Charles Spencer Chaplin managed to appear in some 35 short films and one feature during the twelve months he spent at Mack Sennett’s Keystone studios between 1913 and 1914. It’s a sign of how immensely popular these films were that all but one survive (the missing title is “Her Friend the Bandit,” which Chaplin directed with his co-star, Mabel Normand), but for the most part they survive in poor or incomplete prints — the result of having been copied and recopied over the course of nearly a century, until only images so scratched up and muddy that they can barely be made out remain.
For years, looking at the Chaplin Keystones has been a painful and frustrating experience. But now — thanks to the remarkable efforts of the Chaplin Keystone Project, a consortium of public archives and private companies including Lobster Films in Paris, Blackhawk Films in the US, the Cineteca Bologna, The British Film Institute and the UCLA Film and Television Archive — it’s possible to watch them without wincing. Painstakingly pieced together from the best surviving 35-millimeter material (and supplemented by some 16-millimeter footage), the Keystone shorts and the seven-reel feature “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” (in Ross Lipman’s magnificent UCLA restoration) have never looked remotely as good in my experience as they do in Flicker Alley’s four-disc “Chaplin at Keystone.”
The set features extensive production notes by Jeffrey Vance, scores from the likes of Neil Brand, Robert Israel and Rodney Sauer, and a short excerpt from the recently discovered “A Thief Catcher,” in which Chaplin makes his first and only appearance as a Keystone Kop; among the supplementary material is a 12-minute piece by John Bengston based on his amazing book “Silent Traces,” looking at some of the Keystone locations as they exist today. The box retails for $79.95 but is available, for the proverbial limited time, for $59.96 through the Flicker Alley site.
Although Chaplin found his familiar costume quite early (it’s all pretty much there in “Kid Auto Races at Venice,” the second film he made for Sennett although it was the first to be released), this isn’t the lovable Little Tramp of the later films, but the obnoxious, anarchic, sexually intemperate
and frequently inebriated character — a real threat to social order, as the Dadaists, among the first of Chaplin’s highbrow fans, were quick to recognize.
Working at a frenetic pace, Chaplin can be seen refining and reconsidering his character almost from film to film — and after all of four months in the movie business, he’s learned enough about filmmaking to start directing his own movies, which are immediately distinguishable, with their more emphatic use of close-ups and more fully developed character comedy, from the broad and frenetic shorts directed by Sennett and Keystone’s other house directors. It’s in “Caught in a Cabaret,” from April 27, 1914, that Chaplin reveals the real depth of his talent and ambition, working up a blend of class conflict and personal pathos (again in collaboration with Normand) that could serve at a template for his work through “Modern Times” — itself being re-released his week in a solid Blu-ray edition from Criterion.
My New York Times review is here.