The Bad, the Ugly and the Good
- Continuing this unique roadmap to Chaplin’s vast back catalogue
- We’ve covered the what it is; now for the how and why it is
- There’s a huge disparity in the quality of available releases
- You’ll find a helluva lot of good but far more bad and ugly
- Don’t be tempted by cheap, poor quality rubbish when the latest restored versions cost just a little more
- So many labels…
- Public domain junk
- Public domain rarities
- Now for the good news
- Where to start
- Related articles
So many labels…
Technically speaking, all of Chaplin’s pre-United Artists films (Keystone, Essanay, Mutual and First National) are out of copyright and in the public domain (PD). This means that anyone can make copies and sell them freely – and many do. However, new copyright can be invoked if an artistic work is altered sufficiently that it is classifiable as a new, distinctly separate piece of work. Copyright can also apply to restored, re-edited or rescored PD films; especially with the latter, if a new soundtrack is added. This is exactly what canny old Charlie did in later life to all his First Nationals and his ‘altered’ versions remain in copyright to this day. His versions have inherently vastly superior quality as he preserved the best extant original elements on all those films. As we’ll see, the shorts made for his first three studios have also been restored and given brand new custom scores – on several occasions – and each time issued on newer formats by different labels.
To control and market Chaplin’s name, image and copyrighted films dating from 1918 onwards, several of his children founded Association Chaplin in 1996. Every decade or so, they’ve sought new contracts for the right to manufacture and distribute home video and theatrical reissues of his films. This explains why, ever since the days of VHS and LaserDisc, Chaplin’s later catalogue is reissued on a semi-regular basis. What’s more, different companies secure the rights in different countries. It’s obviously impossible to cover every legitimate release worldwide, let alone the incalculable illegitimate ones. But I have listed most of the former, including all of those from the US and Europe. Unsurprisingly, those generally happen to be the best anywhere. This is on account of three factors: the original film materials are vaulted in those territories and the various preservations and restorations have all been carried out there. Also, many of the world’s leading home video labels are also based either side of the Atlantic, and are perfectly poised to release the superlative editions of his work.
Public domain junk
Pictured below are some of the plethora of too-good-to-be-true, cheapo Chaplin collections available. Nice packaging but it’s all style over substance. There are countless numbers of dirt-cheap DVD sets flooding the market due to the endless recycling of PD material. Don’t waste your time or money on any of them, as attractive or legit as some may appear. They mostly contain awful quality, atrocious, unwatchable and unrestored prints from his 1914–1923 period. Just check out these comparative screenshots.
Their packaging most often uses non-copyrighted (pre-1918) images of Chaplin and, superficially at least, closely resembles legit releases. With a closer look they’re relatively easy to spot: every time you see films from three or more of Chaplin’s first four studios mixed up in the same collection and especially on the same discs, then they’re definitely el cheapo efforts. Another surefire sign is the use of alternate reissue titles for the individual films or even just plain made-up ones. Foreign translations aside, if any of the films are called anything other than the titles listed in his official filmography, the discs are very unlikely to be kosher. Most obvious of all, look for packaging credits for Roy Export or Bubbles Inc, two subsidiary Chaplin companies who handle all his licensing and merchandising.
Public domain rarities
Having said all that… If you’re an über completist, there are a few interesting curios to be found on some of those poor quality PD discs. Chaplin moved swiftly through several studios in his early meteoric rise to fame, and those he left behind were not slow to exploit their holdings. His old films were constantly retitled, recut and reissued for decades, and it’s these cruddy quality, mangled versions that form the bulk of what appears on Chaplin’s PD releases.
PD Chaplin material was plentiful enough on VHS, but two of the earliest extensive DVD sets are still the best place to source some of the little-known rarities I’ll be referring to throughout this series of guides. The first, by a nose, was Delta’s transatlantic release, The Essential Charlie Chaplin Collection. It comprises a 56-film, US 12-DVD set (2002) and 49-film, UK 10-DVD set (2003). Aside from the latter sporting a BBFC rating logo, both countries’ discs are absolutely identical. They were also released in various smaller permutations, as well as all of their discs being sold individually. The second collection, Brentwood’s Charlie Chaplin: 57 Classics US 6-DVD set (2004), has five double-sided discs containing the same content as Delta’s US set. A sixth bonus disc comprises an exclusive feature length documentary and unique restored version of Police (1916).
These feature the same films, from the same sources, and in almost perfect chronological order (Dough and Dynamite appears slightly later than it should). They have the dubious distinction of being the most comprehensive collections of unrestored PD Chaplin films ever issued. Among their numerous lo-res, lo-fi treasures are early reissues of 26 of his 35 surviving Keystones (6 more are here), which in the dark days before their belated restoration, helped make these sets pretty much indispensable to collectors, including me. They also include the 1928 reissue version of A Burlesque on Carmen. Not so good is the fact the same ragtime-y piano record, complete with loud crackling, is looped endlessly over every single film. Seriously. Ironically, these sets were themselves heavily bootlegged for many of the PD DVDs that followed and 57 Classics may even be copied from Essential. As with all PD DVDs, they’re region free and encoded in the NTSC format, so will play anywhere in the world.
