Kenji Mizoguchi is probably the third most famous director of Japanese cinema’s golden age after Akira Kurosawa and Yasujirō Ozu. He wasn’t very well known in the West for much of his career but when the aforementioned filmmakers started to gain followings they also caught up on Mizoguchi’s work and as such some of his later work like Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff became classics of 1950s arthouse cinema. When I recently decided to start collecting Mizoguchi’s work on blu-ray and DVD in earnest I eventually picked up Criterion’s Eclipse set entitled “Kenji Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women,” which doesn’t look at any one particular era of the director’s work but instead focuses on movies that fit into one of his most common themes: the lives of women who are failed by society. I’ve had the set for a while but the time feels right to finally explore these four films.
Osaka Elegy (1936)
Osaka Elegy was Mizoguchi’s critical and commercial breakthrough and he himself viewed it as his first truly successful film even though he’d made dozens of (mostly lost) films before it. Criterion has labeled the boxed set this was in “Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women” which invokes the “fallen woman” genre that I tend to think of as a very western genre embodying Victorian values. Essentially proto-after school specials, they tended to be movies about women who make mistakes that ultimately result in them descending into sin and becoming social pariahs who would ultimately be punished at the end. Some of these were made out of genuinely puritanical urges, some of them were more like exploitation movies that used the “cautionary tale” as a presence to get “dirty” stories past the censors. Mizoguchi’s film sort of falls into that broad characterization, but he’s a lot more sympathetic about the circumstances that led his fallen woman into such a situation. The film actually reminded me a lot of another movie I watched earlier this year: Ritwik Ghatak’s The Cloud-Capped Star. Both movies are about women in crappy ungrateful families who sort of ruin their lives trying to help them, but here the woman tries helping them by having an affair with her boss and essentially prostituting herself (off screen) and suffers for her choices. There’s nothing phenomenally special about any of that on paper but despite her ostensible “delinquency” you do get the feeling that Mizoguchi cares about her as much as Ghatak cared about his protagonist and in the last moments he has her give a look directly to the camera which sort of suggests that despite everything that’s happened to her she’s not fully defeated and there is still hope for her. This is far from the most well-made film of Mizoguchi’s career and the production values are limited (I’ve come to keep my expectations in check while watching pre-war Japanese cinema) but his humanism was clearly there from the beginning.
***1/2 out of Five
Sisters of the Gion (1936)
Sisters of the Gion is often viewed as something of a companion piece to Osaka Elegy as both came out the same year, were made by more or less the same crew, and have a similar interest in the treatment of women by society, but they are also somewhat different movies in a number of other ways. Firstly, the film is about two women instead of one, secondly it manages to be at once more didactic about certain issues and at the same time more nuanced about what it has to say about the specific characters. As the title implies this is about a pair of sisters who live in the Gion district of Kyoto, which is an entertainment district that was known for its geisha houses. The two sisters are in dire financial stakes and become geishas to make ends meet. One of them is something of a “true believer” in the concept of the geisha and the other is highly suspicious of them and speaks of men in general as something of an abusive enemy to women. That sister’s anti-male rants are a touch on the nose and could almost seem like parodies of the “man-hating feminist” archetype, but were there even such feminists to parody in 1930s Japan? Over the course of the movie that sister’s attitude leads her to treat her clients rather immorally and this ultimately leads to her downfall, which would seem to be something of a rebuke of her worldview but it doesn’t entirely feel like that. The other sister isn’t exactly rewarded with fame and fortune for her own “go along to get along” attitude and many of the men they’re dealing with in the film don’t exactly seem worthy of the sympathy she gives them.
In some ways I feel like I’m a bit out of my depth with this one. A lot of how you read the film rests on how reasonable you think the anti-geisha in her anger about the treatment of geishas by society and I don’t really know enough about the topic to judge that and the movie doesn’t really show a whole lot of that supposed mistreatment on screen. The relations between the sisters and their clients in the movie seem fairly chaste, but I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be implied that there’s something more akin to prostitution happening off screen and it isn’t being made explicit in order to appease the censors. That matters because outside of the final assault scene, which could be read as more of a punishment for how the one sister treated her clients than as a rebuke of the system, there aren’t really that many harsh realities of the trade shown. However, the film’s final moments, when the one sister lets out a primal scream questioning why the profession of the Geisha even exists certainly seems to be something the film is showing in solidarity. I think the point is that the movie suggests that it doesn’t exactly agree with how she treats her clients but ultimately blames a corrupt system for putting her in that position in the first place. So there are some interesting themes to wade through in this, but I’m not sure it’s exactly a great movie. It runs a very brief 68 minutes, and a lot of that time is spent with these elaborate plot machinations where the sisters juggle clients, it could have really used some extra running time to breathe.
*** out of Five
Women of the Night (1948)
With the third film in the Mizoguchi Eclipse set we take a pretty big jump from 1936 to 1948 and obviously kind of a lot happened in the nation of Japan between those years. The differences between pre-war and post-war Japanese cinema are pretty stark and movies made during the immediate aftermath of the war in the bombed out cities are very much their own thing. With this film Mizoguchi took a bit of a page from the neorealist movement that was on the rise in order to make a social realist film about people trying to find their footing in a post-war Japan with a focus on the issue of prostitution, which was running rampant given the poverty of the time. In fact one of the first images in the film is of a sign which reads that any women found in certain areas at night were going to be assumed to be prostitutes and rounded up. Once again the focus here are on a pair of sisters one of whom does end up falling into the life of a streetwalker, and the movie doesn’t beat around the bush about that like it did in some of those earlier movies. It sort of gets away with that because it’s very much an “issue” movie and it treats the subject fairly tastefully, but even with that in mind I doubt something like this would be made in America under the Hayes code. The movie does kind of tread into some of the questionable territory of making a female character who’s essentially an angry feminist trying to take revenge on male-kind, which is not a terribly productive trope and seeing it in two of these movies now gives me a little bit of pause, but Mizoguchi is clearly on these womens’ side in aggregate. In general this is a lot more watchable and accomplished than the last two movies, but in some ways feels a bit less unique and gets a bit… unsubtle in some of its dialog and storytelling.
*** out of Five
Street of Shame (1956)
For the last film in the “Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women” boxed set takes us to the very end of the director’s career with his final film Street of Shame. Once again Mizoguchi looks at the plight of prostitutes, but instead of impoverished streetwalkers in bombed out streets this movie looks at “high class” hookers working at a licensed brothel in Tokyo. I was not aware that such things were legal in 1950s Japan but I know they aren’t legal now because this movie is alleged to have actually swayed public opinion on the topic and led to the formal illegalization of prostitution in the country (which was being debated for years beforehand). That is perhaps a bit of an ironic legacy because the movie offers a slightly more conflicted look at the problem than the kind of polemic that you’d expect to inspire such a response. The film certainly highlights the exploitation that goes on at these places and also the highly unhealthy relations many of these sex workers have with their various Johns, but it also acknowledges that these places essentially act as last places of refuge for women who are in some in tough spots and how shutting them down could push some of them into the streets. To explore this the film looks at five characters who are workers at a brothel whose stories are meant to represent something of a cross-section of different situations that different prostitutes might find themselves in. The film is open and frank about what’s going on at this house of ill-repute but rarely goes into any kind of graphic or exploitative detail and there’s never even a whiff of sensationalism to the whole thing. It also kind of goes without saying that Mizoguchi’s visual style is fully evolved here and also that we’re finally being given a film whose print has been correctly preserved. A lot of the rest of the movies in this boxed set are movies I would probably discourage people from seeing unless they’ve already experienced some of the director’s more refined films first but this feels like one I can recommend a lot more freely.
**** out of Five
Continuing my look through the history of major releases distributed by GKids. This retrospective began in Part 1.
Song of the Sea (2014)
This 2014 import by GKids was the second film from the Irish animation company Cartoon Saloon. Cartoon Saloon was a company founded in the early 2000s by three schoolmates named Paul Young, Tomm Moore, and Nora Twomey. At this stage Moore had already conceived of The Secret of Kells but the studio had to start out by doing work for commercials and Irish television before eventually scraping together the money for that first feature. Though that movie didn’t make a ton of money at the box office it did get that surprise Oscar nomination, which was a huge deal for the studio, it’s one of the great examples of how the Academy Awards can be a force for good. That was enough to get them the funding for a second film, which like The Secret of Kells would be directed by Tomm Moore. Moore is a guy who would seem to be deeply interested in Irish history and mythology. We saw a bit of that in The Secret of Kells, which is very much about the clash of Irish mythology and early Christianity while his follow-up The Song of the Sea is going to look even deeper into that Irish mythology… maybe a little too deep.
The film is set in modern day Ireland and focuses on a brother and sister who live in a rural lighthouse with their widower father and as the film goes on they come to realize that the sister is in fact a selkie, which is a mythological creature that is kind of like a seal that sheds its skin to become human: a sort of seal mermaid if you will. I’d first encountered selkies in a John Sayles movie called The Secret of Roan Inish that my parents took me to when I was a kid, but that was a hazy memory and this movie does not do a whole lot to really re-introduce the concept to audiences that aren’t already familiar. In fact there’s lot of Irish folklore stuffed into the movie that it kind of feels like you’re already supposed to know about, which might have been a bit easier for me to go along with had this been invoking Greek or Norse mythologies, but Celtic mythology is a bit more foreign to me. In general I think the film could have stood to have used fewer ideas and focused on each one a little more. The Secret of Kells basically only had two supernatural elements: the fairy and the evil force, and that gave the film a lot more time to introduce each element and establish the characters and their home lives. If The Secret of Kells was trying to be Cartoon Saloon’s Princess Mononoke this was trying to be their Spirited Away and I think that movie’s trippy dream logic tour setup is a little harder to replicate. But I am probably focusing a little too much on the negative here as there’s still a lot to like in The Song of the Sea, particularly the hand drawn animation and it’s general ambition, but I liked the studio’s first film better.
*** out of Five
Boy & the World (2015)
Watching arty GKids imports has exposed me to some pretty trippy animation art styles but nothing quite as extreme as the Brazilian film Boy & the World. This film was directed by a guy named Alê Abreu and features a highly abstract visual style which at times looks like a small child’s doodles come to life but then starts to become more elaborate as the film goes. There’s no spoken dialogue in the film at all outside of a couple of lines that are played backwards to give a sort of “adults in Charlie Brown” effect and the plot appears to be a sort of “Where the Wild Things Are” set-up where a boy has a bit of a tantrum and then sort of escapes into a world of imagination, though I’m not exactly sure that the things he fantasizes about are exactly the kind of things a kid would come up with because they’re also barbed messages about capitalism and environmental wreckage. Yeah, there’s some heavy stuff in here beneath the surface and I think it’s meant to be sort of a metaphor for a child going from a carefree life to better understanding the world in all its complexity. That all sounds great but I’m not entirely sure I entirely like this as a movie, in fact I almost question if film was the right medium for this. The art style, the recurring music, the abstract narrative almost reminded me more of something you’d expect in a video game, specifically some kind of indie side-scrolling video game with an art style like “Limbo” or “Hollow Knight,” and after eighty minutes of the film it was testing my patience a little. Still, it’s clearly a movie with some vision and worth a look.
*** out of Five
My Life as a Zucchini (2016)
My Life as a Zucchini (AKA My Life as a Courgette) is the only film in this little Gkids marathon I’m doing to use stop-motion animation and is also one of the more mature themed of the films. The film is a Franco-Swiss production directed by a fellow named Claude Barras who had been making short films in 2D animation and stop motion since the late 90s but for whom this was the first (and so far only) feature film, though it only barely qualifies as feature length given that it runs just under an hour and ten minutes long. I’m not terribly familiar with his work, but I did notice that Céline Sciamma was one of the film’s four credited directors and may have had something to do with the film’s sensitive tone. The movie is set in a group home for kids coming from troubled backgrounds, so sort of a Short Term 12 scenario, and is told from the perspective of a nine year old boy whose father is out of the picture and whose mother died in an accident that he feels somewhat responsible for (he slammed a door on her when she came after him in a drunken rage and then fell down the stairs as a result). This boy goes by the name “Zucchini,” which was a pet name from his past, and its significance is otherwise a little unclear to me. As a live action film I think this might have felt a bit slight and unspectacular, but the animation does make it a little more interesting. Unlike other recent stop-motion animation this feels a bit more like straight-up Claymation and has characters with large caricatured heads with each one of them having a certain “type” and “look.” That made things interesting, but I did not care for the film’s borderline fairy tale ending, even if they try to complicate it a little.
