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Monday, February 01, 2016

Among Less Seen Of Chaplins

Two Charlies in The Idle Class (1921)

A First National Chaplin given elegance by a score he composed in the 70's for first circulation of the film since Pathé handled a 20's reissue. This family-sanctioned Idle Class is by definition a two-reeler, but runs a third longer than Mutual comedies of same duration, thanks to slowed-up frame rate CC applied when he modernized it (a 32 minute present-day length). How close, or should I say far, is this from what 1921 audiences got? Chaplin negatives were worn to nubbins by heavy play, The Idle Class opening in New York City alone with 120 prints, an early instance of saturation play. There had lately been success of The Kid, and First National figured to raise rentals for The Idle Class, but ended up compromising with riled exhibs by giving each the show day-and-date, but requiring longer runs to maximize returns. Theatres Idle'd for three days, some a week, with a comedy that lost steam well before prints went back. Complaints were heard that The Idle Class was far from Chaplin's best. Were we beginning to expect too much from him?

Variety was sympathetic, calling it "uproarious entertainment" and chiding those who'd say otherwise. It was enough, after all, that Charlie make us laugh, and not reasonable to measure his work henceforth against un-toppable standard of The Kid. Photoplay sang praises: The Idle Class for them ranked next to The Kid and Shoulder Arms, latter pair voted best of Chaplin's so-far output. CC had finished The Idle Class "in record time," said observers (David Robinson's Chaplin bio says it took five months), the pic described as "a satire on society," and/or "a travesty on the weakness of the wealthy." These descriptives, likely issued by Chaplin's shop, may well have gone on scorecards kept by those who'd dress the tramp in Red as socio-political clouds gathered. As to pleasures enabled by his own wealth, there was homecoming to England plus a Euro tour as aftermath to completion of The Idle Class.

Chaplin had his million-dollar contract to make eight comedies for First National, but what's less known is the next million generated once negatives reverted to him after contractual five years FN had to distribute. Latter bled the subjects white, or so they thought, but lines formed as each made ways to Chaplin ownership and control. He'd barter the pack to United Artists, or so it was thought, UA after all being part-owned by Chaplin and distributor of his films to come. Did Charlie find himself too frugal to deal with? Pathé made the better offer: a cool million split between two packages of four at $500K each, The Idle Class among the latter group that also included The Pilgrim, Pay Day, and The Kid. The Idle Class became Chaplin's sole property on 4-18-26, according to Film Daily. Terms beyond the flat price were as follows, said Variety (9-30-25): "Chaplin will have a percentage arrangement whereby he will collect if the pictures gross above a specified amount."

The Idle Class went years unseen, other than bootleg prints. Chaplin didn't include it among his Revue of First National shorts in the late-50's, and there was no Idle Class with initial inventory turned over to Mo Rothman for reissue in the early 70's. Robinson's book reported Chaplin adding both The Kid and The Idle Class to the Rothman package as gesture of thanks for the deal having so far gone well. We got them in tandem at Greensboro's Janus Theatre in summer 1973, a first and memorable time seeing The Idle Class. It is for me an equal, or nearly so, to any of the First Nationals, an admission, I suppose, that none of them are as good as five or six of the best Mutuals, but if there is a scene I'd pick of Chaplin at pantomimic best, it would be an Idle Class moment he shares with a cocktail shaker and turned mostly away from the camera. I don't know of a gag's pay-off in all of Chaplin that gets a better audience response than this.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

One of the things I discovered showing Chaplin's CITY LIGHTS is that when it is over EXACTLY 20% of the audience needs to be allowed to just sit and wait until they are ready to leave. I counted the house many times. I screened it many places. No matter how large or small the crowd EXACTLY 20% needed to be let just sit and savor the experience of that film's ending. CITY LIGHTS and the Lon Chaney PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (again the ending) made me fall in love with the potential of the movies. I like THE IDLE CLASS. Thanks for another great piece.

8:45 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Love the newspaper ad, where every description is over the top ... except for that mention of "mostly pretty girls."

Speaking of which, Joan Blondell rather dramatically illustrates the difference between precode cheesecake and respectable pin-ups.

2:58 PM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

Joan Blondell is having an effect on my numbers, too.

4:19 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

To me, Joan looks thinner on the left.

8:29 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

The problem with THE IDLE CLASS are overexposure to it and the amount of time since its release. Up until the 80s it was almost impossible to see the post 1918 Chaplin films on television in Argentina. First, the short showed up frequently on late Sunday nights after midnight. But after 1987, with the cable industry expanding, this and the other Chaplin controlled films began to be shown constantly in non broadcast channels constantly as fillers between movies. And besides that, there were VHS editions available for cheap and all of them coming from the same high quality elements.

THE IDLE CLASS was repeated so much that I can even remember a lot of the Chaplin music cues from it.

The other issue affecting the film is passage of time. It was much better to it with people that were actual witnesses when the film was fresh and new because you could relate to their experiences at the time. Seeing it today in a version which is not in its original format that could probably included tints but the same one since 1971, you don't feel any proximity to the action in the screen.

Even if you can see it in high definition in the best conditions, the experience is always incomplete. Worn and scratchy prints at least keep something from those days in the early 20s.

10:01 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Maybe people were annoyed that Chaplin took so long to deliver a mere two-reeler. Audiences expected something as ambitious as THE KID; exhibitors expected a feature attraction. I'm guessing THE IDLE CLASS commanded feature-length rentals, which would have irked exhibitors. How did First National feel about it?

Did PAY DAY -- another two-reeler with even less plot or visible "production value" -- fare any better on first release? Did it get more exposure than THE IDLE CLASS?

After that there was THE PILGRIM -- four reels, just long enough to pass for a feature -- and thereafter nothing but genuine full-length features.

Speculation: Maybe Chaplin eventually felt THE IDLE CLASS, with its drunken millionaire and the tramp moving among the wealthy, overlapped a little with his masterpiece CITY LIGHTS and didn't want to to underline any similarities.

4:15 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Comedy demands to be seen with an audience. I once forced nearly 1,000 people to watch Buster Keaton. I double billed him with another film I knew would pack the place. People were shouting at me not to show it. Moments into the film, however, the cries of "Take it off!" were replaced by a humongous and sustained burst of laughter that just kept growing and growing. I had never experienced anything like it before though I often have since. This is also true of movies in general. They work much better in the company of strangers than they do with friends. This is why I love having strangers in my home for my CINEFORUM film screenings.

7:30 AM  
Blogger Ed Watz said...

David Shepard's restoration of THE IDLE CLASS in the early 1990s was the first authorized video release to project the film at 24 fps, without Chaplin's latter-day stretch printing. Shepard also issued corrected versions of the other First National titles that Chaplin had tampered with for his CHAPLIN REVUE.

Unfortunately, the Chaplin Estate subsequently decided that the turgid stretch-printed versions of these films were Chaplin's final word and would be the only editions used in all subsequent reissues.

You can occasionally find used laserdisc and DVD copies of Shepard's superior editions (which were released through Image around 1999) on Amazon and eBay.

4:54 PM  

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