Take note: I’m only ‘recommending’ these with a hefty caveat: with the sole exception of the documentary and short mentioned above, the condition of their content pales hugely next to the restored releases. These mostly make for difficult, unentertaining viewing and are strictly for the fanatic or scholar. They and their ilk most usefully serve as a potent record of what silent film fans had to put up between the end of the silent era and the illuminating restorations of the past few decades. In fact, it’s the ubiquity of sped-up and beat-up material such as this that led to silents having such a poor reputation in the eyes of the general public in the first place. Boo!
Now for the good news
As said, over the past couple of decades all of Chaplin’s films have been restored, rescored and re-released on high quality BDs and DVDs, and the innumerable cheapo PD DVDs don’t hold a candle to them. In fact, it would be a good idea to hold a candle to the PD DVDs.
Silent films on PD issues seldom come with custom made scores. Instead, if there are any soundtracks at all, they’re usually comprised of lo-fi, generic PD music taken from scratchy old 78 rpm records and suchlike. These are known as ‘needle-drop’ scores and can be anything: jazz, ragtime, classical, etc. Whatever they are, they rarely fit the action on screen and all but kill any film stone dead. Be warned: if you’re tempted to sample Chaplin’s genius this way, you’ll simply end up wondering what all the fuss was about.
Conversely, the restored Keystones, Essanays and Mutuals have superb looking prints and 150-odd different specially recorded scores between them, all performed by the cream of the world’s silent film musicians. Chaplin’s copyrighted First National and United Artists silents are only ever sold with his own later recorded soundtracks or Chaplin estate-approved re-recordings. Similary, if they’re screened with live musical accompaniment, his scores must be played.
The Keystones suffered especially badly over the years, being heavily re-edited, reissued and projected since the 1910s, both by their offical owners and bootleggers of the time. Unseen properly for a century, the many fragmented, rearranged, scattered and battered existing prints have only recently been returned to something close to their original state. And they look – and sound – far better than anyone would have dared hope. The Essanay and Mutual films have been around for several decades in good quality restored versions, thanks to David Shepard of Film Preservation Associates. The good Shepard, their spiritual guardian, subjected them to periodic restoration, commencing from the mid-1970s. He revisited the Essanays most recently in 1995 and the Mutuals in 1995 and 2006. However, both sets of films have even more recently, finishing between 2013–2017, had their most comprehensive restoration ever, this time involving archives and laboratories worldwide, as well as Shepard himself. He discusses his work on Chaplin’s films, among others, in this extensive interview. An important point to bear in mind is that wherever in the world they’re released, all official home video versions of Chaplin’s silents retain their original English intertitles, with foreign subtitles added where necessary.
Where to start
Most BDs and DVDs are region-coded, which means they won’t play on all machines everywhere. When it comes to sourcing the best quality discs available worldwide, life becomes a lot easier if you equip yourself with a multi-region player and display. The video and audio quality, extra features and packaging can vary widely, even between different official releases: all BDs and DVDs are not created equal. The larger your display, the more apparent this becomes. Here are some screenshots from different official releases of The Great Dictator (1940):
It can’t be emphasised enough: the films from Chaplin’s Keystone, Essanay, Mutual and First National periods (1914–1923) are all available on countless budget DVD collections, so beware of them. They contain low quality, unrestored PD prints, likewise accompanied by low quality, generic PD music. However tempting the price may be, avoid at all costs: you only get what you pay for.
Obviously, if you’re in the habit of streaming or downloading films, you also usually have no way of knowing exactly what source they originate from. For many years collectors had to put up with substandard copies as they were the only way to see his early films in any condition, but no longer. Nowadays of course, those worthless old versions have found a second life online. So when streaming or downloading, you’ve a better than even chance of ending up with them. The only way to be sure is to buy from legit companies, like those mentioned here, that also sell digital versions directly. As well as Chaplin’s output this applies to most films and especially those from the silent era–1950s. Just check out the widely disparate screenshots in:
…Which is why you need this guide. Now on with the show!
- Charlie Chaplin Collectors’ Guide: A Film Primer
- Charlie Chaplin Collectors’ Guide: Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914)
- Charlie Chaplin Collectors’ Guide: A Burlesque on Carmen (1915)
- Charting Charlie Chaplin on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD
- Charlie Chaplin’s “Daddy” Versions: Copyright or Copywrong? – coming soon; subscribe to the email list to be notified
- Charlie Chaplin Documentary Guide – coming soon
- New UK Charlie Chaplin Discs From Artificial Eye
- Artificial Eye’s New UK Chaplin Blu-rays Reviewed