Chaplin's Mutual Comedies

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During 1916 and 1917, just as the United States was entering the First World War, Charlie Chaplin devised, directed, and starred in 12 extraordinary two-reel comedies. These films, now heroically remastered as the result of a cooperative international effort centered at the L'Immagine Ritrovata of the Fondazione Cineteca in Bologna, are now available in fully restored, visually sparkling versions.

The series is known as The Mutual Comedies because they were produced by the Mutual Film Corporation. At this time, Chaplin was not yet his own producer or distributor – though he was soon to assume both those roles. When he began at Mutual, Chaplin was 27 years old, and had been working in the movies for only three years, after a grueling 15-year career on Music Hall and Vaudeville stages where he perfected his extraordinary pantomime skills and developed his unique comic sensibility.

In the Mutual Comedies, we see the master at work during one of the most important and emancipating periods of his artistic career. It was a time of exuberant artistic experiment for Chaplin; in his 1964 autobiography, he remembered the Mutual period as the happiest of his professional life.

For the first time, Chaplin would be left alone to do what he wanted artistically. He chose his own casts and technicians, and crucially he was for the first time allowed considerable time-per-film, a feature unheard of in those days, when film comedies were disposable products thrown together at break-neck speed. A more measured production time was perhaps the key artistic provision in Chaplin’s eyes when he went to Mutual. He was not yet able to take years over a single film as he would in the 1920s and 30s – one 2-minute scene in City Lights took him 18 months to complete – but he had more time than ever before, as well as more authority and more money. When interviewed about the contract, the young filmmaker fully recognized what was happening: “This is my opportunity,” he declared. “Now I can be as funny as I dare.”

Chaplin’s comic performances here easily rank among the most effective of his career. And at Mutual he developed the chiaroscuro tonal complexities that would become his signature and ageless legacy. The Mutuals do indeed give us a chance to see just how funny Charlie Chaplin could be – as well as how thoughtful, compassionate, and indignant about injustice – when permitted at last to move fully into his breathtaking gifts.

With assistance from the Chaplin Office in Paris, Flicker Alley, and the University of Pennsylvania, Lightbox is proud to present three short films that showcase Chaplin’s unforgettable and unequaled mix of hilarity and heartbreak, sweetness and rage and dauntless hope. - Toni Bowers, Ph.D. Professor, English Department University of Pennsylvania Philadelphia


The Vagabond (USA, 1916, 24 min., silent)

Easy Street (USA, 1917, 19 min., silent)

The Immigrant (USA, 1917, 22 min., silent)

(below) Professor Toni Bowers, Ph.D. (University of Pennsylvania) reviews Charlie Chaplin's life and career, with emphasis on the twelve 2-reel films he made for the Mutual Film Corporation in 1916 and 1917. This talk has been prepared to accompany our series of 3 of Chaplin's Mutual Comedies streaming from September 25 to October 23: 

Charlie Chaplin's Mutual Comedies, 1916-1917: A Tonic for Our Times