Early Charlie Chaplin shorts on home video
When Charlie Chaplin appeared in 1914's Making a Living, the first of the 25 two-reel comedy shorts assembled here, he was just another music-hall clown trying out the camera. By 1918, when he signed a 12-film contract with the First National studio for an unheard-of $1 million, he was, quite simply, the most famous living person on the planet. It's difficult now to conceive of the vastness of that popularity think Elvis, but bigger but the simple visual power of his Tramp character had made Chaplin the first superstar in what was, after all, the first global medium.
Success on that scale can hurt an instinctive artist. By all rights, the release of these six tapes should be a major event: They make it possible to see in one long sitting the early work of a titan of American popular culture. As heretical as it sounds, though, they prove only that it may be time to rethink Chaplin's importance.
The earliest shorts here are improvised knockabouts hung on the barest plot pegs Charlie is a clumsy waiter in Caught in a Cabaret, Charlie in drag in A Woman. Provoking mostly mild chuckles, they're more rowdy than funny by today's sensibilities. And while the later Essanay and Mutual shorts offer more conceptualized comedy, they also show how quickly Chaplin became mannered.
The Tramp (included here), it was called a great leap forward by the critics who had pooh-poohed the cruelties of slapstick (and the Keystone shorts make it clear that he early Chaplin was one of the more sadistic of the bunch). Once he had achieved fame, Chaplin spent his life chasing Art, and it got in the way of the jokes. Today all that heart-tugging seems pretentious, Victorian, and maudlin less a manifestation of humanism than of egotism.
As for the gags themselves, they just don't compare to the competition's, here or in later silents. Buster Keaton had a physical grace that made the impossible look easy and a brilliant mind for cinematic comedy: His films look better every year. Harold Lloyd had a more fertile comic imagination. Charlie was all fussy stage-business and winks at the camera. The most vaudevillian of the bunch, he constantly played to the crowd. That helps to explain his popularity at the same time that it marks his limitations.
It explains, too, why these films work better in a theater than at home, even without the shoddy packaging they've received here. Some of the prints are incomplete, others are framed so poorly that the actors are decapitated. Worst of all, the music tracks on the Keystone and Essanay films are idiotic, a mixture of '50s lounge jazz and rinky-tink Western saloon piano (the Mutual films, which are not as rare, feature more suitable orchestral scores put on in the '30s).
So while the Chaplin myth is huge, these films are really the only evidence that matters. They reveal a man who was talented, lucky, hard-working and increasingly self-absorbed. The beloved emperor may not be naked, but he's wearing awfully tattered underwear.
The Keystone and Essanay shorts: C-; The Mutual shorts: B+