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post #1 of 4 Old 08-20-08, 06:27 AM Thread Starter
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Chaplin Mutual Comedies 90th Anniversary Edition review

I had read all kinds of rave reviews about this expensive $60 Anniversary Edition
of the 12 Chaplin Mutual shorts made in 1916-1917. I had seen all of them
as a child in 16mm on television and thought they were mildly funny even though
the images were very worn and dupey and the title cards had been removed.
I was expecting a fully restored version of these films with the cards and a
clean image which at the very least would've been a an interesting curio to
have something from that era that looked good. I had seen the excellent
digital restorations of "City Lights" and "Modern Times" which were virtually
mint without a blemish on the image and with excellent contrast. Chaplin
was known as one of the early advocates of preservation and saved his
own features and shorts.

As it turns out there was a proviso to Chaplin's archival efforts. Unlike
Harold Lloyd who purchased the negatives of all of his films and saved them,
Chaplin only preserved the ones he had a financial stake in, namely, the
United Artists titles. The rest he apparently forgot about or at the very
least didn't bother to track down the pre-print of the Keytone, Essanay
and Mutual shorts he made prior to co-founding the UA production/distribution
company with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and DW Griffith. All of Chaplin's
pre-UA work fell into the public domain which means that any company that
could find a battered old print, negative or dupe negative could distribute
them. Many companies did change the title cards or remove them and
cut the films to various lengths. I used to have a few of them in Super 8
when I started film collecting in the late sixties.

Archivist David Shepard initiated a worldwide search to find all of the surviving
35mm elements on these shorts and piece them together. We should applaud
those efforts. However, the end results are pretty difficult to sit through in
my opinion, especially after watching what had been done with the later
features like "Modern Times". Admittedly, they are sharper and have better
contrast than what they used to show on television decades ago but the
image itself is still riddled with wear including jumps cuts caused by missing
frames, dust, dirt, scratches, blotches and fluctuating nitrate decomposition
on a shot to shot basis. What that means is that when you watch these
two reelers (a little over 20 minutes each) some shots will look very good,
then there will be a few shots that are rotted followed by shots that have
so many scracthes or splotches that you can barely see what's going on
then returned to clean images. I guess the goal was to make them as
complete as possible regardless of the condition of the footage. I was
lead to believe that they had digitally removed these artifacts
and if they did, they must've been in far worst shape than I thought since
the look pretty awful in terms of wear. At least they mastered them at a
slower speed so the action looks reasonable normal rather than at the standard
24 frames per second sound speed. Chaplin filmed his shorts at a very slow
speed (probably less than 16 frames per second) which tended to give jerky
movement when someone moved their arms or ran fast. It's still better than
showing them at sound speed which is so rapid you can't tell what's going on
but I've seen other shorts from this era and they were shot at a faster frame
rate and look better.

No qualms about the Carl Davis scores for the shorts and occasional sound
effects. They are excellent as always since he had ample experience scoring
silent movies for the superb Kevin Brownlow series, "Hollywood: The Silent Years".

So before paying $60 for 12 short films, you have to consider your tolerance level
of very worn imagery. I know they could do a much better clean up of what's there
but the cost would be astronomical for a frame by frame restoration and these are
PD titles so it would probably be impossible to recoup the expense. Of course the
later UA titles are still protected by copyright so their restorations will generate
revenue into the future which is why they spent the money.

The next question is...was Chaplin funny? In hindsight I would have to say he
was vastly overated. I've recently seen the DVDs of Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton
and Laurel & Hardy and I find their films and characters much funnier and more
appealing. Certainly Lloyd and Keaton were very cinematic with lots of camera
tricks and surprises. Chaplin was static. The camera is usually locked down
in wide shot as he does his Music Hall routines. The main Chaplin character was
his homeless Tramp which I always found somewhat grotesque and difficult to
relate to. The other comedians played more mainstream roles. In these shorts
he doesn't always portray the Tramp but his type of slapstick seems to be the
same even if he's playing an escaped convict or a upper class drunk. In fact,
compared to the other silent comedians who had specific character traits and
nuance, I would classify Chaplin as more of a clown. He did silly things to get
a laugh rather than derive the comedy from the role he was playing. And,
he tended to be very repetitious. Even when he comes up with a funny setting
or premise, he overdoes it. The escalator in "The Floorwalker" started as an
amusing obstacle for him but then he kept tripping on it over and over and milked
the device to the point where it became tiresome. The same applies to tripping
anyone and everyone with the cane or kicking them in the derierre. How many times
can he do that and still remain funny? And he often does it to strangers rather
than his antagonists. I think there was a lack of inventiveness in many of his films.
The other thing he did that I found annoying was to laugh at his own slapstick as if
nudging the audience. I don't mind when a comedian breaks the fourth wall but it
works best when it's done in character like Oliver Hardy who looks to the viewer
in exasperation.

