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Chaplin at Keystone

(US DVD: 26 Oct 2010)

Becoming Chaplin

Charles Chaplin is perhaps the most interesting celebrity figure of the first half of the 20th century. Arguably the most recognizable international celebrity of his day, devotion to his craft made him a cultural icon as well as an actor and filmmaker. His body of work bridged the rowdy music halls of his youth and silent film. It also connected the silent era to the talkies, most notably in his masterpiece, The Great Dictator.


The latter film showed the other fascinating side of this very complex person, his exuberantly progressive, anti-fascist, left wing politics. Learning about this side of Chaplin, and seeing the ways it is subtlety expressed in films like Gold Rush and Modern Times (and less subtlety in Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux) reminds us of a time when the left had the sunlight in its face, laughter and a song and some cheers for the workers who were going to build a new world. Chaplin was the face of the political left before the catastrophes and compromises of the 20th century made us all scowling cynics.


Let’s not forget, too, that he was just so damn funny. Chaplin’s masterstroke of creating the bittersweet tramp as a stand-in for every modern person, and putting that character through the ringer of modernity and its challenges, changed comedy forever. And it still works. I have shown Chaplin to classrooms full of jaded undergraduates, grousing at having to watch a silent film. Outspokenly dubious at first, they are soon LMAOing all over the place to the dancing potato scene in Gold Rush, or to Charlie’s titanic battle with the clockwork in Modern Times.


Chaplin at Keystone beautifully introduces some of the master’s lesser-known work to a new generation. He had come to Keystone in 1913 and, as Jeffrey Vance notes in a small book that accompanies this collection, became immediately unhappy. Hoping to take part in films that had some sense of character development that allowed for complex comic routines, Chaplin found himself working on an assembly-line of short movies, sometimes helping the company churn out one a week. The studio that had made the “Keystone Cops” famous was not exactly interested in subtle character development.


Chaplin’s comic genius shone even in these less than ideal circumstances. Moreover, he convinced studio head Mack Sennett to allow him to direct. This set contains his first effort “Twenty Minutes of Love,” in which the Tramp, some ardent couples and a policemen wreck a perfectly tranquil day at the park.


The restoration of these films is an extraordinary achievement and they look amazing. Many of these films have been available in various sets and commemorative additions for a long time but have generally looked scratchy and murky.


The sad fate of these films is due in part to their very popularity. Most of these short, one to two reelers were shown over and over again to enthusiastic audiences, often at high speeds as was the practice with knockabout comedies. The result has been a degeneration of individual prints.


The Chaplin at Keystone project is actually important in film history for its effort to bring new life to these gems. An international collaboration of film archives have pieced the best images from each of these films together into a restoration that is a revelation. Though many of them remain very scratchy, some old favorites are amazingly clear and bright with little to no contrast problems.


The set includes 34 films, many of them of real historical value and lots that are just plain fun.  We get Making a Living, Chaplin’s first comedy for Keystone and done before he had created “the Tramp”. We also get the famous Kid Auto Races at Venice California, significant for the first appearance of what would become the Tramp figure. This split reel effort (a very short film, running about 500 feet) is also an interesting experiment in filmmaking, essentially a documentary of a public sporting event that included Chaplin mugging it up for the camera and playing with the personality of his most famous creation.


We learn a great deal from these films just how much experimentation Chaplin undertook to create perhaps the most recognizable figure in the history of comedy. Some fans who only know the tramp from City Lights and other classics will be surprised that the early iterations of the character had little of the sweetness and pathos and sometimes displayed everything from lechery to laziness to outright drunken rowdiness. Only the characteristic bowler, cane and mustache identify him.


A number of the other films are of great interest to lovers of film history. A one reel comedy called Tango Tangles features Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle in a rivalry for the love of the hat check girl at a tango club. The hat check girl was played by Minta Durfree who later married Arbuckle. The two separated in 1921 immediately prior to the scandal that would destroy Arbuckle’s career, the alleged rape and accidental murder of starlet Virginia Rappe.


The keystone collection also highlights the work of Mabel Normand who starred with Chaplin in several short Keystone features. Normand later became one of the American film industries first female producers and directors, working frequently with Chaplin until a series of scandals ruined her career in the early-‘20s.


Other treats in this collection include a feature directed by Chaplin in 1914 called Those Love Pangs. Along with starring Chester Conklin, whose career would extend into the ‘60s as a writer/director, this one reel features shows Chaplin perfecting his physical humor, turning his cane, cigarettes and even a nickelodeon machine into launching pads for sight gags.


Finally, this set contains Tillie’s Punctured Romance what Jeffrey Vance calls “Hollywood’s first feature length slapstick comedy.” The star of this show is stage actress Marie Dressler but Chaplin’s supporting role brought him significant attention and became his entry-point into the world of feature films and major stardom.


A wonderful set of extras round out this set. Jeffrey Vance’s small but substantial 40-page booklet provides extra information on each film as well as on the Keystone studio’s story. A six-minute Ford Sterling comedy shows Chaplin as a Keystone cop. There is a very short (about ten-minutes) featurrette that shows the process of restoration. It’s a bit too short given the complexity and very interesting nature of the task.


If you love the silent era, or if you just love to laugh, this set allows you to travel to the moment when Chaplin truly became Chaplin.

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W. Scott Poole is a writer and an associate professor of history at the College of Charleston. He's the author of Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror, a book about the life and strange times of America's first horror host out in September 2014 from Counterpoint/Soft Skull. He is also the author of the award-winning Monsters in America (2011). Follow him on twitter @monstersamerica.


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12 Jan 2011
The tremendously popular Charlie Chaplin movies were played until they fell apart and flaked off the nitrate, and time's warping and woofing did the rest.
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