‘Charlie Chaplin’s Mutual Comedies’ – distilled comic genius on Max and Criterion Channel and free on Kanopy

In 1914, a young British music hall comedian making a tour of the U.S. signed a contract to make his first movies with Keystone studios. Charlie Chaplin developed his Tramp persona working with slapstick specialist Mack Sennett for $150 a week and in less than a year was hired away by rival studio Essanay at $1250 a week and given control over his own pictures. His short comedies, which he also directed, became an international sensation and Chaplin a cultural phenomenon. A year later, the Mutual Film Corporation signed him at $670,000 a year, making him one of the highest paid people in the world

Charlie Chaplin called his 18 months at Mutual “the happiest period of my life” and these 12 two-reel comedies remain his finest achievements in short filmmaking: slapstick ballets of distilled Chaplin comic genius. He had unprecedented freedom, an enormously lucrative contract, and a company of creative artists at his personal disposal and he turned the studio set into his creative playground, improvising on film to work out his ideas.

Case in point: The Floorwalker (1916), his first film for the studio. Always one to latch onto the comic possibilities of inventive props, he turned an escalator into the centerpiece of the comedy, where his rapscallion clerk continually incites the store’s crooked manager (Eric Campbell).

He takes it further in the solo masterpiece One A.M. (1916), where he steps out of the Tramp persona to play an inebriated gadfly at war with his home, battling everything from a staircase to a suit of armor to a resistant Murphy bed, all seemingly set on keeping him from getting to sleep. These shorts become a comic workshop as Chaplin investigates the slapstick possibilities of an array of props and situations while refining his persona as the down-but-not-out everyman.

Chaplin refined his trademark character The Little Tramp with the help of his two key co-stars: burly, barrel-chested Eric Campbell, his hulking physical opposite who forever played the bullying nemesis (often behind a positively demonic beard), and sweet faced Edna Purviance, the alternately demure and plucky innocent he’s forever courting, saving, or simply mooning over. Ms. Purviance is featured in The Vagabond (1916), Chaplin’s third Mutual short, a rural melodrama of a young girl saved from abusive guardians by the resourceful Tramp. Favoring pathos over slapstick, it looks forward to the sentimental melodrama of his features to come.

In The Count (1916), Chaplin and Campbell crash a society bash under false identities to woo a rich lovely (Purviance, of course), but Chaplin soon reverts to his impulsive instincts and turns the posh gathering into an anarchic free-for-all. And when the Tramp decides to take The Cure (1917) he comes prepared with a trunk full of alcohol which quickly inebriates the guests and staff of the sanitarium. The revolving door becomes a comic centerpiece (like the escalator in The Floorwalker), which befuddles the inebriated Chaplin and infuriates gout stricken nemesis Campbell. It’s another example of Chaplin spinning a 25-minute masterpiece from little more than a character, a setting, and a situation.

Equal parts class clown, downtrodden social outcast, and sentimental softy, Chaplin’s continued appeal lies not merely in his comic invention but his dogged defiance of authority, class, and convention, and these classic shorts preserve the edginess he smoothed out in later features. As a lowly menial in The Fireman (1916), Chaplin is cheerfully oblivious to chaos he causes to the ordered firehouse and still manages to emerge a hero. The Pawnshop (1916) shows the Tramp in a more aggressive role than we’re used to, goofing and playing practical jokes on his coworkers, The Rink (1916) puts him on roller skates for a burlesque ballet on wheels, and The Adventurer (1917) makes him an escaped convict who hides out in a high society party crawling with cops.

Behind the Screen (1916) thumbs a nose at the movies in general and Mack Sennett (Chaplin’s old boss) in particular with a lampoon of the studios that concludes with the invention of the pie fight (“I don’t like this highbrow stuff,” comments one victim). His Little Tramp is settling into final form by now—equal parts class clown, sneaky bully, downtrodden social outcast, and sentimental softy.

As he neared the conclusion of his contract he became increasingly more ambitious and mixed his tried and true comic formula with social commentary for two of his most enduring works. Easy Street (1917) is Chaplin’s most successful mix of social issues and slapstick comedy. As a rookie cop in the city’s toughest neighborhood, a slum overrun with bullies, drug addicts and gangsters, the goodhearted Chaplin isn’t above a little unconventional policing—when his Billy club proves ineffective on gargantuan Eric Campbell’s thick skull he resorts to gassing him with a compliant street lamp. And The Immigrant (1917) finds the Promised Land less than rosy for peasants herded like cattle on the ship and wandering the streets of New York looking for work and food, but the Tramp’s ingenuity and resilience becomes a symbol of hope for the future as well as a comic riposte.

Silent with musical score, black and white

Add to My List:
The Floorwalker (1916) free on Kanopy
The Fireman (1916) free on Kanopy
The Vagabond (1916) free on Kanopy
One A.M. (1916) free on Kanopy
The Count (1916) free on Kanopy
The Pawnshop (1916) free on Kanopy
Behind the Screen (1916) free on Kanopy
The Rink (1916) on Max and Criterion Channel and free on Kanopy
Easy Street (1917) free on Kanopy
The Cure (1917) free on Kanopy
The Immigrant (1917) on Max and Criterion Channel and free on Kanopy
The Adventurer (1917) free on Kanopy

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Chaplin’s Mutual Comedies [Blu-ray + DVD Combo]
Chaplin’s Mutual Comedies [DVD]

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The DVD edition was released by Image in 2006, with all twelve shorts restored from original 35mm elements and featuring musical scores by Carl Davis, in a four-disc set.

The five-disc set Blu-ray + DVD edition from 2014 features each and every short on both Blu-ray and DVD, all newly remastered in HD from 35mm elements from the Blackhawk Collection and Film Preservation Associates. Each short features a new original score performed by small combo or small orchestra (many of them recorded from live theatrical performances), with Carl Davis’ 1995 score for One A.M. carried over from the Image DVD release. It also features the documentary The Birth of the Tramp, directed by Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange, and the 1996 documentary Chaplin’s Goliath, Kevin Macdonald’sloving portrait of the burly Scottish comic Eric Campbell. The accompanying booklet features an essay and notes on each short by silent film historian Jeffrey Vance, updated from the essay in the Image DVD set, plus credits for the restoration, music and archival sources, all collected in a sturdy steelbook package.


Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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