This fine collection of short films represents the time that the great Charlie Chaplin spent at the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, a working relationship which started in 1914 and which contributed hugely to Chaplin's reputation as the silent screen’s greatest star. Now, the BFI release all 16 films on DVD and Blu-ray with a treasure trove of extras, allowing us to look back at this century old work with fresh eyes. The big question is, of course, can he still make us laugh?
If Chaplin's career arc were represented in three stages, his early shorts in the Keystone comedies represent his slapstick years, where the hilarity of someone falling over never felt so good, and he would go on in the latter part of his career to create comedy features as sophisticated as any before or since. If in doubt, look up his speech about tolerance from The Great Dictator made in 1940, a piece of writing which could be spoken verbatim right now in the 21st century, or just watch Modern Times from 1936 because, if that doesn't make you howl, perhaps you're dead inside.
His Essanay films represent Chaplin somewhere between these two, literally and creatively, revealing an artist keen to expand his talent whilst embracing his past, pushing the boundaries of film comedy and developing characters which would serve him well for years to come.
So, in films like his Essanay classics, The Tramp and The Bank, we see both the genius of the slapstick comic timing from the Keystone years as well as the kind of ambition, the interest in storytelling, the more sophisticated use of the camera and the development of characters which would come to exemplify Chaplin's later features. In particular, the Essanay shorts saw him working with actress Edna Purviance for several years, bringing greater depth to the onscreen portrayal of women in his films.
Chaplin's tramp appears in many of the shorts here (and would go on to appear on screen up to Modern Times), and it's this character which also brings out the ability of Chaplin to mix humour and pathos, with success, riches and women always just out of his reach, making the collection both funny and genuinely touching.
The restoration of these 100+ year old films has been lovingly handled and, for the most part, they look amazing, with missing and damaged scenes brought back to glorious life.
As for the extras, including a commentary by Peter Sellers on A Burlesque On Carmen, (yes, that's right, Peter Sellers talking about Charlie Chaplin – talk about comedy treasure!), there's as much to enjoy as there are films themselves, making this an essential collection, not only for lovers of comedy, but for lovers of early cinema in general.
As to the question from the start of this review, the answer is a resounding yes. It's good to know that, as sophisticated as comedy can be, there's still something joyous about a man with a mop and bucket accidentally walloping people in the face with a wet rag whilst going about his cleaning duties... Wonderful.
CHARLIE CHAPLIN – THE ESSANAY COMEDIES / CERT: U / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: CHARLIE CHAPLIN / STARRING: CHARLIE CHAPLIN, EDNA PURVIANCE, CHARLES INSLEE / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW