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Tuesday, February 14, 2006






Chaplin Mutual Revivals


Everyone pretty much agrees that the Mutual Chaplin comedies made in 1916-17 were his best short subjects. Some would say they are the best group of two-reelers anyone ever made. I think it’s pretty miraculous that comedies produced ninety years ago can still work with a general audience. Having played these for college classes over the last decade, I’ve been pleased, though not surprised, by the response they’ve earned. Those of us who started out collecting 8mm film during the sixties will always harbor a certain sentiment toward this Chaplin group. Blackhawk Films used to sell them --- I used to cut grass in order to buy them. Twelve dollars could put you on Easy Street in 1969, and if Blackhawk was having one of their sales, you could visit The Rink for as little as ten! Every frame of those twelve comedies became embedded in my memory from the time I was fourteen. I’d seen several on the old Charlie Chaplin Theatre syndicated TV program (which was often very good), but of course, owning a print was the ultimate goal, and after three years of diligent effort, I did manage to get all twelve. Now, of course, you can have them in a superb DVD for a fraction of what we then paid. The thrill of the chase is gone, perhaps, but it’s nice we have modern technology enabling everyone to have these shorts, and at a low price.


These trade ads caught my attention, as they promote both the original release, and the first sound re-issue of the Mutuals. Announcements of The Cure appeared in the March 24, 1917 issue of Moving Picture World (coincidentally one week to the day after this writer’s mother was born). The rather grainy still of a theatre entrance display for The Pawnshop shows creative showmanship as alive and well in 1917 --- note how they’ve redressed the whole place to resemble a pawnshop --- and this was all done to promote a short subject! Next there's two RKO ads for an upcoming revival of the Mutuals with music and effects. Silent comedies, even Chaplins, would not have been an easy sell in those first years of sound (these trade ads are from 1932), and this is one of those rare instances where a distributor actually reached out for exhibitor ideas in marketing their product. The Van Burens would remain in circulation for decades to come. In fact, it was these prints that formed the basis for preservation work done over the last thirty plus years. This page from a 1975 Blackhawk Bulletin announces the availability of newly restored 8 and 16mm prints for collectors. Note the prices. They’d just gone up significantly because of a so-called "silver crisis" that had occurred the year before. Between that and video's emergence in the late seventies, film collecting was dealt a blow from which it could never recover. Blackhawk eventually closed its doors, and all those celluloid treasures made their way to attics and ebay. Chances are if you check that auction site right now, you’ll find most, if not all of the twelve Charlie Chaplin Mutual comedies up for bids.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Cheryl said...

Wow, Blackhawk! What memories! My Uncle owned a decent little collection of Blackhawk stuff, purchased in the 60's. Thanks to him, even though I was born in '72, I was able to grow up on Laurel & Hardy and Our Gang. I can still vividly picture the little boxes with their Blackhawk logo. I wonder why my uncle never bought any Chaplin?

7:11 AM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

I suspect RKO did very well with the Chaplin-Mutual shorts. Remember, "City Lights" - a silent film with score and sound effects -had come out the year before, and didn't do too badly at the box office (but you probably already knew that).

A lot of critics griped about the Van Beuren sound tracks (let's face it: we're talking about a cartoon factory, and not a very proficient one at that), and I was delighted to be among those who obtained Blackhawk's restored prints of "The Cure" and "The Adventurer" when I got my Super 8 projector in 1975. But I soon discovered I missed those clever, cartoony scores, and even the absurd effects (remember "The Fireman" with Leo White's character yelling "Help! Fi-yur! Fi-yur"?) had a certain charm. I'd grown up with those versions on Channel 13, the NET (pre-PBS) station in New York City.

I have the David Shepard restored versions on DVD, and they're wonderful in their way - it's always nice to see something the way it was originally seen. But I'm also nostalgic for the Van Beuren (or Guaranteed Pictures, who bought out much of VB's library in the late '30's) versions, and I found a box set of 31 Chaplin shorts from Madacy Home Video that includes 11 of the 12 Mutuals, all with those soundtracks. Great packaging, too: an embossed tin case holding a booklet and 5 DVDs, all for $19.99. Well worth it.

2:57 PM  

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