Fun stuff on Criterion, Part 2: Chaplin & Méliès

Last week I told you about a Preston Sturges series available on The Criterion Channel. This week, I’m telling you about two other series on the Channel intended just to entertain. One is about the most loved comedian of all time. The other was one of the first filmmakers to use the medium to tell a story. He also invented special effects.

Charlie Chaplin: The Mutual Comedies

After two years of making movies, Charlie Chaplin had become the most beloved living human being in the world. So, it’s not surprising that the Mutual Film Corporation gave him a contract with almost complete control – and a salary in the stratosphere: $10,000 a week in 1916 dollars. What’s more important: his Mutual period was one of the highpoints of his career.

The Immigrant

Now you can stream these mostly brilliant comedies on the Criterion Channel, well restored and with good to excellent musical scores by Robert Israel, Donald Sosin, Carl Davis, The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, and many other musicians.

The first Mutual film, The Floorwalker, is a gem. The last one, The Adventurer, is a short masterpiece. Here Chaplin plays an escaped convict who ends up at a high society party. The
movie starts with a hilarious chase at the beach and ends with an even better one in a mansion. In between, he saves several people from drowning, wakes up to assume he’s back in jail, and deals with ice cream going down his pants while making polite chitchat.

That’s not to say that he didn’t make an occasional stinker. You can skip The Fireman without losing much. But overall, this is an exceptional selection of short comedies. And if you watch them chronologically, for the most part they’ll get better and better.

The Adventurer

If you want my opinion on the individual movies, you can find them in three posts from my Chaplin Diary: Early Mutual, Middle Mutual, and Late Mutual. Unfortunately, Criterion doesn’t provide much information about the series.

Georges Méliès: Fairy Tales in Color

Chaplin’s work doesn’t need an explanation, but Georges Méliès’ does. This series should have included a video about the magician-turned-filmmaker.

When most filmmakers were recording people walking or trains entering stations, Méliès was using cinematic special effects to enhance his stage magic. And from that, he started telling whimsical stories, including his most famous work, A Trip to the Moon.

A Trip to the Moon

Decades before Ted Turner, Méliès colorized his films. He had the prints (or at least some of them) hand-painted frame by frame. This Criterion series contains 13 of these short films, all restored by Lobster Films.

These are some of the best restored Méliès films I’ve seen, with colors that pop. The stories can be difficult to follow; they were intended to be shown with live narration, but that option isn’t there in any of these shorts. The films can get repetitive if you watch them through. Take your time.

The best include Robinson Crusoe, The Kingdom of the Fairies, Whimsical Illusions, and of course, A Trip to the Moon. These movies are more than entertainment; they’re cinema history. Criterion should have given them more context.

The Kingdom of the Fairies

If you want more context, go to my my Blu-ray review of A Trip to the Moon.