'Chaplin at Keystone': The Tramp Lives On!

Charlie 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.

Chaplin at Keystone

Director: Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Roscoe Arbuckle
Distributor: Flicker Alley
Rated: NA
Release Date: 2010-10-26

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.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.