Today it's hard to realize just how popular Charlie Chaplin
was back in the heyday of silent films.
There is no current equivalent and the magnitude of his fame has
really been equaled since. Chaplin's
Tramp character was a world-wide sensation since his films were easily
to non-English speaking countries. His
movies were in such high demand that scores of Chaplin imitators
were Chaplin imitation contests, he was the first actor to be featured
cover of Time Magazine, and he was one of the highest paid people (of
profession) in the country in the teens.
His films are still immensely popular today and the last time I
Chaplin film on the big screen, it sold out the theater where it was
Yet with all of that popularity, the earliest Chaplin films
have not been available on DVD... until now.
The great people at Flicker Alley have released Chaplin at Keystone, a
fantastic four disc boxed set that collects 34 of the filmmaker
effort. Not only that, but all of the
films have been restored, are accompanied by music from the top silent
musicians around, and come with an informative 40-page book by film
Jeffrey Vance. This is a set than needs
to be in any comprehensive library of silent film.
Spenser Chaplin was born in London
in April of
1889. His parents both toured the British music halls and had
their own. His father left the family when he was young (without
divorcing his mother) and went on to have a good carrier on the
His mother, Hannah, on the other hand started suffering from mental
her venues soon started shrinking. As legend has it, one night
Charlie was five his mother entered the theater too ill (or drunk) to
on. He went on in her place and started singing one of her
The audience was so enchanted with the precocious little singer that
started throwing coins on the stage. Charlie stopped in mid-song
started scurrying around the stage collecting all the money.
remembering his audience, Chaplin stood up and said "Wait till I get it
all, and then I'll sing a lot!" This brought roars of laughter
more coins. He made three pounds in tips that night, a huge
Hannah continued to deteriorate, and it soon got so bad that
she could no longer work. The two of them, along with Charlie's
half brother Sydney, lived in squalid
in various locations around London.
Eventually, Hannah was admitted to a mental institution and Charlie and
were taken to the Hanwell
School for Orphans
Destitute Children, a strict institution were children were hit with a
rod for the smallest infractions. They were to spend
months there before their mother was well enough to retrieve
Chaplin would later refer to this time as his "incarceration."
When he was eight, Charlie's father got him a job with a
traveling troupe of children clog dancers. Clogging was the rage
time, and Charlie toured the UK
with his group, The Eight Lancashire Lads, but after a year or so he
go. Chaplin then took odd jobs where he could find them, and
As time went by, Charlie and his brother Syd tried to break
into show business on several different occasions with some
success. Charlie attained a certain amount of fame in
as a child, but when he got older he found work hard to come by.
the meanwhile was an up and coming comedian, and was eventually taken
Fred Karno's troupe.
Fred Karno was the leading producer of comic plays for music
halls at the time. He turned the art of comedy into a science,
'fun factory' where young actors would train and study and then he
them out on the road when they were ready. At any one time, Karno
have between six and ten troupes out touring.
Syd did well under Karno, and he convinced Fred to give his
brother Charlie a try. Chaplin worked hard studying comic
techniques, and rose quickly through the ranks. He was the
during the Karno's 1910 tour of America.
(Stan Laurel was also on the same tour.) Charlie was a huge
with the American audiences. The demand for tickets was so high
theater manager in Seattle
wanted the group to perform five shows a night. Chaplin refused
told the manager himself. Such success naturally brings the
attention of Hollywood,
and Charlie was
recruited by Mac Sennett's Keystone Films who signed him in 1913 at
$150 a week.
Keystone: Charlie wasn't
sure what to make of Keystone
at first. The company had to produce a
new two-reel comedy each and every week, and the pace was frantic. Charlie didn't like the pace or the
comedy. He wanted to do more refined
slapstick. He didn't feel that every
short had to end with a chase, and wanted longer shots instead of the
cutting that Sennett employed. Chaplin
argued with the directors. He was upset
that they would dismissed his suggestions for the films on the grounds
they didn't have time for an elaborate set-up.
Chaplin had the philosophy that making one funny film was better
making many mediocre ones. He would
follow that philosophy for the rest of his career.
As his tenure at Keystone went on, Chaplin's movies became
more and more popular. Fairly soon his
films started outselling all the other Keystone shorts.
With this success Chaplin was able to exert
more control on his movies, which led to higher quality films and even
demand. Soon he was writing and
directing all of his pictures.
When his contract was up, Chaplin was a star and wanted a
star's salary. Keystone couldn't meet
his price, so he signed a one year contract with Essanay for an
$1250 a week.
The Keystone films are not as polished and carefully
constructed as Chaplin's later masterpieces would be, but that's
given the system that Sennett used to churn out an impressive number of
each month. Yet it was during his time
with Keystone that Chaplin learned the art of filmmaking.
He discovered what worked, how to set up a
gag, and created the character that would make him the most recognized
This collection of Keystone movies are important because
they show Chaplin evolving as a screen comic.
Not only that, but this collection chronicles the early Tramp
and how Chaplin tried out different personas until he hit upon the
This collection includes some excellent and historically
important movies. It starts out with his
very first movie, Making a Living,
where Chaplin plays a con artist who tries to steal away a man's money,
and even his job. It is an interesting
effort that shows glimpses of the genius to come. The
most famous movie that Chaplin made while
at Keystone has to be Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal. It's only six and a half minutes long,
and not really all that funny, but it features the first appearance of
Tramp on film. The crew basically went
out to the event and filmed without a script.
They just put Chaplin in front of the camera and let him do his
thing. Though he looks like he would in
The Circus and City Lights, the character itself is very different.
