This Artificial Eye box set brings a definitive collection of Chaplin’s films to Blu-Ray for UK viewers. From The Kid (1921) to A King in New York (1957), it’s all here (except for his final film, The Countess of Hong Kong, which isn’t owned by his family, and the early shorts, which are all technically in public domain and are available elsewhere.). They have all been remastered for previous individual releases, and are made available here as a full collection. It also includes The Chaplin Revue (1959), three of his First National shorts featuring his iconic character ‘The Tramp,’ which he edited into an anthology film in 1959. There is a contemporary soundtrack attached as well, which some purists don’t like.
Although of course people love the early silents, The Kid, Gold Rush (1925) and the rest are a fantastic introduction to Chaplin’s work. He came into his own with City Lights (1931), considered by many one of the greatest films ever made, and Chaplin’s personal favourite. It’s one of the most beautiful love stories ever brought to the screen. The production of the film lasted 21 months, with Chaplin driving himself mad in search of perfection (and finding it). Its arrival in the post-silent film era marked his reluctance to move into sound, despite being one of the most successful film stars of the time.
Modern Times (1936) was his first picture with an audio track, although there is almost no spoken dialogue, just sound effects and music, also composed by Chaplin as on many of his other films. This was also his first overtly political film, foreshadowing the direction of his later work. Its influence has reached into many subsequent films, including Gilliam’s Brazil. Like Brazil and actually science fiction in general it’s about the dehumanization of human beings through technology.
Chaplin was not a prolific filmmaker when it came to features, so it’s lucky that he had a long career. After a long hiatus came The Great Dictator (1940), portraying his deep fears over the rise of fascism in the 1930s. That film took him two years to write, and filming began just days after Britain’s declaration of war on Germany. It also marked his move into dialogue, which he realised was crucial to get the political message across. Although the final speech in the film is sometimes criticised as hokey, at the time it was an important message—coming before the US entered the war—and it was truly heartfelt. (Incidentally, Hitler apparently watched the film twice and found it funny—talk about not getting the joke… It was, of course, otherwise banned in Nazi Germany and in some other countries.)
My personal favourite is Monsieur Verdoux (1947), the film that completely destroyed Chaplin’s career. It’s a black comedy about a serial killer. The idea came from Orson Welles, who Chaplin paid $5000 for the script, which he then completely rewrote. The two were never friends, however, due to their rivalry. Welles thought Chaplin was a brilliant actor but only a competent director, and has originally intended to direct it himself.
The story is loosely based on a real French criminal Henri Désiré Landru. I actually think Monsieur Verdoux is the funniest film Chaplin ever made, with an absolutely savage wit (Chaplin, in his autobiography, appears to agree). It also marks the first of his films without The Tramp or a character closely related to The Tramp such as the Jewish barber in The Great Dictator.
Around that time, the FBI began an official investigation into Chaplin’s political views. FBI director Hoover had always had an issue with Chaplin, as had gossip columnist and anti-Communist Hedda Hopper, who had publicised a sex scandal in the 1940s. He was subpoena’d by the House Un-American Activities Committee, but not subsequently scheduled to testify. He remained politically active in his personal life, but less so in subsequent films.
Probably his most autobiographical film, Limelight (1952) was the next. It features a vaudeville comedian and his parents, and was not seen by many viewers on its release. The lead character was losing his popularity, so it concerns an experience Chaplin himself had been going through since The Last Dictator. Like A Woman In Paris (1923), Limelight is a more serious film, and contains one of the great Chaplin moments, a pantomime scene with his friendly rival Buster Keaton.
A King in New York (1957) rounds out the set, and is a genius piece of filmmaking. It begins with one of the greatest opening titles: “One of the minor annoyances of modern life is a revolution.” After a revolution, the King of Estrovia’s money has been stolen by the prime minister, and he arrives in New York in need of a way to make a living. In this savage satire of the US, Chaplin’s son Michael plays a ten-year-old anarchist with Communist parents jailed for not naming names, who happens to meet the King and thereby puts him on the watch list. There is a particularly great moment where a thinly veiled version of McCarthy’s HUAC committee gets hosed down.
It also includes some forward-thinking satire on television and TV commercials, and makes fun of many well-known public personalities. All of this combined to make the film almost unreleasable, and it remains one of the most divisive films in Chaplin’s catalogue. Chaplin had never taken up US citizenship, and in the 1950s his permission to re-enter the country was revoked—clearly, A King in New York was his revenge, but it didn’t appear in the US until 1973. In the meantime, he began work on The Chaplin Revue, and re-editing and rescoring his earlier work. And eventually the critics re-evaluated his contribution in the 1960s. From my point of view, time will show that it’s Chaplin’s talkies that provide a true measure of his artistic worth.
The box set includes most of the special features that have appeared on individual Blu-Ray, plus all sorts of other goodies, such as screen tests, outtakes, and documentaries featuring Sidney Lumet, Jim Jarmusch and others explaining the significance of the various films.