*** out of Five
The Breadwinner (2017)
The first two movies from the Cartoon Saloon were directed by a guy named Tomm Moore and both films were steeped in Irish history and mythology but for their third film they took another approach. The Breadwinner was directed by one of the company’s other co-founders, Nora Twomey, who had major behind the scenes jobs on the previous films and displayed something of a unique vision here despite still basically working within the “house style.” The film follows an eleven year old girl in Afghanistan sometime in recent memory (it’s a bit vague on if its set before, during, or after the post 9/11 war), and follows her as she’s forced to pretend to be a boy to be the family’s “breadwinner” after her father is arrested by the Taliban over some bullshit. So, it’s kind of the Mulan/Yentl feminist story of girls being able to do just as well as their male counterparts when people put away their preconceptions. I believe there was a movie called Osama that put the same framework on a middle eastern context in the early 2000s but I haven’t seen that and can’t easily compare the two. The film is also intertwined with a “story within a story” the protagonist is telling to her sibling about a war in antiquity against an “Elephant King.”
It makes some sense why animation would be a logical format for this story given that it isn’t exactly easy to film live action feminist cinema in Afghanistan at the moment and also because it serves to make some of the tougher sections of the story a bit more palatable. It also serves as a perfect medium for the story-within-a-story sections, which are stylized differently from the “real world” sections and are visually interesting throughout even though I think they maybe take up more screen time than they needed to. Now, in this day and age we do need to address the elephant in the room which is that this is a movie set in Afghanistan directed by a white person, written by white people, and based on a novel also written by a white person, none of whom are to my knowledge Muslims, and with an intended audience that will also mostly consists of Westerners. I don’t bring that up to dismiss them or say they can’t make a movie like this, but it does tend to raise a certain level of suspicion. I must say that overtures about Middle Eastern patriarchy made by white western feminists can become a bit queasy, firstly because it doesn’t exactly take courage to say that the Taliban is kind of messed up, and secondly because there can be a bit of a “white savior” flavor to such overtures that can be problematic. I would say this film mostly seemed to sit on the right side of all of that, but I’m not sure it’s necessarily the smartest cultural critique of such societies and there can be a certain bluntness to the behavior of the villains that is a touch questionable. Aside from that though, I would say that this is the kind of thing I want people using animation for and consider it another really well made film from The Cartoon Saloon and would very much like to see what they and Nora Twomey do next.
***1/2 out of Five
And that is the last of these Gkids imports that I’ll be looking at for a while. The distributor also earned a Best Animated Feature nomination for their release of Mamoru Hosoda’s Mirai, and I might get to that eventually but I wanted to focus on the non-anime stuff here. I would say that I am glad that I watched these movies but at the same time I was a little disappointed with them as a whole as only a few of them really stood out as true gems. Chico and Rita was probably the best of the bunch. Outside of that the most rewarding discoveries were the Cartoon Saloon movies, which is clearly on its way to being a major specialty animation studio. Their next projects actually aren’t going to be distributed by Gkids. Tomm Moore’s next movie is called Wolfwalkers (which sounds awesome based on the title) and will apparently be put out by AppleTV+ and Nora Twomey is making something called My Father’s Dragon, which will be distributed by Netflix, so clearly they have some friends in high places. As for Gkids, they certainly have some movies slated to come out this year (assuming, you know what is no longer a problem) but it’s hard to tell what’s going to emerge and become an awards contender any given year.
