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The Chaplin Mutual Comedies: 90th Anniversary Edition

Comedy, Charlie Chaplin once noted, is all about entrances and exits. Enter: Image Entertainment's 90th Anniversary Edition of The Chaplin Mutual Comedies, among the best and most important DVD releases of 2006. Exit: Every previous home-video incarnation of these twelve short films from 1916-17, Chaplin's productive and inventive years at Mutual Film Corporation, where he shaped comedy into an artform. These dozen landmark movies have seen VHS and DVD treatment several times before, often in low-quality, poorly sourced, slapdash releases. Until now, the best Region 1 DVD edition has been Image's three-volume set The Chaplin Mutuals from 1995. That set was supervised by our favorite go-to film preservationist, David Shepard.

This time, for the 90th anniversary of Chaplin's Mutual contract, Image and Shepard have returned to and upgraded those earlier discs, further cleaning and restoring the films with new techniques and using the finest surviving original 35mm film elements — including additions and improvements from new film materials that have come to light since that previous edition. Furthermore, their new musical scores by Carl Davis are lively and thoughtful orchestrations that perfectly capture Chaplin's unique mix of comedy and drama without dating the films or relying on stock "silent movie music" clichés. So for long-time fans this essential collection is worth the double-dipping. (It's unlikely to be bettered until a 100th Anniversary edition on whichever subcranial optical download implant device supplants DVD, prompting us to replace this set along with The White Album again.) More importantly, here's a fine way to introduce a new generation to a style of screen comedy that, in its proof that a laugh well-made is a laugh that endures, once again is something new and fresh.

By 1916, Chaplin had been appearing in movies for only two years, first for Keystone (under Mack Sennett) and then Essanay studios. Those two years were Chaplin's hands-on education in how to plan, construct, time, and execute a gag, a scene, and ultimately two full reels (about 20 minutes) of comedy narrative. The early films developing his Little Tramp character were already tremendous public hits, and he had proven gifted at directing and editing. In 1916, his $670,000 contract with Mutual made him, at age 27, the highest paid entertainer in the world. On top of his unprecedented salary, Mutual gave him complete artistic control. Over the next eighteen ambitious months he wrote, directed, produced, and starred in some of comedy's most influential films. Image's 90th Anniversary Edition arranges the titles in chronological order, so we can watch Chaplin's rapid evolution from a Keystone-style slapstick comic to an artist capable of imbuing slapstick gags and crash-pow-chase mayhem with new levels of dramatic maturity. With the exception of one solo outing ("One A.M."), Chaplin is ably supported by his crack acting company, headlined by lovely Edna Purviance, the incredible hulking Eric Campbell, polymorphous Henry Bergman, and mustachioed Albert Austin (plus occasionally an actor who years later became a Warner Brothers director, Lloyd Bacon).

The funny stuff starts well with "The Floorwalker," which presents the first "running staircase" used in films. It's not long before "The Vagabond" stirs in melodrama elements that Chaplin continued developing throughout his Mutual films and then his independent feature-length classics. ("The Vagabond," in fact, feels like a trial run for both The Kid and The Circus.) The great "One A.M." showcases Chaplin's solo "drunk swell" act from his stage-hall days, with his soused sophisticate at odds against everything in his home. For the first time in this DVD edition, "One A.M." comes from a wholly new print with more than seven minutes of previously lost footage. In a prop-comedy tour de force, "The Pawnshop," the Tramp destroys Albert Austin's alarm clock with surgical attention before besting Eric Campbell's burglar. In "The Rink," Campbell (Chaplin's reliable nemesis) does battle with the Tramp on roller skates, highlighting Chaplin's mute physical grace.

Given how far and fast Chaplin grew as a filmmaker, it's no surprise that several of the later titles here remain recognized as eminently rewatchable classics of the form. In particular, "Easy Street" and "The Immigrant" stand among the crowning achievements of the silent-film years. In "Easy Street" the Tramp finds a job as a cop on the worst street in town, a slum ruled by brutish Campbell. Of course the Tramp's cleverness and soulful resolve prevail, but not before Chaplin layers his pitch-perfect comedy with social-realist concerns such as poverty, domestic violence, and drug abuse. In "The Immigrant" the Tramp boots an immigration officer in the ass. Decades later, during the McCarthy era's cultural psychosis, the scene was used as trumped-up evidence of Chaplin's "anti-American" sentiments, helping lead eventually to his deportation. That abuse does nothing to detract from this socially aware masterpiece's funny and touching romance with fellow-immigrant Edna Purviance. Cinematic poetry, and Chaplin's favorite among his Mutuals, "The Immigrant" is now preserved in the United States National Film Registry.

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In Image's four-disc box set, the twelve Mutual comedies occupy Discs One and Two. These are the same transfers used in Image's previous edition, with their upgrade being the newly added footage and noticeable digital spot-removal. Scratches and specks have been reduced significantly. Contrast and grayscale range from good to excellent, and the 1.33:1 image has been windowboxed to correct for overscan and ensure a complete picture. Given the vintage of the varying source materials, it's unsurprising that not all signs of age have been eliminated. We still get the occasional slight jump caused by missing frames, some mild general wear, and (according to the habitués of alt.movies.chaplin) a few seconds here and there where more "new" footage arguably remains to be incorporated. All the same, it's likely that these films haven't looked this good since their original release during World War I. Plus, with Carl Davis' new small-orchestra scores in DD 2.0 stereo, we've never heard these "silent" comedies sound so good.

Discs Three and Four hold two quality extras. On Disc Three is The Gentleman Tramp (78 mins.), an authorized documentary on Chaplin from 1975. It's a sentimental, intro-level biography that's narrated by Chaplin's friend Walter Matthau, with excerpts from Chaplin's My Autobiography read by Laurence Olivier, newsreel footage, and Oona O'Neill Chaplin's private home movies (with young Geraldine Chaplin among all the kids) and scenes of the elderly Chaplin at his home near Vevey, Switzerland.

On Disc Four we have 1996's Chaplin's Goliath (54 mins.), Oscar-winning documentarian Kevin MacDonald's film portrait of Eric Campbell, the huge Scottish actor who achieved screen immortality as the "heavy" in the Chaplin Mutual comedies. It includes outtake footage from the Mutual films. Also here is a Stills Gallery with more than ninety rare images from the collection of Jeffrey Vance (author of Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema), including behind-the-scenes shots never before published.

Packaged with the discs are two booklets. The important one is "The Chaplin Mutual Specials" (27 pages), an appreciation and historical backgrounder by Jeffrey Vance, who focuses on each of the twelve films, their influence, and Chaplin's working methods that achieved them. The second booklet, "Making The Gentleman Tramp," is an off-puttingly defensive 19-page production reminiscence by the documentary's writer and director, Richard Patterson.

—Mark Bourne

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