Published Aug 01, 2003Four Chaplin classics get the deluxe DVD treatment with this series of two-disc issues that delves deep into the history of the Little Fellow. The genius writer, director, producer, composer and philanderer considered The Gold Rush (1925, director's cut 1942) the film for which he would like to be remembered. Chaplin's Tramp finds misfortune and starvation in a wintry Alaskan shack while the elements blow drifts over a lost mining fortune. Any number of classic comic moments are contained here: Chaplin's moonwalk into a hurricane-force wind, dancing dinner rolls, and serving his boiled boot as a gourmet meal.
Modern Times (1936) was the last silent film ever released by Hollywood. Given its subject matter of automation versus human passion, of machinery run amok in the face of human experience not to mention Chaplin getting eaten by a machine that looks remarkably like the inside of a camera his message is clear. Completed more than half a decade after the advent of "talkies," there are spoken lines, but all of them come through machines: the factory boss speaks to employees through a giant television and a salesman sells an automated feeding machine via a "sales recording."
Beginning principal photography before World War II broke out, The Great Dictator (1940) is Chaplin's spoken word debut, a divisive political statement from a man who strived most for universality, and it's a defining moment of his artistic life. In it, he plays up the resemblance between the Little Tramp and German dictator Adolf Hitler, brutally and comically skewering the rise of fascism. Historically, it's almost impossible to fully grasp how shocking and revelatory this comic satire was in its time after all, the film was completed and released more than two years before the United States would enter the war. In order to retain full control of the vision of the project, Chaplin financed the entire production himself, and filmed (for more than 500 days, twice as long as Coppola on Apocalypse Now) in a shroud of secrecy. The final product is a masterpiece, both mercilessly mocking and humanising Hitler, while bringing to light the persecution of Jews, which Chaplin thought he was exaggerating but that tragically he would underestimate.
Limelight (1952) is a nostalgic, autobiographical film that plays a little like listening to a rambling grandparent telling the kids about the good ol' days, but in the context of Chaplin's career, Limelight is an interesting final chapter. Having been essentially run out of the United States in the late 1940s due to so-called Communist sympathies, Limelight was never released in his adopted homeland.
To begin a list of comics and filmmakers influenced by Chaplin is an exercise in futility, but for a generation raised on Saturday morning cartoons, one particular influence is notable: Looney Tunes. Whether it's the barber sequences featured here or the slapstick of The Gold Rush or the over-the-top machinery sets of Modern Times, Looney Tunes consistently took Chaplin's work and exaggerated it with the colour and sound effects that Chaplin would never have access to.
In terms of DVDs, there's probably no one alive that's seen a better version of these film. The digital transfers, sourced from the Chaplin family collection, have been meticulously done and all of Chaplin's glory as a filmmaker is brilliantly on display. The Chaplin Collection does an excellent and occasionally unusual job with DVD extras. But given the material, is a commentary from biographer David Robinson or a noted silent scholar like Kevin Brownlow too much to ask? Extras: Gold Rush: 1925 silent version; 1942 director's cut; "Introduction" by Robinson; "Chaplin Today" featurette; more. Modern Times: "Introduction"; "Chaplin Today"; deleted scenes; "nonsense song" karaoke; "Smile," by Liberace; "Behind the Scenes In the Modern Age" industrial short and more. Great Dictator: "The Tramp and the Dictator" documentary, on-set colour footage, "Charlie the Barber" 1919 short and more. Limelight: "Introduction; "Chaplin Today"; deleted scene; excerpts from the film's never-published source novel written by Chaplin; "The Professor" 1919 short; home movies and more. (MK2 Editions/Warner)