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The Chaplin Revue: The Chaplin Collection

MK2 / Warner Home Video

Starring Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Scraps the dog,
Sydney Chaplin, Henry Bergman, etc.

Written and directed by Charles Chaplin

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Review by Mark Bourne                    

By the late 1950s, Charles Chaplin was an aged exile living in Switzerland. The wounds caused by the Cold War frenzy in the U.S., and the resulting backlash against Monsieur Verdoux, Limelight, and A King in New York, were not forgotten. Nonetheless, Chaplin had at last found durable personal happiness in his long (for him) marriage to Oona O'Neill. Buoyed by his familial bliss, the old movie icon considered the possibility of making another film featuring his famous Tramp. Just as his last Tramp feature a generation earlier, 1936's Modern Times, placed the character in a context suitable for commenting on social issues of the day (and the Tramp-like barber jabbed fascism and Hitler in The Great Dictator), Chaplin mulled over the possibility of bringing the Tramp into the Atomic Age. He was outspoken against The Bomb, and no doubt such a film would have provided a sounding board for his thoughts on the matter. Critic James Agee, a passionate Chaplin devotee, even worked on a script that set the Tramp in a New York City obliterated by a nuclear holocaust. Chaplin wisely abandoned the notion, and Agee never managed to make his script work. But having an entire generation grow up with no first-hand knowledge of the Little Tramp was a flaw that could be corrected.

In 1959 he released a feature-length omnibus film, The Chaplin Revue, which compiled three of the seven shorts Chaplin made for First National between 1918 and 1923 — A Dog's Life, Shoulder Arms, and The Pilgrim. In addition to editing and re-assembling the shorts, he composed a full-length musical score and added a narrated prologue cut from behind-the-scenes material shot in 1918. His new introduction to Shoulder Arms added reality footage from World War I, and further established the historical perpective by pointing out that it's set in a time before the atom bomb. (Wonder what Chaplin made of Dr. Strangelove?) For The Pilgrim he composed a country pastiche song, "Bound for Texas," recorded by the popular singer Matt Monro, who went on to sing title themes for From Russia With Love, Born Free, and other films.

The Chaplin Collection's two-disc presentation of The Chaplin Revue gives us the complete 1959 compilation. Then on Disc Two we find the rest of Chaplin's First National films. The total package offers seven of Chaplin's most ambitious and sophisticated shorts, the last he made before moving full-time into his feature-length classics.

*          *          *

After speaking to us in his introduction, Chaplin segues into A Dog's Life, a three-reeler from 1918. This was the first film Chaplin shot in his own studio, and it exhibits his deepening interest in building longer comedies on structured stories rather than just strings of brilliantly executed gags. It's one of Chaplin's finest films, with the feel of a tight feature and loaded with exquisite funny moments. As the homeless and hungry Tramp evades the cops, filches meals from a lunch wagon (run by Chaplin's brother Sydney), and struggles for one of the few jobs at the Employment Office, his plight parallels that of Scraps, the mongrel dog who befriends him. Chaplin's long-standing leading lady, Edna Purviance, plays the put-upon saloon singer the Tramp falls for, and for a change the feeling is mutual. After chancing into some money by outwitting a pair of crooks, the three loners — the Tramp, the singer, and Scraps — embark on an enterprise rare in the Tramp films: domestic bliss (including a coda that thoroughly changes Scraps' gender). You can read the Tramp's warm co-equal friendship with the dog as a rehearsal for his relationship with Jackie Coogan in The Kid.

Shoulder Arms (1918) sees the Tramp as an American doughboy in the trenches on the Western Front, exchanging the cane for a bayonet and the bowler for a helmet. Through clever combinations of cunning and accident, he ends up becoming a hero by sneaking across no-man's-land (disguised as a tree) and infiltrating the Germans, rescuing Edna in the bargain. A comedy set within the horrific fighting then ripping apart Europe was a controversial choice, and during production Chaplin caught flack from Hollywood doubters who questioned the wisdom of such an attempt. Instead, the foot soldier's misadventures became one of Chaplin's greatest critical and popular successes. Released only a few months before the Armistice, Shoulder Arms gave real soldiers a welcome chance to laugh at the wretched life they knew too well — the cold, privation, incoming fire, flooded trenches, loneliness — as Chaplin mocked the villainous Huns all the way up to the Kaiser (played by brother Sydney again). At four reels long and exhibiting the breadth and complexity of a full-length feature, Shoulder Arms marked a big step forward in Chaplin's filmmaking finesse. It's now recognized as one of the all-time great war comedies, in league with Buster Keaton's The General and the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup.

