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

The culmination of 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 either a piano score by Eric James (1913–2006) or orchestral score 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, 52min). 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:

The US sets are faultless and though lacking in extras have the best audio and video, and will play anywhere. Meanwhile, all the others are somewhat compromised. The UK, French and German DVDs mark a rare lapse in quality for those usually assiduous labels: they use unconverted NTSC-PAL masters and the stereo soundtracks are all folded down to mono. Though I haven’t tested them, you can safely assume the same is true of the Spanish and Dutch DVDs too. The UK DVDs all have fairly minor extras. The French and German discs are identical, with substantial extras and subtitles in both languages, as well as English for any non-English content. All the mainland European box sets are pretty equal but long deleted and expensive, bar the French, which is still cheap almost everywhere, making it the best choice. That is unless you crave the BFI Mutuals’ Carl Davis scores, which can be had on other more recently restored releases anyway – and in the proper stereo – like those below and in Part 6.

Of the main Western European countries, Italy is conspicuous by its absence in the lineup above. That’s because our old friends Ermitage pirated these versions, with forced Italian subs and ersatz replacement scores, and killed the demand for legit releases there.

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:

Police (1916), 1992 Puzzle restoration

Police (Charlie Chaplin, 1916) trade magazine advert

Police (1916) trade magazine advert

There’s just one other restored Essanay worthy of special mention: producer/director Don McGlynn’s unique but controversial reconstruction of Police (1916, 35min), included as part of The Chaplin Puzzle documentary (Denmark 1992). Some think it erroneously includes footage meant for Chaplin’s abandoned first feature, Life. This includes the flophouse sequence from contemporary cut ‘n’ paste cash-in, Triple Trouble. David Shepard was given an executive producer credit, under protest, as he supplied the materials. DS: “It would be my guess that as he so often did, CC developed the sequence in TT (perhaps for Life), shelved it, revised it, and started over again in the same sets for Police.” However many Chaplin fans and scholars swear by McGlynn’s Puzzle and Police, and believe they get closer to Chaplin’s original intent for the film than any other version.

Both are only available on a bonus disc in the now-largely redundant 6-DVD box set, Charlie Chaplin: 57 Classics (2004), and as a single Czech DVD (2009). Also, their lovely – and definitely uncontroversial – score by Søren Hyldgaard is 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 on BD, encoded in 1080i 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.

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.

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.


No Comments Yet!

You can be first to comment on this post.

Leave a Reply

You might also like