The Pawn Shop (1916)

October is Short Film Month, and today we celebrate one of the most important short film creators ever, Charlie Chaplin. A good many of his shorts are available at the Internet Archive, and today’s pick is one of the best, The Pawn Shop (more commonly written togeter as The Pawnshop, but the version at the Internet Archive has the word split), which premiered exactly one hundred years and eight days ago.

Charles Chaplin and John Rand in The Pawnshop (1916)

Chaplin had an amazing career in the movies. He began making film in 1914, and in that year alone acted in about 35 films, 20 of which he directed. The following year, he was down to 14 titles, almost all of which he directed. By 1916, production had gone down to 9, and he directed everything himself. Quite frankly, his first attempts were not always very funny, at least not a hundred years later, but already by 1916, every single one of his films ranged from hilarious or astonishing. Diminishing volume and increasing quality continued to go hand in hand, and when he made his masterpiece The Kid (1921), he was down to only two films that year.

Nothing needs to be said about the plot of The Pawn Shop. It is not very important, anyway. What matters are all the amazing stunts and gags.

The version I mainly link to from this post is a completely silent version, with no soundtrack. Another version with a good soundtrack exists at the Archive, but both the resolution and technical quality of that copy are really poor, so I recommend that you try the soundless one.

This film is best enjoyed as a brilliant and still very funny film, but it can also be seen together with some other Chaplin films from various years and production companies, as an illustration of how fast he developed, both as an actor and a director. I would recommend spending some time at the Internet Archive, searching out a handful of samples from each year during the 1910s. It is a highly rewarding experience, both in terms of learning and enjoyment.

Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance and John Rand in The Pawnshop (1916)

The Pawnshop
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Year: 1916
Running time: 25 min
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (569×430, not counting black border)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG2 (214 M)

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Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914)

Usually, when reviewing a film on this blog, it is because I want to recommend it for one or more of its inherent qualities. In other words, I tend to focus on good film and stay away from bad film. However, there are a handful of films that are so historically significant that they deserve inclusion even though they are not very good. One such is Tillie’s Punctured Romance, the first feature-length comedy. It was also Charlie Chaplin’s first feature film, even though it was not “his” in the sense that he neither directed or produced it, and he did not even play the leading part.

Marie Dressler and Charlie Chaplin in Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914)

Poor Tillie has never been in love, so when Charlie comes along and plays the right strings, she falls flat before him. Charlie, however, is only interested in her father’s money, and he also wants to win back his old girlfriend Mabel.

For a fact, the film is not entirely without some good qualities. Chaplin, in particular, is good, especially in the slapstick scenes. But the comedy is not enough to hold the rather convoluted plot together, and in the end you leave it with a feeling of dissatisfaction.

This film is best enjoyed as a milestone in cinematic history. The Internet Archive also houses a 1939 re-release with synchronized sound and better resolution. That version is cut down by almost half, which may not necessarily be a bad thing, since it improves upon the original’s pacing. But then you do not watch a film like this mainly to be entertained. You watch it for its historical significance. So I would be inclined to recommend the original after all.

Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand in Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914)

Tillie’s Punctured Romance
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Year: 1914
Running time: 1 h 11 min
Director: Mack Sennett
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Low (352×262)
Soundtrack: Poor; random jazz music
Sound Quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG1 (698 M)

The Nut (1921)

When one talks about film comedies of the 1920s, there are mainly three big names to consider: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Had history taken a side step, however, a fourth name could have outshone them all: Douglas Fairbanks.

Fairbanks had already become the leading Hollywood comedian, and in fact the leading actor of any kind, in the late 1910s. Come the new decade, he was at a critical junction. His spectacular 1920 success The Mark of Zorro had been an experiment with a new kind of romantic adventure film, and needed to be followed up. During 1921, Fairbanks was to release two new films. The first was a traditional comedy, The Nut.

