By Rob Blackwelder
Featuring definitive, restored and digitally remastered editions of four more Charlie Chaplin feature-film masterpieces and two more "mere" classics -- along with a collection of his best shorts and a superb documentary -- The Chaplin Collection: Volume Two actually tops its sublime predecessor in both quality and quantity.
In addition to the silent comedies "City Lights" (a warm, funny unrequited romance, in which the Little Tramp falls for a blind flower girl -- arguably Chaplin's best film), "The Kid" (his most famous and emotional, in which he adopts an abandoned little boy played by the magnificent Jackie Coogan), and "The Circus" (the Little Tramp stumbles his way into big-top stardom with side-splitting results), this collection also boasts the writer- director- actor- composer's most daring and novel films.
In the delicious 1947 black comedy "Monsieur Verdoux," Chaplin abandons his known screen persona for the first time, playing a suave French serial polygamist and wife-killer. In 1957's audacious but imperfect socio-political satire "A King in New York," he's a deposed monarch who encounters everything crass about American society from Communist witch-hunts to the early advent of tabloid television. More stunning still, in "A Woman of Paris" (starring lover Edna Purviance as an courtesan) he doesn't appear at all, which caused the groundbreakingly sophisticated, cliché-free melodrama of regret, sacrifice and sold souls to tank at the box office in 1923.
Add to this mix half a dozen hilarious two-reelers, a 133-minute documentary about Chaplin's life, and an avalanche of superb supplements (film intros by biographer David Robinson, 26-minute documentaries about each film's modern influence, outtakes, home movies), and there's just no way you can go wrong with this spectacular box set, despite its few shortcomings -- like a lack of run-times on the shorts, incorrect run-times printed on the discs themselves, and a few films with minor digital resolution anomalies.
Even more so than the first Chaplin collection, "Volume Two" is an absolute must-own for all true cinephiles -- and a must-see for anyone ignorant of Chaplin's pivotal influence on the movies.
If I have one true beef with this otherwise unequalled collection, it's that the "Chaplin Today" documentaries on each disc are devoid of the joy of watching the man's movies. They consist of mostly obscure international filmmakers interview other mostly obscure international filmmakers, who drone on very seriously about Chaplin's effect on their art. These features feel like homework. (But the good news is, you really get your money's worth. There's not one bit of overlap in all the hours and hours of bonus material on these 11 discs.)
SOUND & PICTURE
As with "Volume One," new digital transfers from "Chaplin family vault picture and audio elements" bring a crispness to these films that probably hasn't been seen since they were new -- and in the case of the sound, not even then. The scores (and dialogue on talkies) can be experienced in the original mono or in full 5.1 Dolby. But the transfers are imperfect, with some scenes suffering from slight digital shadowing and other anomalies.
Original aspect ratios (roughly 1.33:1)
DUBS: Spanish, Portuguese
SUBS: English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Thai
THE FILMS & THE EXTRAS: (***1/2 overall)
"The Circus" (1928) ***
A callous circus owner exploits the Little Tramp's hysterical haplessness, hiring him as a stage hand but knowing everything he does gets a laugh from delighted audiences. Classic Chaplin moments include a house-of-mirrors scene followed by Chaplin posing as an fun-house animatronic in order to escape a policeman, and a tight-rope act during which Charlie is overrun by monkeys. Wildly creative in its comedy, "The Circus" doesn't have the kind of emotional core that raises his best films to the level of genius. But it's a complete delight all the same. This is the 1964 release of the film -- the version Chaplin considered definitive -- complete with a title song sung by Chaplin and a musical score he composed.
This two-disc set includes:The usual engrossingly detailed introduction by David Robinson that delves into details like locations, shooting problems (a fire destroyed the set), and the chaotic events of Chaplin's life at the time (he had to hide the unfinished film from divorce lawyers). But, as is the style of these intros, slow-mo footage is over-used for melancholy effect.
"Chaplin Today: The Circus" provides insight into Charlie's roots in comedia del arte and pantomime, and features an interview with European filmmaker Emir Kusturica.
If you ever wanted to know all about Chaplin's meticulous perfectionism, you can watch a week's worth of outtakes -- shooting of the same scenes over and over again with slight variations.
Footage from the film's premiere and goofy Chaplin home movie.
A non-Chaplin short comedy called "Circus Day," starring Jackie Coogan from "The Kid."
Rare early 3D test footage shot by Chaplin's chief cameraman (not as interesting as it sounds).
One deleted sequence, trailers, photo & poster galleries.
