Charlie Chaplin: The Mutual Films (1916-17)

Director: Charles Chaplin

I’ve spoken before about how print quality can make a difference to one’s enjoyment of a given film, and when I do, these twelve shorts are what I’m talking about. I had the misfortune of seeing Chaplin’s Mutual films over 20 years ago, when I was first exploring the wonderful world of film, in their 1930s reissue form, gathered into the Charlie Chaplin Cavalcade, Carnival and Festival. Yikes. Even now I shudder at the thought of them: horribly duped, running at the wrong speed, and with fairly hopeless and ill-judged music and effects soundtracks (I can’t forget the voice continually shouting “Fire!” in The Fireman however hard I try). They were pretty much the worst possible way to get acquainted with Chaplin’s alleged genius (along with the typically shoddy Hollywood House copy of The Gold Rush the old video shop at Hillsdale also had).

No wonder I spent years not getting Chaplin, which I didn’t do until I realised it wasn’t the films at fault, it was the particular copies of them that I’d seen. This was brought home to me when I obtained actually good copies of these films on VHS. Holy shit, what a difference. Right speed, low generation prints, decent music… oy. Later, of course, I made a point of getting the David Shepard restorations on DVD (as released by the BFI), and I’ve been revisiting them over the last few days. Which has been pleasing in a number of ways.

At this point in his career, Chaplin had already worked his way up through Keystone and Essanay to become one of the best known men in the world. It’s worth remembering, of course, that he’d only started in films a little over two years earlier; things like this moved a lot faster a hundred years ago. The Mutual period would probably be the key part of his whole career; not only was he apparently the highest paid individual in the world—Essanay had offered him $10000 for signing with them; Mutual offered him that per week—but the studio essentially left him to his own devices as long as he turned out the required 12 two-reelers. They were making an enormous outlay, but at the same time it wasn’t really a big gamble cos they knew that investment would pay off in spades (which it did).

As such, possibly the major development in Chaplin’s career began during the Mutual period, i.e. his increasing perfectionism—lots and lots of retakes and unused material; The Immigrant apparently had as much footage shot for it as a feature film would’ve done—and the gradual slowing down of his production rate as a result. For the first two thirds or so of the Mutual contract, he kept to the monthly release schedule that was expected of him, but the four films from 1917 were scattered through that year with two to three months in between each one (this was a long way from only having 45 minutes to make Kid Auto Races). Later on, of course, months would become years, though he didn’t quite have that luxury yet. But I think it’s still a significant thing.

The end results, of course, are more significant; massive hits in their day, they’ve since been generally acclaimed as a high point in Chaplin’s filmography, and not without good reason. There’s a great article here that breaks the series down in more detail and observes the development of the Mutual 12, and particularly drawing attention to the films’ cinematic style. There’s a not exactly kind crack about Chaplin, that in 1914 he built his style up to the state of the art and then stayed at that 1914 level forever after; it’s harsh, but that piece does go into some of the whys and wherefores of the somewhat basic technique these films display. And I actually did, just by watching, come away with a certain new appreciation for that technique.

I’ve spoken before on here about various films using long takes because they fascinate me. I imagine them being logistical nightmares, because if you fuck a five-minute take up, it’s worse than if it had been a shot lasting just a few seconds. The Pawnshop features one of Chaplin’s most famous bits of business, the one where he disembowels a customer’s alarm clock; this scene is basically played out in three shots, one lasting a few seconds, one a bit over a minute, and one nearly three. The whole film runs about 24 minutes, just so you know why that’s kind of… big. There’s similarly lengthy and complicated stuff in The Rink. We’re not exactly dealing with Mizoguchi or Tarr here, but the length of the take nonetheless enhances the material rather than just feeling slow or draggy. Or at least so I felt.

The other big development in Chaplin’s style at this time, of course, was his increasing deployment of pathos mixed in with the comedy. I think this has long been a major stumbling block to appreciating Chaplin for many people—certainly it was so for me—and I’m not really 100% convinced by it here when it crops up. Mind you, I do wonder if the scores are partly at fault there. Not to take anything away from Carl Davis, who has a great gift for scoring silent films, and these are really good, well thought-out scores, but I do wonder if they don’t tend to over-dramatise some of the films here and under-emphasise the bits that are still funny.

Whatever, though. Like I said, there are good reasons why the Mutual period are regarded as a high point of Chaplin’s career, cos for the most part they actually are that good; basically you get a still-young man who’s pretty much served his apprenticeship and is now ready to become even bigger than he already is, paired up with a solid stock company (including the outstanding and tragic Eric Campbell as his regular outsized nemesis) and crew and given essentially limitless freedom to do as he pleased with them in the service of his art. (And the $10000 a week can’t have hurt.) They’re a pretty good introduction to silent comedy in general, and to Chaplin in particular if you’re starting out and don’t want to dive in with a feature. Just as long, that is, as you don’t have to tolerate one of those public domain horrors I had to suffer through in 1991…

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