Charlie Chaplin: the Essanay Comedies

Commenting on the ease or difficulty of a review never needs to be brought up because it simply isn’t relevant. However, any notion of hardship from writing such an article typically comes from a need to evade a particularly large plot spoiler. BFI’s Chaplin Essanay’s comedy set is completely different purely because of how uniform and similar the contained 16 films are. This isn’t a comment on the nature of silent comedy as 2016’s Eureka released Buster Keaton collection was a joy to sift through, but being the revolutionary of stunt work, that he was, those films stand out a little more. It isn’t quite the same for Charlie Chaplin’s beginnings.

Whether by influence, artistry or any other reason, the German, Russian and occasional American film that makes it out to a new fascinated 21st-century audience will find something new and interesting to discover. Not only that, many of those silent films released anew on home video are deceptively modern. Personally, it has been through the discussions of these icons of early cinema that the revelation of creative inertia has become an unavoidable truth of contemporary cinema. Head back to those early pioneers and you will find creative minds inventing a language and challenging themselves to tell stories in interesting and visually unique ways. Return to the modern day, however, and you will a wave of directors taking what has been done before and telling their stories using long established tools and ideologies. While cinema was new in the silent era, there’s no way these two times can be compared beyond the gulfing contrast in innovation. There may be names who deviate from this dull consensus, but it is with this apathy that we have seen the rise in fingers pointing at the trope as a sign of creative bankruptcy.

Why bring this up? The answer is simple, these short comedy films that saw the crystallization of Charlie Chaplin into a mega movie star are a harder to champion than the normal silent film. While it would be churlish to overlook the fun contained within each of these 16 films, the unavoidable truth is that the style of comedy contained is awfully repetitive. There are exceptions to the rule, for example, the pratfalls of Shaghaied’s swishing boat provides the set with its freshest and funniest moments. The Tramp saw the invention of one of cinema’s most famous characters. And His New Job looked behind the curtain of filmmaking with Chaplin’s eager persona trying everything on set before chaos eventually took over. That chaos and the sense of humour is camped with all things slapstick, which is to say there’s an awful lot of fighting, slapping, kicking and pushing people in their face. A sword is even poked in the last place it should ever be. Elsewhere Chaplin’s mannered gait in which he pushed his feet outwards and walked only on his heels features as a part of his routine. People who are already fans of Chaplin will likely delight in everything these Essanay produced shorts, new fans, however, may be harder to come by.

To return to the idea deposited earlier about the surprising modernity of previously released silent films, while it may not extend to these films it is an important touchstone in the discussion of the material contained within. Historically speaking, it is beyond amazing that films made a century ago still subscribe to any modern style (or vice versa). However, these silent icons that have gone down in legend weren’t as beloved in their day. This is thanks, in no small part, to the very idea of the cinema going experience evolving beyond all recognition in the intervening century.

These Essanay comedies were made in and around 1915 and 1916 and the cinema going experience was far from what we have now. We can go to cinemas and watch films from all over the world in complete comfort, turn on the TV or the internet, the modern movie couldn’t be more accessible. Whereas then films didn’t come close to sitting atop the entertainment world. That honour was held by radio, with families sat around the ‘wireless’ and the superstar voices of the day. It wasn’t until the Television became a fixture in the home in the 1950s that this was consigned to history books. Film watching habits of the day saw people visiting their local cinema for the news and a film, and through that model, the star of Chaplin rose to the stratospheres.

It’s through that outlet that these films should be assessed. Looking at these Charlie Chaplin films now and without the framing device of fandom and they become awfully repetitive. Look at them in the era in which they were created, and they are a tonic for a world where the first world war was claiming the lives of an entire generation. As Preston Sturges’s wonderful Sullivan’s Travels posited, laughter is the best medicine and this year of films financed and released by Essanay and starring & directed by Charlie Chaplin came at the most opportune of times.

BFI have an embarrassment of riches hidden deep with their archive and this is release perfectly embodies that strength in depth. And while impossible to restore these to their original quality, the 12-year collaboration led by Lobster Films and Cinteca di Bologna restores life and verve back to films 102 years old. While they are enjoyable, knockabout comedy shorts they also form a collected work of a fascinating era in cinema history. They may not be overly successful at creating new fans but as a monument to the early doors of one of cinema’s immortal icons it is a little different. The Essanay comedies demand the attention of anyone fascinated by those talented men and women who helped turn the movies into our greatest of love affairs.


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