"City Lights" (1931) ****
In this wonderfully evocative and constantly amusing comedy of love from afar, Chaplin once again plays the Little Tramp as he falls head-over-heels for a blind flower girl and becomes determined to raise money for an operation to restore her sight -- becoming a street sweeper, a boxer and the drinking buddy of a rich man who never remembers him in the morning. With the misunderstood slamming of a nearby limousine door during their pivotal first meeting, the girl (beautiful Virginia Cherrill) mistakes our hero for a millionaire, leading to many laughs and an affecting awkwardness that speaks to Chaplin's brilliance at balancing humor with emotion. The last true silent film of Charlie's (made well into the sound era), in "City Lights" he nonetheless toys with whimsical touches of sync-sound and for the first time provides his own, quite beautiful score. A masterpiece among masterpieces, this is arguably Chaplin's best film -- but that's a tight race.
This two-disc set includes:Robinson's intro detailing Chaplin's deliberate mixing of sound and silent techniques in this film and his head-butting with his co-star (just about the only leading lady who never slept with him).
"Chaplin Today: The Kid," featuring claymation animator Peter Lord (part of the "Wallace & Gromit"/"Chicken Run" team).
Excerpt from "The Champion," a 1915 boxing-match comedy short, elements of which Chaplin revived for "City Lights."
Behind-the-scenes features including rehearsal footage, on-set footage, a screen test of "Gold Rush" actress Georgia Hale from when Chaplin got huffy with Cherrill and considered replacing her.
Home-movie-like footage from Chaplin's studios including visits from boxing stars and Winston Churchhill.
Real home movies of the Chaplin family on a 1932 trip to Bali.
The first filmed footage of Chaplin speaking during his crowd-drawing 1931 trip to Europe.
Deleted scenes, trailers, photos & posters.
"The Kid" (1921) ***1/2
Hilarious and heartbreaking -- both thanks in part to the astonishingly natural performance of 7-year-old Jackie Coogan in the title role -- this simple yet wonderfully creative comedy classic broke new ground for Chaplin as his first feature-length film. Its story finds the Little Tramp becoming attached (reluctantly at first) to an abandoned baby, raising the kid in his one-room tenement, teaching him to be a scam artist (the kid throws rocks to break windows, Chaplin comes along as a glassier to repair them), and fighting callous authorities who want to take the boy away and put him in an orphanage. This development culminates in one of the most indelible images of Chaplin's entire canon: Coogan in the back of a truck, reaching for Chaplin and exploding in tears. This melancholy masterwork projects such emotional veracity while getting such constant giggles that if there ever was a legitimate use of the cliché "you'll laugh, you'll cry," "The Kid" is it.
In addition to Robinson's introduction, this two-disc set includes:"Chaplin Today: The Kid," featuring Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami ("The Wind Will Carry Us").
"How to Make Movies" (also included on "The Chaplin Revue" disc), an unreleased, tongue-in-cheek, 1918 look behind the scenes of Chaplin's new studio.
"My Boy," a 55m Jackie Coogan film shot later in 1921, in which the child star plays a very similar character.
Home movie footage featuring Coogan performing for visitors at Chaplin's studios, and newsreel footage of Coogan being received by thrilled crowds in Paris and Chaplin's 1921 trip to Europe.
Scenes deleted in Chaplin's creation of this re-edited and newly scored 1971 "definitive cut," depicting more backstory for the kid's mom, trailers, photos & posters.
"Monsieur Verdoux" (1947) ***1/2
In his most daring image departure, Chaplin gives a chillingly charming, downright ingenious performance as a strangely sympathetic serial polygamist and wife-murderer in this very black comedy-thriller that would do Hitchcock proud. Loosely based on a true story (suggested to Chaplin by Orson Welles), the plot follows the title character -- an unemployed French dandy who began marrying and slaying rich old biddies to support his unsuspecting true love and their child -- through a couple successful murders and his increasingly frustrating attempts to commit another. But this wife (played with riotous loud-mouthed aplomb by the great Martha Raye) proves impossibly resilient and ridiculously lucky (an attempt to drown her in a remote lake is foiled by a picnic full of yodelers).
Culturally allegorical, stylistically breathtaking, and simultaneously droll and unnerving, "Verdoux" is my favorite Chaplin talkie. Its only shortcomings are a small handful of contrived (sometimes even sloppy) plot points here and there that nag at the picture's near-perfection.
In addition to Robinson's introduction, this single disc includes:"Chaplin Today: Monsieur Verdoux," featuring French thriller director Bernard Eisenschitz, who made a movie about the real killer used as a model for Verdoux.
Storyboards and set plans with comparisons to the scenes in the film.
