferred at too-fast sound speed (24fps) and with the left side of the image cropped to accomodate an optical soundtrack. At least two of the differently edited US reissues are extant and based on their accelerated 24fps transfers, all of the four-reeler’s footage appears to be intact. Though in poor condition, they give us a very good idea of what the 1916 version was like. Both are something of a chore to watch and, being so severly compromised, more interesting than entertaining. As well as being on YouTube they’re in many of Chaplin’s public domain collections. The first, from Quality Amusement Corporation in 1928 (44min), on DVD here, adds an opening crawl with a plot synopsis; presumably deemed necessary as narratively it no longer makes much sense. It does at least have the benefit of newly written, humorous intertitles.

1932 sound reissue

A Burlesque on Carmen aka En äkta spanjor (A spanish guard, 1915) Swedish 1933 sound reissue poster

A Burlesque on Carmen aka En äkta spanjor (A spanish guard, 1915) Swedish 1933 sound reissue poster

An intriguing but seemingly lost version of Carmen was produced by Equity British Films for 1932 UK reissue (44min). Its pressbook boasted of “Music specially composed for the Picture… rendered by Harry Cooper and His Band.” This is almost certainly Harry Cooper of the Duke Ellington Orchestra fame. After a few years with Duke’s Washingtonians, he went to Europe with Sam Wooding in 1929 and became part of the bubbling Paris jazz society. He got married in France and remained there throughout the German occupation. He had toured and recorded around Europe for at least a couple of decades, also leading his own Harry Cooper Quintet, before dying in Paris in 1961. Now it seems his prodigious musical abilities also stretched to knocking out the odd authentic period score for reissued silents! If you have any more info at all on this version, please get in touch.

1941 sound reissue

A Burlesque on Carmen (1916, Charlie Chaplin) US 1941 reissue lobby card

US 1941 reissue lobby card

The second, from Favorite Films Corporation in 1941 (46min), has another new opening crawl and yet more new intertitles. This one benefits from the addition of an excellent, jaunty synchronised orchestral score based on Bizet’s superb music and arranged by prolific film composer James Dietrich.

1951 Peter Sellers reissue

The third available original version of Carmen is a 2016 reconstruction of New Realm Entertainments’ 1951 UK reissue (37min) with music and sound effects, and comedic narration by Peter Sellers. Assembled from full aperture restored materials to conform to the surviving soundtrack, it’s far easier on the on the eye than the other two and is exclusive to the latest BFI Essanay collection. Interestingly, it was submitted to the BBFC for classification at a length of 48min, close to the three aformentioned reissues. It’s possible the soundtrack was truncated somewhere along the way, but the submission length may have been inaccurate. Regardless, kudos to the BFI for restoring such a valuable document.

Restored original version

Chaplin’s original version of Carmen – his director’s cut, if you will – was first painstakingly restored by David Shepard, who also supervised its latest HD restoration. For guidance he referred to court documents from Chaplin’s failed Essanay lawsuit and the continuity of Farrer’s Carmen. Both restorations run at around 31min; the first was accompanied by Robert Israel‘s excellent orchestral ensemble score, while the latest HD makeover is, like Farrar’s original, scored by Timothy Brock for full orchestra. Likewise, both scores are also based on the Bizet/Riesenfeld arrangement. In addition to the aforementioned DVD, they’re in all the restored Essanay collections detailed in Parts 5 and 6. After Carmen being completely supplanted by the slipshod versions above for far too long, these brilliant restorations are finally resurrecting its reputation as one of Chaplin’s best Essanay shorts.

A Burlesque on Carmen aka Carmen e Charlot (1916, Charlie Chaplin) Italian reissue poster

A Burlesque on Carmen aka Carmen e Charlot (1916) Italian reissue poster

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.

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 the About page.


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