The films in this second Essanay volume have some additional footage not present in previous home video versions. The Tramp, By the Sea, A Woman and The Bank have previously appeared on laserdisc and were presented in reasonably complete form. Work has previously appeared on a DVD collection from Madacy in a transfer from a 16mm reduction print. As stated on the DVD packaging for this new collection from David Shepard and Image, as many as three separate prints of each of the titles have been utilized in the video transfer process to assemble the most complete versions of these Essanay films that modern audiences have ever seen. On viewing the DVD, it appears that most of the materials utilized were original 35mm prints (and possibly, negatives!). Main title cards and intertitles have been redone for video, with an attempt to make them look like authentic titles. His Regeneration appears to feature the original main titles.
The Tramp immediately caused us to stop and pause the DVD. Upon close inspection of two other home video versions of The Tramp we own (one of them being the 1988 Image Entertainment laserdisc version), we noted that the new DVD version begins with the shot of Edna Purviance as a farm girl and her farmer father coming out of their house to a gated fence, where he hands her some money and she leaves. The following shot is of Chaplin walking down the center of a dirt road toward the camera, where he is passed by a speeding automobile; a shot that opens all other prints of The Tramp that we have seen. The shot of Edna and her father usually appears between a shot of Chaplin leaving the dirt road and another shot, where he sits under a tree to eat. We were informed through the grapevine that producer David Shepard restored the film’s original editing based on the shot order of an original 1915 nitrate print.
The video transfer is, for the most part, superior to previous home video versions. A very-good 35mm print (an original, though incomplete, Essanay print held by Lobster Films in Paris) was utilized as the main material for the new video transfer, in black & white, with orange and blue toning for night scenes. As in the other video transfers in these new Essanay editions, the image framing is generous compared its laserdisc version. The outer edges of a shot of Chaplin eating from a fireplace mantle are totally cropped out on laserdisc, to the point that the viewer can’t make out what Chaplin is doing at the edges of the frame. On DVD we can see all of Chaplin’s use of the set. Now we know. Another point of detail: I have seen three different inset shots of the tramp’s letter to Edna, two of them in this DVD version. Which shot is the original?
A second print was used to fill the gaps in the Lobster Films print. It is hard to discern whether this material was 16mm reduction print or a blurry 35mm duplicate print. We do have a problem with the video transfer of this material. The second print can be identified in the shots following Chaplin having been sent to milk a cow; he first tries a bull then goes to a cow. The second print is flatter in contrast and a little dark. The print is too tightly cropped on the bottom of the image and is blurry when compared to the sharper-looking laserdisc edition. The transfer of this material appears to be at fault. At full speed viewing, motion in these two shots appears to strobe as Chaplin moves his head — an effect that is not attributable to the transfer differences between film shot at approximately 18 to 20 frames per second and the 30 frames per second of NTSC television. On a step-through still frame inspection of the shots, some frames have an odd double image when motion is being rendered — and I am not describing the usual interpolation frames that shimmer when paused (artificial averaging), between two adjoining frames (the real thing), which are common in silent film to NTSC transfers. Some frames (where Chaplin hits Leo White, playing a ladder-climbing hobo, in the head with a mallet) reveal an odd smearing that may be an attempt to digitally disguise (by digital paintbox, perhaps?) distracting shortcomings in the video transfer of this material. Thankfully, the number of shots taken from this second print are short and few.
We assume that the main material utilized for the transfer of By the Sea was a 35mm negative discovered in France (and referred to in the accompanying DVD booklet). Previous transfers were hard to watch because of the sun’s backlighting on the actors caused them to be rendered very dark on home video. The film was probably shot so fast that the crew didn’t even bother to use large white reflecting cards to frontlight the film’s characters. Perhaps the windy day was too much for the use of such cards. Anyway, this new transfer is much clearer and not so contrasty as previous home video editions. A second print was also utilized to assemble this transfer; contrasty, but still a darkish grey in the lighter areas of the picture.