Probably the best of this lot is "The Immigrant" which contains some satire and
more character nuance for his leading lady Edna Purveance. Chaplin does his
standard schtick but she is given a more sympathetic role and it doesn't regress
into the corny pathos that permeated his later UA pictures. Eric Campbell is
the heavy in these shorts and he's amusing if you like over the top ham acting.

Also contained in the set is "The Gentlemen Tramp" which fawns over Chaplin
as a great genius. How do we know this? Because Chaplin kept telling
everyone. You've got to hand it to him as a self-promoter. The other is
a study of Campbell called "Chaplin's Goliath" which is okay.

Because Chaplin's movies were the most accessible over the decades, he was often
classified as the greatest of the silent comedians and this became the conventional
wisdom until the Keaton, Lloyd and Laurel & Hardy films were shown again. Then I
had to re-evaluate him as a historically important figure in early cinema but the lesser
of the top three silent comedians/teams. I specifically have ignored Chaplin's politics in regards to his Mutual shorts since they were not contained in his pre-1930 work. His post-1930 films are full of them in a very heavy handed manner. For example, in "A King in New York", he has his real life son play a communist who spouts Party rhetoric. I suspect that some of his exalted status comes from fellow travelor critics who subscribed to his worldview rather than the quality of his post-1930 features.

In some circles, saying that Chaplin wasn't the greatest silent comedian is
sacreligious but I call em' as I see em'. His laugh factor is very limited compared
to the others. I don't want to suggest that Chaplin isn't funny at all. He is, but
simply not in the league with Keaton, Lloyd or Laurel & Hardy. I realize he was the
most popular comedian of his era but he doesn't hold up today as well as his
competition. I did chuckle at some of the slapstick in these shorts but less so than I did as a child. In contrast, when I re-screened the other comedian's work on DVD, I not only laughed out loud but was amazed at their ingenuity. An example of Keaton's 'cinematic' flair had one of the wackiest transitions I'd ever seen. Keaton gets into his Model T but doesn't move as the background dissolves to the next location while he sits stationary inside the car. In "Sherlock Jr.", Keaton walks down the aisle of a cinema playing a movie and then jumps into the screen and gets trapped inside a montage. Pretty amazing imagery even by today's standards. Absolutely nothing like that in Chaplin's films which seem very primitive and dated today. Historically it is a filmed record of his stage comedy so it's of value on that level but these films are not in good condition so buyer beware.

In summary: Picture quality F, music score A, cinematography C,
performances, stories and screenplays C.

Last edited by Richard W. Haines; 06-03-09 at 12:20 PM.
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post #2 of 4 Old 08-21-08, 04:57 AM Thread Starter
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Re: Chaplin Mutual Comedies 90th Anniversary Edition review

I've been doing some on line research on archivist, David Shepard. In
his interviews he explains the problems of restoring ancient silent films
that weren't properly preserved (if that term even applies to pre-1930 features
and shorts). There is always a trade off and financial considerations when
handling these types of films. Funding is limited and digital restoration is
so expensive an archivist has to set priorities. Apparently many are doing
the restorations in stages. The first step is to find the best surviving materials
in 35mm that exist on any given silent film. The next step is to master all
of them on digital tape. Then they combine the best footage into a version
as complete as possible. Even here there are lots of trade offs. There was
no duplicating materials in the silent era. Everything had to be printed directly
off the 35mm camera negative which generated gorgeous black and white release
copies but really wore it out. By the end of a run there were scratches and splices
on the master. Even fades and dissolves had to be made directly in the negative
by double exposing the image during principal photography. For international release,
producers and distributors used out-takes to create a second or third printing negative.
There would be minior differences in performances in the alternate takes. Add to
that foreign and local censors and surviving negatives and prints will be different.
What does an archivist include in the restoration and which version is the 'official'
one. I guess there really wasn't any since so many versions circulated during a
film's release in that era. So, they have to make a judgment call in terms of what
to include.
The final stage is the most costly. Once a new digital tape of the most
complete version is created, they have to remove all of the extensive wear
on a frame by frame basis. There is a basic 'dust busting' tool that can be
used to remove general wear and is charged on an hourly basis. They also
have liquid gate scanners that can remove most of the black scratches but
not emulsion scratches where part of the image has been scraped off. You
can even simulate missing frames digitally. Then what ever is left on the image
has to be cleaned off frame by frame. Each 20 minute reel can cost thousands
and thousands of dollars to look good and this is where the problem is. It's
still a business and a distributor of silent films (with an extremelly limited market)
has to at least recoup the costs of releasing them and try to show a profit.
As a result, many of these DVDs are really a 'work in progress' rather than a final
presentation. I feel a bit guilty about criticizing them (as I have with the Chaplin
and Lloyd compilations) since if people don't buy them 'as is', they won't have the
funds to do future clean ups and improvements. On the other hand, since all you
have is the visuals in a silent film, I would prefer than just select a smaller number
of titles to restore fully rather than release the works in progress. I think they would
sell better and then they would have the money to do another round of shorts and
And to make matters more confusing and costly, you never know what is going
to turn up. They recently spent a small fortune fully restoring "Metropolis" from
many sources including some of the original nitrate negative. Then out of the blue,
an uncut Roadshow print resurfaces representing Lang's compete vision. It's unlikely
they'll start from scratch and I read they planned on releasing the newly restored
version (completely cleaned up) along with the worn and scratchy uncut version
as a suppliment and then some day fix that version up too.