To my great surprise, one of the Oscar categories that I most look forward to every year is the Best Animated Film category. Not necessarily the winner, which is generally predictable and boring, but the nominees. I’m not sure why but there’s clearly a bloc of voters in the animation branch that really does its homework and seeks out movies that differ from what the studio FYCs would want them to vote for. At least in theory. In truth, I usually won’t have actually seen the less mainstream (or a lot of the more mainstream for that matter) choices that the branch makes and I’ll often go years without catching up on them and that’s part of what I want to rectify by looking at some of the movies distributed by the main company that releases these films to theaters and on home video: GKids.
GKids is short for “Guerrilla Kids International Distribution Syndicate and was created by a guy named Eric Beckman, who used to program a children’s film festival in New York. The company does not itself make films but has developed quite a niche for itself by being the main road to U.S. distribution for independently minded and usually foreign animated films that other studios like Disney aren’t interested in. Over the last ten years they’ve taken over distribution of Studio Ghibli’s library from the mousehouse as they’ve moved on to more profitable things and they’ve also managed to find a number of international animated products that have garnered critical acclaim and Oscar nominations. For this crash course I’ll be looking at eight of the eleven movies that have earned the distributor Best Animated Feature nominations. I’ve already seen the two Studio Ghibli films that earned them nominations (The Tale of the Princess Kaguya and When Marnie Was There) and I’ll also be setting aside the movie Mirai for a future project.
The Secret of Kells (2009)
For a whole lot of people the GKids story began on February 2, 2010, which was the day that the nominees for the 82nd Academy Awards. During that announcement there was a rather eyebrow raising moment when the Best animated feature nominees were revealed. Most of them were expected nominees like The Princess and the Frog, Coroline, and the eventual winner Up, but then there was one rather unexpected nominee: The Secret of Kells. One of the big takeaways from the moment was “what the hell is The Secret of Kells.” People who weren’t really observant of the world of indie animation simply had not heard of this movie and that was especially unexpected given that before this the category was almost entirely the domain of major studio product and the occasional Studio Ghibli or Aardman film when the stars aligned. Pretty much the only precedent for a surprise nod like this was The Triplets of Belleville, but even that had a higher profile before its nomination. The surprise was largely pleasant however as the people who had seen the film largely sung its praises and considered it to be a smart nomination. The film was the product of an upstart production company called Cartoon Saloon, and I’ll probably talk about them in greater detail in another entry but they had been working towards this movie for the better part of a decade and this nomination and Gkids’ promotion really put them on the map and helped them continue working going forward.
As it turns out The Secret of Kells is a traditionally animated film set at a monastery in medieval Ireland where a twelve year old named Brendan has been living with his uncle. Over the course of the film he meets a scribe, ventures out into the forest to get him writing supplies where he’ll meet a forest fairy, fight the spirit of evil, and escape a Viking invasion. It’s kind of a lot to fit into a movie that only runs for an hour and fifteen minutes but it makes up for this with style and charm. The film’s animation style is a little low budget in nature and kind of reminds me of the kind of format that would be employed by a Cartoon Network series like “Samurai Jack” or something but done with more care and detail. The storytelling shows a clear Miyazaki influence in that it is still trying to be an adventure story from the perspective of a child but set in a semi-fantasy world that draws from cultural mythology and has a lot of nature spirits and the like. I might have liked it to hue even further away from the family film aspirations (which was frankly an audience it was never going to get) and do away with some of the rather modern and anachronistic inflection that seems to be there in the dialogue and voice acting (it almost feels like a dub job despite actually being the original voice track), but maybe there’s a charm to be found in the fact that it is still theoretically a film for children. All told I think the Academy was right to nominate this and put this studio on the map because this is definitely the kind of thing I wish more people were doing with animation.
