‘Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies’ and the Quay Brothers on Blu-ray

Chaplinessenay
Flicker Alley

Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) – In 1914 Charlie Chaplin, the most famous comic performer in Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios, was lured away by Essanay Studios with a huge increase in salary and the promise of creative freedom. Chaplin made the most of it and you can watch his evolution over the course of the 14 official shorts (and one unofficial short) of this collection, all produced in 1915. This is the American Blu-ray debut of the films from newly remastered editions, a project undertaken in collaboration with Lobster Films, David Shepard and Blackhawk Films, and the Cineteca Bologna.

Chaplin stars with Ben Turpin in His New Job, set at a movie studio, and A Night Out, where they play a pair of sloppy drunks raising havoc at a posh eatery. Edna Purviance, who co-stars in all subsequent Essanay shorts, joins Chaplin with The Champion, where a hidden horseshoe in a boxing glove promotes the tramp from sparring partner (“This gink wants his face kalsomined,” reads one particularly rich title) to challenger to the boxing title. In the Park, a shapeless gag fest where the tramp crosses paths with a pickpocket (identified as “a biter” in the titles) and a pair of lovers, concludes the tape. This is primitive Chaplin, still very much steeped in the Keystone slapstick tradition of pratfalls and well placed kicks to the rear end. The Tramp an aggressively mischievous character who smokes incessantly, striking matches on the neck of poor bystanders and flicking ashes in everything from tipped hats to open mouths. The Chaplin magic comes through in the timing and the grace.

A Jitney Elopement is straight slapstick, an often inspired but otherwise familiar tale of mistaken identity and romantic entanglements ending in a Keystone-like car chase. The Tramp, however, features his most fully formed story to date and injects an element of pathos that will become central to Chaplin’s later films. The Tramp saves a girl from three ruffians and is rewarded with a job from her father (he proceeds to wreak havoc on their family farm), but stays only because he’s fallen in love. By contrast By the Sea feels thrown together, and likely was as Chaplin and company shot the loosely connected series of beachside gags in one day. Work finds Chaplin back in form: a force of pure chaos as a paperhanger’s assistant who turns a cozy home into a glue-spattered disaster area. You can see Chaplin’s story sense improve with The Tramp and Work while his persona becomes less aggressive and more hapless, oblivious to the destruction he’s causing all around.

Chaplin doffed his duds and his ubiquitous mustache for the first time since leaving Keystone and the last time in the silent era for A Woman, a hilarious short in which he disguises himself as an elegant society lady. As he flutters his eyelids and flirts with two leering men, including his sweetheart’s married father, she watches in tickled amusement. In The Bank, one of his best Essanay shorts, he waddles up the bank vault only to pull out a bucket, a mop and a smock. Chaplin smoothly combines pathos and slapstick in this story of a dreamy, lovesick janitor, the first of his Essanay films to approach the level of his later Mutual classics. Shanghaied is classic silent situational comedy involving a boat, a stowaway, a dastardly plot to sink the ship, and a plenty of seaborn humor. Chaplin’s gags flow smoothly through a cohesive narrative, building to an organic climax (as opposed to often arbitrary conclusions of his first Essanay efforts), while his talents as a physical comedian are in full display as he balances a dinner tray on a stormy sea and dances a spontaneous jig.

Chaplin is at the top of his form in the his final three films for Essanay. He takes two roles in A Night at the Show, the drunk dandy that was his music hall specialty and a working class rube with a droopy mustache, to wreak havoc at a vaudeville show. Producer David Shepard’s reconstruction of Chaplin’s original two reel version of Burlesque of Carmen, which was expanded by Essanay to four reels with outtakes and new footage, brings the sprawling parody back down to the concentrated, cohesive, and very funny comedy Chaplin originally created. Police is classic Chaplin, the misadventures of the Tramp who leaves prison for a world of rampant poverty and crime, portrayed with a cynical, satiric eye yet heartened with hope. The edition featured here is newly restored. It’s also his final film for Essanay. Mutual Studios gave Chaplin an offer and Chaplin left in 1916 for complete creative control and an unprecedented contract that made him the highest paid person in the world. Building from his evolution at Essanay, he went on to create a dozen comedy classics that remain, in the eyes of many fans, the most concentrated examples of the Chaplin genius.

