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DVD Review: CHAPLIN AT KEYSTONE



Studio: Flicker Alley
Year: 1914
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Minta Durfee, Roscoe Arbuckle, Mack Swain, Charles Conklin
Director: Charlie Chaplin, Henry Lehrman, Mabel Normand
Release Date: October 26, 2010
Rating: Not Rated for (slapstick comedy, mildly risque themes, drunkenness)
Run Time: 09h:50m:00s
Genre(s): comedy

"I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the make-up made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on to the stage he was fully born." - Charlie Chaplin on the creation of the Little Tram

CHAPLIN AT KEYSTONE

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Archives over the globe contributed to this massive and virtually complete collection of the beginnings of Charlie Chaplin's film career. Although he chafed at the factory-style work at Keystone during his year there in 1914, it was there that he learned much of the film craft and developed the beloved Little Tramp character that would make him one of the most popular actors in the world. Throw away all your old tapes and discs, because this is the real item, in solid restorations that finally allow these films to shine. Highly recommended as one of the best DVD releases of the year.

Movie Grade: B+

DVD Grade: A-

One of my first assignments at dOc more than ten years ago was the pleasurable task of interviewing David Shepard of Film Preservation Associates and Blackhawk Films. At that time, he was completing the restoration of the Essanay shorts that Chaplin shot right after leaving Keystone, and we touched on the subject of the Keystone comedies. Mr. Shepard lamented that the state of the Keystone source materials was so deplorable that it was dubious that they would ever be seen in proper form. But he was working on it, he assured me, and slowly collecting materials bit by bit.

Fast forward a decade, and Mr. Shepard, now associated with the Flicker Alley label, has produced this fine assemblage of all of the surviving Chaplin films from the Keystone era (only Her Friend the Bandit remains lost to this day). All thirty-four of the short films, and the first comedy feature-length film, Tillie's Punctured Romance are present here in astonishingly good condition considering the vast overprinting done to the negatives and the fragility of nitrate.

At last, we can trace Chaplin in one package through that first seminal year, from his first appearance as a foppish rascal in Making a Living, released in February of 1914. Almost immediately, he arrives at the Little Tramp character, nearly fully blown, in the next two pictures, Mabel's Strange Predicament and Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal.. While the latter was shot second, it was released first, and marks the Tramp's first released appearance. Oddly enough, since it was shot live at a race in Venice, California, it's also the first public appearance of the Tramp. The plot is paper-thin; photographers are shooting footage of the race (which is actually going on in the background) while the Tramp decides he would like to be in films and keeps working out ways to get into the frame. It's simple but ingenious, and it's amusing to watch the crowd in the background (their faces finally clearly visible after all these years) not knowing what to make of him. Eventually, several kids start to join into his antics, apparently off script, giving them the title of being the first of what would be very many Chaplin imitators.

Although Chaplin liked to give the impression that at that point he never looked back, it's clear from the presentations here that wasn't quite true. In several of the succeeding films it's quite clear Mack Sennett had no clear idea of what he had on his hands, and Chaplin reverts to his stage drunk act, and in one short, Tango Tangles, he appears without any comic makeup at all as essentially himself (though once again, drunken). In Mabel at the Wheel he even suffers the indignity of having to imitate the departed Ford Sterling's Dutchman character opposite Mabel Normand. But before long it was clear that the Tramp was catching the fascination of the public, and the balance of the set is largely devoted to his exploits.

It does take a while for Chaplin to quite come to some aspects of the character; at first he's almost always drunk at some point, and is often rude, ill-tempered and downright nasty. But as the year progresses, he begins to add touches of sentimentality and pathos that would becomes the Tramp's hallmark. Of course, Sennett would have little interest in any of this, and when Chaplin became huge with Tillie's Punctured Romance opposite Marie Dressler, the writing was on the wall. Sennett wasn't about to pay Chaplin what he thought he was worth (Sennett even docked him his $25 pay for directing a short that went over budget), and the rest was history.

The quality of the prints is unsurprisingly a little uneven. Nothing is pristine, but everything, even the fragments of Caught in a Cabaret assembled from a multitude of sources look quite watchable, even on a larger set. Gone is the blurriness, haloing and solarization that has been the trademark of these shorts in prior releases. It's truly a revelation, and the various archives (principally Bologna, the British Film Institute and Lobster Films in France, though UCLA does contribute as well) are to be congratulated for this wonderful package. I did not observe any ghosting or similar problems that have been an issue with earlier releases done in connection with Lobster Films, so that is a relief.

The films are of course all silent, and are run at a thoughtful frame rate; it's fast enough that the comedy never becomes draggy, and it's not so fast that it looks asinine from speed alone. I don't see what the actual frame rate used was, but I think that it is a very suitable compromise between the two extremes. The music is contributed by such luminaries as the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and Robert Israel, among others. One name that stood out but I hadn't seen before on a silent film score was that of Stephen Horne, who contributes a delirious piano score for Tango Tangles based largely on variations of Darktown Strutters' Ball; it is incredibly fun and I look forward to hearing more from Horne.

The extras are significant as well, with a solid booklet contributed by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance that gives an overview of Chaplin's time at Keystone and discusses each of the films in several paragraphs. On the fourth disc, there are a number of featurettes. One of these explains the restoration work, and another is devoted to finding the sites where these films were shot. An amusing French cartoon from 1916, Charlie's White Elephant makes for a nice tribute. But perhaps the prize here is a section from the recently-discovered film A Thief Catcher, which confirms the long-doubted statement by Chaplin that he had appeared as a Keystone Kop in an early comedy. Considering that film was found in June of 2010, the timing of this release could hardly be better. The only downside is that my mother, Janice Zimmer, who adored Chaplin, died in August 2010 and didn't get to see this lovely and essential set. But Chaplin, he lives on!

Posted by: Mark Zimmer - February 15, 2011, 7:40 am - DVD Review
Keywords: comedy, slapstick, keystone, sennett, fatty, arbuckle, swain, durfee, conklin




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