Charlie Chaplin Collectors’ Guide, Part 6

by Brent Reid

Essanay and Mutual Restored in HD

  • Covering the definitive editions of the Little Tramp’s pivotal short films
  • They’re the closest ever to the versions Chaplin’s original audiences saw
  • Now with a multitude of new custom scores, as well as reusing some old favourites

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.

The Rink (1916) on the floor – (L-R) Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell and Albert Austin, cropped

The Rink (1916) on the floor: (L-R) Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell and Albert Austin


2014 Essanay restorations

Charlie Chaplin The Essanay Comedies UK BFI Blu-ray

UK BFI set: the best overall

The most recent all-new restorations are truly revelatory and way beyond anything previously issued, in terms of quality and completeness. These will undoubtedly remain the definitive versions for some time to come. So far they’ve been issued as:

These restorations have the most dynamic accompaniments yet, especially so in their three Blu-ray (BD) editions, all of which feature lossless audio. Robert Israel’s excellent scores, first recorded for David Shepard’s original restorations, are repurposed to great effect on half of the films. The remainder have brand new scores by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and Timothy Brock.

The restoration of A Night in the Show is also included in Criterion’s release of Chaplin’s Limelight (1952).

They first saw release in mainland Europe and were ecstatically received. But even those versions, especially A Night Out (1915) and Police (1916), were considerably improved on for their later US release and yet further for the UK. The BD editions in particular range from, good and better to best. In fact, the UK BFI edition also contains everything in the US set and more besides. They both have all 14 films with two extra shorts, the early cash-ins Triple Trouble (1918, 24min) and Charlie Butts In (c.1920, 10min). The UK set additionally includes Charlie’s Triple Trouble (1948, 16min), a British recut reissue of the former film featuring the voice of comedian Tommy Handley. In a similar vein is a recut version of A Burlesque on Carmen (37min), Chaplin’s penultimate approved Essanay short, aligned with a Peter Sellers-narrated 1951 reissue soundtrack. Last of all is The Long Year at Essanay (22min), a new video essay by film historian Glenn Mitchell. Both sets feature substantial booklets with many rare photos, essays and descriptions of the films, but here too the BFI has the edge.

In the sole case of the original Triple Trouble there were no good quality film materials available, so both the US and UK sets use an unrestored, zoomed-in analogue master. Though it pales next to the generally excellent quality of the other films included, it has been stabilised and given new intertitles and a great new Mont Alto score. Consequently, it looks perfectly acceptable and certainly much better than most public domain Chaplins prior to their restoration.

The Spanish BD set is region 0, though its sleeve wrongly states region B. Its extras are the aforementioned Triple Trouble; Bravo Charlot! (2002, 39min), a French documentary with optional Spanish or Portuguese subtitles; and the wordless short, Little Tich and His Funny Feet (1900, 2½min).

Italy and France may not have received the restorations in HD, but their DVD extras do include the feature length Carmen (1915), parodied by Chaplin in A Burlesque on Carmen. Note that though Germany has thus far missed out on these versions, at least the French DVD set also has full German subtitles, making it a viable option.

Clip, #2, #3

Charlie Chaplin's Essanay Comedies 1915 (Flicker Alley) US Blu-ray and DVD box set

US Flicker Alley BD and DVD box set

2013 Mutual restorations

Charlie Chaplin - The Mutual Comedies 1916-1917 UK (BFI) Blu-ray set

UK BFI set: the best release of these films to date

These restorations get closer than ever to the films in their original state, and are in by far the best quality yet. For the first time, according to David Shepard, “exact reproductions of the original 1916–1917 intertitles” have been added, but as no original main title cards have ever been found, generic ones are used. “Archival restoration practices have come a long way in the past 40 years and it is now more or less set in stone that if you cannot authenticate, you do not fake.” He discusses the restoration process in more detail here. They’ve so far seen these releases:

Clip, #2

As with the latest Essanays, the sets in mainland Europe were first out of the gate and the US set was delayed while even more work was done and some prints replaced with superior copies. In particular, The Rink (1916) and Easy Street (1917) initially had dark, dupey prints that were cropped on the left edge to carry the optical soundtrack of later sound reissues. These were replaced with earlier generation, full aperture silent prints. The new scores were recorded to the initial restorations and as the earlier European sets use the unaltered transfers, they do not have any sync issues. However, as with the latest Essanays, the tweaking of the US set’s prints had the unfortunate effect of throwing some of the scores very slightly out of sync. The release of the UK set, also including the improved prints, was delayed further still for yet more work. This included correcting most of the new sync issues and as a result, overall it features the best audio and video of the lot.

Charlie Chaplin and Eric Campbell in The Rink (1916) US Brentwood public domain DVD

Chaplin and Eric Campbell in The Rink (1916), US Brentwood public domain DVD. Though this screenshot is fuzzy and severely cropped, it doesn’t show the missing footage, alternating blurred frames, constant scratches and shakiness, or fluctuating contrast and density. It was actually difficult to take a decent capture. In short, it’s unwatchable. And unlistenable: it’s accompanied by an unrelated canned score of old PD jazz music that loops every few minutes and is repeated on literally every other short in the series.

