Intended Release: 18 December 1915, Essanay [screened for critics only]
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Writer: Charlie Chaplin
Duration: approx. 30 mins. [1916 version: 44 mins]
With: Edna Purviance, Jack Henderson, John Rand, May White, Bud Jamison, Wesley Ruggles, Ben Turpin, Leo White
Story: Guards officer Darn Hosiery (Chaplin) falls foul of seductive gypsy Carmen (Purviance) and the gang of smugglers she works with.
Production: Just as Chaplin had left Keystone at the end of 1914 with nary a word to his co-workers (he claimed his own shyness prevented any grand goodbye gesture), so his departure from Essanay towards the end of 1915 was equally unusual, if a little more controversial. This film was Chaplin’s comic response to Cecil B. DeMille’s Carmen (1915), with each being based upon the Bizet opera. The film, however, was released in various versions between 1915 and 1916 (after Chaplin’s departure from the studio) and resulted in a controversial court case.
The Bizet opera of Carmen dated from 1875, but the story proved especially popular in the early years of the 20th century. There were two film versions alone in 1915 before Chaplin turned to the material towards the end of the year, the first starring the notorious ‘vamp’ Theda Bara (real name Theodosia Burr Goodman, who hailed from Cincinnati, Ohio and not the ‘mysterious East’ at all) and directed by Raoul Walsh—it is now considered a lost film. The second film was the more famous DeMille version, featuring opera star Geraldine Farrar—that movie was critically acclaimed, but when Chaplin saw it, he felt the material was crying out for a fun parody version, and he was just the man to supply it.
For his Carmen Chaplin pulled out all the stops, paying more attention than he ever had before to such matters as the sets and the costumes (in the interest of historical atmosphere, if not accuracy exactly), as well as to cinematography and editing, things he been becoming more interested in as his work had developed. Certainly, during the Essanay period, film editing had become intrinsic to Chaplin’s comic effects, and would become more so at Mutual. Over all, though, the biggest improvement in Carmen was in the on-screen performances.
Chaplin’s version of Carmen was an effective showcase for Edna Purviance, perhaps to make-up for her blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance in A Night in the Show. She plays Carmen, a gypsy connected to a band of smugglers who are illegally shipping goods into the city. Standing in their way is Darn Hosiery (Don Jose in the original, played by Chaplin, in a departure from his Tramp character), the last honest lawman on duty. It is Carmen’s task to seduce Hosiery, thus clearing the way for the smugglers to go about their clandestine business. An unexpected action by Hosiery means he has to flee his position and effectively join the smugglers. By the time he joins them, however, Carmen has already moved onto a new lover, a bullfighter whom she follows to Seville. Driven mad, Hosiery tracks her down and in a confrontation stabs her to death!
A bit melodramatic for Charlie Chaplin? No doubt that’s what Chaplin thought of the original DeMille version, so as well as spoofing the earnest nature of that film, he defuses the seemingly bleak ending of his film by having Edna and himself break character at the finale, revealed the fake nature of the prop knife and having a laugh at the silliness of the picture as a whole. Some, including biographer Joyce Milton, have questioned Chaplin’s authorship of his Carmen, given his own admitted ignorance of opera at the time, and his inability to distinguish between Rigoletto and Carmen. Viewing Chaplin’s short in conjunction with the DeMille version, it is clear that his is a take-off that required no knowledge of the original opera as it is a direct response to the DeMille film, not the original source story or historical presentation.
In Chaplin’s Camen, Edna Purviance took on the task of directly spoofing Geraldine Farrar’s performance in the DeMille film. Her temptress is a direct take-off on Farrar’s performance, no doubt thanks to her innate abilities (remember she was a relative newcomer to film, as was Chaplin himself in many respects) and to some serious coaching and direction from Chaplin. It’s almost as though he was trying her out in a more dramatic role to see if she could cope, perhaps with a view to the starring role she’d later play in the Chaplin-directed A Woman of Paris (1923), which the comedian directed but did not star in (as with the much later A Countess from Hong Kong , he only appears in a brief cameo—his long planned bio-pic of Napoleon never materialised).
