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CHAPLIN REVUE

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Sydney Chaplin, Mack Swain, Henry Bergman
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1 or stereo 2.0
Subtitles: English, French, Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, Thai, Korean
Video: Black & white, full-frame
Studio: Warner Brothers
Features: Four First National shorts, photo/poster galleries, trailers, deleted scenes, two rare shorts, and more (see below)
Length: 115 minutes
Release Date: March 2, 2004

"Where did you find your hat?"

"They were eating it!"

Film ****

Charlie Chaplin and his famous screen persona, the Little Tramp, hardly need any introduction to even the most casual of movie fans.  Once the most beloved comedian in the world, Chaplin's name and famous silhouette are even now still recognized worldwide.  It is a tribute to his comic genius that many of his films are as funny now as they were over sixty years ago.

Recently, Warner Brothers began re-releasing many of the best Chaplin films to DVD.  While Chaplin films and shorts have been available on DVD for some time, most such discs offer only poor transfers and badly degraded film prints (with the exception of the out-of-print discs from Image).  Fortunately, Warner Brothers was granted special access to the Chaplin vaults for its re-issues.  As a result, these new Chaplin discs boast a sparklingly-clear picture quality that is vastly superior to all the other third-party prints currently available on the market today.  The first round of Warner Brothers Chaplin discs arrived in 2003, and the second round of discs arrived in early 2004, packaged as a boxed set entitled The Chaplin Collection Vol. 2.  Among the discs in this second set is The Chaplin Revue.

During his career, Charlie Chaplin was frequently fond of re-packaging his earlier works and re-releasing them for new generations of fans to enjoy.  Such was the case with The Chaplin Revue (1959), which assembled together three short films from Chaplin's days with First National.  The Chaplin Revue, in essence, presents a final snapshot of Chaplin's early years in comedy shorts before he devoted his creative talents entirely to feature-length efforts.

To better understand the historical significance of the First National films, it should be noted that in 1916, Chaplin had just entered the happiest and most prolific period of his career.  Under a new contract to Mutual which granted him complete artistic control, Chaplin over the course of the next twelve months would create some of his finest and most memorable shorts (The Rink, The Cure, Easy Street, The Immigrant, to name a few).  However, towards the end of this period, Chaplin felt an increased urge to expand his horizons even further without the necessary constraint of having to deliver a new film every month.  First National was the company that offered such freedom to Chaplin.  So, after rapidly making twelve shorts for Mutual within the span of a year, Chaplin signed with First National and was granted a limitless amount of time to produce only eight two-reelers.  Chaplin eventually took six years to fulfill his contract, but rather than delivering just two-reelers, he created much more elaborate films, among them his earliest masterpieces.  It turned out to be a great deal for both Chaplin and First National!

The First National period yielded an eclectic collection of films.  Only a couple were the traditional two-reelers of Chaplin's early years, while the rest flirted with feature-film length.  To assist him in his new endeavor, Chaplin even had an entirely new studio constructed (the studio would be featured in his unreleased comedic documentary short How to Make Movies).  Over the next six years, Chaplin would experiment with a blend of comedy and pathos that would eventually become his trademark.  There were unusual co-stars (a kid named Jackie Coogan or a dog named Spot).  There was a daring parody of the "war to end all wars" when such a sensitive subject was practically taboo in cinema.  The First National films would also rely upon a stock cast of character actors and comedians who would re-appear again and again (and some of whom had first worked with Chaplin during his Mutual or even Essanay period).  There was the typical heavy Henry Bergman, the hefty Mack Swain who sometimes played a fat woman too, the comical midget Loyal Underwood, Albert Austin, and Sydney Chaplin, Charlie's own half-brother.  And we mustn't forget Edna Purviance, Chaplin's favorite leading lady who appeared in more films with him than any other actress.

Today, the most famous of Chaplin's films from the First National period is The Kid, co-starring Jackie Coogan.  However, A Dog's Life, the first film for Chaplin's new company, is generally acknowledged as his first true masterpiece.  Originally released in 1918, it is also the first film featured in The Chaplin Revue.

