BURLESQUE ON CARMEN (Charles Chaplin, 1915, USA, 31m, BW)
Directed by Charlie Chaplin
Produced by Jess Robbins
George K. Spoor
Written by Prosper Mérimée
Starring Charles Chaplin
Music by Hugo Riesenfeld
Cinematography Roland Totheroh
Edited by Charlie Chaplin
General Film Company
Distributed by Essanay Studios
December 18, 1915
31 minutes (1915)
44 minutes (1916)
Country United States
A Burlesque on Carmen is Charlie Chaplin's thirteenth film for Essanay Studios, released as Carmen on December 18, 1915. Chaplin played the leading man and Edna Purviance played Carmen. The film is a parody of the overacted Cecil B. DeMille Carmen of 1915 which was itself an interpretation of the popular novella Carmen by Prosper Mérimée. Composer Hugo Riesenfeld wrote the music for both the DeMille and the Chaplin films, based on George Bizet's opera Carmen.
Chaplin's original version was a tightly paced two-reeler, but in 1916 after Chaplin had moved to Mutual, Essanay reworked the film into a four-reel version called A Burlesque on Carmen, or Burlesque on 'Carmen', adding discarded footage and new scenes involving a subplot about a gypsy character played by Ben Turpin. This longer version was deeply flawed in pacing and continuity, not representative of Chaplin's initial conception. Chaplin sued Essanay but failed to stop the distribution of the longer version; Essanay's tampering with this and other of his films contributed significantly to Chaplin's bitterness about his time there. The presence of Essanay's badly redone version is likely the reason that Burlesque on Carmen is among the least known of Chaplin's works. Historian Ted Okuda calls the two-reel original version the best film of Chaplin's Essanay period, but derides the longer version as the worst.
A third version was released as a partial sound film in 1928 by Quality Amusement Corporation, comprising three reels based on the 1916 Essanay version, but reduced in length to accommodate a newly shot introduction spoken by newspaper columnist Duke Bakrak. The musical score was again by Riesenfeld. This version, with rewritten title cards, poor sequencing, and "fuzzy" in appearance from generation loss, can be found today on some home video releases. In 1999, Kino produced a version based on the work of film preservationist David Shepard, who studied Chaplin's court transcripts and other evidence to more closely reproduce the original Chaplin cut.
The story of Carmen was very popular in the 1910s, and two films under this title had already been released in 1915, one by Raoul Walsh in which stage actress Theda Bara played Carmen, and one by Cecil B. DeMille in which the part was played by opera star Geraldine Farrar. DeMille had intended to film a musical version of the opera Carmen, but its libretto was under copyright so DeMille instructed his screenwriter brother William to base his scenario on the public domain novella Carmen by Prosper Mérimée. William included a cigarette factory fight scene from the book which was not found in the opera. Composer Hugo Riesenfeld arranged the music, based on George Bizet's opera Carmen. DeMille's film received positive reviews but Chaplin thought it was ripe for parody.
Carmen, a gypsy seductress is sent to convince Darn Hosiery, the goofy officer in charge of guarding one of the entrances to the city of Sevilla, to allow a smuggling run. She first tries to bribe him but he takes the money and refused to let the smuggled goods in.
She then invites him to Lillas Pastia's inn where she seduces him. After a fight at the tobacco factory where Carmen works, he has to arrest her but later lets her escape. At Lillas Pastia's inn, he kills an officer who is also in love with her and has to go into hiding and he joins the gang of smugglers.
Carmen meets the famous toreador Escamillo and falls in love with him. She accompanies him to a bullfight but Darn Hosiery waits for her and when she tells him that she no longer loves him, he stabs her to death. But it is not for real, Chaplin shows that the knife was fake and both smile at the camera.
Charlie Chaplin’s 13th Essanay film is loosely based on Georges Bizet’s famous opera Carmen and stars Chaplin as Darn Hosiery, a Spanish Officer on watch at a popular smuggling point. Local barman Lillas Pastia (Jack Henderson) persuades an attractive gypsy girl, Carmen (Edna Purviance) to distract the guard while they smuggle their goods. Despite having no interest in the man Carmen uses her charms to distract Hosiery who ends up in a love quartet for the gypsy’s heart.
Burlesque on Carmen is an above average Essanay picture and features some nice subtle comedy as well as the usual trips, kicks and pokes. It also features the first noticeably decent performance from Chaplin regular Edna Purviance. When I saw Cecil B. DeMille 1915 Carmen, I was not very enthusiastic about it. I found the cinematography unimaginative and the acting unconvincing, particularly Geraldine Farrar and Wallace Reid in the main roles (I found the 1918 version by Lubitsch much better). Apparently Chaplin was of the same opinion because he realised a brilliant parody of the film.
His version follows closely DeMille's one with the same structure, often the same intertitles and very similar sets and costumes. The name of Don José is changed to Darn Hosiery, a funny phonetic American approximation of the Spanish pronunciation (Otto Preminger used a similar gimmick in his 1954 Carmen Jones when he renamed Escamillo Husky Miller). The comical effects come both from slapstick gags added by Chaplin and a slight exaggeration of the overacting and scenario weaknesses present in DeMille's version. The latter produces in my view the funniest moments. Take the fight in Lilas Pastia's inn: the struggle between the soldiers trying to open the door and the smugglers trying to prevent it is already a bit ridiculous in DeMille's version. Chaplin accentuates this by making the struggle last longer and continue even after the door has been unhinged.
Similarly, in DeMille's version, Carmen enjoys looking at the two men fighting for her. Chaplin makes Edna Purviance adds to the fun by throwing various objects at the men. Chaplin also uses the brush-looking top of his helmet to polish his shoes. The best effect is at the end when Chaplin and Purviance first play the murder scene in a serious way, rather better in my view than Farrar and Reid. However, when Escamillo appears, horrified, Chaplin bumps him away and plays the murder scene again to show us that he used a fake knife and the film finishes with Purviance and Chaplin smiling at the camera. This is probably the first example of breaking the fourth wall in cinema. It also shows that Chaplin, in his early days, could very well play other parts than the tramp, something he will do again later on.
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