Charles Spencer Chaplin, born in 1889, was just twenty-four when he made his first film, Making a Living, for the Keystone Film Company, released 2 February 2014. His second film, Kid Auto Races at Venice, released five days later, introduced his most famous character, the Little Tramp, which he played variations of some some twenty years. At the time, feature-filmmaking in the USA was in its infancy, and the films made at Keystone over the course of a year were mostly one-reelers with the occasional two-reeler thrown in. They were made fast, and these films – with the later ones made for Essanay, then Mutual, then First National – meant that the second half of the teens of the twentieth century were Chaplin's most prolific period as a performer and soon, as a filmmaker in his own right. He made his directorial debut with Twenty Minutes of Love, co-credited with Joseph Madden, then solo with Caught in the Rain, released on 20 April and 4 May of that year, respectively. Most of the rest of the Keystone films he appeared in he directed as well. One exception was the feature-length Tillie's Punctured Romance - the world's first feature-length comedy - directed by Keystone head Mack Sennett and starring Marie Dressler, with Chaplin in a supporting role. By that time, Chaplin had become a star, and when his contract came up for renewal, he – and his brother and business manager Sydney – asked for $1000 a week. Sennett turned this down, and Chaplin signed with the rival studio Essanay for $1250 a week, plus a bonus of $10,000.
Essanay had been founded by George M. Spoor and Gilbert (G.M.) Anderson, the name being based on the first letters of their surnames: S and A. “Broncho Billy” Anderson was a star in westerns. Over a year and a half, Chaplin made fifteen films for Essanay, two one-reelers and the rest two-reelers, all of which are included in this set. They're often thought of as a transitional stage between the basic knockabout of the Keystone films and the rather more polished films he made for Mutual in 1916 and 1917 (released by the BFI in 2015 and reviewed by me here). You can see Chaplin's increase in ambition – with the films generally longer now – and you can also see him experimenting with ideas and introducing gags he would refine in later work. For example, in By the Sea, a sequence involving a search for fleas is the precursor of a similar gag thirty-seven years later in Limelight. A gag involving a rocking boat in Shanghaied was reused in the Mutual film The Immigrant.
Chaplin soon gathered together his own repertory company of performers, including Leo White and Bud Jamison. Ben Turpin, a popular comedian in his own right, appeared in the first three films and Burlesque on Carmen, but he and Chaplin did not get on. A significant addition was Edna Purviance, who made her debut in the second film for Essanay, A Night Out. Six and a half years younger than Chaplin, she became his regular leading lady up to her leading in the non-comic A Woman of Paris. She and Chaplin were romantically linked for two years, and they remained friends until her death in 1962. The studio co-head, G.M. Anderson, appeared in The Champion and Chaplin returned the favour by making a short appearance in the Anderson-directed crime drama His Regeneration. Look quickly in His New Job and you will see Gloria Swanson, in an early role as a typist.
Chaplin's Essanay comedies were not without their critics. There were complaints about vulgarity, and Chaplin's female impersonation in A Woman upset some, causing rumours that delays in his next film, Work, were due to censorship. It was becoming clear that Chaplin's ambitions were outgrowing Essanay. He began to make what would have been a feature, to be called Life, only to have that scrapped by the studio, who wished Chaplin to continue to make short films. His final authorised film for Essanay, Burlesque on Carmen (a send-up of the story, which had just been filmed seriously by both Cecil B. DeMille and Raoul Walsh, starring respectively Geraldine Farrar and Theda Bara) was re-edited by the studio, expanding it from the intended two reels to four by the addition of outtakes and new footage featuring Ben Turpin. Police was also re-edited, with material from the abandoned Life project inserted. They also combined footage from both Police and Life with new material directed by Leo White into a compilation film, The Essanay-Chaplin Revue, which apparently no longer exists. Over in the UK, a compilation of highlights from the Essanay films appeared as Chase Me Charlie. Neither were authorised by Chaplin, who unsuccessfully sued. Finally, in 1918, Triple Trouble appeared. Leo White directed a framing story around the footage Chaplin had shot for Life, and the film included scenes from Work and Police, some of it disguised by being flipped left to right.
