Charlie Chaplin: All-Time Reissue King

Next month in my home-town of Glasgow, they are holding a centenary screening of Safety Last! (1923), the movie in which Harold Lloyd made his name. No doubt the centenary revival machine will swing into action for Buster Keaton the following year for The Navigator (1924). But nobody thought a couple of years back to revive The Kid (1921), the first great film by Charlie Chaplin.

It was always so ever since academics got their teeth into the silent era and decided which stars should be venerated and who should be left by the wayside. Luckily, for the public, academics weren’t in charge in the 1960s. For in that decade – as in the previous half century – Charlie Chaplin had reigned supreme in the silent move reissue business. This was in part because long after the industry had switched to talkies, Chaplin stuck to making his movies silent.

The Charlie Chaplin reissue phenomenon dated back to 1915 and was synonymous with his rise to instant fame. Cinemas that could not afford his new films promptly re-hired his old ones. Old or new the public didn’t seem to care. They flocked to the cinema just the same. When there was a production slump in the aftermath of World War One, Chaplin oldies were to the fore, as they were once again in 1921. In 1926 Pathe paid $500,000 for the rights to four pre-United Artists Chaplin oldies – as much as studios were paying to make a new film.

Part of Chaplin’s deal with United Artists, the studio he helped to form, was that he owned the copyright to his movies so he could control when they were revived and prevent another studio from bringing them back to capitalize on his newer movies. That didn’t always work out because he didn’t own the rights to most of his shorts, allowing a dozen to be reissued, with sound and music, in the 1930s.

With the advent of television, where other older stars, believing their careers were in abeyance if not at a full stop, succumbed to the financial lure of the small screen, Chaplin point blank refused. Oddly enough, it was the centenary angle that played into his hands in the 1950s. He was 70 in 1959, although that decade had not proved as welcoming to his new pictures, Limelight (1951) excepted, and he was so out of favor with the establishment that his name was not among the 1500 initially considered for the Hollywood “Walk of Fame.”

By this time he was viewed as an arthouse darling. His oldies were so successful in 1959 that Modern Times (1925) after its re-launch in New York transferred successively to larger arthouses, each time setting a weekly record with finally, in an unprecedented switch, it ended up on a Broadway first run house.

The 1960s saw a general revival of interest in comedians spurred by the Robert Youngson  compilations, a jukebox of silent movie snippets.

But in 1963, Chaplin struck again, this with an original reissue format that proved catnip to arthouses, and eventually, mainstream. Key to this was the idea of a “season” of his films. This was a sea change. Arthouses regularly brought back old movies, but only for a day or two at a time, and screened in this fashion a “season” of a star or director’s old hits could run for two or three months.  

Chaplin decided his movies should run individually for as long as there was public demand for each movie. In other words, they would play like a new movie in a major first run house, which could hold onto pictures for as long as the owner wanted, retained “by public demand,” until they were played out. The “season” would last as long as the public deemed fit.

The experiment was launched at the mainstream Plaza in New York with City Lights (1931). The record opening of $35,600 beat highs set by Never on Sunday (1960). All the rest opened at the high end of expectations, figures met in Variety’s weekly box office roundup with headlines of “socko” or terms of disbelief. By letting the “retained by public demand” notion run to its limit, the entire season ran for 41 weeks – longer than most roadshows – and collected receipts of $658,000, as much as a long-running roadshow without any of the financial investment. It was boom-time for arthouses.

Amazingly enough, the story was repeated in the 1970s after former Columbia sales chief Mo Rothman paid $6 million (plus a percentage of the gross) for world rights to Chaplin oldies for 15 years. US rights were hived off to independent producer Oliver Unger who set about marketing The Chaplin Festival. Unger was something of a marketing whiz. He tied up a deal with the Arts Guild circuit in 15 cities – in arthouse terms this was as close to wide release  as you could get. He organized a six-page feature in Vogue and a nationwide tie-in with Franklin Simon stores.

The re-launch was helped by news Chaplin would visit New York for the first time in two decades, receive a special Oscar in 1972 and finally be inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Unger lined up radio play of songs from the films and an album by Dave Brubeck consisting of theme music. As another publicity gimmick, he dreamed up a special rating – “E” for Everybody. He came up with the idea of discount tickets – in Chicago alone 34,000 moviegoers opted for the cheaper season ticket.

The consequence of Unger’s endeavors was that before the first movie was even screened he had tied up bookings with 36 cinemas for the Chaplin Festival. Modern Times (1936) was selected to spearhead the Festival, opening on December 18, 1971, at the 580-seat Lincoln Art Theater in New York to a record opening week of  $26,000, an achievement repeated across the country. Modern Times ran for 14 weeks in New York and Boston. The series was so successful that the last film in the season, The Great Dictator (1940), didn’t hit New York till June 1972 and scored an opener of $26,800 and ran for another 10 weeks.

