Charlie Chaplin’s “Burlesque on Carmen”

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December 18, 1915 was the release date of Charlie Chaplin’s Burlesque on Carmen.

Chaplin’s last official film for Essanay,  Carmen would represent the fruit of his dawning ambition, of the new direction he hoped to take. 1915 had seen two cinematic versions of the opera Carmen, one by Cecil B. de Mille, one by Raoul Walsh. Chaplin decided that he, too, would throw his derby hat into the ring by making his own parody version, Charlie Chaplin’s Burlesque on Carmen. This master stroke would allow Chaplin to have his cake and eat it too. On the one hand, the film was just what he said it was: a Mack Sennett style burlesque of a popular hit of the day. At the same time, it allowed Chaplin to get his hands on a tragic narrative, to feel his way through the story points, to get inside a real work of art, even if only to caricature it.

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Unfortunately, Essanay butchered the film, ignoring Chaplin’s own cut, adding many of his out-takes and a subplot featuring Ben Turpin, in order to pad it to a longer running time. From the existing version it is hard to tell what its merits might have been. Nor was this the last of their villainy. The enterprising grave robbers at Essanay would manage to make three additional movies out of discarded Chaplin footage after he left the studio. Following this, Chaplin made sure contractually that this indignity would never happen to him again.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy films including Charlie Chaplin’s Burlesque on Carmen please see new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube

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