Douglas Fairbanks and Marguerite De La Motte in The Nut (1921)

Fairbanks plays an inventor who is in love with a beautiful woman. He tries to impress her by holding parties in benefit of her charity mission for homeless children, but things go all wrong and he even lands himself in jail before he can try to set things right.

Had The Nut been more tightly written and directed, it would perhaps have been the success normally associated with the Fairbanks name. Had that been the case, who knows but that the ever business-minded Fairbanks might have decided to take up the race with the great comedians. But even though The Nut is both fun and inventive, it was no match for the competition. The same year, Chaplin released The Kid, Keaton was perfecting his genius with films such as The Boat, and Lloyd developed his thrill comedies with Never Weaken. Given such competition, The Nut is simply not good enough. Instead, it appears to have been Fairbanks’ last silent comedy, as he chose to pioneer the romantic adventure genre instead.

This film is best enjoyed for its playfulness, such as the use of a parrot with a word balloon (a very rare device, indeed, in silents), the crazy morning routine inventions, or the corny litter which carries itself. In addition, it is said that Charlie Chaplin makes a cameo appearance (Chaplin and Fairbanks had been among the co-founders of United Artists two years previously). I missed him, but if you catch him I would appreciate a comment about where he appears.

Douglas Fairbanks in The Nut (1921)

The Nut
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Year: 1921
Running time: 1 h 15 min
Director: Theodore Reed
Stars: Douglas Fairbanks
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG4 (604 M)

The Kid (1921)

Earlier this year, I noted that it was 100 years since Charlie Chaplin started his acting career. At that point, he was almost 25 years old, which also makes this the 125th year since his birth. His birthday is on Wednesday, April 16, and should properly be celebrated with a classic Chaplin film. Why not one of his best, such as The Kid.

Jackie Coogan and Charlie Chaplin in The Kid (1921)

Up to the point of making The Kid, Chaplin’s films had all been short slapsticks. Usually only a single reel, and never more than about 40 minutes in length. His output had initially been enormous (about 20 films as a director in 1914; almost double that as an actor), but the number of new annual releases had decreased as quality had increased. But even though his films became better and better, they were still fairly simple in terms of plot. Chaplin did deal with social themes in many early films but, comparatively speaking, there was not much depth in them.

But Chaplin was not satisfied with making pure slapstick any more. The Kid took over a year to produce (partly because it was delayed by Chaplin’s divorce from his first wife), and became his first full-length feature. It was a great success, and still remains one of Chaplin’s most loved films. I personally hold it as my favourite Chaplin.

The story is not very complex on the surface. Chaplin, as his tradmark tramp character, finds an abandoned baby. Though he is reluctant to take on the role as father, circumstances force him to keep the child and bring it up as his own. From this basic story, Chaplin weaves his magic. There are many little subplots and a good deal of Chaplin’s well-paced slapstick humour. There is also an abundance of warmth and compassion, yet it never becomes pathetic.

In this post I mainly link to the original and complete version of the film. At the Internet Archive there is also an edited version with high resolution and a good soundtrack, though cut down by about a quarter of an hour. Unfortunately, I suspect that this other version is under copyright.

This film is best enjoyed for the excellent interaction between Chaplin and Jackie Coogan as the kid. Through the film, Coogan became the first celebrated child actor, and it is easy to see why.

Jackie Coogan and Charlie Chaplin in The Kid (1921)

The Kid
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Year: 1921
Running time: 1 h 8 min
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Coogan
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (480×360)
Soundtrack: Poor; random classical music
Sound Quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (889 M)

The Gold Rush (1925)

A friend of mine remarked the other day that I practically only write about films that she has never heard of before. I think it was meant in a positive way, but I suppose all the obscure titles may turn others off.

The main purpose of this blog is to make people aware of the good stuff available at the Internet Archive, and also to make such good stuff easier to find. Since the classics available from the IA are frequently listed on other blogs, I guess I have subconsciously avoided them in favour of less known (yet often equally interesting) alternatives. Ah, but I ramble. Let me see if I can somehow get back on track.