A Dog's Life opens on accompanying iris shots, one of the Little Tramp sleeping by a fence, the other of Spot, the mutt hero of the story.  That day, the Tramp finds himself in his usual trouble after the local cop spies him snatching sausages to eat.  A funny chase scene ensues.  Later, having eluded the cop, the Tramp tries his luck in an employment line only to get repetitively shoved aside by other bigger men picking up their job slips.  By the time the Tramp reaches the front, there are no more jobs for the day.  Despondent, he mopes around and suddenly sees Spot, clinging to a morsel of food while being attacked by a pack of bigger, hungry dogs.  The Tramp rescues Spot, and it is the beginning of a perfect friendship - two homeless, similarly down-on-their-luck vagabonds.  Together, they harass a local food vendor for some sausages and sweet cakes (Sydney Chaplin makes his first hilarious appearance in a Chaplin film as the woe-begotten vendor), and later, it's off to a local pub and dance hall, the Green Lantern.

It is here that we meet Edna Purviance's character, a singer.  The Tramp, after a hilariously clumsy dance, naturally falls in love with her.  But, when he can't afford to buy a drink for her, the bartender unceremoniously tosses him out.  Courtesy of Spot, who digs up some money, the Tramp confidently returns to the Green Lantern to re-woo the singer.  Naturally, he's robbed silly by some thieves and, being penniless once more, gets thrown out again.  Ever determined, he returns a third time, retrieves his money with Spot's help, and this time is only chased away!  All's well that ends well, however, as the Little Tramp can now afford to win Edna's heart and settle away together with Edna and Spot in a nice country home.

A Dog's Life is filled with wonderful touches of comedy throughout.  The con job by which the Little Tramp retrieves his money from the thieves is pure comic genius.  Every scene with Sydney Chaplin is also a hoot, as Sydney's exasperated food vendor tries in vain to keep the Little Tramp or Spot or a pack of hungry dogs from devouring his sausages.  Interestingly, Sydney Chaplin, being an accomplished comedian himself, was once considered the more talented of the two brothers!

After A Dog's Life, Chaplin directed Shoulder Arms, his parody of trench warfare in the First World War.  Although relatively tame now, in Chaplin's day, the very concept of mocking a real, on-going war was considered extremely risky.  Chaplin even put a lot of emphasis on the realism of his trench sets.  Perhaps no one other than someone of Chaplin's beloved stature could have succeeded, and it is to Chaplin's credit that Shoulder Arms was then and remains now such a delightful film from start to finish.  It is his second acknowledged masterpiece and is also the second of the trilogy in The Chaplin Revue.

This go-around, the Little Tramp is a soldier, and the film opens on his comical struggles in boot camp.  Soon, he's shipped to the war front and the rat-infested, water-flooded trenches.  Welcome to France!  Even in such dreariness, from the fear and homesickness of living in the trenches to the constant whizzing of bullets, there is humor to be found.  It particularly helps that the Germans are rather dim soldiers in the film; at one point, the Little Tramp even captures a handful of them by single-handedly surrounding them!  Suddenly the unlikely war hero, the Little Tramp is "volunteered" to go behind enemy lines as a spy.  He does so...by camouflaging himself as a tree!  If you thought Chaplin had a funny walk as the Little Tramp, wait until you see him as a tree!  The sight of a tree running away from German patrols with that unmistakable Chaplin gait is absolutely priceless!  Ultimately, the Little Tramp impersonates a German officer to save a French girl (Edna of course) and ends up capturing the Kaiser and ending the war as well!  It is for once a happy ending for the Little Tramp, a dream come true (well, almost anyway).

The Pilgrim, released in 1923, was the final film that Charlie Chaplin would create for First National.  It is also the last film in The Chaplin Revue.  The Little Tramp this time is an escaped convict fleeing from the law (in a parallel situation to his similar plight in The Adventurer, coincidentally the final film in Chaplin's Mutual period).  Disguising himself as a preacher, the Little Tramp boards a train to a small frontier town in the middle of rural nowhere.  As fate would have it, he is mistaken for a real pastor who is expected that very day and is quickly ushered to the church to give a sermon.  His sermon, featuring a hilarious David-vs.-Goliath theme, is one of the comic highlights of this film.  If only all sermons were as entertaining as this one, parents would never have any difficulty bringing their children to church!