Charlie Chaplin and Eric Campbell in The Rink (1916) Spanish Divisa Blu-ray screenshot

Spanish Divisa BD; it goes from this…

Charlie Chaplin and Eric Campbell in The Rink (1916) US Flicker Alley Blu-ray screenshot

…to this: US Flicker Alley BD…

Charlie Chaplin and Eric Campbell in The Rink (1916) UK BFI Blu-ray screenshot

…to this: UK BFI BD. We’ve come a long way, baby!

Kudos, by the way, to my friend Valerio Greco, who was the first to spot these improvements and note them on his Silent Valerio Page. Praise too for BFI producer Douglas Weir, who insisted on holding back both their sets to make them the absolute best they could be.

As with the latest Essanay restorations, the US, UK and Spain are the only countries to get them in HD. The scores vary a lot between the different sets:

  • The US, Italian, German and French sets have two new scores per film: a default small orchestra or period score, and a second option of an improvised piano accompaniment. Apart from One A.M. (1916) that is, which reuses the previous DVDsCarl Davis orchestral score, again paired with a new piano accompaniment.
  • The UK set features all 23 new scores, as well as the rest of the earlier Davis ones. So except in the case of One A.M., which has two, every film has three scores; that’s a total of 35 soundtrack choices between the 12 films! We are truly spoiled.
  • The Spanish set ‘only’ contains the brilliant Davis scores.

As great as all the Mutual scores are, those by Davis are most fans’ favoured choice. This marks their third outing on disc, having now accompanied all three major restorations. Re-recorded highlights, with Davis conducting the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, are compiled on a couple of differently-edited CDs, the first of which also features a disc of Chaplin’s own film music. The latter release coincided with the latest BFI sets and features excellent sleeve notes on the inspiration behind Davis’s creative process. The BFI sets mistakenly list an additional 5.1 surround option, as presented on their previous DVDs. In the end, the surround mixes were not carried over as also re-editing those to accommodate the added footage would have been prohibitively costly and time consuming, as well as their inclusion eating up valuable disc space.

The BD extras vary widely too but are uniformly excellent, with little or no overlap between them. For instance, the US set has two documentaries: the twice-previously released Chaplin’s Goliath (1996, 52min) and The Birth of The Tramp (2013, 59min), an English language version of the French-made La naissance de Charlot. The UK has full length audio commentaries for all 12 films by a variety of leading Chaplin experts. Two of them, for One A.M. and The Pawnshop, are by renowned comedian-magician Dan Kamin, and I’ve a funny story regarding his involvement. Unfortunately, it’s not suitable for public consumption but if you know me personally, ask the next time we speak and I’ll tell you! The UK set also has some short video extras: two short newsreels, “Chaplin Signs the Mutual Contract” (1916, 34sec) and “Charlie on the Ocean” (1921, 5min), and an interview with composer Carl Davis (9min). Both the US and UK BDs also have substantial glossy booklets. Meanwhile, the Spanish set is pretty stacked too: it has The Birth of The Tramp again, this time in its original French with optional Spanish or Portuguese subs. Also present are two Chaplin Essanays, His Regeneration (1915) and Triple Trouble (1918); five Keystone and Essanay shorts starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Mabel Normand and Ben Turpin; an early Chaplin cartoon and a restoration featurette to round things off.

Of the BDs, the US set is region A, the UK region B and the Spanish region 0, despite again saying region B on the sleeve. The US set has the 2.0 stereo scores in lossy Dolby Digital, while the UK and Spanish sets have superior lossless LPCM audio.

The UK BFI BDs are definitely the pick of the bunch, but in all honesty they’re all pretty fantastic. I and many long-term Chaplin fans never dreamed we’d ever actually see such wonderful versions as these, let alone be so spoilt for choice. Happy times.

Essanays and Mutuals in print

See article here.

Charlie Chaplin's Red Letter Days - At Work with the Comic Genius (2017) by Fred Goodwins with David James and Dan Kamin

One of the best first-hand, insider accounts of Chaplin’s daily life and work yet published.


Chaplin’s early catalogue is in a constant state of flux and ever being improved. This occurs as new and better quality film materials and home video formats became available, and as restoration techniques become cheaper yet more sophisticated. Though their quality improves overall from the earliest editions to the last, any of the releases listed in this guide so far are excellent representations of these films and will be more than satisfactory. I hope one day all the restored Keystones will appear in HD but at least for now we have the US region A, UK region B and Spanish region 0 BDs of the Essanays and Mutuals. While copies of the latest restorations should form the basis of any Chaplin collection, it’s also important to bear in mind that many of the earlier versions feature unique alternate takes, title cards and scores. Particularly notable among these are the Van Beuren Mutuals and 1995 Essanay and Mutual restorations, but whichever releases you choose, you’re in for a lifetime of laughter – happy viewing!

Right, that’s most of the shorts covered – see Part 7 for the rest of them and Charlie’s features from 1921–1967.

Charlie Chaplin US Mutual trade ad, 1916

US Mutual trade ad, 1916

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.

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