For the first half of the 20th century, Charlie Chaplin was the most famous movie comedian in the world thanks to his endearing Tramp character and the masterpieces he wrote and directed, including “The Gold Rush,” “City Lights,” “Modern Times” and “The Great Dictator.” But every genius has to start somewhere, and for Chaplin that was with the Keystone Film Co., where he honed his craft and created his iconic character — the baggy-pants, bowler-hatted Tramp.
The terrific new “Chaplin at Keystone” DVD set arriving Oct. 26 from Flicker Alley, beautifully illustrates how Chaplin’s star was born at Keystone.
“In one year and in 35 films, Chaplin not only becomes the Tramp, he learns about movies, how movies work. He becomes Chaplin,” says Serge Bromberg, whose Paris-based Lobster Films got the ball rolling on the Keystone set.
In 1913, Chaplin was a young British comedian touring America with the Fred Karno theatrical company making $75 a week. That spring, Keystone Film Co. in Los Angeles asked the 24-year-old to become one of its stock company of comedic characters. He was offered $150 a week for three months with a raise to $175 per week for the rest of the year — more money than he had ever seen.
Keystone was the brainchild of Mack Sennett, often called the “king of comedy.” Among its stable of comedic players were Sennett, Mabel Normand, Fred Mace, Ford Sterling, Fatty Arbuckle, Chester Conklin, Mack Swain and Edgar Kennedy. Sterling was about leave to start his own company, and Chaplin stepped in as his replacement
So on Jan. 14, 1914, Chaplin began his first Keystone short, “Making a Living,” in which he plays a dandy of questionable character. When he stepped in front of the camera that day, Chaplin didn’t know anything about filmmaking. By year’s end, he had not only developed the Tramp but was also writing and directing the short films. Though Sennett didn’t believe in publicizing the names of his actors — he considered the Keystone name to be the star — by the end of 1914, Chaplin’s name would appear in some ads. Some theaters would have a poster of Chaplin as the Tramp with the sentence “I’m here today.”
In these early incarnations, the Little Tramp isn’t quite the sweet little guy of “The Gold Rush” or “City Lights” but a man who loves to drink, smoke and is a bit of a lecher. Because those Keystone film have been seen over the years in bad, edited prints, often with different titles and projected in the wrong speed, these Keystone comedies are often dismissed as not very good.
But that assessment should change with this new DVD set; these Keystone films haven’t looked this sharp and clear in decades. Among the highlights are “Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal.,” which marks the first on-screen appearance of the Tramp; “Twenty Minutes of Love,” which was his first effort at writing and directing, though no one really knows if he completely directed it; “A Busy Day,” in which he plays a woman interrupting a parade; and “Tillie’s Punctured Romance,” the first feature-length comedy, which was restored by UCLA Film and Television Archive. The set also includes an excerpt from “A Thief Catcher,” a recently discovered Keystone short in which Chaplin has a lengthy cameo as a Keystone cop.
With the support of Association Chaplin (the company the filmmaker created for his children), eight years ago the British Film Institute National Archive, the Cineteca Bologna and its lab L’Immagine Ritrovata and Lobster Films began to gather from archives and collectors the best 35-millimeter early generation materials on the Keystone Chaplins. Bromberg describes the process as “one of the most difficult restorations … like climbing Everest.”
Keystone went out of business in 1917, and all of the studio’s remaining negatives and films were sold at auction a few years after that. By the time the negatives were sold, Chaplin was the most famous comic actor in the world. Because Keystone was out of business, “no one could sue for piracy,” Bromberg says. “So a lot of people tried to grab prints or any kind of material on those 35 films, retitle them and say it is a new Chaplin comedy.”
BFI and Bologna made new 35mm negatives for films they restored. Lobster did digital restoration, getting rid of any shaking in the frame and smoothing out transitions between source materials. They also used 16mm and 35mm clips supplied by restorationist David Shepard and his Blackhawk Films in the U.S.
“It turns out that [my material] was less blemished than a lot of the stuff that the archives had found from old prints,” Shepard says. “We were able to put in little missing bits, and in some cases we used the entire film.”