By then, Chaplin had signed with Mutual, a contract worth $670,000 a year. He made twelve films for them, which I discuss in my review of the BFI's Blu-ray set, linked to above.
Charlie Chaplin: The Essanay Comedies comprises two Blu-ray discs, encoded for Region B. The films on each are as follows, with the providers of the music scores listed for each:
His New Job (28:57) Score: Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
A Night Out (27:27) Score: Robert Israel Orchestra
The Champion (31:12) Score: Robert Israel Orchestra
In the Park (14:11) Score: Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
A Jitney Elopement (25:05) Score: Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
The Tramp (26:43) Score: Robert Israel Orchestra
By the Sea (14:22) Score: Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
His Regeneration (15:10) Score: Robert Israel at the Fotoplayer
Work (28:30) Score: Robert Israel Orchestra
A Woman (23:20) Score: Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
The Bank (25:20) Score: Robert Israel
Shanghaied (27:45) Score: Robert Israel Orchestra – sailor's hornpipe at start
A Night in the Show (24:34) Score: Timothy Brock
Burlesque on Carmen (31:26) Score: Timothy Brock – Toreador at start
Police (26:03) Score: Robert Israel
Triple Trouble (23:47) Score: Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
The films were all shot in black and white 35mm, and the Blu-ray transfers are in the correct ratio of 1.33:1. They are based on 2K restorations from a number of sources, details of which are on captions at the end of each film except for Triple Trouble - which is the one in the worst state, very soft, looking like it may have been transferred from a 16mm source. As these were shot on orthochromatic film, the greyscale is limited compared to that of the panchromatic black and white film introduced in the 1920s. There's certainly plenty of grain. But you have to bear in mind that these films are now over a century old, and this is the best shape they have looked in, short of lab-fresh 35mm prints from the first release – which would no doubt have been on notoriously unstable and inflammable nitrate stock. Some of the restorations have come from nitrate elements. The running speed of silent films varies, but are below the standard sound speed of twenty-four frames per second. These films appear to have been shot at eighteen frames per second, and the transfers make them run at the correct speed at the Blu-ray spec of twenty-four fps by duplicating every third frame.
The soundtracks are music scores, in LPCM 2.0, which plays as surround. There are a couple of sound effects as well: a gunshot in His Regeneration and a whistle in Triple Trouble. Some of the music choices are a little on the nose, for example the sailor's hornpipe at the start of Shanghaied. I'll leave you to guess how Burlesque on Carmen begins. Generally, though, the scores are good accompaniments to the films and the lossless audio presents the music well.
There is one extra on the first disc: Charlie Butts In (10:40). This one-reeler dates from around 1920 and combines documentary footage of Chaplin “butting in” and taking over an orchestra from the actual conductor, with material from Police, some of them alternative takes to the those in that film.
The two short extra films on Disc Two are rarities from the sound era, Charlie's Triple Trouble (15:33), dating from 1944, is a version of the original film with added music scores and narration by a major British star of the wartime years, Tommy Handley, full of comic character voices. The longer version of Burlesque on Carmen, under the longer title, A Burlesque on the Opera “Carmen” (36:39) gets similar treatment in 1951 from another British star, then a rising one, Peter Sellers. As both films were shown in cinemas at sound speed, the action is noticeably faster than originally intended. Neither film is in the best of shape, with noticeable damage to Charlie's Triple Trouble shortening the BBFC certificate and opening credits. So the 2K scans of these are the best that can be done in the circumstances.
Finally on Disc Two, The Long Year at Essanay (22:24) is an informative video essay by Glenn Mitchell, covering not just the films in this set but also others made by the studio when relevant.
The BFI's booklet runs to twenty-four pages. Frank Scheide contributes two essays: “Chaplin at Essanay”, which as its title suggests is an overview of Chaplin's tenure at the studio and the films he made there, and a shorter pied, “About Essanay”, covering the formation of the studio to its closure in 1918 shortly after Chaplin's departure. Glenn Mitchell contributes notes on the sixteen films included in this set. Also in the booklet are casts and credits for all of the films and for the extras, with notes on the latter by Douglas Weir, Vic Pratt and Glenn Mitchell.