The "pastor" is to receive boarding in the home of a mother and daughter (Edna Purviance).  Again, Chaplin finds enlightened comedy in a sequence in which a bowler hat, thanks to a mischievous boy, is mistaken for a coffee cake, covered with frosting, and nearly eaten by the guests at the home; Chaplin liked the routine so much that he did a memorable variation on this sight gag later in The Gold Rush!  Soon, the Little Tramp's luck takes a tumble when he is recognized by a former cellmate, who decides to take advantage of the situation to rob the mother and daughter blind.  Perhaps imitating a pastor has turned the heart of this Little Tramp, because he saves the day by retrieving the stolen money.  In honorably returning the money to the daughter, the Little Tramp is captured by the local sheriff, finally wise to his real identity.  And so, The Pilgrim ends with that classic theme of so many Chaplin films - the Little Tramp does good but receives little reward other than a swift boot in the pants.  He doesn't get the girl and ends up on his own once more, his only recourse being to shrug, kick up his heels, and waddle off into the sunset (The Tramp, from Chaplin's Essanay period, is a prime example of this).  Perhaps this optimism when he is down on his luck is what has endeared the Little Tramp to so many people over the years.

The Pilgrim signaled the end of one period in Chaplin's career and a new beginning with United Artists.  In 1919, Chaplin had joined his friends Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith in creating United Artists.  Mary Pickford was of course the original America's Sweetheart, while Douglas Fairbanks was the prototypical swash-buckling hero of the day.  Griffith had directed such classics as Intolerance and Birth of a Nation.  Upon completion of his contract to First National, Chaplin would release the remainder of his silent films through the United Artists partnership.

The final shot for The Pilgrim could then be considered a humorous representation of Chaplin himself at this new crossroads - the Little Tramp, set free upon the U.S.-Mexican border by the good-hearted sheriff, exalts at his new opportunity in Mexico.  Suddenly, a gunfight breaks out between Mexican bandits and the Little Tramp rushes back to the border for safety.  He straddles both sides of the line, glancing nervously this way and that, before waddling along the border into the uncertain horizon as the film fades away.  Chaplin seems to be saying, the Little Tramp has finally earned his freedom, but his adventures are only just beginning.

Video **

The Chaplin Revue is presented in a black & white, full-frame format.  The three films in this anthology are incredibly old (over ninety years old apiece), but they have been well preserved, all things considered, with The Pilgrim looking the best of the three.  The films understandably display some scratches, dust marks, specks, and small instances of deterioration, but in relation to most other silent films, these defects are quite minor.  The image is sometimes a little soft, but the picture quality otherwise has excellent contrast levels and almost never appears washed-out.  Since all these films come from the Chaplin vaults, rest assured that they are the finest available prints!

Audio **

Although The Chaplin Revue contains three originally silent films, Chaplin himself offers brief introductions for each film and has also composed musical accompaniments for the anthology.  The actual arrangement is by Eric James and Eric Spear.  The Pilgrim also features a rare Chaplin theme song, "I'm Bound for Texas," sung by Matt Monroe; it's quite catchy in a laid-back, frontier town sort of way.

There is an option for listening to these "silent" films in either a 2-channel monaural track or a 5.1 track.  The sound quality is adequate enough, all things considered, and personally, I did not really detect much difference between either track.  Being a purist though, I stuck with the 2-channel track. 

Features ****

The Chaplin Revue arrives as a two-disc set or can be purchased as part of The Chaplin Collection Vol. 2 boxed set.  Coincidentally, the packaging lists the contents of both discs incorrectly - the contents for what the packaging calls disc two are actually on disc one, and vice versa.  For viewers who want a chronology of the release dates for the First National films, the package fold-out offers such a list and also provides a break-down of the contents of each disc.

So anyway, the disc labeled "disc one" contains The Chaplin Revue.  Viewers receive the option of watching this anthology in its entirety or watching each of the three films separately.  There is also a short introduction (5 min.) by Chaplin biographer David Robinson that gives a very quick synopsis of each film.