The rest of the films are presented as supplements. Triple Trouble was constructed by Essanay in 1918 from an unfinished feature called Life and outtakes from Police and Work. While it lacks the narrative cohesion that Chaplin brought to his late Essanay films, it nonetheless features some excellent comic moments. And the set also features the debut of the newly restored Charlie Butts, a one-reel short assembled from alternate takes from A Night Out and released in 1920.

The set features all of these in both Blu-ray and DVD editions and includes a booklet with an essay by Jeffrey Vance and notes on the films and the restorations.

QuayBrosThe Quay Brothers: Collected Short Films (Zeitgeist, Blu-ray) – Collaborators and identical twins Stephen and Timothy Quay have garnered a cult following for their strange animated shorts, surreal films created in a collision of 19th and 20th century styles and sensibilities. Their figures—mechanical contraptions of thread and wire, springs and coils, aged machine parts and simple tools—quiver and stutter, as if restless with nervous energy, through abstract dramas in doll house abodes in dreamscape worlds.

Directed in a highly stylized manner, with a shallow plain of focus that purposely keeps objects out of focus and a camera that moves with conspicuous mechanical precision (long before it became common practice in stop-motion photography), their works have a dream-like quality about them. This is directly alluded to in the subtitle of one of their most handsome films, The Comb (From the Museum of Sleep) (1990) where scenes of a lattice-work of ladders shooting through an angular construction is intercut with a sleeping woman. Street of Crocodiles (1986), their most famous short work, references turn-of-the-century cinema as a man peers through a Kinetoscope to watch the nightmare-tinged fantasy of a figure overwhelmed by mysterious forces on the deserted streets of city after dark. These are the longest and most accomplished short films in this collection of 16 short films spanning 30 years of filmmaking, but there are other spellbinding works: the early The Cabinet of Jan Svanmajer (1984) a tribute to the great Czech animator and the Quays’ spiritual godfather; the inventive art history documentary De Artificiali Persepctiva, or Animorphosis (1990); the four short works in the Stille Nacht series. These films, along with Rehearsals For Extinct Anatomies (1987) and The Phantom Museum (2003), showcase a vision of quivering objects and surreal narratives in a shadowy, self-contained dream world.

Three recent works make their disc debut in this collection: Maska (2010), Through the Weeping Glass (2011), and Unmistaken Hands (2013), all of which recently toured the U.S. in a program of Quay films curated by Christopher Nolan, a fan of the filmmakers. He contributes an original documentary, the eight-minute appreciation Quay (2015), a profile of the filmmakers at work and in conversation discussing their inspirations. Also features commentaries for six shorts recorded by the Quay Brothers for a previous disc release and a booklet with an introduction by Nolan, a Quay Brothers dictionary, and an essay by Michael Atkinson.

The complete line-up is featured below:

The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer (1984)
This Unnameable Little Broom (or, The Epic of Gilgamesh) (1985)
Street of Crocodiles (1986)
Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies (1987)
Stille Nacht I (Dramolet) (1988)
The Comb (1990)
Anamorphosis (1991)
Stille Nacht II (Are We Still Married?) (1992)
Stille Nacht III (Tales From Vienna Woods) (1993)
Stille Nacht IV (Can’t Go Wrong Without You) (1994)
In Absentia (2000)
The Phantom Museum (2003)
Nocturna Artificialia (1979)
plus
Maska (2010)
Through the Weeping Glass (2011)
Unmistaken Hands (2013)
Quay (dir: Christopher Nolan)

The Quay Brothers’ ‘Street of Crocodiles’ (1986)

Videophiled: Chaplin’s ‘Limelight’

Limelight
Criterion

Limelight (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), the final film that Charlie Chaplin made in the U.S., is both a bittersweet sentimental drama and a tribute to the music hall era of entertainment. Chaplin stars as a former vaudeville star now reduced to penury, living in a rundown boarding house and scraping by on occasional booking, and Claire Bloom is the delicate, young ballet dancer he saves from a suicide attempt and nurses back to health. Chaplin casts Buster Keaton for a single scene as his partner in a comic duet, making this film the only time the two silent comedy greats ever worked together, and the scene is wonderful. (Legend has it that Chaplin shortened the scene because Keaton was “too good” and kept drawing attention from him.) Nigel Bruce, Norman Lloyd, and Sydney Chaplin (Charlie’s brother) co-star, silent star Snub Pollard has a bit part, and Chaplin’s longtime silent movie co-star Edna Purviance made her final screen appearance in an unbilled role. Just as the film was released, Chaplin was denied re-entry to the United States for suspected Communist leanings (this was the height of red scare hysteria and the Hollywood blacklist) and the film was pulled from release as theaters cancelled screenings. Chaplin’s score won an Academy Award in 1973, after the film’s belated 1972 theatrical release in Los Angeles.