Yesterday, it was exactly 100 years ago that Charlie Chaplin debuted in his first film role, Making a Living. It is not a bad film for a first, but Chaplin’s greatest achievements still lay some years into the future.

The Gold Rush, for instance.

Chilkoot Pass in Chaplin's The Gold Rush (1925)

An absolutely marvellous film from the heyday of the silent cinema, The Gold Rush often appears on lists of the best films ever made. By the time of its production, Chaplin had developed his sense of timing to near perfection. He had also learned the difficult task of good storytelling, although his method was unusual in that there was no real script, only a skeletal storyline from which each scene was improvised and gradually refined.

Much has been written about the production of this film, and here I will only touch briefly upon two of my favourite scenes. The first is just at the beginning, when hundreds of extras make their laborious ways up the Chilkoot pass. One of the most magnificent scenes in the history of silent cinema. The other is when Chaplin and his companion, both near starvation, share one of Chaplin’s shoes for their dinner. Apparently, the shoe used for filming was made of liquorice and caused Chaplin a bad case of diarrhoea.

As is the case with many famous silents, The Gold Rush has been released with a large number of different scores, including one that Chaplin composed for the rerelease of the film in the 1940s. I remember when I first watched the film myself (probably in the mid eighties), and the score was just random classical music. I found it so disturbing I had to turn it off.

The experience will be similar with the version I mainly link to from this post, since it contains no score at all. The image quality, however, is very good. On the other hand, there is another version with inferior image quality (though still acceptable) and Portuguese subtitles, but an excellent piano score. You will have to decide which one you prefer.

This film is best enjoyed as an introduction to silent film. If you have never seen a silent before, this is the perfect place to start.

Charlie Chaplin and Mack Swain in The Gold Rush (1925)

The Gold Rush
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Year: 1925
Running time: 1 h 27 min
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Mack Swain, Georgia Hale
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: None (in this version)
Best file format: MPEG4 (708 M)

Shoulder Arms (1918)

Charlie Chaplin is uncommonly well represented at the Internet Archive. I have found no less than 68 of his films there, out of a total 85 (as an actor). Most of those 68, however, are shorts and for that reason I will probably not write about them here.

Chaplin’s early career coincided fairly well with World War I. He started out as an actor in 1914, and in that year alone made 35 appearances (more than two fifths of his total output!). 20 of those he directed himself.

Today it happens to be exactly 95 years since armistice was signed by Germany, which in effect ended WWI. Chaplin, by that time a world famous star, had released Shoulder Arms a few weeks previously. In spite of his popularity, this was a very bold move. Many advised against making fun of a war that had killed millions and caused unmeasurable suffering. In fact, Chaplin himself had his doubts, but decided to press on.

Charlie Chaplin in Shoulder Arms (1918)

The entire thing proved to be a stroke of genius. Critics and audience immediately took the film to their hearts, and it was Chaplin’s greatest success to that date. It is still today a very funny film.

Chaplin plays a grunt in the trenches. First there is a very brief section set in boot camp (a little too short; lengthening this part would have done the film no harm). A large part of the film is set in the trenches, and Chaplin really manages to act out a diverse range of situations on what would at first seem to be a very limited stage. The props seem a bit cheap at times, but since this is a comedy, that is no real problem.

Much has already been written on the subject of why Shoulder Arms was so successful, so I feel that I have very little to add. What I can say, however, is why I like it myself. Chaplin was always good at charicatures, and this film is certainly no exception. My favourite is the almost midget-like German officer who uses every trick in the book to get at least a piece of respect. But Chaplin’s charicatures are never nasty, but warm and humane. This warmth must have been felt 95 years ago as well.

While I am no expert, i believe that the version at the Internet Archive is probably the original, not the re-release edited by Chaplin himself in the 1960s.

This film is best enjoyed for what it is: a light comedy on a very serious subject.

Charles Chaplin in Shoulder Arms (1918)

Shoulder Arms
Download link
Year: 1918
Running time: 44 min
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (593×480, not counting black border)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.3 G)