What was meant to be a light-hearted spoof turned into a protracted legal battle between Charlie Chaplin and the Essanay motion picture studio. However, the behind-the-scenes drama of Burlesque on Carmen does not take away from the fact that it is still extremely funny.
Lawsuits! Get your hot, fresh lawsuits!
Charlie Chaplin spent the first few years of his career hopping from studio to studio, always seeking a better salary and more creative control over his films. He started at the rough-and-ready Keystone (his work there is being reevaluated thanks to an excellent restored box set), jumped over to Essanay and then went to Mutual.
Burlesque on Carmen was made at Essanay. I bring all this studio jumping up because, well, Essanay did some terrible things to the film. Hear this horror story:
Chaplin abandoned Essanay but he left behind outtakes and unused footage for Burlesque on Carmen. Knowing that the Chaplin name would sell tickets and that longer movies meant higher rental fees from theaters, the studio set to work expanding the film. Chaplin had intended his burlesque to be a two-reel film (reels lasting approximately 11-15 minutes, depending on projection speed) but Essanay was able to double its length to four reels.
To accomplish this, they added Chaplin’s rejected footage back in, shot a subplot starring Ben Turpin and generally played merry havoc with the thing. Chaplin was understandably horrified by this bloated version and sued. Essanay prevailed in court and the four-reel version (and the three-reel version derived from it) was the only way to see Chaplin’s Burlesque on Carmen for decades.
Silent film preservationist David Shepard came to the rescue and was able to create an approximation of Chaplin’s original two-reel film based on the documents from Chaplin’s lawsuit against Essanay.
Was it worth the trouble? Oh yes!
The result is a brilliant spoof, a well-acted comedy, a showcase for Chaplin co-star Edna Purviance and one of my favorite Chaplin shorts to date.
For those of you unfamiliar with the story of Carmen, here is the plot. At least the plot of the Burlesque, which was based on the Cecil B. DeMille film, which was adapted by William C. de Mille– brother of Cecil and advocate of the lower case “de”– from the original novella that was also the source for the opera. Got it?
Carmen (Edna Purviance) is a gypsy woman who belongs to a band of smugglers. They plan to sneak goods into the city but are stopped by Darn Hosiery (Charlie Chaplin), the sincere and strict new officer on duty. Carmen is charged with seducing Darn Hosiery, which she succeeds in doing.
What with one thing and another, Darn Hosiery ends up killing his friend to save Carmen and so he must join the smugglers and flee. Carmen has already moved on to a new beau, a bullfighter, and she goes away with him to Seville. Darn Hosiery follows.
(I will be spoiling the ending but the story is well over a century old.)
Carmen gets cornered by her erstwhile lover, who stabs her in a fit of rage. Fade.
But wait! Edna Purviance and Chaplin break character and start mugging and joking around with the fake dagger. On this silly note, the film truly ends.
1915 was quite a year for Carmen. There were two prestigious movie adaptations released. One starred reigning vamp Theda Bara and was directed by Raoul Walsh while the other imported opera superstar Geraldine Farrar and was directed by Cecil B. DeMille. The Bara version is lost but the DeMille film has survived and is readily available for viewing. (It’s very good! Here is my review.)
It has been brought out before that Burlesque on Carmen was one of Chaplin’s earliest attempts to blend serious emotion with goofy comedy. While not on par with, say, The Kid or City Lights, I think he does an excellent job, especially when you consider that he was just finishing up his second year in the motion picture business.
What really sends this little short over the top, though, is Edna Purviance. She is my favorite Chaplin leading lady, a talented actress in her own right. In Burlesque, Purviance matches Chaplin’s flair for the comedic and the dramatic. She does a wicked send-up of Geraldine Farrar’s acting but also manages to make the part her own. The climactic murder is played straight for the most part. Chaplin is dark and passionate, Edna is frightened but defiant… You know what? I almost wish this duo had made Carmen for real! (Chaplin’s faith in Purviance’s acting ability resulted in his first stab at pure drama, 1923’s A Woman of Paris.)
I highly recommend seeing the DeMille/Farrar picture before watching the Chaplin spoof. You will appreciate more of the gags, particularly Edna Purviance’s pitch-perfect impression of Geraldine Farrar.
Seeing the serious version of the film will also clear up a small misunderstanding regarding the authorship of the Burlesque’s scenario. In her relatively controversial biography, Tramp: The Life of Charlie Chaplin, Joyce Milton asserts that Chaplin could not possibly have been the author of Burlesque on Carmen as the scenario shows a deep understanding of both the opera and the novella upon which it was based yet Chaplin himself admitted to not knowing the difference between Carmen and Rigoletto at the time.
Anyone who has seen the DeMille/Farrar film (released in late October of 1915) will immediately recognize it as the source of Chaplin’s inspiration. His burlesque practically follows the DeMille film scene for scene and there is no element from the novella or opera to be found that was not also in the DeMille production. Chaplin did not have to be an expert on Bizet, he just had to buy a ticket to the biggest hit film of the month. (Burlesque on Carmen was completed in December of 1915 but held back for tinkering until 1916.)
Chaplin himself wrote in his autobiography that he admired the DeMille film and that it was his inspiration. He also makes sure we know that this was before DeMille’s films went downhill. Chaplin then repeats the tired (and unfounded) platitude that all of DeMille’s post-1918 work is valueless. I love Chaplin’s films but these petty asides (particularly the ones aimed at Mabel Normand and Mary Pickford) are why I found his autobiography to be more of a chore than a pleasure.
But I digress. Back to the legal tangles!
Why all this debate about authorship? It is possible that Chaplin did not write the script. Essanay claimed that he did not but they were engaged in a nasty lawsuit with him at the time and it was in their best interest to minimize his film credits. However, Chaplin’s lack of familiarity with opera clearly cannot be used as evidence of his non-authorship. (In Milton’s defense, very few reviews of Burlesque mention that it was meant to spoof another film, not the famous opera. But, then again, Chaplin never made a secret of where he got the idea.)
It is indeed a pity that the Bara version is lost. It would be a fascinating film to see in its own right and even more interesting to see what, if anything, Chaplin spoofed.
Burlesque on Carmen is a whip-smart spoof, a toe-dip into pathos and a showcase for both Chaplin and Edna Purviance. Do try to track down the Shepard restoration, it is excellent.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★
Where can I see it?
The restored version of the short is included in the Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies box set from Flicker Alley, which includes both DVD and Blu-ray. You can also find it packaged with Cecil B. DeMille’s Carmen (as well as The Cheat) in this DVD from Flicker Alley. Both versions are highly recommended.