We wondered why Judge Bill Treadway had gotten so quiet lately until we realized he was just paying homage to Charlie Chaplin's silent era.
Seven funny and touching classics from cinema's comedy master.
After spending what he called "the happiest time of my career" at Mutual Film Corporation for three years, Charles Chaplin signed with First National Pictures to make a series of shorts and a feature film (The Kid). The fruits of his labor during those turbulent five years have been compiled into this two-disc set.
Facts of the Case
I've rated the seven shorts Chaplin made for First National Pictures on a scale of zero to four stars.
• A Dog's Life (1918)
• Shoulder Arms (1918)
• The Pilgrim (1923)
Note: In 1959, the three above shorts were edited together by Chaplin into a four-star, full-length feature, The Chaplin Revue. Chaplin linked the shorts together with narration and clips from his 1918 promotional short How to Make Movies.
• A Day's Pleasure (1919)
• Sunnyside (1919)
• The Idle Class (1921)
• Pay Day (1922)
After enjoying tremendous creative control at the Mutual Film Corporation, Charles Chaplin was ready to move on. With his brother Sydney, he managed to secure a lucrative million-dollar-per-short contract from First National Studios. What seemed to be a marriage made in heaven very quickly turned to hell, however. Chaplin had been itching to begin making feature-length films, but resistance from First National forced him to continue making short films. Nevertheless, his first two for First National, A Dog's Life and Shoulder Arms, were made with relative autonomy and ease.
In early 1919, Chaplin began production on his breakthrough feature film, The Kid. First National was reluctant about backing a feature-length Chaplin film, preferring that he make more short subjects. After facing First National ordered him to take the existing footage of The Kid and fashion a short subject from it, Chaplin rushed two shorts through production: A Day's Pleasure and Sunnyside. With First National satisfied for the moment, Chaplin completed The Kid.
Chaplin had no intention of making any more shorts after The Kid, but he still had a contract to honor. The Idle Class and Pay Day would follow. Chaplin then began preparing his first dramatic film, A Woman of Paris, but realized that he still owed First National one last picture. The result was The Pilgrim. After this time, all Chaplin films would be released by United Artists, his new distribution company, which he cofounded with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith.
The Chaplin Revue remains a quagmire in Chaplin's canon. While it was great to have three of his finest shorts compiled into a feature film, some purists complained that the new format was a mere bastardization of the original shorts. As a compromise, Warner Bros. has offered a unique solution. Those who prefer to see the separate shorts have the option to do so, but those who do not mind the feature version have the option of viewing it. This is an ideal compromise and one that previous DVD editions never offered before.
This is the first time in 45 years that we even have the complete version of The Chaplin Revue. The initial 1978 Magnetic Video VHS release made some cuts to fit the film on a single cassette. Chaplin's narration and the behind-the-scenes footage were omitted, as were the closing credits for Shoulder Arms and The Pilgrim. The 1989 Key Video VHS release used the same print. Now, Warner Bros. has given us The Chaplin Revue not merely the way Charles Chaplin intended for us to see it, but expanded to boot. The first disc features the version of The Chaplin Revue we all know and love. The second disc compiles Chaplin's other four First National shorts: Sunnyside, A Day's Pleasure, The Idle Class, and Pay Day.
The first disc, featuring A Dog's Life, Shoulder Arms, and The Pilgrim, is the best in this two-disc edition. Those three Chaplin films feature Chaplin at his very best. The first short, A Dog's Life, is the sentimental, raucous Little Tramp we know and love best. The latter two shorts feature Chaplin's first attempts at social satire. Shoulder Arms is often labeled the first antiwar film, which may be right, as no earlier war film has been this successful at supporting our troops but questioning whether physical war is really the best solution. The Pilgrim is my all-time favorite Chaplin short. It mixes the best of both worlds of Chaplin: the sentimentalist and vicious satirist. It is the longest of the shorts, clocking in at a massive 49 minutes, but the longer time allows Chaplin to set up a broader story and deeper characterizations to bolster his wicked comedy.