The print used for the majority of the transfer of Work is a very-good but slightly soft 35mm positive. As with other prints of Work we have seen, the first four minutes of this film (and occasionally later in the print) are slightly marred by two short horizontal marks in the center of the picture. We don’t know whether surviving materials all originated from the same damaged print or that the damage was on the original negative. Some attempt was made to digitally mask the marks in later shots. Otherwise, the print is in very good condition, with little speckling and very little wear. A second 35mm print was utilized that is very soft, almost blurry. On close inspection, lighter grey areas of the picture such as light wallpaper or curtains reveal some digital compression artifacts.
A Woman is presented in sepia tone. The first 35mm print seen in the transfer is slightly bright in light areas of the picture and is cropped on the sides to an approximately 1.2:1 ratio. On most televisions a slight bit of cropping will appear on both sides of the picture. A second 35mm print is transferred at full aperture, with some light print wear visible. Both prints have very good picture tonal range. For the most part, the film plays very well in this transfer. At 7:48 minutes into the film some slipped spocket damage to the left side of the print is visible for less than 45 seconds.
This edition of The Bank is a slight disappointment due to some of the film materials utilized for the video transfer. We are rapidly becoming spoiled by the generally very high quality of the prints used for this new DVD collection. At very least, three different 35mm prints were used to cobble together this version of The Bank. The first print is contrasty to the point of being very dark in the shadowy areas of the picture. All shadow details are lost in darkness. A second print is still slightly contrasty and soft, but retains better shadow detail and is the best material utilized. A third print is greyed out, with no detail remaining in highlight areas, but this print is only used for one shot. Some of the prints seem a little tightly cropped, as in one shot where Charlie is attempting to sweep a flat piece of paper with a broom — the viewer can hardly see the piece of paper at the bottom of the frame. The video transfer unexpectedly runs too fast from 3:36 onward, and continues for several shots. Usually, this new edition of the Essanay films does a very good job of presenting them at proper running speed. We don’t understand this lapse of control. Some compression artifacts are visible in the opening shot of the film. This is an isolated case where the surviving materials have slightly compromised our total enjoyment of this funny comedy.
As an added bonus, this collection includes another film that Chaplin made at the Essanay Niles studio, His Regeneration. A single soft 35mm print was utilized for the orangey-sepia and blue toned transfer, with an occasional vertical scratch being the only material damage. As opposed to all of the other films in this Essanay collection, it appears that the original main titles have been used.
All of the Essanay films that previously appeared on laserdisc ran too fast in those editions. On this DVD, the films are presented at their proper running speed (with the exception of the noted portions of The Bank). A casual comparison of the previous laserdisc versions and the current DVD versions of these films will reveal how far the home video presentations of silent era films have come in a little over a decade.
Musical accompaniment has been provided by Eric James on piano for some of the films and by Robert Israel, conducting an ensemble (hooray! — no synthesizers!), with Israel also performing solo on a Fotoplayer, for the remaining films. The soundtrack is presented in clear Dolby Digital stereo sound. We are pleased with all of the musical accompaniment.
We do have minor problems with the design of the DVD programming. Although there are six films on the disc, the films cannot be played contiguously from first to last. From the main menu, the viewer must first select which short to play, which takes them to another menu screen where chapter stops for the short are located. The viewer must again make a menu selection to actually play the film. When the short is over, the viewer is returned automatically to the main menu where they must make another two selections to play the next film. The logic of this approach escapes us.
A complete Chaplin filmography is included on each DVD in the Essanay series and the same eight-page booklet is included in each volume. The filmography is of little value as each year’s films are listed by title in alphabetical rather than chronological order. Chaplin’s participation in each film has been designated by key letter notations. No other information, such as release dates, is available. Purviance’s last film for Chaplin (directed by Josef von Sternberg) is listed incorrectly as A Woman By the Sea.
Overall, we think this excellent DVD belongs, with the other two in the Essanay series, in any silent film enthusiast’s collection. As we have already noted, the films are presented in their most complete form in decades. Let us thankfully acknowledge the huge amount of passionate work that went into this project. We can only hope that a complete collection of the Keystone films — minus the lost film Her Friend the Bandit (1914) — is the next Chaplin project for David Shepard. We heartily recommend this DVD.
Read our reviews of Volume 1 and Volume 3 from this series.
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