Chaplin’s Mutual Comedies & The Mack Sennett Collection, Vol. One

| August 19, 2014

The latest Blu-ray releases from Flicker Alley easily rank among the best releases to hit the market from any distributor in 2014 to date. An incredible pair of collections, Chaplin’s Mutual Comedies and The Mack Sennett Collection, Vol. One celebrate two of cinema’s most iconic early funnymen with a combined 62 films ranging from silents as early as 1909 all the way up through the earliest talkies. Each collection, now available separately, includes a full-color booklet with extensive liner notes, as well as featurettes, rarities, and, in the case of The Mack Sennett Collection, commentary on select films throughout.

 

Chaplin’s Mutual Comedies features newly restored, HD presentations of all 12 films Charlie Chaplin made for the Mutual Film Corporation from 1916-1917. These two-reelers (which means each film runs somewhere between 20 and 35 minutes) include what I’ve always considered to be some of Chaplin’s most iconic shorts, not the least of which are The Immigrant, One A.M. and The Rink.

One A.M., by virtue of its sheer simplicity may be my personal favorite of all of Chaplin’s shorts. In this virtual one-man show, Chaplin plays a highly inebriated chap who simply arrives home in a taxi and attempts to get himself inside and to bed. What transpires therein is pure slapstick magic. The Rink is also one I find myself returning to time and time again, not only because my son likes watching Chaplin glide around on roller skates, but because I too am amazed by the incredible physical control the man exhibits while eluding his pursuers around the rink.

As a package, the set is a beautiful thing to behold– perhaps the most beautifully packaged release in Flicker Alley’s catalogue, in fact, next to the Trip to the Moon SteelBook. The Chaplin set too comes packaged in a Limited Edition SteelBook, but as the set contains a whopping five discs (2 Blu-rays and 3 DVDs), the SteelBook is a sort of double wide SteelBook, measuring 1 ¼ inches wide at the spine! Of course, what’s inside that packaging is ever more stunning.

The transfers of these films are among the most stunningly clear I’ve seen of films from this era, having been restored through a collaboration between Lobster Films in Paris and L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, Italy, who sourced these transfers from 35mm prints (two prints were used for a number of the films to ensure the highest quality presentation of each shot was used). In addition to the 400 minutes of breath-takingly restored Mutual films at the heart of this collection, the set also includes a 63-minute documentary by Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange about Chaplin’s rise to stardom; a documentary about Eric Campbell, who played heel to Chaplin’s Tramp character in 11 of these Mutual films; as well as a 28-page booklet featuring behind-the-scenes images and an essay by Chaplin: Genius of Cinema-author, Jeffrey Vance.

 

The Mack Sennett Collection is in many ways a more remarkable collection than the Chaplin set. First of all, though it is only volume one of a series (or pair perhaps) of Mack Sennett releases Flicker Alley has planned, this collection boasts 50 films! And these films range in length from five minutes to 72 minutes, though most are something like 20 minutes long. Even still, that’s a hell of a lot of funny for your money– 1005 total minutes to be exact, which is even more impressive when you consider how vitally important Sennett was to the development of film comedy!

Sure, plenty of films collected here feature Sennett as writer, director, or even star, but it also boasts a plethora of collaborations between Sennett and a veritable who’s-who of early film comedy. You’ll find here such familiar faces as those of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin (both of whom also directed shorts featured in this collection), Mabel Normand, Harry Langdon, Carole Lombard, and W.C. Fields among many others. You’ll also spy folks who you might not readily associate with comedy, such as Gloria Swanson and Wallace Beery. Speaking of folks one doesn’t usually think of when they think of comedy, the earliest short in this collection, 1909’s The Curtain Pole, was in fact directed by Birth of a Nation-director D. W. Griffith from a scenario by Mack Sennett!

What makes this set so extraordinary, apart from boasting 50 films and a 1005-minute running time that is, is the breadth of the material covered. Sure, all the works herein originated in some way with a single man. Sennett himself wrote, directed, starred in, and/or produced every film in this collection, and we also find herein early works from many of comedic cinema’s greatest talents, as mentioned above. Even more impressive still, however, is the fact that it spans such a significant period of cinema’s development, from before the popularization of the feature length film, which we have Griffith to thank for, and into the earliest developmental days of the talkie.

It can take some time to acclimate yourself to these early talkies if you don’t watch many from this era, but that’s in part what makes them so fascinating to me. Though silent films had largely relied on (mostly live) music and lightning fast visual comedy, these early days of sound experimentation resulted in films awkwardly bereft of music and characterized by a more stiltedly slow comic pace. And when you’re dealing with a wit like that of W. C. Fields, you really do want the wisecracks coming at you fast and furious, but that doesn’t dull my love for his 1932 two-reeler, The Dentist.

Of the four talkies featured in Volume One, two star Fields, the most memorable of the pair being The Dentist. Though, as mentioned above, the pace of the film feels significantly inhibited, especially when compared to some of Fields’ later films, this short includes some truly classic Fields sequences, such as the golf outing during which he continuously hassles his poor caddy, and a sequence in his dental practice in which a patient wraps herself around his torso during a tooth extraction. There is however, I feel I should mention, one horribly racist joke in this piece, but then, when watching pictures that date back over 80 years, you do have to keep in mind the social climate in which such pieces were made.

The Mack Sennett Collection spreads the 50 films out across three Blu-ray discs and includes a 28-page booklet featuring liner notes on each film in the set. Each disc also includes a host of special features, including outtakes, rushes, newsreels, documentary featurettes, and television appearances by Mack Sennett, not the least of which is an episode of This is Your Life devoted to Sennett! As if that array of features weren’t impressive enough, Flicker Alley has also included optional commentary tracks from film historians on 21of the films in this collection, which prove to be absolutely fascinating and highly informative complements to this collection of historic artifacts.

In short, if you’re a lover of film history as I am and/or hunger for gorgeously restored silent comedy, you’re going to want to put aside the cash for these sets… and soon!

About the Author:

Jef is a writer and educator in Chicago, Illinois. He holds a degree in Media & Cinema Studies from DePaul University, but sometimes he drops it and picks it back up again. He's also the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com and is fueled entirely by coffee (as if you couldn't tell).
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