THE BOOTLEG FILES: “BURLESQUE ON CARMEN”

BOOTLEG FILES 192: “Burlesque on Carmen” (Charlie Chaplin’s 1915 spoof on two then-current films based on the Bizet opera).

LAST SEEN: Available for viewing on several Net sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Only in public domain dupes.

REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: Orphaned movie.

CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: There was one interesting DVD release that brought the film as close to Chaplin’s vision as possible.

Among film critics and scholars (if not today’s moviegoing public), Charlie Chaplin was the greatest comic actor in movie history. But that’s not to say that Chaplin was infallible. In retrospect, some of his films from his peak years don’t hold up so well. In the case of the 1915 “Burlesque on Carmen,” the film’s shortcomings aren’t entirely his fault.

Chaplin’s rise to superstardom was without precedent during the nascent years of the silent cinema. He was an obscure player in a touring English music hall company in 1914 when he was signed to become part of Mack Sennett’s Keystone comedy studio. Within a year, he was the most recognizable figure in movies and one of the world’s most beloved personalities. Chaplin left Sennett in 1915 and signed with the Essanay studios, where he enjoyed a greater degree of creative freedom.

In his period at Essanay, Chaplin redefined comedy by adding pathos and emotional depth to a genre that was primarily defined by the parameters of crude slapstick. Alas, Chaplin’s relation with Essanay soured (his demands for more money didn’t help), and by early 1916 he was ready to move on to a financially lucrative engagement with the Mutual Film Company.

“Burlesque on Carmen” was Chaplin’s final film during his Essanay period, and perhaps his heart wasn’t in his work when he conceived it. Or maybe he was uncomfortable with parody. The film was meant to cash in on a pair of highly popular film versions of the Bizet opera: a Cecil B. DeMille production starring Metropolitan Opera diva Geraldine Farrar (yeah, an opera star in silent movies!) and an opulent Fox production starring the reigning femme fatale, Theda Bara. Chaplin never created a parody of another production, so perhaps spoofing was not his metier.

Or maybe “Burlesque on Carmen” was just a dud. Hey, those things happen.

One of the main problems with “Burlesque on Carmen” was Chaplin’s insistence on casting Edna Purviance as the celebrated gypsy seductress. Purviance became Chaplin’s leading lady when he arrived at Essanay, and they enjoyed a real-life relation parallel to their reel-life work. Clearly, Chaplin was smitten with Purviance and worked hard to make her look good on screen, since she was no one’s idea of a great actress. Surviving outtakes from Chaplin’s canon shows him endlessly coaching Purviance to exact the right responses for her performances.

Asking Purviance to take on the role of Carmen, even in a parody, was a bit too much. She lacked the sultry personality that Farrar and, I assume, Bara brought to their films (Bara’s version is lost). Thus, the audience is confused when the men in the movie are fighting over her, since she is clearly nothing to fight for. A film intertitle refers to her as being “loved by all men under the age of 96” – not likely.

As usual, Chaplin reserved the comedy for himself. As Don Jose, he wears a comic opera notion of the Spanish military uniform. But Chaplin in a funny costume isn’t necessarily reason to laugh, and he clearly is at a loss of what to do in this unlikely role.

For the most part, Chaplin barely follows the well-worn story of Carmen but emphasized dull knockabout as a diversion. He repeatedly trips over a rock in the road, then orders a firing squad to “Kill that bug!” The soldiers aim their rifles at the rock and fire at it. A few minutes later, Chaplin trips over the rock again. Zzzzz.

Later on, Chaplin removes his helmet and discovers a large bug on his head. He asks a soldier to swat it, and the soldier grabs a wine bottle to make the kill. Again, zzzzz.

The real kicker, however, comes at the film’s end. Chaplin followed Bizet’s opera to its conclusion by having Don Jose fatally stab Carmen and then kill himself. But after that act, Chaplin and Purviance jump up and reveal the knife was actually a theatrical prop with a retractable blade. They laugh merrily – well, at least someone is laughing.

The Essanay executives may not have been very happy that a weak film like “Burlesque on Carmen” was Chaplin’s sign-off from their studio. After Chaplin departed, they took the film and ordered new scenes to be filmed. These scenes involved Ben Turpin, the cross-eyed comic, who was cast as a smuggler named Le Rememdado.

This created several problems. First, Turpin was funny to look at but not a particularly funny comic. Most of his shtick involved getting smacked and smacking others. Second, his scenes had nothing to do with the popular tale of Carmen (he was given a fat woman as a love interest). They were literally inserted helter-skelter into the Chaplin film, giving the impression of two different films playing at once (which, in fact, was happening).

The resulting “Burlesque on Carmen” was a total mess. Between Turpin’s intrusiveness (which doubled the film’s running length) and Chaplin’s uncommon mediocre performance, it was impossible to generate a single laugh in viewing this debacle.

Chaplin was livid when he discovered what happened to his film and sued Essanay (he also hated Turpin, which fueled his litigation). He lost in court, but Essanay was not exactly victorious. The studio was already out of business by the time the lawsuit was heard.

Chaplin was unable to gain control of his Essanay film output, and subsequently his films were widely bootlegged. “Burlesque on Carmen” actually proved to be rather popular with bootleggers. A 1920 reissue gave the film new intertitles, complete with name changes for the characters (Don Jose became Darn Hosiery). Another re-release was in 1928 via Quality Amusement Corp. Most of today’s bootleg prints are traced to that re-release, which itself worked from duped copies.

Even as late as the 1950s, when Chaplin was reviled for alleged Communist sympathies and was forced into exile due to McCarthyist hysteria, “Burlesque on Carmen” was still playing in theaters (a minor controversy arose when the local film censor for Memphis, Tennessee, attempted to ban a screening of the film because of Chaplin’s supposed Red leanings).

For years, “Burlesque on Carmen” was available on home video in crummy duped copies. Although the film is in the public domain, Kino on Video went the proverbial extra mile in 1999 by releasing “Burlesque on Carmen” in a collection of other Essanay comedies made by Chaplin. However, the Kino version excised the Turpin footage and brought back the original intertitles. Anyone who is interested in what Chaplin conceived would be recommended to seek out this release, which is still available on DVD.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at
Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on August 3, 2007 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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One Comment on "THE BOOTLEG FILES: “BURLESQUE ON CARMEN”"

  1. Bill Sprague on Fri, 30th Mar 2012 11:43 am 

    Now, how could anybody hate Ben Turpin?


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