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Life, Police, and Trouble

Lately I’ve been enjoying the outstanding Blu Ray box set from Flicker Alley of Charlie Chaplin’s Essanay films from 1915-1916 (do you own one of your own?  Why not?). And while watching them, I found myself falling down a rabbit hole. It’s a rabbit hole that other Chapliniacs (Chapliniados? Chaplinners? Chaplinians?) have fallen down before—some have even pursued it to absurd, quixotic lengths. But, being the obsessive fella that I am, I burrowed down this well-worn path too, and finally emerged for air. I’d like to take this week’s post to share my journey, perhaps to help spare some other poor sod from wasting as much time as I did.

This is the story of three movies. One of these movies was never made. The second was made, but has at times been alleged to be a wrongheaded bastardization of its creator’s true intentions. The third film is most decidedly a wrongheaded bastardization, but was deceptively promoted as being the real deal.

This is the story of Life, Police, and Triple Trouble.

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The crux of this story is our collective fascination with trying to restore a creator’s true intentions. It’s always a selling point to say that some particular edition of a movie restores the original director’s cut, or finally presents the director’s original vision. But this is a deeply problematic quest.

For many decades, the story of Chaplin’s year at Essanay was told in shorthand, so as to focus more critical time and attention on his later, more popular works. In broad strokes, then, the general understanding went that towards the end of his contract at Essanay Studios, Chaplin started developing plans to make an ambitious feature film to be called Life. But the studio was having none of that—their star comedian was already horribly in arrears in turning in his contractually obligated series of short films. Theaters were waiting impatiently for more Chaplin two-reelers—there was no way the studio could justify abandoning those paying customers to wait indefinitely while Chaplin developed his feature. Mediocre Chaplin shorts NOW > excellent Chaplin feature later.

And so, the story goes, Chaplin transitioned some of the Life material into a two-reeler called Police, and then quit.

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But he’d quit before fulfilling his contract—the studio was still owed some more shorts. And so they took to helping themselves—taking more unused material from Life and shooting some new scenes to pad it out to length, and sending that out to theaters as Triple Trouble.

Then, many years later the home video age made it possible for a wider number of film enthusiasts to pore over films in detail. People could now carefully compare Police with Triple Trouble in greater depth, and it was here that the nuttiness began.

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Police consists of three major comic sequences. In the first, Charlie is released from prison and immediately set upon by ravenous “reformers” seeking to rob him while pretending to help him.

In the second sequence, he attempts to find a bed for the night at a “flophouse” but can’t get in without any money—and the reformers took his last dollar.

In the third sequence, he meets up with a former cellmate, and the two go to burgle a house together. The occupant of the house is Edna Purviance, who gives the thieves dinner and only asks that they not disturb her sickly mother upstairs. The other crook is unwilling to agree to those terms, though. Charlie is agog, having experienced his first encounter with basic human kindness, and decides to side with Edna over his cellmate. Cue the slapstick finale.

There are many who think of Police as Chaplin’s best film at Essanay (Walter Kerr being one of them). It as an accomplished and mature comedy with many textures. Go watch it.

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Now, here’s where it gets messy: there are two previously unseen Chaplin sequences in Triple Trouble (the rest is nonsensical padding or reused footage). One of these sequences takes place in a flophouse…

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No, I said that wrong. It takes place in the flophouse. It is inarguably the same set as the one used in Police, and the supporting cast in the scene are largely the same. The most logical explanation is that these two scenes—the flophouse scenes in Police and in Triple Trouble—were shot at pretty much the same time.

And this is consistent with the conventional wisdom—that this material was originally developed for use in Life, and just ended up being cut into two different films.

But remember I said there were three Chaplin sequences in Triple Trouble. In one of these, Charlie is a janitor at a richy rich’s house, where Edna Purviance is a housemaid.

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Is this part of the same movie?

Filmmaker Don McGlyn convinced himself that it was, and undertook an extensive documentary project in 1992 to present his argument to the world, along with a “reconstruction” of what he believed the intended film was meant to be. His was the most elaborate and intense articulation of this idea, but he wasn’t the first to float the idea that Police was butchered on its original release. I have a Chaplin bio from 1975 by Ted Moss that makes the same claim.

