The early Charles Chaplin film years are easy to parse: scores of appearances as a fast-rising Keystone beginner in 1914; self-apprenticeship in 1915 as writer/director/star/producer of 15 shorts @ Essanay; then initial comic mastery over a dozen releases for Mutual in 1916. Image DVD has put out the often overlooked Essanays on three discs with Vol. 2 offering a good taste of this transitional phase. (BEWARE of many bad editions!) The first title, THE TRAMP, is often taken as a sort of mission statement whereas Chaplin’s preferred name for his screen self was The Little Fellow. In any event, many touchstone elements are debuted here as Charlie lands on the farm of leading lady Edna Purviance after being robbed by a trio of drifters. After a day’s labor of barnyard chores & comic destruction, the three drifters show up to cause more trouble. But Charlie, who’s fallen hard for Edna, foils the plot only to find out that the grateful Edna is already spoken for. So, it’s a solo shuffle down the road of life; a shake-off-the-blues quick-step kick, and Charlie’s jaunty gait returns as he walks briskly toward the future. All shot from behind in a manner as unlikely for the time as the pathos. Striking as all these elements are, Chaplin hasn’t yet figured out how to integrate them; they show up a la carte. The untapped possibilities no doubt exhausted Chaplin. So, it was back to Keystone basics for his next, BY THE SEA. A scenic location; a bit of knock-about; a pretty girl; a day’s filming; release. Next up, WORK. Now, Charlie’s thinking again. Pulling a cart like an ox, he gets his partner to their next wallpapering job. Once at the house, the family gets in the way. Not of his messy work, but of his pursuit of Edna! Mayhem ensues. More importantly, a film maker shows up . . . Charlie Chaplin! Suddenly he’s staging elaborate chaos with action starting in one room and spilling over to the next; even from floor to floor with quick edits. It’s as if a previously unknown directing gene in his DNA clicked on. The last two films here, A WOMAN, with Charlie teaching a lech a lesson, lets him hide under unsettling drag makeup which he shows off in full-frame close-up, and THE BANK, which is nearly worthy of one of the Mutuals, going from cleverly inappropriate juxtaposition gags to a grand dream sequence where Charlie saves the day, gets the girl . . . then wakes up.
And the films might be even more impressive had Chaplin kept pristine prints & negatives as he would soon be in a position to do. Simple and crude as these films can be, they were replayed for decades. Note our small poster with WORK retitled as THE PAPERHANGER with a drawing of Chaplin that’s probably from the ‘40s.
DOUBLE-BILL: On to The Chaplin Mutuals!