My trouble is that I'm very picky. I know how good a film can look with a full
digital clean up and I find it very distracting (to the point where I can't enjoy
the presentation) when the image is worn and scratchy when I know it can
be made to look near mint. I would've preferred to see six of the shorts cleaned
up to near mint condition in a single disc release for $20 rather than all 12 in
mediocre to poor shape with two extra documentaries that were of midling
quality to up the price to $60. If they want to restore these films incrementally
then I would advise giving a limited number of them the best clean up they
can afford.

In the "Unknown Chaplin" documentary, it's revealed that while he didn't
save the negative of his Mutual shorts, he did retain the out-takes. What
I would've done would be to use alternate takes of each short and splice
together a new negative from them since they're in very good shape. While
it wouldn't be the exact takes selected back in 1916, they would've been
fairly close in terms of performance (which is overacted and hammy to begin
with) and the end results would've been a far more watchable comedy then
the worn and splicey remnants pieced together for this set.

Last edited by Richard W. Haines; 08-26-08 at 06:10 AM.
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post #3 of 4 Old 09-12-08, 08:34 AM
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Re: Chaplin Mutual Comedies 90th Anniversary Edition review

Sacrilege indeed! I've long been in the same camp. I feel that too much praise and attention has been lavished on Chaplin and not enough on Keaton and Lloyd.

When I attended Art Center in Los Angeles, I was able to attend a special showing of almost all of Buster Keaton's silent catalog. The prints were wet gate printed from the best available sources provided by Raymond Rohauer and his association with Mr. Keaton. I feel privileged to have been able to see that special showing. Also I recently attended a showing of "Sherlock Jr." at the AFI theater in Silver Spring, MD. They had an organist who did a wonderful job of providing the music, all without the first note of printed score.

Lastly, while at Art Center I took "The History of Cinema" from Rudy Behlmer. It was heavily illustrated with excerpts from great movies. Back then, he had two 16mm projectors set up and would have to swap reels. The course was wonderful and sparked a lifelong interest in cinema. I'm glad to see so many others who share this interest.

There are hundreds of great films to view or view again before having to resort to a Jim Carrey attempt.

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post #4 of 4 Old 09-12-08, 09:19 AM Thread Starter
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Re: Chaplin Mutual Comedies 90th Anniversary Edition review


I'm even luckier. I saw original nitrates of some of the Keaton films rather
than the Rohauer dupes. Back in the early eighties Walter Kerr co-sponsored
a festival based on his book called "Silent Clowns" in NYC and they played some
of his personal nitrate copies. Very spectacular imagery that no dupe could
possibly replicate. It's sad that the original negatives of most of Keaton's
movies were junked and/or decomposed. Rohauer found many of his copies
from the comedian's personal print collection which he left in his house when it
was sold to James Mason. Mason contacted Rohauer and that's how some
of them survived.
Sounds like you're just as blasphemous as me regarding Chaplin. A very
primitive filmmaker, even by the standards of the era he made his movies in.
As I mentioned, Chaplin had the advantage of being a huge egotist and self promoter
(like D.W. Griffith) whereas some of the others were more modest regarding
their talent and contribution to silent cinema, especially Keaton who was the
best of them all. Unfortunately, the self promoters often get the bulk of the attention
then and now. For example, D.W. Griffith donated prints of many
of his films to Iris Barry at the Museum of Modern Art. He told her all kinds of
tall tales about how he 'invented' the close-up and tracking shot and other
nonsense and this was repeated in the MOMA programs until it became
conventional wisdom. Later when other silent movies from that era resurfaced
it turned out many other directors were using the same techniques that Griffith
claims to have invented years before he did.

Last edited by Richard W. Haines; 09-12-08 at 09:33 AM.
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