***1/2 out of Five
A Cat in Paris (2011)
2011 was the year of the second and third Oscar nominations for Gkids distributed films with one of them being a French animated film called A Cat in Paris. This film was made by a production company called Folimage, which isn’t terribly prolific in terms of making feature films but they do produce them occasionally and have had their most high profile successes when working with a pair of directors named Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol of which A Cat in Paris is one. The film’s title is a bit tricky because the titular cat plays less of a role in it than I expected (though there’s also a cat burglar in the film so there may be a play on words going on). The film is about a young girl whose mother is a cop and whose father was killed by a gangster/art thief who is still at large and this girl also has an adventurous pet cat and there’s a less violent burglar in town and all of these threads will ultimately converge over the course of a wacky night on the town. On a plot level this is not a particularly deep of meaningful movie and its reputation probably rests more on its animation style. The film has traditional (it looks traditional anyway) 2D animation which is heavily stylized to look that reminded me of the illustrations in picturebooks from the 90s. The characters have sort of caricatured heads and weird looking feet and there are some unconventional choices with color as well as a couple of scenes that do clever things, like one that’s set in the dark and uses outlines to show what’s happening. The film only runs about 65 minutes long so it’s really only barely a feature, which probably would have made it seemed like a bit of an odd thing to see in a theater but I’m not sure that extra runtime would have really helped it much. This is certainly something different from the Hollywood norm and that makes it kind of novel, but I wouldn’t say that it’s any kind of new classic or anything.
*** out of Five
Chico and Rita (2011)
The very first year the Academy introduced the Best Animated Feature category there was a lot of disappointment when they opted not to nominate the rotoscoped Richard Linklater film Waking Life. This might have been because animators are divided about whether rotoscoping counts as animation, it might have just been because it was a very small movie, but it was widely seen as a rejection of an animated movie that was made specifically for an adult audience. Indeed, even when the Animation branch nominates movies that are pretty “arty” they do generally want them to be at least nominally kid friendly and have also rejected movies like Waltz With Bashir, A Scanner Darkly, and Paprika. To date only three movies with what would be considered “R-rated” content have been nominated for that award. There was Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa (the only officially R-rated film to garner one of the category’s nominations), there was last year’s I Lost My Body (which was never officially rated by the MPAA but has a TV-MA moniker on Netflix), and then there was the film I’m looking at today, Chico and Rita, which was also never looked at by the MPAA but does have some sex and nudity that would have garnered that mark if it had been submitted. It was the first such movie to get the nomination but it is easy to see why the voters wouldn’t have been so quick to overlook it as it has a lot going for it.
The film is primarily the work of a Spanish director named Fernando Trueba, who was primarily a live action filmmaker who achieved a certain degree of international success in the 90s with his film Belle Époque. This animated project largely has its roots in a documentary Trueba made in the early 2000s about Latin Jazz called Calle 54. During the making of that film he met a Cuban jazz pianist named Bebo Valdés, who inspired him to make a movie about a (fictional) pianist who had similar experiences in pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary Cuba. In the film this hard on his luck jazz-man sparks a romance with a singer named Rita, but they never quite make it work out firstly because their careers go off in different directions and secondly because the revolution pops off and makes international travel complicated. It’s not completely dissimilar from the story in the recent Paweł Pawlikowski film Cold War. There’s nothing about it that inherently needed to be animated but recreating pre-revolutionary Havana for a live action probably would have been cost-prohibitive and I’m guessing the Castro regime would not have been overly accommodating about such a film being filmed there. Additionally the format allows the film to include some “cameos” by some real life jazz legends and employs some cool stylistic elements throughout and generally just looks really slick. It isn’t a movie that was necessarily made to revolutionize the animation form or experiment wildly but it’s a medium that work for the story and a story that has a very classic appeal to it which I quite enjoyed.
***1/2 out of Five
Ernest & Celestine (2013)
Gkids took a year off from the Oscars after their dual nomination year in 2012 but came back with a new nominee in the form of Ernest & Celestine, another traditionally animated French production like A Cat in Paris but made by completely different team of people who had previously made a film called A Town Called Panic, which came out right before Gkids started bringing movies like that to Oscar glory. It’s based on a series of Belgian children’s books by a guy named Gabrielle Vincent and seems to be set in a world where talking mice and talking bears live in the same world but have separate societies and are kind of scared of one another. Bears and mice seem like a rather curious pairs of animals to place in opposition to one another. Historically I would think cats would be the creatures that would be the natural enemy to mice in cartoons and other logical enemies would include snakes and hawks. Going the other way, if bears are supposed to be scared of mice I’ve never heard that one, that seems more like an elephant thing. I don’t know, maybe in the francophone world there’s a different hierarchy of bullshit zoology for kids. Obviously this is supposed to be an allegory for intolerance, but it’s not a particularly interesting or insightful one and I can’t say I ever connected too much with the titular protagonists. This is very much a film made for children despite its ostensible artiness, really its main appeal is its art style, which feels like it was done with some kind of watercolors and often uses some very impressionist backgrounds. It’s interesting to look at, but with the story not being terribly engaging I would say that this is one of the less essential movies that Gkids brought over.