Although there are plenty of gags, they are effectively blended with some fairly serious melodrama throughout Carmen, especially in the sword fight scene Chaplin shares with Leo White. Chaplin wrings ever bit of drama and humour from the sequence, moving through variations on the theme of clashing swords, while all the time ensuring the camera moved and wasn’t simply locked off as a static observer of the action, as had happened in many of the Keystone shorts. Close-ups are also used to emphasize the drama, especially on Edna and Charlie, both of whom play their parts relatively straight when the story requires it (right up to that fourth wall breaking end gag, at least).
Charlie Chaplin’s intended take on Carmen went largely unseen. It was screened in the original two-reeler form to critics and reviewers in December 1915, then promptly withdrawn by Essanay. When Chaplin left the Essanay studio, he carelessly left behind material cut from his version of A Burlesque on Carmen. This seems unusual: for an artist who had been demanding control over his own material and who at Essanay had taken over the editing of his own films, to have left behind such footage seems like a huge oversight. Perhaps the thought that Essanay would exploit the Chaplin name by re-cutting the film to include as much footage of the star as they could did not even occur to him?
Either way, Essanay were not done with Chaplin and his work, even if he was done with them. Chaplin’s tight and witty two-reel short was revamped by Leo White into a bloated four-reel movie and released in April 1916. Alongside the previously unseen Chaplin material, the studio also padded out the film by adding newly-shot footage starring cross-eyed Ben Turpin as a gypsy character in an all-new (unfunny) subplot.
Essanay boss George K. Spoor attempted a feeble defence of his studio’s actions in the house journal Essanay News by erroneously (and deliberately misleadingly) claiming that the original version of Carmen was Chaplin’s ‘first attempt at cutting’ and that the version that resulted was ‘not acceptable to us, for the reason that Chaplin left out more good stuff than he put in.’ This was a fundamental and probably willful misunderstanding of Chaplin’s evolving approach to his art. During his time at Essanay he had begun to work with celluloid as his raw materials. Although he’d often begin with a scenario and a rough idea of how each short would develop, Chaplin had begun to work out his gags on the fly, often filming them and then thinking up a new way to achieve a bigger laugh or a way to extend the comic potential of any sequence. This would result in a lot of decent comic material hitting the cutting room floor in favour of the far better material that Chaplin’s process produced (indeed, much of the fascinating and highly recommended documentary series Unknown Chaplin  by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill depends upon the excised material for its footage of Chaplin actively working out his gags).
The action of his erstwhile studio drove Chaplin to court in May 1916 an attempt to protect his work, claiming that the new release would do damage to his reputation as it did not represent his artistic view. Chaplin’s suit was supported by written affidavit material from his half-brother Syd Chaplin, describing the production process of Carmen and the adverse publicity the editing had brought Charlie. As The Chaplin Encyclopedia’s Glenn Mitchell pointed out, this fact (as reported in Motion Picture World) suggested that Syd had an intimate knowledge of his brother’s work at Essanay. The studio—furious at Chaplin’s action—had immediately countersued claiming breach of contract and demanding $500,000 in damages. In this they perhaps had an argument, claiming that Chaplin had fallen short of the number of films he’d agreed to complete when he was paid an additional $10,000 bonus. Chaplin won that case, but the bigger issue was not to go his way.
In July 1916, Judge Hotchkiss (who presided over the case) ruled in favour of the studio. Unfortunately, the terms of Chaplin’s agreement with Essanay meant that they had legal ownership of all the material he shot for them, used and unused, and were at liberty to use it how they liked, with or without the permission of Chaplin himself. The outcome of this court case saw the original two-reel version of Carmen withdrawn and suppressed by the studio, replaced by the four-reel versions (and a later three reel cut-down of the same material released once again in 1928, with a partial soundtrack). This experience would ensure that went he went to Mutual and thereafter, Chaplin would retain full control over his creative material (a ‘moral right’ of artists since recognized in law), with clauses in his contracts specifically forbidding studios from re-editing or otherwise re-formatting his work.
As a result of Essanay’s legal victory, for many years the only extant and easily accessible version of Chaplin’s spoof of Carmen was in this butchered form. One of Chaplin’s major objections to the expanded Carmen was the inclusion of repeated material in which he performed essentially the same gag twice (his pretence to be a masseur). This did not escape the critics who reviewed the expanded four reel released in April 1916. ‘A goodly portion of the legions of Chaplin’s admirers will be disappointed,’ noted Motion Picture World of A Burlesque on Carmen, before noting the repeated material ‘…the inference being that the stunt was done twice [so] that the better of the two might be chosen’. This victory over Chaplin would encourage Essanay to release his final Essanay film Police (1916), long after he’d left the studio, and to further utilize more of Chaplin’s discarded material to form the patchwork film Triple Trouble, released in 1918. [For more on these projects, see my second annual Chaplin: Film by Film eBook — Chaplin at Essanay: A Centenary Celebration, on sale now!].
