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

by Brent Reid
  • 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
  • Only mangled reissue edits remained, ruining its reputation with years of TV and cinema screenings
  • Later, its routine appearance on cheap public domain videos and DVDs further diminished its aura
  • Now its star shines once more, thanks to David Shepard’s sublime restorations

This is part of a series covering Chaplin’s life and career. If you’ve landed directly on this page, I strongly recommend you start from the Part 1 introduction.

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

French reissue poster


Essanay re-edit

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 their 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…

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 disingenuously marketed as his second feature, following Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914)! 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.

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.

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 packed 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 (1940).

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 identically titled films it parodied…

A tale of two rivals

Just prior to Chaplin’s version, there were two 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. Walsh remade his film in 1927, this time starring Dolores del Río and retitled The Loves of Carmen.

Theda Bara in Carmen (1915)

Theda Bara vamping for all she’s worth 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 Georges Bizet opera which it inspired. 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 been 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)

Farrar’s Carmen has been beautifully restored and tinted by Eastman House, and 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 US DVD (reissued 2015). The latter also includes a restoration of Chaplin’s take on the subject and the best surviving print of a third, thematically related film, DeMille’s The Cheat (1915). This last is probably the best of the many morality tales DeMille was churning out at the time and features a barnstorming performance from immensely popular, groundbreaking Japanese star, Sessue Hayakawa. It’s well worth buying for that one alone.

All DVDs are region free and playable anywhere. The Brock-scored version of Carmen can also be found in the latest restored Chaplin Essanay DVD collections from France and Italy. Both sets of its 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.

During the silent era, as now, Carmen was an extremely popular property, with at least  at least two dozen adaptations, including shorts and features. Chaplin’s was far from the only spoof: Baby Peggy’s cute Carmen, Jr. (1923) has been issued on Milestone’s packed The Elephant in the Room DVD (2013), which includes a great documentary on the popular child actress and three other restored films.

Another notable dramatic entry is the 1918 German version starring a gleefully typecast Pola Negri and directed by none other than pre-émigré Ernst Lubitsch. Also based directly on Mérimée’s novella, thus far it’s only available on public domain DVDs of the 1921 US release version, retitled Gypsy Blood:

Pola Negri in Carmen (1918, dir. Ernst Lubtsch)

There’s another intriguing early Chaplin-Carmen connection: in the summer of 1926, Spanish songstress Raquel Meller made her first visit to the US, before the release of her starring role in Jacques Feyder’s French Carmen later that same year. On meeting, Chaplin was reportedly very attracted to her and talked of casting her in his long-cherished but ultimately unrealised Napoléon film (featurette here). Meller’s signature tune was her worldwide hit version of “La Violetera”, written by José Padilla in 1914. Doubtless inspired by his Meller infatuation, Chaplin went on to feature the tune prominently in City Lights (1931) as the theme for the Blind Girl, played by Virginia Cherrill. Meller and Chaplin socialised on several occasions during her US visit, and she sang “La Violetera” at City L ights’ French première at Antibes, which Chaplin attended during his 1931–1932 world tour. But there was a problem: Chaplin hadn’t sought permission or credited Padilla for his work and was successfully sued by the composer. Naughty Charlie. All contemporary copies of the film carry corrected credits acknowledging Padilla’s contribution.

Charlie Chaplin and Raquel Meller on the set of The Circus, 1926

A Tramp and A Singing Girl:  Chaplin and Raquel Meller on the set of The Circus, 1926

1928 reissue

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, the sound era reissues were transferred at too-fast sound speed (24fps) and with the left side of the image cropped to accommodate 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. Tillie would have been shot at around 16fps and originally run at 18–20fps. Though in poor condition, the reissues give us a very good idea of what the 1916 version was like. But both are something of a chore to watch and, being so severely compromised, more interesting than entertaining. Various copies are on YouTube, originating from Chaplin’s many public domain collections.

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

US 1928 reissue lobby card

The first known extant reissue is from the Quality Amusement Corporation in 1928 (44min), and can be found on these DVDs. It adds an opening crawl with a plot synopsis, presumably deemed necessary as narratively it no longer makes much sense. At least it does 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 sound reissue, from Favorite Films Corporation in 1941 (46min), has another new opening crawl and yet another new set of 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 recut version of Carmen is a British Film Institute reconstruction of New Realm Entertainments’ unauthorised 1951 UK reissue (37min) with music and sound effects, and comedic narration by Peter Sellers. This version’s existence is fortuitous: it was released at the start of May, while the first episode of The Goon Show was aired at the end of the month, instantly making Sellers a household name and putting him beyond the financial reach of an indie like NRE. The company was run by one Edwin John “E.J.” Fancey, a violent thief, suspected murderer and chancer who aroused Chaplin’s ire so much he crossed the Atlantic in order to sue the distributor for piracy (p.327). A risky proposition indeed and I don’t know exactly how it turned out.

The 2016 reconstruction, assembled from restored full aperture materials to conform to the surviving soundtrack, is obviously far easier on the eye than the other two sound reissues and is exclusive to the latest BFI Essanay collection. Interestingly, it was originally submitted to the BBFC for classification at a length of 48min, close to all three aforementioned reissues. It’s possible the soundtrack was truncated somewhere along the way, unless the submission length was somehow inaccurate. Regardless, kudos to the BFI for restoring such a unique, interesting document.

Restored original version

Chaplin’s original version of Carmen – his director’s cut, if you will – was first painstakingly restored in 1999 by David Shepard, who also supervised its 2014 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 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 here and here. Carmen was completely supplanted by the slipshod versions above for far too long, but these brilliant restorations are finally resurrecting its reputation as one of Chaplin’s best early shorts.

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

Italian reissue poster of Essanay’s recut version

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.

2021 reconstruction

This essential fan edit by Chaplin expert Dave Glass attempts to correct some lingering omissions and anomalies from the latest restoration , and is a real labour of love.

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