Subtitles to the English intertitles are available in seven different languages, which is a bit of an overkill for a silent film.  Still, it is an indication of the universal appeal of Chaplin's Little Tramp character.

Aside from the film, this disc contains some rarely seen Chaplin shorts, too.  I want to point out that since up to 80% of all silent films are considered lost, the very existence of the following Chaplin outtakes is quite unusual and should be treasured.  Portions of these shorts have been presented before, particularly in the Unknown Chaplin PBS series from the 1980's, but it is nice to have them collected together.  There are two shorts and one deleted scene; all are presented silently and demonstrate some degree of wear and tear but still look much better than the majority of other surviving clips from the silent era.

First up is a deleted opening sequence (10 min.) from Shoulder Arms.  Chaplin apparently decided that for pacing purposes it was better to start his film with the Little Tramp character already in camp, but these opening scenes still have some very funny moments.  They establish the Little Tramp's miserable home life with his nagging, dish-tossing wife.  He just doesn't get any respect.  Soon, he enlists in the army and undergoes a hilarious physical examination in which he inadvertently swallows all manners of medical equipment.  The deleted sequence ends at this point.

Next, there is How to Make Movies (16 min.).  This never-released short was created by Chaplin to show the transformation of an orange orchard into his new, state-of-the-art movie studio, courtesy of First National.  The short also provides a rare look at Chaplin "directing" or generally goofing around for the camera with members of his cast and crew.  While never released, portions of this short were eventually incorporated into the introductory sequence for The Chaplin Revue.

The Bond (10 min.) is a propaganda film produced for the U.S. government to encourage public support for the war effort by buying liberty bonds.  The short celebrates, in a typically humorous Chaplin style, the bond of friendship, of love, of marriage, and then most importantly of all the liberty bond.

Next, we come to the two galleries.  The photo gallery is divided into four sections containing production stills from A Dog's Life (26), Shoulder Arms (22), The Pilgrim (47), and a miscellaneous section (9).  The poster gallery contains nine lobby posters from various countries.

The last feature on disc one is a trailer for The Chaplin Revue, albeit in French!  I wonder what happened to the English trailer.

Moving along to the disc labeled "disc two," we encounter a wealth of bonus goodies.  Four of the remaining First National films are presented here!  Those films are Sunnyside, A Day's Pleasure, The Idle Class, and Pay Day (only The Kid is absent, as it receives its own special release on a separately available disc).  These latter four shorts, probably known best to Chaplin aficionados, are lesser Chaplin, relatively speaking, but they still do have their undeniable charms.  Plus, they have been wonderfully preserved in the Chaplin vaults and look extremely good here!  As with The Chaplin Revue, each short is accompanied by a musical score composed by Chaplin for re-release in the 1950's.

Just a word of caution - Warner Brothers has tagged the usual copyright protection blah Interpol blah blah at the end of each short.  There are several minutes' worth of these warning screens, presented in seven different languages (at least!), and once they start, they can't be stopped.  You can't pause, fast forward, retreat to the menu, nothing!  So, unless you're nuts for this sort of virtual prisoner overkill, head back to the main menu as soon as you see the "The End" intertitle, before the film concludes.  Maybe Warner Brothers thought it was funny this way or something?

Anyhow, let's talk about the shorts.  Sunnyside, a three-reeler, was released in 1918 after Shoulder Arms.  This time, the Little Tramp is a desk clerk for a quaint little country inn.  His sweetheart is being courted by a visiting city man, and when the Tramp tries to imitate the well-to-do fellow, he fails miserably and loses his sweetheart.  This film is notable for an early instance of pathos in a Chaplin film but is otherwise not very remarkable.

A Day's Pleasure is the next short and the fourth of the First National films.  This two-reeler is a diverting if not particularly memorable short about a fun day out for a family.  Chaplin and his wife and two kids hop into their vibrating jalopy and drive off to the shore for a fun day on the waters.  There is the usual comedy about everyone being seasick on the cruise boat, with the comic highlight being Chaplin's struggle with a folding lounge chair.  On the drive home, the day ends with an amusing encounter between Chaplin and a traffic cop.  This short is notable for featuring Jackie Coogan's first appearance in a Chaplin film; Coogan would soon earn cinematic immortality in Chaplin's next film, The Kid.