To give that argument its due, let’s agree that Police was released after Chaplin had departed Essanay. We can also stipulate that Essanay certainly did release butchered and reworked versions of Chaplin films once he’d left (such as Triple Trouble and Burlesque on Carmen) so they don’t get the benefit of the doubt.

Furthermore, the copyright filings for Police include a narrative description of the film in which the flophouse scene described is the one seen in Triple Trouble.

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Taking this background context, and the obvious visual clues that the two flophouse scenes must have been shot at the same time, McGlyn concluded that both scenes, and the stuff with Charlie and Edna as servants, all belonged to the same movie. And so he put them all “back together again” and premiered it within his 1992 documentary The Chaplin Puzzle.

In the almost 25 years since then, the McGlyn recut of Police has not been accepted as the authentic version. The Chaplin Puzzle is all but unavailable, except as a fuzzy off-air recording someone posted to YouTube.

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The problem is, as persuasive as the argument might have been on paper, once all the scenes got shoved into one movie, it became a bloated unfunny mess. The pieces just didn’t fit together—instead of illustrating Chaplin’s genius, the three-reel version of Police is an illogical jumble.

So what was going on? If these scenes don’t fit together, what did Chaplin have in mind?

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Well, far be it from me to try to impute the motivations behind decisions made when my grandparents were small children. But there’s another documentary that helps shed light on all this: Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s Unknown Chaplin from 1983. That film presented Chaplin’s reams upon reams of outtakes from various films, demonstrating his working method. Basically, once had a general premise for a scene, he’d set up the camera and start improvising on film. Over and over, again and again. Good ideas would be embellished, bad ones discarded. Little by little, he honed something out of nothing. But along the way, not only did he use up massive amounts of time and filmstock, but he abandoned perfectly good jokes as well.

Our mistake was in assuming that just because both flophouse scenes were shot on the same set, they were both for the same movie. That presupposed Chaplin had any intention of ever using both, rather than just discarding footage and moving on. Eventually, Police took shape in such a way that the longer version of the flophouse scene didn’t suit, and it was discarded in favor of the scene that was used.

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Chaplin never complained that the released version of Police didn’t reflect his intentions. Meanwhile he did object very publicly to both Carmen and Triple Trouble. It’s reasonable to conclude that Police is exactly as Chaplin wanted it—and any footage he shot along the way and tossed was just that—outtakes. As Chaplin fans we are fortunate that Essanay made those outtakes available in the form of Triple Trouble, but there’s no reason to conclude any of those outtakes were “intended” to be included in anything.

6 Responses Life, Police, and Trouble
Posted By swac44 : January 9, 2016 1:39 pm

Great set! Pre-ordered as soon as it was announced. Enjoyed watching the only short Chaplin made in Chicago, His New Job and after catching a glimpse of the street outside the Essanay studio, going on Google Maps to find the house across the street (not to mention the studio building itself, now a college) still stands.

Not that I expect to replace the great John Bengston any time soon, but it was a nice find.

Posted By swac44 : January 9, 2016 1:50 pm

It’s also interesting to see Charlie Butts In as an extra on the Flicker Alley set, made up of outtakes or alternative takes from A Night Out, but not released theatrically, instead put out on the home 8mm movie market.

Posted By Autist : January 9, 2016 2:26 pm

Chaplinists? Chaplinistas? Chaplinoholics?

Posted By George : January 10, 2016 4:28 am

There’s a lot of mystery involving the Essanays. Film preservationist David Shephard, who restored the films decades ago, said, “I finally came to the conclusion that there was no complete print of any Essanay Chaplin in the world. Everything really involved conflating, typically, about three sources to get one complete copy of the film.”

Posted By swac44 : January 10, 2016 12:45 pm

Over on the Nitrateville message board, there are already some posts about shots missing in various Essanay shorts on the new set, but from what I remember it’s stuff like Charlie going into a building, or other bits of business that don’t necessarily hurt the coherency of the films. In a couple of instances, there are gags that are either lost or weakened, but that seems to be the minority.

Posted By George : January 10, 2016 9:18 pm

The Essanays have been in the public domain for so long, and were passed from one distributor to another before that, it’s hard to know what audiences saw in 1915-16. The films have been endlessly recut, with shots deleted or added, seemingly at whim. Chaplin didn’t own the films, so he couldn’t preserve them as he did his films from 1918 on.

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