**1/2 out of Five
Continuing my look through the short films that Charlie Chaplin made for Essanay Studios. This retrospective begins in Part 1.
A Woman (7-12-1915)
Chaplin’s next film was not one with massive stunt work set pieces but it made up for it with some material that might have been considered slightly risqué in the early 1900s. The film starts with The Tramp meeting up with a lady in a park and then and getting into a bit of a row with her father, who is himself trying to hit on another woman. Long story short, The Tramp ends up back at the guy’s house and for some contrived reasons needs to escape the house and his solution is to swipe the daughter’s dress and sneak out impersonating a woman. The daughter sees him doing this and is amused and becomes a co-conspirator. This was not the first time that Chaplin had worn drag for a short, he did it in two prior Keystone films, but he wouldn’t do it again (probably because it meant removing his signature moustache, though not after some very amusing shots of him walking around in the dress while still sporting it). There’s nothing in the film that would even raise the slightest eyebrow today, but it was considered rather saucy at the time, to the point where it was even banned in the U.K. until 1916. Ultimately it’s nothing too groundbreaking here and the story is loose even by silent comedy short standards, but this kind of gender bending is a staple of comedy and seeing Charlie Chaplin taking part of it is valuable.
The Bank (8-9-1915)
“The Bank” starts out looking like just another short where Chaplin gets a job somewhere and causes a bunch of chaos in the workplace but it ends up being more than that. The first act is straight slapstick with Chaplin working as a janitor at a bank and going around a splashing people with his mop hitting them on the head when he turns while holding the mop over his shoulder. But then he starts exchanging love notes with the bank secretary and develops a crush on her only to then learn that the “Charlie” she thought she was writing to was someone else, leaving him crushed. Then in the third act he suddenly steps up and becomes a hero when some people try to rob the bank… which is then revealed to have been a daydream and the short ends with The Tramp once again walking away from the camera. So this is in many ways building off what Chaplin did with his film “The Tramp” in mixing genuine pathos with comedy, but this time it’s done with more confidence and care. The revelation that this infatuation is doomed comes earlier and is more biting because of it and the film manages to get some of those great close ups of Chaplin looking sad. On top of that, the bank robbery dream sequence is really well staged. Clearly a highlight of Chaplin’s work at Essanay.
This short sort of fits into the “Charlie gets another job” formula but kind of takes it in different directions. In it a ship owner and captain are conspiring to destroy a ship at sea for insurance money. Chaplin is unknowingly complicit in this plot by helping the captain “recruit” crew members by hitting them over the head with a mallet and taking their unconscious bodies to sea, but then Chaplin finds himself “recruited” as well. From there it starts being a typical bit of slapstick chaos with some cool tilting boat effects. Then in the third act it becomes more of an adventure piece as Chaplin races to save the ship from blowing up and also gets the girl (a stowaway). So this is not really a Chaplin short that gets too deep into the pathos and sentimentality that really set him apart, but there’s plenty of fun to have with it.