The Idle Class is the sixth of the First National films.  Released in 1921 after The Kid, it offers Chaplin a rare opportunity to play two roles in a film.  There is the familiar Little Tramp character who this time is mistaken for an absent-minded but rich man, also played by Chaplin (he was always looking for new ways to break out of his Little Tramp persona).  The Idle Class has many amusing sequences, including mishaps on the golf course, sight gags involving the rich man, and a mix-up when the rich man's wife mistakes the Little Tramp for her husband at a costume party!  It ends in typical Chaplin fashion, as he doesn't get the girl and is tossed out, but at least he gets the last laugh by dishing out the swift kick in the pants before vanishing.

Pay Day, released in 1922, was Chaplin's last two-reeler and the seventh First National film.  A throwback to the early Essanay and Mutual days, it features the Little Tramp as a construction worker.  There is a bit of precarious physical humor (worthy of Buster Keaton) involving an elevator shaft and a funny sequence involving a drunk Little Tramp trying to make his way back home to his nagging wife.  He arrives by dawn...just in time for the alarm clock to ring and his wife to toss him out the door back to work again!

Now, we come to another deleted scene (from Sunnyside).  Running at nine minutes, it is an absolutely hysterical barber shop scene in which Chaplin tries unsuccessfully to give a customer a shave.  Throw in a collapsing chair, a fiery-hot wood stove, and a bear trap, and you easily have all the ingredients for what would have been the funniest sequence in Sunnyside.  Strangely enough, this great sequence was cut!  Fortunately, Chaplin always recognized good material, even in his out-takes, and frequently re-worked earlier abandoned ideas into his later films.  The collapsing chair gag of course re-appears in A Day's Pleasure, while the barber shop sequence is gloriously reprised as one of the funniest sequences from The Great Dictator.

Chaplin, being the biggest celebrity of his day, was frequently visited by dignitaries, other celebrities, and even royalty on his sets.  Included on this disc are some home movies, totaling seven minutes altogether, of such admirers.  The visitors include Max Linder (the most famous screen comedian prior to the First World War but mostly forgotten now), Maxine Elliot, General Wood, and the Bishop of Birmingham.  Prince Axel of Denmark and Irvin S. Cobb (a playwright and actor of the time) also show up and perform impromptu comedy skits with Chaplin on his Sunnyside set.  The final visitor, Harry Lauder, a famous musical hall vaudevillian, joins Chaplin in a couple of short skits in which they mimick each other's well-known gait and chase each other around; this eight-minute short was apparently part of an unfinished fund-raising project for the war effort.

Once again, we come to another set of galleries.  The photo gallery on this disc contains publicity stills from Sunnyside (31),  A Day's Pleasure (17), The Idle Class (11), and Pay Day (15).  The poster gallery has six entries.

Lastly, there is a trailer (erroneously labeled on the packaging as a trailer for The Chaplin Revue).  This ten-minute trailer actually gives a glance at all of Chaplin's films from the eight First National films until A King in New York.  Well, almost all - A Woman of the Sea (a.k.a. The Sea Gull, 1926) is missing.  Like A Woman of Paris, this was a full-length feature starring Edna Purviance, with direction by Joseph von Sternberg (although Chaplin re-shot some of the scenes himself).  Unfortunately, A Woman of the Sea is considered a lost film, and Chaplin is reputed to have destroyed the only surviving copies.  If any private collector should happen to find this film in his collection, it would be a fantastically important discovery indeed!

Extremely Trivial Note - In his cast credits for The Pilgrim, Chaplin lists "?" as the mischievous boy's mother.  The actress was Mai Wells.

Summary:

Chaplin is justifiably remembered for his many classic feature-length films, but some of his early work was just as hilarious!  The Chaplin Revue brings together three of his finest short films and is a must-have for any true Chaplin fan.  An absolute gem and a top recommendation!