Criterion continues its Chaplin releases with a new 4K digital restoration. New to this edition are the video essay “Chaplin’s Limelight: Its Evolution and Intimacy” by David Robinson, interviews with actor Claire Bloom and Normal Lloyd, and the 1915 Chaplin short A Night in the Show. Carried over from the earlier DVD release are documentary featurette “Chaplin Today: Limelight” directed by Edgardo Cozarinsky for French TV, a four-minute scene deleted by Chaplin after the premiere, two excerpts from the original novel “Footlights” read by Chaplin, and the uncompleted 1919 short The Professor (where Chaplin played a flea-trainer for the first time). The accompanying booklet features an essay by silent movie historian Peter von Bagh and excerpts from a 1952 report from the set by journalist Henry Gris.

More new releases on disc and digital at Cinefiled

Videophiled Classic: Chaplin at Mutual and 25 Years of Mack Sennett

Flicker Alley releases two more collections of classic silent comedies. Chaplin’s Mutual Comedies 1916-1917 (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) collects the greatest run of comedy shorts in Chaplin’s career in newly restored and remastered editions, and The Mack Sennett Collection: Vol. One (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray) collects 50 comedies of a variety of lengths (including one feature) from Sennett’s studios, from 1909 to 1933 and his early sound comedies.

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The Mack Sennett Collection: Vol. One is the goldmine here. It’s not that it necessarily features superior work to the Chaplin classics (those Chaplin Mutuals are among the greatest silent comedies ever made) but that it rescues so many films either previously unavailable or only available in compromised or inferior editions and it encompasses so many silent movie greats that began their respective careers in his studios and, in most cases, remained to flourish there.

It opens on Mack Sennett as writer and star of The Curtain Pole (1909), a nonsense comedy that sends Sennett (in heavy make-up and absurdly overdone facial hair) on a quest to replace the title object and ends with him literally gnawing on the pole to get it down to size. D.W. Griffith directs in perfectly professional mode, keeping the absurdities going with all due haste, but Mack Sennett takes the helm for the next five shorts, slowly removing himself from the frame and giving the star parts over to Mabel Normand and Ford Sterling, two of his most reliable stars for the next decade.

This is slapstick at its most basic, all overcharged energy and wild-eyed mania, but Sennett (who eventually leaves directing to others but still writes many of them and produces them all) slowly perfects the genre through the course of the disc, which takes us through the evolution from one-reel comedies to two- and three-reel pictures with slightly more logical plots and creative comic inventions. And they introduce us to the great Sennett stock company: Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chase, Chester Conklin, Al St. John, Mack Swain, Edgar Kennedy, and a young British comic by the name of Charlie Chaplin.

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Classic: Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Gold Rush’

The Gold Rush (Criterion), Charlie Chaplin’s 1925 frozen north comedy classic, is just as funny today as it was over eighty years ago, and just as mawkishly sentimental.

Drop him in a muddy Alaska boom town and he’s little more than a lovestruck adolescent stepping through emotional trap doors—he  lives in a romantic dream world while the social reality rebuffs his awkward, mooning advances. Give him a prop and a stage, however, and he brings elegance to vaudeville, whether he’s eating a boiled shoe or scrambling across the floor of a cabin teetering on the edge of a cliff.

The Little Tramp is not just another prospector hiking into the Alaskan interior with hundreds of ill-equipped dreamers and scruffy roughnecks, he’s the pluckiest of them all. He meets deprivation and starvation with ingenuity and farce, but he believed in the underdog romance of his story. I believe in the slapstick ballet of his physical comedy.

