Charlie Chaplin: the Mutual Comedies DVD/Blu-ray review

Charlie Chaplin in One AM (1916)
Charlie Chaplin in One AM (1916)

This is not just a box set, more a lifestyle choice. Anyone who wants to spend a couple of hours laughing and crying with Chaplin can watch one of the features. But this new collection of the short films that Chaplin made at the Mutual Company in 1916 and 1917 offers a longer-lasting relationship with London’s favourite silent son.

Even at first glance, the BFI’s latest Chaplin release is a tempting treasure. The Mutual period includes some of Chaplin’s best and funniest shorts for one thing – the drunken ballet of One AM, the social bite of The Immigrant and Easy Street, the glorious mayhem of The Adventurer and The Cure. For the first time in the UK, all 12 Mutual films are presented on Blu-ray – and they have been newly, and immaculately restored too. These discs are a pleasure to watch. It beggars belief that these films are approaching their centenaries, because everything on screen is beautifully clear and impressively filmic, with rich detail and velvety blacks. Comedy this timeless defies age, and now the image of that comedy is every bit as immortal. I don’t have the recent Flicker Alley release to compare, but the word is that this improves on the quality of that set.

But this set has more to offer than carefully curated pixels. Every film on this disc comes with goodies attached. You’ll find Chaplin essays in the booklet and extras on the discs: archive footage of Chaplin, and an interview with composer Carl Davis. There’s a score by Carl Davis for each film (you can read him explaining how he went about composing for the Mutuals here), plus a choice of alternative soundtracks by musicians including Neil Brand, Stephen Horne and Donald Sosin. There are audio commentaries too by Chaplin experts including Bryony Dixon, Davis and Glenn Mitchell. The nerd in me particularly enjoys the fact that you can’t flick between these soundtracks – you have to select the music or commentary you want when you choose the film. To catch up with them all, you’d have to watch the films several times over – that’s what I mean when I say this box set offers a long-term affair with Chaplin. You could devote weeks to getting the most out of this package.

The Vagabond (1916)
The Vagabond (1916)

There are films here that I have long loved, but a few that caught me by surprise. The freshness of the image, and the information provided in those knowledgeable voiceovers gave me a new appreciation for the slapstick-for-slapstick’s sake of The Pawnshop or The Rink, for example. Reader, I chortled. Heartily. And in the manic crowd scenes of The Adventurer, say, this set reveals split-second expressions and background gags I confess that I previously missed. And Edna Purviance, who stars in several of these shorts, has rocketed in my estimation – her performances here, notably of course in The Immigrant, are note-perfect. She’s very funny, and her good-looks have a modern quality that I’d missed before. In films such as the raucous The Count, it’s a real treat to see the threesome of her, Chaplin and Eric Campbell (who died shortly after making The Adventurer) interacting – always the Tramp, the Policeman and the Pretty Girl whatever the scenario.

There are times when I despair a little over the amount of time and attention lavished over Chaplin’s work. It’s not that he is the least undeserving, but in the context of silent film history, we have more lost films than found films, more “ones that got away” than painstakingly preserved archives. Chaplin was once a star-director, now he’s an industry, while many of his peers are represented so badly by the remaining material. But it’s churlish as well as foolish to look a gift horse in the mouth. This sort of project – the Mutuals restoration and this glossy box set – shows what can be done, and it’s a joy to encounter.

So I recommend you clear your schedules and dust off your credit card. This beautiful box set is your gateway to a Chaplin odyssey.

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