Sunday, 15 January 2017

Money can’t buy you love… Charlie Chaplin: The Essanay Comedies, BFI BluRay/DVD

Charlie Chaplin became the most famous man in the world when working for Essanay in 1915. In Beatles terms, if the Mutual Comedies are his Rubber Soul, Keystone Please, Please Me, then the films of this period are his A Hard Day’s Night – a real, albeit uneven, progression in the definition of his style and comedy character.

This new BFI set is the result of a 12-year project, led by Lobster Films and the Cineteca di Bologna, and features all of Chaplin’s Essanay output on two disc Blu-ray and DVD. The films are fully restored and presented alongside exclusive special features – all released for the first time in the UK.

This was a transitional period for the pop-cultural superstar as he cemented his fame and developed his style. Keystone had been punk cinema, instant scenarios developed through improvisation and riffing off the talents all around, Mack, Mabel et al. But at Essanay with more control and bigger budgets, Charlie was able to produce more measured comedies albeit still at some rate of production – with 15 films released between February ’15 and March ’16 and his departure.

Edna and Charlie
Included were some average fare but also what Glenn Mitchell, in his accompanying essay, considers Chaplin’s first true classic, The Tramp (11th April 1915) and The Bank (9th August 1915) described as an “undisputed classic” by Frank Scheide in his piece.

After his barnstorming year at Keystone Charlie knew his earning potential was far greater elsewhere and he negotiated a huge deal with Essanay, a company famous for the Bronco Billy westerns - drama as well as comedy. You can take the boy out of Walworth but this 25-year old still knew his way round the block and, reputedly, Charlie had himself paged when meeting Essanay exec GM Anderson – Bronco Billy himself - at the Alexandra Hotel in Chicago thereby drawing a large crowd – instant proof of popularity.

Ben Turpin was just a little too funny for Charlie's tastes!
Relations with Anderson and his Essanay co-owner, George K Spoor, were not always to be smooth – particularly the latter. The company was to not only frustrate his ambition for longer form features nixing the idea for a feature called Life – but also re-cut some of these two reelers such as the Burlesque on Carmen (April 1916) and Police (27th March 1916) by including outtakes and, for the former, shooting additional footage with Ben Turpin.

There is a freshness here and an inevitable clash between the creativity of the star and the moneymen: Charlie’s velocity was simply too great.

His New Job, released on 1st February, was appropriately Chaplin’s first Essanay film (featuring a then unknown Gloria Swanson as a typist!) and A Night Out followed just two weeks later, released on 15th.

That's Gloria in the corner!
The latter featured Charlie’s new leading lady, the Edna Purviance, who was all but one of his films for the next eight years. He cast her after they had met socially and she more than justified his faith by providing a deeper emotional foil for him to interact with – Edna would muck in with the best of them but she could also act.

Chaplinitis had already begun but reached its full flowering in 1915 with merchandise, comics, books etc… There were Chaplin look-a-likes… and the kind of multi-media explosion you might think started with those mop-tops fifty years later.

Lloyd Bacon, Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance in The Tramp
None of this promotional excess would have worked had the product itself not been so good and by the time of The Tramp (11th April 1915) you can see the brand equity reaching its initial peak. This film shows Chapin’s increasing emotional content with our hero tramping off alone in the hope of better romantic fortunes at the film’s conclusion. In his earlier films, Chaplin had not always been sympathetic and indeed he had been an irritant; drunk and malicious but here he was beginning as a romantic hero and an everyman not guaranteed to win in love or war… someone 1915 could really identify with.

Interestingly Chaplin would still dip into earlier characters and in A Night in the Show (20th November) he played a drunken dandy and an unruly reprobate: Mr Pest and Mr Rowdy. This was an adaptation of the old Fred Karno sketch Mumming Birds and is a hoot; a precious example of his origins in live performance.

Mr Pest and Mr Rowdy
Work (21st June) was also descended from the stage sketch from his time with Fred Khano and filmed at the imposing Bradbury Mansion – the only thing missing is Shaggy and Scooby Doo! Slapstick with irony…

A Woman (12th July) featured some old school British drag, which for some providing further evidence for that minority who found Charlie a little crude. It wasn’t just in the US though as the film was seemingly banned in Sweden until 1931.

Charlie gets the wrong end of the stick...
The Bank (9th August) is indeed just about the pick of the bunch from the opening gag about Charlie storing his mop in the safe to the endless battles with Bristolian Billy Armstrong. The slapstick is balanced perfectly with romance and action as Charlie mistakes Edna’s intentions and falls hard for a woman out of his class. There’s a genuinely dramatic closing sequence but never a guarantee that Charlie’s heart will triumph.

Police (27th March 1916) was Charlie’s last Essanay film to be made and ends the run on a similar note: Chaplin is trying to go straight and it all boils down to whether his co-burglar (Wesley Ruggles) will persuade him to make his crime worse or whether Edna’s goodness will turn his fortunes. He does better here but, as he walks off into the sunset, arms aloft as in celebration of his new possibilities, a stray copper pops into view to chase him back from the sunset.

Charlie defends Edna
That’s just a small sample of the delights in the set. Sold?

Charlie Chaplin: The Essanay Comedies is released on 23rd January and you can pre-order your copy from theBFI Shop. The films have never looked so good in digital form and come with fresh music from silent-scoring experts the Mont Alto Orchestra and Robert Israel. It is a sumptuous celebration that no fan of silent comedy will want to be without, Chaplinitis may have peaked in 1915-18 but it’s never really gone away.

And, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make…

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