Watching the new Blu-ray/DVD set "Chaplin's Mutual Comedies" is a revelation because one can witness a master filmmaker coming of age.
Charlie Chaplin introduced his beloved, baggy-panted Tramp in 1914 while at Mack Sennett's Keystone Studios. In the dozen shorts made in 1916 and '17 at Mutual, the Tramp evolved from a slapstick-driven character to a three-dimensional, complex individual filled with humor, pathos and humanity. These comedies lay the groundwork for his feature film masterpieces including 1925's "The Gold Rush" and 1931's "City Lights."
"In those 12 films, you realize by watching them Chaplin is moving from the slapstick comedian in 1914 to the real filmmaker he was at the end of the Mutual films," said film archivist and historian Serge Bromberg of the Paris-based Lobster Films, which digitally restored more than half of the comedies in the new set, including "The Fireman," "Behind the Screen, "The Rink" and "Easy Street."
"When you watch his first comedy for Mutual, 1916's 'The Floorwalker,' it is routine," Bromberg said. "It is amazingly well done, but it is just slapstick. When you watch the last film, 'The Adventurer,' it is absolutely perfect — the timing and the construction."
The other Chaplin films in the Mutual collection are "The Vagabond," "One a.m," "The Count" "The Cure," "The Pawnshop" and "The Immigrant." These comedies also star Edna Purviance, Chaplin's love interest off screen, and Eric Campbell, the burly Scottish actor who brilliantly played Chaplin's nemesis in these comedies.
All dozen films have both orchestral and piano improvisational scores. Also included in the new set are the 2013 documentary "The Birth of the Tramp," written and directed by Bromberg and Eric Lange, and "Chaplin's Goliath," Kevin Macdonald's 1996 documentary on Campbell.
The set, released by Flicker Alley, was a collaborative effort by Lobster, Cineteca Di Bologna and David Shepard's Film Preservation Associates under the guidance of Assn. Chaplin, the Paris company operated by the Chaplin children.
Four years ago, Flicker released the comedy shorts Chaplin made at Keystone. Bromberg said Chaplin's 1915 comedies made for Essanay, the studio where he first began to break away from the Keystone-style comedy formula, were being restored.
Of the short films Chaplin made between 1914 and 1917, Bromberg said, only one original camera negative survives, for the 1915 comedy "The Bank." Even then, it's not the complete negative.
"It was 2,000 feet," Bromberg said, "but what remains is only 900 feet."
For the Mutual restoration, the team put out a call to archives and private collectors for 35-millimeter material. Among the film sources are Lobster, Shepard's Blackhawk Films Collections, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Library of Congress and the Museum of Modern Art. International sources included the British Film Institute's National Archive and the Paris-based Cinémathèque Française archive. The majority of the elements were sent to the lab in Bologna, where the best material for each film was scanned. Bologna also did restoration on some of the titles.
Chaplin, Bromberg said, shot with two cameras. The "A" negative was for domestic release; the "B" negative was for the foreign release. "We tried to stick with the 'A' negative," Bromberg said, adding that if the "A" material was too damaged, it would be substituted with the "B" material.
Thanks to modern digital tools, Bromberg said, "you can stabilize every single frame, which allows you to start a shot with images that were found in Venezuela and end the same scene with images found in Australia, and no one will notice there is a jump cut in between the images."
The set could have been released earlier this year, but Bromberg, Shepard and Flicker Alley's Jeffery Masino decided the restorations of "Easy Street" and "The Rink" were lacking.
"We decided to redo everything from scratch," Bromberg said. "We gathered material again, scanned it again. Mediocrity or almost good was not enough, it had to be the best."