CHAPLIN AT KEYSTONE
Review by Phil Posner
Flicker Alleyís long awaited set of restorations of the complete work of Charles Chaplin for Keystone Studios is a revelation, even to one extremely familiar with the films. This DVD set is a must for all Chaplin or silent comedy enthusiasts, and for film history students.
All this made the films hard to watch and the plots, such as they were, very hard to follow, especially with whole sections of certain films missing.
These new restorations, carried out in Europe by the British Film Institute, Lobster Films in France and Cineteca Bologna in Italy, with prints and dupe negatives gather from many sources, while not absolutely perfect, are the best these prints have looked in any video release. Indeed, probably the best anywhere since the 1920s.
The chief accomplishment in this set is the restoration of missing shots and whole scenes not seen since the original releases almost a century ago. There are many private collectors who may have very good 16mm print versions of some of these films, but Iíd venture to say that this collection consists of the most all around satisfying of all the available prints.
The restorers have made a great effort to find the best looking, closest to original versions from many world wide archives and to conflate them into the most complete versions possible. There are still problems with scratched negatives or prints, a few jump cuts, and certainly it is fairly obvious when a film jumps from one source to another. But when weighed against their effective completeness these flaws are forgettable.
As an example, Tillieís Punctured Romance, the six reel, first American feature comedy, starring Marie Dressler, Chaplin and Mabel Normand, which comes from a UCLA Film and Television Archive restoration print contains the long lost introduction of Marie Dressler as herself at the beginning of the film, and the curtain calls taken by Dressler, Normand and Chaplin, as seen below. In addition many shots not seen in the best previous restorations by Kino and Republic are now present.
The curtain call from Tillieís Punctured Romance.
Other shorts are astonishingly good looking, sharp and clear in most places, with lesser quality moments where better footage did not exist.
Case in point, the rare one reeler, Recreation, which begins disappointingly with footage very similar to previous video editions, high contrast with heads cut off, suddenly becomes a pristine, beautifully grey toned section which may be the best quality reproduction of the set.
Some of the earlier films are particularly well served. Kid Auto Races at Venice is beautiful to behold and Between Showers is the best Iíve ever seen. Mabelís Strange Predicament on the other hand, suffers from a lot of deterioration but becomes completely clear for the last few seconds. Most are excellent throughout.
Iíve seen some criticisms of the speed of some of these restorations, but I was completely satisfied with them. After years of suffering though prints that were originally undercranked for effect, and then further sped up from 16 or 18 frames per second to sound speed (24 fps), they all Ďfeelí right to me.
The importance of these films to Chaplin scholarship cannot be overemphasized. Although none of these films can be called a masterpiece many are historic. They show the clear and steady progress that Chaplin made in screen acting, story crafting and directing as he gathered more and more experience during his first year of film making at Keystone.
Crude as they can sometimes be, the films show the development of the Tramp character from a wild, anti-social almost elemental oddball into the beginnings of the more sympathetic, pathos inspiring character into which he eventually evolved.
Films such as The New Janitor advances and humanizes the Tramp. In a story that Chaplin further developed in his 1915 Essanay film, The Bank, a janitor saves the day by foiling a robbery. About to be fired for dousing the boss with water, Chaplin asks for forgiveness in a manner unlike the Tramp ever behaved before. The performance was so affecting that, according to Chaplin in his autobiography, an actress on the set during filming burst into tears.
Many thematic elements that Chaplin would later develop were also first seen in the Keystones. The imposture story, first used by Chaplin in Caught in a Cabaret, was used again and again by Chaplin in later films from The Count, The Rink, The Idle Class, City Lights, right up to his first full talkie, The Great Dictator. The rescue theme as enacted in The New Janitor was reused in films such as The Bank, The Vagabond, The Kid, Modern Times and others.
The new music accompanying these films is generally very good, ranging from the energetic solo piano scores by Eric Beheim to the excellent small orchestra compositions by Rodney Sauer and The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. The music for the set is always appropriate and largely supports the moods of the films.