The arthouse runs were so successful that Unger managed to sell the concept to Columbia for $2 million. That shifted emphasis from arthouse to first run and showcase (multiple-run in a city or region). Modern Times beat Gone with the Wind to the title of the oldest film given showcase release in New York. Modern Times ran two weeks in showcase. The Great Dictator did so well in showcase it was the first silent film to appear in the weekly box office Top Ten. Limelight also went down the showcase route. The movies were also shown on airlines.

Later in the 1970s Paramount acquired many of Chaplin’s earlier shorts and sent them into the 16mm university campus market. Towards the end of the decade, with Chaplin to the fore, Kino international created a Silent Clowns Festival to coincide with the Water Kerr book of the same name. It ran for five weeks at the Eighth St Playhouse in New York.

Without doubt Chaplin was the all-time reissue champ. For over six decades, the public turned out in droves to see his movies and his revival box office was more than all the other silent stars in reissue combined.

SOURCE: Brian Hannan, Coming Back to a Theater Near You: A History of Hollywood Reissues, 1914-2014 (McFarland, 2016), p10, 20, 22, 23, 25-29, 32, 35, 37, 39, 40, 70, 75, 193, 212, 222, 232, 255, 256, 281, 285. In the book – which runs to 250,000 words – there are pages and pages of references to Chapln reissues so forgive me if I don’t quote them all here.

Gimme Slapstick

The spate of slapstick-led comedies like It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and The Great Race (1965) and British featurettes such as The Plank (1967) did not suddenly appear out of nowhere as was often the case with a moribund genre. The slapstick revival came by way of television. In the 1950s U.S. networks were screening silent shorts featuring Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, and some of the Hal Roach and Mack Sennett output.

The driving force behind the big screen resurgence of interest in silent comedy was Robert Youngson who spent $100,000 in 1957 on what purported to be a new documentary The Golden Age of Comedy. In fact it was a good excuse for a compilation of old movie clips featuring Laurel and Hardy, Harry Langdon and actresses known for their comic ability such as Jean Harlow and Carole Lombard. But while the television audience was weighted towards the young, Youngson’s picture reached a more appreciative adult audience in the arthouses, which would prove to be the bedrock for the ambitious revitalizing of the careers of other greats from the Hollywood peak years.

The Golden Age of Comedy was hugely successful, taking $500,000 in rentals. Since arthouses notoriously shared of lot less of their box office with studios there was a fair chance that the gross was in the region of $1.5 million, a tremendous return on investment, and opening the door for further sequels.

Silent comedy also crossed national boundaries. Modern dialogue-driven Hollywood comedies often found it hard to gain a foothold overseas. But The Golden Age of Comedy film was Twentieth Century Fox’s top grosser in India and huge in Italy.

Follow-up When Comedy Was King (1960) smashed box office records in New York at the 370-seat arthouse the 68th St Playhouse and at prices ranging from 90c to $1.65 playing to an estimated 10,000 moviegoers and running for another eight weeks. That gave Fox the greenlight to stick it out on the more commercial circuits as a supporting feature. But that was just the tip of the compilation iceberg, especially when other studios got into the act.

Hardly a year went by without another compilation – from the Youngson camp emerged Days of Thrills and Laughter (1961) and 30 Years of Fun (1963). MGM put marketing muscle behind the producer’s The Big Parade of Comedy (1964) to the extent that it collected rave reviews from Newsweek and the New York Times and the studio held seminars for exhibitors on “sight comedy.” The inevitable double bill When Comedy Was King/Days of Thrills and Laughter appeared in 1965.

Harold Lloyd owned the copyright to all his films so his work was not chopped up piecemeal to satisfy the demands of a compilation. Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy (1962) showed the comedian at the peak of his game. It combined eight scenes from silent and sound films Safety Last (1923), Why Worry (1923), Girl Shy (1924), Hot Water (1924), The Freshman (1925), Feet First (1930), Movie Crazy (1932) and Professor Beware (1938). His trademark spectacles were incorporated into the advertising. Follow-up Funny Side of Life (1963) included a complete version of The Freshman.

Mining a different silent tradition and with less emphasis on comedy was The Great Chase (1962) – including a shortened version of The General (1926) – which featured stunts by Douglas Fairbanks, Buster Keaton, William S. Hart and Pearl White.