Chaplin's last Tramp short was a 1923 four-reeler, The Pilgrim. Actually, the escaped convict who finds himself mistaken for a small-town preacher is only nominally the Tramp, but his familiar expressiveness and humor are still here. Memorable scenes include the disguised convict being forced to deliver an impromptu sermon with unexpected success, his travails at the hands of a spoiled brat, and conflicting interests with an ex-inmate who recognizes him in the home of lovely Edna and her pious yet clueless family. Chaplin's gentle poke at rural religion is certainly tame by today's standards, but originally The Pilgrim ran into trouble with censors and church authorities. In Atlanta the Evangelical Ministers' Association demanded its withdrawal as "an insult to the Gospel." The Pennsylvania Board of Censors cut out so many scenes that they would have saved themselves considerable effort by just banning it outright. And in South Carolina the Ku Klux Klan arrived at a showing to protest its alleged ridicule of Protestantism. Stuff and nonsense. The only thing worth protesting in The Pilgrim is that it's Edna Purviance's final appearance in a Chaplin short. He tried to launch her into features with 1923's A Woman of Paris, but that effort was a commercial failure and her career was effectively over.

The Chaplin Revue, plus its associated special features, fill Disc One in this two-disc edition. Clocking in at 1:51:51, The Chaplin Revue appears on the main menu as a feature in its own right, though it's joined on the same menu by each of its three segments as individually selectable items.

*          *          *

Disc Two holds the four other shorts Chaplin made for First National:

A Day's Pleasure (1919) — One of Chaplin's weaker efforts, here the Tramp is a family man taking the wife and kids on an outing fraught with misfortune. This Keystone-like, broad-comedy two-reeler was temporarily abandoned in mid-shoot when Chaplin began work on his first feature masterpiece, The Kid. Look sharp for Jackie Coogan as one of his sons.

Sunnyside (1919) — In its day, Sunnyside was the rare Chaplin film that didn't wow the public. Although made as a contractual obligation to First National while The Kid was in production, hindsight reveals Sunnyside to be one of the more interesting products of Chaplin's middle period. In an atypical setting, the Tramp is "the farm hand, etc. etc. etc." in a rural village. Its justly remembered sequence is a dream scene: the Tramp dancing with a ballet company of wood nymphs. Sunnyside's restrained and pastoral whimsy makes it the stylistic opposite of the broad and easy gags that make up A Day's Pleasure.

The Idle Class (1921) — Now we have Chaplin playing two roles, the Tramp and a wealthy alcoholic husband — the idle poor and the idle rich. While he eludes the police at a costume ball, the upper-class Edna mistakes the Tramp for her neglectful husband.

Pay Day (1922) — Chaplin's last two-reeler presents the Tramp as a working man on a construction site and a hen-pecked husband at home. Chaplin shot the daytime scenes at a real construction site, using its elevators and other "found" resources with the machine-minded inventiveness that Buster Keaton mastered. The brick-tossing is one of Chaplin's most ingenious bits of comic business. A generous portion of Pay Day harks back to the drunk act that made Chaplin famous in the English music halls and that he had used in previous shorts such as One A.M. and A Night Out. This film is also noteworthy for its deftly shot nighttime scenes that provide some of the more striking images from the Chaplin canon.

Disc Two serves up these four films as individually selectable menu items within a 20-chapter "feature" compilation that times to 1:38:11. All include the musical scores Chaplin added for their reissue editions in the 1970s.

The MK2/Warner Home Video Chaplin Collection DVDs

In 2001, the rights to many of Chaplin's films became available. Several companies vied to license them. The Chaplin estate chose the Parisian company MK2, which holds the rights to the films for 12 years.

