Charles Chaplin’s famous first-feature comes up miraculously fresh (in physical condition and as comic drama) in Criterion's 4K digital release. The story of an abandoned infant, found in the garbage and raised by Charlie (reluctantly, at first; then joyously), obviously had special personal resonance for Chaplin, who had his own street urchin past. No wonder everything rings true, from broadest comic exaggeration to heart-tugging emotion. This DVD uses the slightly abridged version Chaplin prepared for the film’s 1972 re-release (with his new score opting against ‘Mickey Mousing’ to support the gags) which removed three short parenthetical episodes from the mother’s story.* The real surprise for many will come in seeing its sharp, crisp direction. Chaplin’s technical prowess is often misjudged/underrated because of stiff moments in his later sound films, and to a lesser extent from the artificial look used in THE GOLD RUSH/’25. (As if that film would get more laughs if the frostbite were real.) But from any standpoint, this film is a stunning piece of work for 1921. In particular, Chaplin shows major action chops in the big fight and following chase sequence after the authorities come to take little Jackie Coogan away from their garret home. Loaded with gags to leaven a serious brawl (Coogan with hammer; Charlie with flour bowl), Chaplin even finds a sort of logical comic ballast in his low center-of-gravity waddle to help him nimbly scamper over the steep rooftops. Watch for a fabulous angle with Charlie moving over the roof while, in the background on the streets below, the truck drives on with a terrified Jackie in the back. All in a single deep-focus shot. Or, in a less-is-more camera set up, the mother (Edna Purviance) dandles a stranger’s baby (screen right) just as Jackie (her unknown child) opens the apartment door to enter (filling screen left). Perfectly simple . . . but perfect.
ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Fortunately, the dropped scenes are included on the disc EXTRAs. You’ll see why Chaplin took them out, but the film’s much fuller with them in. Best to view the whole batch before watching the feature. They work perfectly well without set-up or explanation and don’t act as spoilers. Quite unlike Charlie’s deletions in his shortened 1942 re-edit of THE GOLD RUSH/’25 which does considerable damage.