The Buster Keaton revival had been initiated in less commercial fashion by Raymond Rohauer who had begun staging festival sof his films in arthouses. He tracked down prints of long-lost films in France, Denmark and Czechoslovakia but his compilations Buster Keaton Rides Again (1965) and The Great Stone Face (1966) were more successful abroad than at home.

Blake Edwards’ The Great Race was dedicated to Laurel and Hardy who had become more prominent on both small-screen and big-screen thanks in part to the initial Youngson compilations. MGM were first out the traps with Laurel and Hardy’s Laughing 20s (1965). Then came producer Jay Ward’s The Crazy World of Laurel and Hardy (1966) and The Further Perils of Laurel and Hardy (1967) followed by a collection of colorized shorts The Best of Laurel and Hardy while Hanna-Barbera launched a cartoon series on television in 1966 and Pillsbury sold Laurel and Hardy donuts.

SOURCES: Brian Hannan, Coming Back to a Theater Near You: A History of the Hollywood Reissue 1914-2014 (McFarland, 2016), pages 200-205; “Youngson Anthologies of Silents Continue Showing Coin Potential,” Variety, October 19, 1960, p13; “Picture Grosses,” Variety, March 9, 1960, p8; Advertisement, “Sleeper of the Year,” Box Office, October 5, 1964, p7; “MGM Sets Fun Campaign for Laurel and Hardy,” Box Office, September 20, 1965, p112;  “Comedy Seminar Helps MGM Film Promotion,” Box Office, December 13, 1965, p94; “Pillsbury Acquires Rights for Laurel and Hardy Donuts,” Box Office, October 23, 1966, p27; “Archivist Raymond Rohauer,” Los Angeles Times, November 20, 1987.

When Comedy Was King (1960) ***

The 1960s was as much devoted to old movies as to new – the production shortage sent studios and producers back to the vaults to find anything that could fill a slot on a cinema program – and one of the most surprising beneficiaries of this was the silent movie.

It’s impossible to understand the 1960s without realizing what underpinned both the revival of slapstick comedy in such movies as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and The Great Race (1965) and, just as crucially, brought to the attention of a new public other non-comedic stars from Hollywood’s “golden age,” the revival of whose movies in turn prompted a reissue boom and a decade or so further on provided the stimulus for the restoration of forgotten masterpieces.

The innovator in the silent comedy field was Robert Youngson, a two-time Oscar-winner (in the one-reel documentary category), who had set the ball rolling with The Golden Age of Comedy (1957).

When Comedy Was King sports a greater repertoire of stars and in essence presents a tribute – though not necessarily a greatest hits – to some of the best of the silent comedians The line-up includes Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Fatty Arbuckle, Laurel and Hardy, Mabel Normand and the Keystone Cops.

It was renamed “The Parade of Joy” for European markets.

None of the shorts featured are necessarily an individual artist’s greatest work – Chaplin’s contribution, for example, is drawn from a trio of 1914 pictures, The Masqurader, Kid Auto in Venice and His Trysting Place, none of which would be seen to represent the actor at his height. But they do give an idea of what silent comedy was all about.

Buster Keaton’s contribution is selected from the 18-minute Cops (1922) with well-timed gags, slapstick and car chases. Mutual self-destruction is a hallmark of Laurel and Hardy and Big Business (1929) sees the pair get into an argument with a customer, ending up demolishing everything in sight.  This is probably the pick of the compilation since the pair’s comedy relies on their relationship with each other and with anyone who gets in their way.

Appreciation of the particular talents of Fatty Arbuckle scarcely survived the scandal that ended his career while memory of Mabel Normand would also have been hazy so Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916) is a good example of their comedy styles. They play a couple whose bed ends up floating on the sea.

Youngson was not above cashing in on a star’s future fame even when the example used of the person’s work could hardly be considered their best. In the case of Gloria Swanson (Sunset Boulevard, 1950) she was unrecognizable especially as she was only 12-years-old and being billed at the time as Gloria Dawn. Her inclusion is taken from the short Jimmie the Fox (1911) later renamed Bobby’s Sweetheart. Certainly, she is displaying none of the dramatic ability which made her the highest paid actress of the 1920s.

For all the varying quality of the actual footage, it does work as a showcase for the various stars, even though they would achieve greater success in later films. As importantly, it opened up for the 1960s generation the world of silent comedy and seemed to make that decade’s audience laugh as much as it had done previously.

Youngson would go on to make another five of these compilations throughout the decade. Without his initial forays into old school comedy, big-budget 70mm roadshows like It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World would never have seen the light of day, nor would more modest efforts like the British-made The Plank (1967), written, directed and starring Eric Sykes.

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