The second disc features Chaplin at his most uneven. While The Idle Class is prime Chaplin, the remaining three shorts are not. One can feel the strain of the rushed production in Sunnyside and A Day's Pleasure. The latter short is not all that funny compared to previous Chaplin gems. Chaplin often looks weary and tired, as if the rushed schedule was beginning to take a toll on him. There isn't much to the story either. Sunnyside begins promisingly enough but bogs down in an extended fantasy sequence that doesn't lead anywhere. Look at the deleted reel in the supplements and you'll see a direction Sunnyside could have taken had First National not been breathing down Chaplin's neck. The Idle Class features the same winning formula that made The Pilgrim so good. One could see the former as being a dry run for the latter title. In this short Chaplin lampoons the opulent, excessive lifestyle of the rich and gets some huge laughs in the process. Watch the masquerade ball and see the genesis for the climax of Blake Edwards's The Pink Panther. Lastly, while earlier video promos claimed that Pay Day was Chaplin's personal favorite short, it was not. His autobiography makes slight mention of it in an unflattering manner. One can understand Chaplin's disdain for the finished film: He was itching to make feature-length films but had to fulfill First National's contract. The finished product feels a bit incomplete, as if Chaplin was unsure of how to end it. Still, there are some huge laughs, including the Little Tramp's attempt to sneak back into the house and rest his hungover head.
All of these shorts have been available before on VHS and DVD through major and public domain studios. For this definitive release, Warner Bros and MK2 Editions have done magnificent work. Derived from negatives from the Chaplin estate archives, these shorts look spectacular. I have never seen these shorts look so crisp and clean. Some may argue that my score of 100 is too high, but they probably have not seen the many videos and TV prints that I have, most of which range from downright ugly to passable at best. Warner's disc is the very first home video release of these shorts that looks magnificent. The careful restoration work has brought new life to these shorts. There are still some blemishes, such as scratches and specks, but they are not as plentiful as in other releases. The black-and-white image is silky and bright. There is also a clarity that has been unseen for many years.
Audio is one area I do have a bone to pick with. I am just unimpressed with the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround stereo remixes. Chaplin never intended for his films to be issued with stereophonic sound. He was no fan of stereophonic sound, often dismissing it as a mere gimmick. The hollow tinniness of the 5.1 track doesn't do Chaplin's films any favors. The music has always been an important element of all Chaplin films, both silent and sound, and not to be able to hear it in a majestic manner is a cruel joke. Luckily, Warner has also included the original mono tracks. Compare the two and you will be startled at how much stronger the mono sounds. It restores the majestic, melodic quality of Chaplin's score. Don't be fooled by modern technology—the original mix is still the best.
The Chaplin Revue is not as packed with extra content as other discs in The Chaplin Collection, but what is offered here is still worthwhile. We start with two five-minute introductions by David Robinson, author of Charlie Chaplin: Comic Genius. These are a bit brief but perfect companion pieces to Robinson's book.
Three additional Chaplin shorts made in 1918 appear:
• The Bond
• Harry Lauder
• How to Make Movies
The title "deleted scenes from Sunnyside and Shoulder Arms" for another extra is a bit misleading. They are actually entire reels dropped by Chaplin at the last minute. Shoulder Arms was intended to be a feature-length film, but that idea was dropped. As a result, an entire reel bit the dust. These reels are actually hilarious and contain some of Chaplin's best staging and acting. Sunnyside would have been a stronger film had Chaplin kept this reel, which features the Little Tramp as a barber.
The only theatrical trailer featured here is for the 1959 Chaplin Revue feature. Seven minutes of behind-the-scenes footage, titled The Visitors, is in extremely rough shape but worth a look. The requisite photo galleries, film posters, and clips from other Chaplin Collection discs round out this package.
If you want to purchase this volume separately, it is available with a $29.99 retail price. You can also purchase this as part of the twelve-disc Chaplin Collection Volume Two for a much steeper price. Whatever path you choose, this is definitely worth owning.
Warner Bros. has done a fine job of bringing Charles Chaplin's work to DVD.
As for the man himself, this is one courtroom where he will not be wrongfully tried. Case dismissed!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Introduction by Chaplin Biographer David Robinson
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