Made in 1959, when Charles Chaplin’s career was on the wane and he was desperate to reintroduce his famous character The Little Tramp to a new audience (there was even talk of a new anti-atomic age film with the Little Tramp in post-apocalyptic New York... am we the only ones who wishes that happened?), Chaplin resurrected three of his short silent films, stitched them together with a self-penned musical soundtrack and some brief off-camera narration, and sent the whole package into theatres under the title The Chaplin Revue.
The three films he selected were extremely successful upon their original release, especially the second film in this line-up, Shoulder Arms, a story set in the World War I trenches during which Charlie inadvertently becomes a war hero by going behind enemy lines disguised as a tree and inadvertently kidnaps the Kaiser. It’s still an interesting idea and a brave subject for the actor to tackle considering the war was still raging when the film went into production (in 1918), but viewed almost a hundred years later the satire seems muted. Although there are some genuinely amusing moments - Charlie the soldier marching like a duck with stubbornly splayed feet or sleeping in a flooded trench and using a gramophone speaker like a snorkel - our hero’s misadventures quickly become repetitive. There’s a lot of invention in the storytelling but the film outstays its welcome round about the halfway mark.
Luckily, the shorts which bookend Shoulder Arms, A Dog’s Life and The Pilgrim are much better, especially A Dog’s Life wherein The Little Tramp befriends a homeless mongrel called Scraps and falls afoul of two robbers but saves put-upon bar singer (and Chaplin regular) Edna Purviance along the way. Chaplin’s slapstick genius is stamped throughout this film - especially in an early sequence when The Tramp evades a policeman by rolling backwards and forwards beneath a garden fence - although animal rights campaigners probably won't find the scene in which Scraps is attacked by other dogs and soon ends up swinging by his teeth from Charlie’s costume too amusing. There’s also a quite brilliant sequence involving The Tramp coshing one of the thieves and then trying to pretend the man’s still conscious by sliding his hands beneath the unconscious man’s armpits and miming a conversation with the other thug. In a departure from most films involving The Little Tramp, he even gets the girl in the end.
The Pilgrim is the story of a convict who, disguised as a Pastor, journeys to the town of Devil’s Gulch where he runs into an old cell-mate and tries to prevent the thief from stealing an old lady’s money. Although not as inspired as A Dog’s Life, there is still the odd moment of Chaplin brilliance, especially during a scene where he ices a cake without realising it’s another character’s bowler hat.
If the main attraction leaves you wanting more, the special features include an entertaining documentary Chaplin made in 1918 called How to Make Movies, a deleted scene from Shoulder Arms and the short film A Day’s Pleasure about a family setting out for a trip which doesn’t go exactly as planned. It’s a neat little movie and notable to Chaplin enthusiasts because among the cast, playing a member of Chaplin’s family, is a pre-’The Kid’ Jackie Coogan.
Artificial Eye’s release looks and sounds fantastic but we’d suggest this disc is probably for hardcore Chaplin fans only. The Chaplin Revue has its moments but newcomers to the comedian might want to check out The Kid and The Gold Rush before taking their chances with this interesting but ultimately very mixed bag.
THE CHAPLIN REVUE / CERT: U / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: CHARLIE CHAPLIN / STARRING: CHARLIE CHAPLIN, EDNA PURVIANCE, ALBERT AUSTIN, HENRY BERGMAN, SYD CHAPLIN / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW