Review by Phil Posner 


Flicker Alley’s 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.

For those not familiar with the significance of the Chaplin Keystones I quote from the Flicker Alley press release:

Charles Chaplin came to Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios late in 1913 as a little-known British vaudevillian, and after a year, had not only established his Tramp character, (but) learned to write and direct his own films, and also achieved public recognition as a star comedian. Although Keystone did not publicize its performers by name, standees of Chaplin's likeness outside theatres sufficed to attract audiences. Some of the films, especially Tillie's Punctured Romance, remained in theatrical distribution for decades.

The fact that all but one of the Chaplin Keystones exist is due, of course, to the star’s enormous subsequent popularity. Most of the original Keystone negatives, however, were simply printed away and the survival of all but a few of these films depends upon a very few original prints, a larger number of reissue prints, and some duped prints from later years. With the support of Association Chaplin (Paris), 35mm full aperture, early-generation materials were gathered over an eight year search on almost all the films from archives and collectors around the world, and were painstakingly pieced together and restored by the British Film Institute National Archive, the Cineteca Bologna and its laboratory L’Immagine Ritrovata in Italy, and Lobster Films in Paris. Most are now clear, sharp and rock-steady, although some reveal that their source prints are well-used and a handful survives only in 16mm. While admitting these limitations, one can now understand Chaplin's meteoric rise, for it is possible for the first time in generations to see clearly what clever and imaginative films he made at Keystone.

I’ve been a Chaplin aficionado for fifty years.  When I began my study and admiration of Chaplin, there was no home video, only expensive and rare 16mm, and 8mm home movie versions of wildly varying quality.  The prints available were all derived from badly damaged sources.  The films had been duped over and over again since their original releases, as Keystone never thought of preserving archival negatives or prints in those early days.  They were choppy, often with large gaps in the action, due to badly repaired breaks in the prints.  The images often had lost the entire left side or the upper portion of the frame because of the later addition of optical soundtracks and were further marred by darkening of contrast and blurring due to generational loss.  When the video era began there was little improvement, and incorrect projection speeds added to the problems. 

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 I’d 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, Tillie’s 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 Tillie’s 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 I’ve ever seen.    Mabel’s 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.

 I’ve 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 ‘feel’ 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.

Chaplin At Keystone also includes several fascinating special features. An extensive booklet provides an overview of the importance of the Chaplin Keystone comedies and detailed notes on the individual films by film historian and author Jeffrey Vance. Although having Brent Walker’s superb Keystone tome,  Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory on hand added another dimension to the set.  Extras include: Inside the Keystone Project, a short documentary detailing the international restoration efforts, historian John Bengtson’s "then and now" look at several Keystone film locations, a short excerpt from A Thief Catcher, recently-discovered by Paul E. Gierucki, with Chaplin as a Keystone Cop and the animated Charlie's White Elephant, and a gallery of rare photographs.


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