Another interesting early film is Tango Tangles, an
all-star Keystone film directed by Mack
Sennett. This film features all of
Keystone's biggest stars, Ford Sterling, Roscoe Arbuckle, Chester
of course Charlie Chaplin (curiously, Sennett's other star, Mabel
not in this picture). It had been a
little over a month since Making a Living
had been filmed, and less than two weeks since the earlier film had
released, and Chaplin was already one of the studios star performers. He gets a large role in this funny film about
musicians and a drunken dandy who are fighting over the hat check girl. What's even more interesting is that Chaplin
is not in a costume or with a lot of make up effects.
The film shows him as he looked at the time,
very attractive and athletic. It's easy
to see why he had no trouble talking young women into bed.
I'm very pleased that all six films where Chaplin appears
with Roscoe Arbuckle are included (the previously mentioned Tango
Tangles, His Favorite Pastime, The
Knockout, The Masquerader, His New Profession, and The
Rounders). The two don't
interact in the first five to any real extent, but in their final
Rounders, the two extraordinary comics costar together and it's a
event. Chaplin and Arbuckle are two
drunkards who live across the hall from each other.
They come home one evening, soused, and get
an earful from their spouses. The wives yell at their husbands and then
start in on each other. This gives the boys a chance to sneak some
their better halves purses, so they can continue carousing. Chaplin and
Arbuckle play expertly off each other with great comic effect. Their
stunts are more than just prat falls, more like a ballet as the two
around each other (and their wives) and stagger in unison. You can tell
more thought went into this short than the average Keystone picture.
and Arbuckle both wanted to do more sophisticated humor, but with this
they proved that they could do slapstick better than anyone else at the
There are several films with Mabel Normand in the collection
too, which is a treat for fans of the tragic comedienne.
Strange Predicament, Mabel at the Wheel, Caught in a Cabinet, The Fatal
also costars Mack Sennett), His Friend
the Bandit, Mabel's Busy Day, His
Trysting Places, and Mabel's Married
Life). These weren't the highlights
of the collection, and I never really felt that Mabel Normand and
Chaplin were as good paired together as they were by themselves or
other actors. Their styles were too
different, and they never really meshed well on screen.
Still, it was a treat seeing these rare
Some of the other highlights in this collection include
Dough and Dynamite, a hilarious film with Chester Conklin.
Chaplin and Conklin are waiters who have to
step into the kitchen when the cooks go on strike.
One of the strikers has placed a stick of
dynamite in an uncooked loaf of bread, which Chaplin sticks in the oven. One of the most popular Keystone films of
that year, it cost $1800 to make and grossed $130.000.
Not a bad return for a hilarious movie. His
Trysting Places is a unique Chaplin film in which he's mean to a
with comic results. I especially enjoyed
when he let the toddler play with a real gun.
The set concludes with another important Keystone movie, the
first feature-length comedy, Tillie's Punctured Romance.
Made as a vehicle for stage actress Marie
Dressler, the film doesn't play as well today as the more famous
Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, or Chaplin himself, but is still plenty of
fun. Chaplin is a city slicker who
convinced country bumpkin Tillie (played by Dressler) to run off to the
with him and her father's money. Once there, Chaplin ditches poor
another girl (played by Mabel Normand) until he discovers that Tillie
heir to a fortune.
Normand is very good in the film, while Dressler is
obviously not comfortable with the new medium of film.
Chaplin however steals many of the scenes and
really shines, even if his character is a far cry from the one that he
soon be immortalized for creating. It's
a slapstick film, and the constant gags work more often than they fail,
this a fine offering.
These 34 films come of 4 DVDs, each in its own thinpak case
and housed in a slipcase.
These films all boast new scores by some of the new crop of
silent film accompanists. Notables such
as Stephen Horne, Neil Brand, Eric Beheim, and my personal favorites
Sauer and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra wrote/compiled and
wonderful scene-specific scores for these films. The
music really enhances the viewing experience
tremendously. Bravo to Flicker Alley to
going to the extra expense to get top tier musicians to play along with
films. If anyone isn't sure if the music
makes a big difference, compare this set with the music to the recent
five film collection. It really is
astounding how much more enjoyable silent move are with appropriate
These films have been restored from elements housed in film
archives from all around the world. Both
positive and negative prints were used sometimes of varying gauges. Because of that the image quality varies from
film to film, and sometimes from scene to scene. Overall
the result is very impressive however
and I can't imagine anyone not being pleased with the results. I've seen at least parts of Kid
Auto Races at Venice, Cal. on several
occasions, but when it came up on this set I let out a gasp. It was amazingly clean and clear, a much
better presentation than I'd ever seen before.
That's not to say all of the films came out that wonderfully,
only so much restoration can do. Some of
the films are scratchy and other have contrast issues, but in general
look very good.
The set comes with some nice extras. First
off is the 40-page book by Jeffrey
Vance. He lists all of the movies, one
by one, and includes such information as the filming dates, release
director, etc. There's also a nice
synopsis and notes to go along with the each film as well and a nice
of Chaplin's time at Keystone.
Video extras include a six-minute except from the recently
discovered Ford Sterling comedy A Thief
Catcher where Chaplin plays a Keystone Cop. There's
a cartoon featuring an animated
Chaplin, Charlie's White Elephant,
and a look at what it took to create this DVD set, Inside
the Keystone Project.
Finally the set is wrapped up with Silent
Traces, a 12-minute look at what some to of LA locations that
look like today and a photo gallery.
These were all fun to watch, especially the first two, and
added a lot to the set.
This is a wonderful set.
Even the shorts that don't work as well (mainly the earlier ones
collected here) are still fun to watch.
Chaplin is always interesting when he's on the screen and even a
comedy becomes an enjoyable event when he stars. From
an entertainment standpoint is great,
but as a historical chronicling of an early film genius as well as the
evolution of movie comedy it's irreplaceable.
A Highly Recommended set.