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DVD Review: ‘Charlie Chaplin: The Collection’

★★★★★

It’s been a hundred and twenty two years since his birth and the little tramp continues to carve an impact on cinema, or at least the DVD market, as Park Circus’ Charlie Chaplin: The Collection is released this week. Wisely avoiding claims like the ‘ultimate’ or ‘complete’, this latest release brings together eleven films spanning the legendary comedian/director’s career, as well as the usual tidbits -behind the scenes footage, interviews, a smattering of early shorts, trailers, outtakes.

What makes this worth buying over the umpteen number of other home video incarnations which have variously laid claim to being the ‘ultimate’ collection over the years? The presumed USP here is the addition of two films arriving on DVD for the first time: A King in New York (1957) and Monsieur Verdoux (1947). Neither is from Chaplin’s golden silent era, but from the later, less appreciated bookend of his career.

They’re significant for Chaplin collectors, however, minor milestone’s in the great man’s eventful history: the former was the first film where his iconic ‘Little Tramp’ character was completely retired, to the deep disappointment of audiences; and the latter was Chaplin’s last leading role, following an almost ignominious retirement, forced to return to his native UK following McCarthy-era witch-hunts of supposed communist sympathisers. Both are somewhat unhappy examples of the director’s relative inability to adjust to the seismic shift in cinema when sound arrived, but they’re nonetheless interesting additions to the canon, and often quite funny.

Monsieur Verdoux is a black comedy, based on an idea by Orson Welles, about a devious French banker who marries rich women and then murders them. It’s rather nice to see a Chaplin play a sleazy anti-hero, and it’s well-written, almost overcompensating with endlessly verbose dialogue. A King In New York is less successful, with none-too-subtle references to the ruthless ‘House of Un-American Activities’ committee which forced Chaplin’s exile – as a satire, it seems bitter and forced.

Both additional films are fine, but unremarkable compared to the stone-cold classics also included here, and in many ways it’s unfair to compare two average films to nine which are amongst the greatest in the medium. Even if these films are tiresomely familiar to you, it would take a heart made of lead not to raise a smile at Chaplin’s incredible talents in physical comedy, not to mention force back a tear at his penchant for gut-punch emotion.

Of all his films, City Lights (1931) is probably his finest, a tremendous showcase of visual gags peppered with a sweetness and tenderness that can still well the tear ducts – dry eyes will indeed be a scarcity, come the acclaimed ending. But the ambition of masterpieces like Modern Times (1936) or The Great Dictator (1940) also continue to impress.

Chaplin’s longevity is as impressive as his many talents; his ability to still provoke a deep gut reaction remains as potent as ever. This boxset is by no means ‘comprehensive’, but for newcomers to Chaplin, it is an ideal place to start. If you’ve never seen the Little Tramp in action, now is the time to rectify this error.

John Nugent