In his autobiography, Chaplin certainly considered Carmen to be his final film at Essanay. ‘I was so impressed with [DeMille’s] Carmen that I made a two reel burlesque of it, my last film with Essanay. After I had left they put in all the cut-outs and extended it to four reels, which prostrated me and sent me to bed for two days. Although this was a dishonest act, it rendered a service for thereafter I had it stipulated in ever contract that there should be no mutilating, extending or interfering with my finished work.’
Chaplin’s original vision—or the best approximation possible—was recovered in 1999 when film preservationist David Shepard studied the transcripts of the Essanay/Chaplin court case and other contemporary documents in an effort to recreate the ‘lost’ Chaplin cut from the available materials. Kino released this version in 1999 as an ‘all new’ rediscovered Chaplin short with an accompanying musical score from David Israel.
Shepard described his approach to reconstructing Chaplin’s Carmen: ‘The version I prepared in 1999 attempts to reconstruct the two-reel version of A Burlesque on Carmen, based upon an affidavit from the lawsuit provided by the Chaplin archives in which Charlie details his intended two-reel version. It was impossible to be guided exactly by Chaplin’s testimony. Some of Chaplin’s original shots were removed in the process of editing the four-reel expansion, which now seems to survive only with reissue intertitles from 1928. A few 1916 shots are retained for continuity in this version and most of the intertitles derive from DeMille, but we hope it captures Chaplin’s intention. For those familiar with DeMille’s production, the two-reel A Burlesque on Carmen is actually one of the better Essanay-Chaplin comedies.’
At its heart in Chaplin’s original version, his take on Carmen was one of his first sustained attempts to blend heartfelt drama and comedy in one film—the kind of thing he’d much later perfect in The Kid (1921) and City Lights (1931). Given that Chaplin had only been actively in the movie business for just two years, the way he’d developed his art over that period is nothing short of astounding. Almost as soon as he’d wrapped on Carmen (the later 1916 release), Police, had been shot earlier, Charlie Chaplin boarded a train for New York, determined to put as much distance between himself and George Spoor’s Essanay as possible. As always with Chaplin, the best was yet to come.
Trivia: G. M. Anderson, star and creator of the Broncho Billy westerns, and Chaplin’s mentor at Essanay, sold his share in the studio to fellow co-owner George K. Spoor (the man who countersued Chaplin over Carmen) shortly after Chaplin left Essanay—is it too much of a leap to think that all these events might have been connected? The result was the immediate closure of the Essanay studio at Niles in California, where Chaplin had initially based himself, and the eventual closure of Essanay’s Chicago base in 1918.
The Contemporary View: ‘Charlie Chaplin’s Burlesque on Carmen [was] given a private showing for review … it is in four reels and, on the whole, was voted unsatisfactory by the majority of the exhibitors who attended. The consensus of opinion is that it is a very much padded picture.’—Variety [reviewing the Essanay four reel version in 1916]
Slapstick: Out of his regular Tramp outfit, Chaplin has some fun with the ornate feathered helmet that replaces his derby and the sword he sports in place of his cane. A table dance sees Chaplin bustin’ some unusual moves. The duel—which kicks off about 20 minutes in—allows for a variety of classic Chaplin balletic slapstick, including turning the fight into a wrestling match, an impromptu game of snooker and a dance routine! When he flees from the guards, Chaplin indulges in a couple of his trademark single-foot skids (we haven’t seen that in a while). When he arrives in Seville (in pursuit of Carmen), Chaplin is much more like the Tramp figure we know, in looks and behaviour (except for all the killing, of course!).
Verdict: The genuine chemistry between Edna and Charlie is evident in Carmen, but the mix of drama and comedy doesn’t quite work, 3/5
Next: The Floorwalker (15 May 1916)
[For entries on the Essanay 1916 Chaplin shorts Police, Triple Trouble, and the unfinished Chaplin film Life, see my second annual Chaplin: Film by Film eBook — Charlie Chaplin: A Centenary Celebration]
CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION
An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.