Trailers, photos & posters.
"A King in New York" (1957) **1/2
This may not be Chaplin's best film, but it is a shrewdly sharp-edged political satire of McCarthy-era American paranoia and pop culture. Charlie plays a deposed European monarch who becomes a Manhattan media sensation while in exile, goes broke when his prime minister absconds with the treasury (which the king had absconded with himself), and winds up a shill for a regally-named brand of booze in television commercials. ("Take him down the to studio! Get him made-up! We want lots of dignity!" proclaims a PR man. "Say! You haven't got your crown have you?")
Surprisingly relevant even today, the film makes witty mockery of lowbrow movies, violent entertainment aimed at kids, tabloid television, crass commercialism and plastic surgery, while more seriously ridiculing political persecution and "patriotic" indoctrination.
The supporting cast is a little weak, some characters are unrealistic and/or over-acted, and the finale is both heavy-handed and a little harebrained. But because its tart derision is so insightful, "A King in New York" is still indispensable Chaplin, in its own way.
--- this film is packaged with ---
"A Woman of Paris" (1923) ****
Wonderfully subtle touches of character flippancy are just part of the authentic human depth and complexity that Chaplin reached in this groundbreaking romantic tragedy that was way, way ahead of its time in terms of naturalistic acting and multi-layered storytelling -- both of which were anything but the norm in the histrionic era of silent cinema.
Edna Purviance (Chaplin's lover and perpetual co-star at the time) gives a compellingly unaffected lead performance as an ingenuous French country girl whose bad luck in love (coupled with an controlling, unforgiving father) leads her into a grand but precarious life as the kept mistress of a millionaire, devil-may-care Paris playboy (brilliantly played by Adolphe Monjou), while her provincial former fiancé (Carl Miller) becomes a struggling painter -- and a suicidal wreck.
Commenting on the shallowness of high society while crafting a parable positively Shakespearian in its emotional scope, this film more than any other shows Chaplin's remarkable range -- and more importantly, his audacity and pioneering vision -- as a writer and director.
This two-disc set includes:Introductions by Robinson for both films (the one for "A Woman of Paris" has fascinating insights into the love affairs Chaplin embarked on apparently just to draw inspiration for his title character.)
The two most interesting "Chaplin Today" documentaries of the whole collection, featuring Jim Jarmusch (on the "New York" disc) and Liv Ullmann (on "Paris"), speaking with authority on these departure films and how forward-thinking they were at the time.
Footage from the signing of the contract between Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith that created United Artists.
Rehearsal footage, deleted scenes, trailers, photos & posters.
"The Chaplin Revue" (1918-1923) ****
These seven shorts, made between 1918 and 1923, are the quintisential Little Tramp experience of luckless hilarity. In "A Day's Pleasure," Chaplin takes his family on a disastrous Sunday drive and ferry ride. "Shoulder Arms" goes into the trenches with Chaplin as an inept WWI doughboy (it was a favorite with returning troops). As an escaped convict who steals a clergyman's robes to get out of his prison stripes, in "The Pilgrim" Chaplin is mistaken for a small town's new preacher and havoc ensues. As for "Sunnyside," "The Idle Class," "Pay Day" and "A Dog's Life," I'll leave you to discover them for yourself because I've gone on long enough in this film-by-film review.
This two-disc set includes:"How to Make Movies" (also included on "The Kid" disc), an unreleased, tongue-in-cheek, 1918 look behind the scenes of Chaplin's new studio.
"The Bond," a WWI propaganda short Chaplin made for selling war bonds.
Footage Chaplin shot with Vaudevillian Harry Lauder in 1918 for an uncompleted war bond short.
Trailers, photos & posters.
And two notable problems: 1) there are no run-times listed for these short films, and 2) the DVDs may be mis-labeled. (My Disc 1 is labeled Disc 2, and vice versa.)
"Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin" (2003) ***
(DVD: no extras) (Available only with the collection)
Despite the volumes of documentary and bonus material on the other 11 discs, there is no repetition (other than film footage) even in this wonderfully in-depth tribute to Chaplin's life and career, which premiered at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. It features interviews with some of his children, and with esteemed critics (Andrew Sarris, David Thompson), inspired filmmakers (Woody Allen, Milos Forman, Martin Scorsese, Richard Attenborough -- who directed wonderful biopic "Chaplin") and admiring actors (Johnny Depp, Bill Irwin, Marcel Marceau, Robert Downey, Jr. -- who starred in "Chaplin"), and it provides such an indespensible overview for this collection that the more you get wrapped up in the films, the more this disc may merit multiple viewings.