In my opinion this is the sexiest scene he ever did in any of his 84 short or feature films, he was not playing “the tramp” in this Essanay film but a Spanish guard who has been betrayed by the beautiful Carmen (played by Edna Purviance).
This was a take on a very popular Opera at the time called “Camen” and was also made in to 2 other films in 1915 most notably one starring Theda Bara and another Carmen film starring Geraldine Farrar.
There are 2 Chaplin versions of this…I highly recommend the 2 reel version (approx 27 minutes) as that is the version he wanted to be released in 1915, but when Charlie left Essanay at the end of 1915 they did not release it, they held it up while they padded it to 4 reels (to make more money) with additional footage they shot (even adding Ben Turpin who Charlie did not include when he shot) and outtakes Charlie had discarded.
Watching both you can see that the 2 reel is far superior.
Yes, Chaplin’s time at Essanay was a time for experimenting. Although he was no stranger to parody at this point (check out his Keystone era short The Face on the Barroom Floor) this was the first (and only?) time that he would specifically parody another film. Yes, it’s a version of the famous opera, but Chaplin was mostly taking on Cecil B. DeMille’s version, which came out that same year. (That film actually does still exist but I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet. There was also a version with Theda Bara released the same year, which like most of her films, is sadly lost).
The story is really simple. Edna Purviance plays a gypsy that seduces Chaplin, who plays a guard officer, to let her band of smugglers into a city. There’s also complications with another officer (Leo White) and a Toreador (John Rand). It all ends tragically with a double murder/suicide Or does it?
By adapting a serious work, Chaplin was able to rise above the usual run of the mill slapstick and make something that’s both funny and moving at the same time. Thanks in part to some fantastic acting from both him and Edna, It’s a near masterpiece. Or at least it should have been.
There are actually two different versions of this film that were made. Chaplin’s original version was a two reeler which ran about a half hour. When Chaplin left Essanay, the studio was desperate for anything that would keep them afloat as Charlie was pretty much their meal ticket by then. One thing they did was hire impersonators so they could keep pumping out product. This got to be so bad that Chaplin actually started putting his signature on his films and put up notices that if they didn’t have this mark, they weren’t his work. Another thing Essanay did was re-edit existing Chaplin films to make “new” ones. Carmen got the worst of it. When the studio’s padded four reel version was released in 1916, Chaplin was rightfully furious and filed a lawsuit, which he summarily lost. Thus the most common version floating around for decades, and the one you can find most easily on Youtube, is this butchered cut.
So what does this “new” version include? Mostly a whole lotta unfunny crap involving Ben Turpin that has nothing to do with anything and totally throws off Chaplin’s careful pacing, making the film feel bloated and overlong. It also has the consequence of making Chaplin absent from his own film for large chunks of time! Essanay must have also thought that their audience had the intelligence level of eight year olds because there’s an opening crawl that explains everything in excruciating detail and a whole lotta really stupid intertitles. Chaplin’s rather intelligent parody is turned into a lowbrow farce.
However, both this and the restored cut are worth watching. There’s a large chunk that’s missing from the two reel version where Chaplin “stabs” Leo White with a sword and it’s worthwhile to kind of get a feel for how different Chaplin’s style was from other directors and actors at this time. Turpin might have been funny but he was an over the top clown. Chaplin knew how to be subtle and convey emotion to the audience with nothing but his face. It’s the difference between the run of the mill and real genius spelled out glaringly on the screen. I also doubt Turpin would have been able to come up with as good an ending as we have here. What a great closing scene!
Tomorrow we’re at our last Essanay film already! Hooray!
Chaplin’s A Burlesque on Carmen was a burlesque not only on the opera but also, and perhaps mainly, on the movie Carmen (1915) by Cecil B. DeMille. Chaplin used the set, costumes, intertitles … very similar to DeMille’s movie and some of Chaplin’s gags were built by ‘mocking’ the other film. The photos below are some scenes in the 2 films, photos 1 and 3 belong to DeMille’s and 2,4 Chaplin’s.
The original version of A Burlesque on Carmen was a 2 reel short. However after Chaplin left Essanay, the company used the outtakes to extend the short to 4 reels and sold it as a feature. Chaplin was very angry with this and sued the company but he lost the case.