In 1942, Chaplin cut more than 20 minutes from the original 1925 silent version and re-released the film with sound narration, a new score, and a different final shot. This was Chaplin’s preferred version and thus was better preserved and most version most readily available, but the silent version is the original, the actual “director’s cut” of the film, and is still the superior version, without the second guessing of Chaplin, who has a tendency to sentimentalize the film even more in his 1942 cut.

Continue reading at Videodrone

“The Great Dictator” – Criterion’s Edition of Chaplin’s Masterpiece on DVD and Blu-ray

The Blu-ray debut

The Great Dictator (Criterion)

Chaplin knew it, and so did Lubitsch: comedy is the best weapon against hate. Like Lubitsch’s brilliant “To Be or Not to Be,” Chaplin’s 1940 classic satirizes Fascism and the Third Reich with his own stock in trade: vaudeville burlesque. Chaplin leaves the Tramp behind to play — in his first genuine speaking role(s) — both 20th century Napoleon “Adenoid Hynkel” and a look-a-like amnesiac Jewish barber, and Jack Oakie is a dead ringer for a certain Italian dictator as Napaloni of Bacteria.

If it soars when Chaplin plays to his strengths (a balletic pantomime with Hynkel bouncing a globe like he owns the world), it threatens to sinks in his weakness for pathos — his climactic plea for peace, understanding, and tolerance, for all its sincerity, is played so straight-faced you keep waiting for the punchline — but for the passion of the speech. Chaplin once said that if he had known the true extent of Hitler’s horrors, he would have never made the film, but there’s nothing belittling in the film or in Chaplin’s portrayal of the victims of the despot.

Continue reading at MSN Videodrone

The Criterion Touch: Modern Times and Night of the Hunter

An embarrassment of riches this last week, and due to combination of late arrivals, a pesky head cold and time-consuming website upgrade, I had less time with them than I would have liked and am late getting my coverage up. Here are two previously available essentials now getting the Criterion treatment on DVD and debuting on Blu-ray, with brief notes on the films and the supplements. Both were released on November 16.

The Night Of The Hunter (Criterion)

The pastoral nightmare

It was a flop upon its release in 1955, but Charles Laughton’s only film as a director is today justly celebrated one of the most beautiful pastoral nightmares the cinema has seen. Robert Mitchum gives a fire and brimstone performance as a demonic con man in preacher man’s robes who stalks two children in search of treasure, and Lillian Gish is a tough but tender shepherd of lost sheep orphans. Part rural film noir and part expressionist parable, this is an American original boasting some of the most striking images to escape from Hollywood.

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Chaplin at Keystone

Chaplin At Keystone (Flicker Alley)

British music hall comedian Charles Chaplin made his screen debut in February 1914, playing a threadbare dandy with all physical cues of a cad in the Mack Sennett one-reel comedy Making a Living. The Tramp was born in his second screen appearance—the signature costume (baggy pants, tight cutaway coat, too-big shoes, too-small derby, bamboo cane and toothbrush mustache) built by Chaplin for his role in Mabel’s Strange Predicament—but audiences first saw him in the split-reel special Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal., an improvised film shot in an afternoon with Chaplin’s tramp character constantly intruding on newsreel crews trying to shoot the races. Fitting that a comedy based on the fascination of movies and the yearn for celebrity via the screen introduced the figure who would become the biggest movie star in the world in a few short years.

Chaplin at Keystone

All this biographical information and historical detail is explored in Jeffrey Vance’s excellent essay and film notes in the accompanying 40-page booklet of Flicker Alley’s Chaplin At Keystone (Flicker Alley), a remarkable box set that collects the 33 surviving shorts (one-reel, two-reel and a couple of shorter split-reel films) and the feature-length comedy, Tillie’s Punctured Romance, that he made for Sennett’s Keystone Film Company in 1914. (Only one Chaplin Keystone remains lost, but Vance helpfully provides notes on the short anyway.) Over the course of the year 1914, working with Mack Sennett, Mabel Normand and the rest of the directors and ensemble players in the Keystone company, Chaplin evolved from screen comedy debutante to Keystone star, even though he never received screen credit. In fact, no one at Keystone got screen credit or even images in the posters (Sennett wanted to keep them interchangeable) but Chaplin stood out and this distinctive (yet nameless to them) figure was a sought-after attraction. The exhibitors, who knew the value of a star, would simply put a cut-out of Chaplin out to let people know another of his Keystone films was playing, and audiences responded.

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