With distribution through Warner Home Video, in 2003 MK2 began releasing The Chaplin Collection, two boxed sets containing definitive, authorized editions of Chaplin's feature-length films. Each film receives an exhaustive, features-rich DVD presentation. All have been digitally restored and remastered from Chaplin estate vault elements. Volume 1 of The Chaplin Collection includes The Gold Rush, Modern Times, The Great Dictator, and Limelight. Volume 2 brings us The Chaplin Revue, The Kid, The Circus, City Lights, Monsieur Verdoux, and A King in New York / A Woman of Paris. Plus, exclusive to the Volume 2 boxed set is Richard Schickel's documentary tribute, Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin, a highlight of 2003's Cannes Film Festival.

These discs feature, among their many extras, never-before-seen footage, behind-the-scenes glimpses, exclusive family home movie footage, and specially made documentaries in which Chaplin biographer David Robinson as well as world-famous film-makers discuss the films and their personal, professional, or cultural impact.

Starting in the 1940s, Chaplin went back to several of his earlier films and tinkered with them, snipping bits here, changing footage there, and adding his own musical scores for reissue prints. Under the authority of the Chaplin estate, MK2's The Chaplin Collection delivers the films in their final state, "as Chaplin intended."

How's the picture and sound quality?

The seven titles within MK2's The Chaplin Revue set derive from outstanding remastered prints that are as clean and unmarred as we could hope for in films of this vintage. They exhibit good image quality with smooth brightness and grayscale levels that for the most part avoid appearing too bright or contrasty.

However, Chaplin fans who already own Image Entertainment's DVD set, Charlie Chaplin: The First National Collection (supervised by preservationist David Shepard) will want to hang on to those discs. When these films were reassembled in the 1940s and '50s for archival and reissue purposes, Chaplin authorized the "stretch-printing" process that slowed the projection pace for sound-era projectors by duplicating individual film frames. The newly "stretched" prints distorted the smoothness of the moving images and the timing of Chaplin's humor. Critic Walter Kerr, in his 1979 book The Silent Clowns, lambastes The Chaplin Revue (presumably its 1972 theatrical re-release) by asserting that the "cadence of all three films, and of Chaplin's work in them, is utterly destroyed. Let no newcomer to the form begin acquaintance with Chaplin on such terms; only the originals will do." Kerr was too dyspeptic by half, but The Chaplin Revue has for decades kept aficionados in high dudgeon for this reason among others.

For The First National Collection, Shepard corrected the timing by eliminating the effects of stretch-printing. Likewise, here in MK2's edition the films' pacing appears to be corrected — they run at a natural-looking rate, though whether that's because of deliberate restorative efforts or a beneficial side-effect of the PAL-to-NTSC mastering, I don't know. The bad news is that MK2's Chaplin Revue is rife with motion-blur, more so than any other films in The Chaplin Collection, whose Region 1 discs have already provoked complaints because of PAL-to-NTSC ghosting. The blurring varies from film to film, and the four shorts that didn't originally make up 1959's Chaplin Revue compilation tend to fare better here. MK2's prints are cleaner than Image's, but the Image discs present sharper and better-defined visuals overall.

Shepard also re-inserted footage Chaplin edited out when he put together The Chaplin Revue, so MK2's authorized version retains the crisper, tighter editing that Chaplin preferred. With the addition of the Special Features, MK2's presentation of the First National films is a must-get, though a Chaplin collector will want to place it on the shelf alongside — not in place of — the Image/Shepard editions.

As for audio, like the other discs in The Chaplin Collection these films arrive with options of their original monaural (Dolby Digital 2.0) and a DD 5.1 remix. In all cases Chaplin's musical scores come through strong and clear. The 5.1 option is only nominally so, staying firmly center-front with only perfunctory use of the satellite speakers to spread the sound around the room a little.

Subtitles are in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Thai, and Korean.

Special features

Note: A minor complaint you can lodge against The Chaplin Collection Vol. 2 boxed set is that the copy text on some DVD box exteriors did not receive a decent proofreading or "quality assurance" control. Sometimes lines are fragmented, information is in error, or layout is sloppy. The worst offender is the Chaplin Revue box. This DVD's exterior and interior box text reverses the placement of the two discs' menu items. Disc One content is printed as if it were on Disc Two, and vice versa.

Each disc's actual content is as listed below rather than what the box tells you:

Disc One: 1959's The Chaplin Revue, plus these supplements:

Introduction (5:19) — Biographer David Robinson (Chaplin: His Life and Art) surveys the inception and production of A Dog's Life, Shoulder Arms, and The Pilgrim.

