Saturday, November 09, 2013

The post-theatrical life of the Mutual-Chaplin Specials

Poised to ship upon receipt of orders, the good folks at BearManor Media have just published my latest book: CHAPLIN’S VINTAGE YEAR: The History of the Mutual-Chaplin Specials.  Silent comedy aficionados need no introduction to this subject.  For casual viewers: these are twelve 2-reel comedies produced by Chaplin during 1916-17 that, quite frankly, have been viewed by more eyes than any other cinematic work.  Consider (at risk of morbidity): cemeteries are choked with millions who didn’t live to see The Sound of Music, much less Star Wars or Harry Potter, yet queued up at their local nickelodeon box office, dimes in hand, just to watch these films, often more than once. 

During their first release cycle between 1916-18, they grossed $3.3 million when admissions were, on average, .10-.15 cents.  They came around again, with new prints each time, in 1919, 1923, 1927, 1932 (with music and sound courtesy of the Van Beuren studio’s Gene Rodemich and Winston Sharples), 1941 (in two “streamlined” feature compilations of six shorts each) and beyond, right up to today.  Search “Chaplin Mutual” on YouTube; you’ll find them.  CHAPLIN’S VINTAGE YEAR covers not only the making of those dozen gems, but their selling (and re-selling) as well, into the 21st century, and the restoration and Blu-ray release that is coming next year. 

Naturally, that history includes television.  There’s a bit more that can be told on that subject, for which this blog is the perfect forum.

In March 1941, RKO Radio Pictures, which had acquired the Chaplin Specials from its former shorts supplier the Van Beuren Corporation, sold the negatives to Guaranteed Pictures Inc.  Guaranteed had been formed in 1928 by Samuel Goldstein and Mortimer Sikawitt, and mainly distributed independent features, mostly foreign-made.  Four years after its founding, the company financed the first Yiddish-language talking feature, Joseph in the Land of Egypt.  It was mainly a labor of love, yet hit big among its target audience, especially in Poland.

Typical low-budget Commonwealth fare.
Eager to get into the non-theatrical business, by 1937 Goldstein and Sikawitt (who’d soon change his name to Mort Sackett) founded Commonweath Pictures Corporation for 16mm road show distribution and home movie sales.  They bought up theatrical films, mostly low-budget scraps from dead studios or independent productions that had been released by United Artists and RKO.  Naturally, after Guaranteed acquired the Chaplin Specials, Commonwealth was assigned non-theatrical rights.  In 1947, the company branched into TV with Commonwealth Film and Television, simply licensing its properties for the home screen.

Guaranteed had issued their two feature compilations in April and August of 1941; limited releases to be sure, but all enormously successful.  In early 1943, Commonwealth took the two 6-short features and reworked them into three 4-short featurettes for non-theatrical release, and also made each individual short available. 

Like every other buyer of the Mutual Chaplins, though, Guaranteed needed to aggressively assert its legal ownership of the titles, as hundreds of stray prints were still floating around for sale or lease.  In January 1942, action was brought against the Movie Parade Theater in Los Angeles for unauthorized showing of a Mutual short.  Theater owner Edward Kohn was forced to pony up $3,500 in damages for screening his own 16mm print of one film!

Notice in the May 6, 1941 issue of FILM DAILY.
Unfortunately, no one seems to have told Goldstein, Sackett or their lawyer that copyrights needed to be renewed after 28 years.  The Van Beuren versions were never registered, despite the synchronizing of music and sound that effectively turned them into “new works.”  Consequently the Mutual-Chaplins slipped into the public domain in the mid-1940s, and there was little that Guaranteed or Commonwealth could do about it, not that they didn’t try.

Mort Sackett tries to assert his no-longer-applicable rights to the Mutual-Chaplins in 1959.
Luckily, Commonwealth was a major TV distributor, thanks mostly to their prodigious cartoon library, and it helped that they had the best-looking elements on the Chaplin subjects.  It doubly helped that they never bothered making dupe or 16mm negatives, striking 16mm prints straight off the original 35mm pre-print materials.  Naturally this came at a cost to their eventual preservation, but that was nobody’s concern in the late 1940s. 

TV distribution of the Chaplins began around 1950.  In November of that year, Goldstein died in a horrific crash on the Long Island Railroad, and it was the beginning of the end for Commonwealth and Guaranteed.  Three years later, Goldstein’s heirs would (unsuccessfully) sue for control of the companies, claiming Sackett and his wife (who served as treasurer) were intentionally mismanaging in order to lower share value.  In truth, Sackett was just incompetent; “one of those bullying, cigar-chewing types,” according to film preservationist David Shepard, who met him in the 1960s.  Before cashing out at the end of that decade, all Commonwealth properties would wind up in public domain hell.  You’ve seen their titles over and over in the dollar bin: The Flying Deuces, Pot o’ Gold, Second Chorus, ad infinitum.

Chaplin’s history on early TV was rather spotty.  He was a big hit in Los Angeles, but owing to the legal and political allegations then hounding him, veterans and women’s groups in other cities, including New York, forced his films from the air.  By the end of the decade that opposition began to recede and the Little Tramp gradually made his way back to the tube.  
 In 1963, New York City’s WOR-TV licensed the three Commonwealth compilations for their Million Dollar Movie program, and held those rights for at least three years.  The individual shorts turned up on public television.  By 1972, of course, all was forgiven and Chaplin returned to the U.S. in triumph to receive a special Academy Award.

Eventually Blackhawk Films bought the surviving Commonwealth elements, which is another story, covered in detail in CHAPLIN’S VINTAGE YEAR.

1 comment:

Seizetheday Caresaway said...

Do you know what the three serials Commonwealth had for distribution to TV in 1950? An articles in Sponsor said they had three. I know they distributed on 16mm non-theatrical serials (The Master Key, Jungle Queen, Phantom Creeps, Oregon Trail, Last Frontier, Trail of the Royal Mounted, and Jungle Menace) and were affiliated with Guaranteed Pictures Co. I can't be sure, but think two of the three for TV were probably Last Frontier and Trail of the Royal Mounted, which had Guaranteed theatrical releases.

Also, do you know what serials Advance Television Picture Service distributed to TV from ~1944 to ~1948?