In Bernardo Bertolucci's current and highly controversial film THE DREAMERS the three main characters engage in a heated discussion of whether it was Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin who was the greater silent screen genius. This is a debate that has been going on for decades and is an excersize in futility, similar to comparing Fred Astaire to Gene Kelly. We're talking apples and oranges here. (The fact that the equally phenomenal Harold Lloyd is not remembered with similar reverence is due to the almost supernatural stupidity of the current Lloyd estate. That this incomparably great comedian's work has never been re-released to theatres and never seen on any home video format is nothing less than a disgrace, and is the sole reason why, in comparison to Chaplin and Keaton, he is the forgotten man of The Big Three.)

The Chaplin Collection (Volume Two) includes three Chaplin features that offer those favoring Chaplin over Keaton ample reason to rejoice, and might even tip the scales for a few of those who remain  in Keaton's corner.

 THE KID (1921), at fifty-eight minutes, is conceivably the shortest cinematic masterwork ever created. This, Chaplin's first feature , is a remarkable blending of comedy and pathos, and is unique because Chaplin uncharacteristically allows the amazing six year old Jackie Coogan, who plays an adorable ragamuffin rescued from a bleak and friendless life by Chaplin's tramp, to almost steal the picture. I defy even the hardest-hearted cynics not to shed a tear at the conclusion of this timelessly terrific film. 

So affected was I by THE KID, that I was inclined to shift CITY LIGHTS (1931), my previously favorite Chaplin film, to second position. Then I revisited CITY LIGHTS, in which The Little Tramp becomes a working man in order to save money for an operation that will restore a blind flower girl's sight, and, well, I just can't make up my mind as to which is the greater of the two. [THE GOLD RUSH (1925), which is included in volume one of the CHAPLIN COLLECTION remains firmly entrenched in my mind as number three.] There's no question, though, that time has not diminished the sheer brilliance of this certified classic one iota, and if I had to show any silent film to some poor, misguided individual who'd never seen one CITY LIGHTS would be the one. 

Unquestionably the biggest discovery in this collection is A WOMAN OF PARIS (1923) which I hitherto, and much to my discredit, had avoided at all costs, due to my misconception that this would be Chaplin's equivalent of the unwatchably self-indulgent Woody Allen dramatic catastrophes in which he didn't appear. As I watched A WOMAN OF PARIS in utter astonishment, I became aware that my preconceived prejudices had robbed me, all these years, of the experience of seeing a truly special cinematic gem. Hailed by the critics and ignored by the public during its initial release, this tragic love story, in which Chaplin makes frequent jabs at French high society, would be the film to show to those who believe that silent screen acting consisted of wild and florid gesturing, a fact that the subtle and sensitive acting of Edna Purviance, Adolphe Menjou and the entire cast instantly contradicts. A WOMAN IN PARIS is a genuine eye-opener.

For a variety of reasons, both personal and professional, Chaplin wasn't very fond of THE CIRCUS (1928), massive hit though it was, although taken in proper context, THE CIRCUS is a better-than-average throwback to sentiment-free, gag-filled and audience- pleasing comedies of Chaplin's past, replete with a terrific funhouse sequence that must have inspired the brilliant climax to Orson Welles' otherwise reprehensible THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI. 

No cinema comedian has ever been able to maintain his level of ability or audience approval as he approached middle to old age. A sweeping statement, perhaps, but just think of the late career cinematic contributions of Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Danny Kaye, The Marx Brothers, Bob Hope, Red Skelton, and so many others. Alas, Chaplin was no exception, as the instructive and highly appropriate inclusion of both MONSIEUR VERDOUX (1947) and A KING IN NEW YORK (1957) sadly prove. As poorly paced, pompous and flatly directed as MONSIEUR VERDOUX is, it's a work of genius compared to the virtually unwatchable A KING IN NEW YORK (a precursor to the even worse A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG- 1967), in which Chaplin understandably, but to stultifyingly amatuerish and flat-footed effect, vents his hostility towards the country that betrayed him. (To be completely fair, VERDOUX, Chaplin's variation of the Bluebeard story, is a cinematic work of genius when compared to the 1972 Richard Burton-Edward Dmytyk fiasco BLUEBEARD, although Edgar G. Ulmer's 1944 version, and particularly Claude Chabrol's 1962 LANDRU are infinitely superior.)

The transfers to all of the above are so smooth and grain-free that a few disgruntled film purists will complain that they don't appear film-like, but if only all transfers of silent films looked like this, and the remastered 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is good, as are the original mono tracks.                                                       

There are so many special features in this monumental collection that are truly special, but I'll mention just two: the excellent and unblinking Richard Schickel documentary CHARLIE: THE LIFE AND ART OF CHARLIE CHAPLIN and THE CHAPLIN REVUE a compilation of some of Chaplin's most renowned shorts, some of which are, unfortunately, marred by Chaplin's unctuous, condescending and completely unneccessary narration. 

Minor quibbles aside, it doesn't take a great deal of imagination to know, even this early in the year, that THE CHAPLIN COLLECTION (VOLUME TWO) is surely the best silent film box set of the year-----how can anyone possibly top it?  



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