A Night in the Show (11-20-1915)
Let’s get this out of the way first thing: there’s a guy in blackface in Chaplin’s “A Night in the Show.” It isn’t Chaplin, it’s a background character in an audience, and he isn’t behaving in a wildly stereotypical way (if you watch silent film you’ve seen WAY worse), but it shouldn’t have happened and if nothing else it’s a pretty big distraction for modern viewers. Outside of that this is a pretty neat short. It’s set in a high end vaudeville theater and has Chaplin playing duel roles: a well to do tuxedoed man on the ground floor and a rough and tumble dude up in the cheap seats. Despite their economic differences, both of these guys are equally disruptive jackasses. The working class guys is spilling booze over the balcony, the rich guy is rushing the stage and letting loose snakes, and the damn thing ends with one of them spraying the whole theater with a firehose. Makes the people turning on cell phones in theaters today look downright civilized. The film feels like a bit of a precursor to Buster Keaton’s “The Playhouse” with its setting but it ultimately has roots with a British stage comedian named Fred Karno who Chaplin worked with at one point and one of his sketches. There’s a pretty good recreation of Chaplin’s comedy drunk theater sketch in the Richard Attenborough Chaplin biopic and this definitely reminded me of that.
A Burlesque on Carmen (4-10-1916)
“A Burlesque on Carmen” was made as a direct parody of a popular 65 minute film adaptation of the famous opera and novella that was released by Cecil B. De Mille about a month before Chaplin’s film came out. So it’s a spoof movie, which was not exactly the bread and butter of Chaplin’s filmmaking, but the film looms large in Chaplin’s biography for another reason. Chaplin made the film to be a standard thirty minute two-reeler but after he left Essanay they used discarded and newly shot footage to double its runtime and release it as a four-reel film without Chaplin’s permission, one of several things Essanay did to annoy the filmmaker after his contract was up. There was even a lawsuit over it which Chaplin eventually lost. The version presented by Flicker Alley is a reconstruction of the original version based on his testimony at that trial and it proves to be a reasonably strong comedy short with more elaborate sets and costumes than a lot of the other shorts here. Chaplin is playing a sort of general or something and Edna Purviance is playing Carmen in one of the finer performances that she gives in the series. It probably isn’t the finest work to be found in the Essenay era, other films here are a bit more timeless in their appeal, but it does show further evolution as a filmmaker.
“Police” is the last canonical Chaplin film from Essanay and tells a lower scale but effective little story. It begins with Chaplin being released from prison and very quickly struggles to “make it” on the outside. He then runs into an old cellmate and agrees to rob a house with him, where he meets an Edna Purviance character who lies to the police to protect him, which may or may not change his life. The actual cops don’t play into it as much as the title would have you think. The film is light on major slapstick and doesn’t feel particularly high budgeted, but in a way this makes it feel like a mature work. The film ends with an interesting shot where the Tramp seems to be doing his usual “walking away from camera” thing, then he runs into a cop who chases him in another directions. Perhaps this was a sort of coded message that he was taking a bow from his time at Essanay but that he had new challenges to face in the time to come.
Triple Trouble (8-11-1918) and Charlie Butts In (1920)
These last two films are considered bonus features on Flicker Alley’s blu-ray set as they aren’t official Chaplin productions. Both were unapproved products that Essanay cobbled together with old footage in order to put out “new” Chaplin films for unsuspecting consumers. “Charlie Butts In” is basically a ten minute recut of “A Night Out” with a little bit of extra footage while “Triple Trouble” is a twenty minute film made of unused footage from “Police” bits of “Work” and some footage from an abandoned film called “Life.” Both are essentially curios, more interesting for the story behind them and the extent to which Chaplin tried to publicly disown them than as films themselves. After Chaplin left them, Essanay soldiered on for a little longer but they ended up merging with other studios and were ultimately folded into Warner Brothers. These two “films” mostly just show their desperation after Chaplin left and are for completeists only.
And that’s that for the Essanay films. It took a while for me to start this project up and I’m glad I saw it through. As expected, these are a bit cruder and less accomplished than the films that Chaplin made for Mutual and First National, but despite that these are in some ways more important simply because they made Chaplin the star he was and also because they showed him transitioning from being a talented physical comedian to being a pantomime artist and that was a transition that would have a ripple effect throughout film. Someday, probably in the distant future, I’ll try giving Chaplin’s Keystone films a watch just so I can say that I’ve seen every morsel of Chaplin’s output but for now I feel like I’ve seen the real beginning of Chaplin’s evolution as an artist.