Deleted scenes from Shoulder Arms (10:23) — Shoulder Arms was to have opened on the soldier's hapless stateside home life, compared to which being drafted is blessed relief, and then his induction physical. Chaplin developed and shot these scenes, but then discarded them when he concluded that they weren't necessary. Perhaps they weren't, but this is still top-flight material. Extraordinary moments include the Tramp communicating with his belligerent wife. She remains off-screen the entire time, so only Chaplin's remarkable pantomime (plus assorted thrown objects and the girth implied by her laundry) tell us all we need to know about the unseen harridan. We see the soldier's medical examination only in silhouette, a comic device revisited as recently as Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. The footage shows momentary signs of damage, but overall it's quite well preserved.

How to Make Movies (1918) (15:54) — Chaplin pulled the introductory material for The Chaplin Revue from this unreleased silent docu-comedy. The silent footage shows the time-lapsed construction of Chaplin Studios at La Brea Avenue and Sunset Blvd. (now Jim Henson Studios), as well as staged rehearsals with actors, makeup tests, and so on. Highlights include shots of wide open fields where today stands modern Los Angeles, and a golf routine with Chaplin in his Tramp costume working with supporting player Albert Austin and Chaplin's "heavy" from the Mutual Days, Eric Campbell. Chaplin had hoped that First National would accept How to Make Movies toward his eight-film contract. The studio would have none of that. How to Make Movies remained unedited and unfinished until film historians Kevin Brownlow and David Gill assembled it, using Chaplin's old cutting instructions, for the 1982 London Film Festival. (This footage also appears on MK2's DVD of The Kid.)

The Bond (1918) (9:38) — Made to promote the sale of Liberty Bonds aiding the war effort, this minimalist short includes Edna as Lady Liberty threatened by Sydney Chaplin's Kaiser, whom the Tramp clobbers with a giant mallet. The footage is contrasty and shows signs of age damage, but it's in okay shape otherwise.

Photo gallery — A silent video slide-show with almost one hundred production photos. Segmented into four topics: A Dog's Life, Shoulder Arms, The Pilgrim, and Miscellaneous.

Posters — A click-through collection of 13 posters for The Chaplin Revue and its three shorts.

Trailer (1:44) — The French trailer for The Chaplin Revue. With music but no narration.

Disc Two: A Day's Pleasure, Sunnyside, The Idle Class, and Pay Day, plus these supplements:

Introduction (5:00) — Once again David Robinson offers a compact backgrounder on Disc Two's four short films.

Deleted scene from Sunnyside (8:19) — Chaplin develops the role of a barber, revisited 21 years later in The Great Dictator, in this funny sequence cut from Sunnyside. Albert Austin is the unfortunate man in the chair. The footage is silent and in good condition. (An abbreviated version of this footage also appears on The Chaplin Collection's DVD of The Great Dictator.)

The visitors — One of the virtues of these MK2 discs is the Chaplin arcana they collect. This item, for instance, gathers footage of the comedian hobnobbing with dignitaries and other visitors in staged or improvisational moments at Chaplin Studios. Chaplin, both in and out of costume, frequently demonstrates the Tramp for his guests. The seven individually selectable chapters (totaling 12:59) feature comic Max Linder, actress Maxine Eliot, General Leonard Wood, the Bishop of Birmingham, Unknown Woman, Prince Axel of Denmark, and New York humorist and columnist Irvin S. Cobb. The stage sets and other elements, including Scraps the dog, date the footage to the First National films presented on these discs.

Harry Lauder (8:16) — While A Dog's Life was in production, Chaplin shot this footage for a fund-raising film with Scottish comedian Harry Lauder at Chaplin Studios. The purpose was to aid the Harry Lauder Million Pound Fund For Maimed Men, Scottish Soldiers and Sailors, a cause to which Lauder had devoted his efforts following his son's death in the World War. One bit in this improvisational fooling-around preserves the old vaudevillian "William Tell" gag that Chaplin later redefined in The Circus.

Photo gallery — Slide-shows of production stills for A Day's Pleasure, Sunnyside, The Idle Class, and Pay Day.

Posters — A click-through gallery of six posters for the four shorts.

The Chaplin Collection (10:42) — This video montage presents scenes from all eleven films in both volumes of The Chaplin Collection. It's a nice touch that they're arranged in chronological order of their original theatrical runs.

—Mark Bourne

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