I’m planning on making the next few months Chaplin months because there’s a special book coming out a bit later this year: The Charlie Chaplin Archives from Taschen. For those of you who do not know Taschen, it is an “art book” publisher that specializes in large, detailed, photo-heavy tomes on a variety of subjects. My wife loves their books on fashion, which we were introduced to several years ago by KevinfromCanada’s wife. I’m particularly interested in their books on film, like The Ingmar Bergman Archives, The Stanley Kubrick Archives, and soon The Charlie Chaplin Archives. These are gigantic books: the Chaplin will come in at around 560 landscaped pages. It looks beautiful. More importantly, it is filled with photos and text, enough to keep you reading up on Chaplin for a long time.
But more on the Taschen book later when it is published. Today’s post is meant to start a series of posts on Chaplin’s work, focused on the home video releases available in the United States. For some time now you could pick up cheap DVDs that contain a bunch of poor quality transfers of Chaplin’s silent, but there are two companies that have taken it upon themselves to do better: Flicker Alley and The Criterion Collection. Flicker Alley’s work has focused on Chaplin’s earliest studio days, from his beginnings at Keystone, in 1913 and 1914, to his days at Mutual, in 1916 and 1917, when he was about to strike out and make his feature films. In a fresh development, Flicker Alley just announced this week that they are releasing Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies (Chaplin was at Essanay from 1915 to 1916) this coming November.
But today’s focus is on Flicker Alley’s Chaplin at Keystone.
Up to 1913, Chaplin had been performing with the Fred Karno Company, a touring theatrical group (the Taschen book goes into some wonderful detail about this period of his life). Mack Sennett, who ran Keystone (more on him and his work here), saw Chaplin performing and thought he might be a good fit at Keystone, especially since Ford Sterling, one of Keystone’s brightest lights, was leaving. So they telegrammed Chaplin, who thought maybe he had inherited money. And apparently Chaplin was disappointed to learn that there was no inheritance but that instead it was a motion picture company trying to lure him into a contract. The lure, of course, worked; the salary was large: $150 weekly for three months to be raised to $175 weekly for the remainder of the contract. Chaplin’s first motion picture contract was with Keystone, signed in September of 1913. It was for the period of one year and began on December 13, 1913. He thought this might help his stage career: “I was not terribly enthusiastic about the Keystone type of comedy, but I realized their publicity value. A year at that racket and I could return to vaudeville an international star.”
Chaplin made 36 films during that year at Keystone. This 4 DVD set contains 35 of them. The 36th, “Her Friend the Bandit,” is lost, probably forever, though “The Thief Catcher,” which I talked about in my post on the Mack Sennett Collection, linked to above, was only just found in 2010. All in all this DVD collection is 590 minutes of cinematic history and cinematic bliss.
Chaplin’s first film for Keystone was “Making a Living,” which first came out on February 2, 1914. Incredibly, the Chaplin we all think of, the Chaplin dressed up like the Tramp, came in Chaplin’s second produced film (though third to be released), “Mabel’s Strange Predicament,” in which he plays a drunk tramp who runs into the elegant Mabel Normand (who also directed the film; the two would go on to make more than a dozen films together). It is fascinating to see the Tramp so early on. While some aspects of the character modulated over time, Chaplin struck gold right from the start. It seems this was incredibly fortuitous. He was told to put on comedy makeup, and left to his own devices he donned the baggy pants, the tight coat, the small derby, and the large shoes — as well as the little moustache — all on his own. He said that “by the time I walked on to the stage he was fully born.” And he’s right. He’d play the Tramp all the way up to his last silent film, 1936’s Modern Times.
Fortuitous genius, and we the beneficiaries. I believe most of us have bonded with this character in truly deep ways: he represents our loneliness and our resilience, our desperation and our hope.
Also, while at Keystone, Chaplin got interested in directing — or, perhaps it’s just that he thought he could do it better. Just a few months into his contract, he was handed the reigns and started writing and directing his films. In fact, of the 36 films he made at Keystone, he wrote and directed 20.
This all happened in a year. His final film at Keystone was “His Prehistoric Past,” and it arrived in theaters on December 7, 1914. Within months Chaplin was moving to a more lucrative contract at Essanay, and from there to an even more lucrative contract with Mutual, which is where we’re going next in this Chaplin marathon.
I spoke a lot above about the historical significance of this set, about how wonderful it is to see this all developing. While it’s true that these films show the inception of an artist who would go on to produce even better films, these films are so much fun to watch. I recently took a trip to Idaho to visit my parents. One evening, we all sat down — my dad who is in his seventies, my mom who is in her sixties, me in my thirties, my children all under ten — and we were having a blast as we watched. That’ll be a common theme through this marathon.
Next up: Flicker Alley’s Chaplin’s Mutual Commedies.
- The first thing I turned to was the extensive booklet included in the box. It features a nice overview of Chaplin’s career at Keystone as well as detailed notes on each of the films by Jeffrey Vance who wrote Chaplin: Genius of Cinema.
- Inside the Keystone Project is a short look at the restoration of the films. I’ve seen several of these films in various iterations over the years, and they’ve never looked this good. Will they look better should a Blu-ray release come out? Yes. And I hope that happens some day.
- In another short feature, John Bengtson (author of Silent Traces) takes us “then and now” to several Keystone locations.
- The disc also includes the short “Charlie’s White Elephant,” a 1916 animated film featuring Chaplin’s Tramp character. It’s a strange short, but an interesting curiosity.
- The disc ends with a nice photo gallery.