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Chaplin at Keystone
A 4-disc Collection of 34 Restored Films

Chaplin at Keystone
Flicker Alley
1:33 flat
560 min.
Street Date October 26, 2010

Charles Chaplin

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

A discerning look at the birth of a movie legend, Flicker Alley's Chaplin at Keystone disc collection is yet another significant accomplishment from producing partners Jeffrey Masino and David Shepard. Charles Chaplin entered films in 1913 by joining the established roster of stars at Mack Sennett's studio. He soon surpassed them all. The film record for these 35 comedy shorts (and one feature) has always been spotty at best, with most available only in dupes of terrible quality, and missing shots and whole scenes. This project resourced the holdings and enlisted the facilities of archives in Italy, France and England, mixing and matching prints to restore complete copies of the films at the best possible quality. Flicker Alley has assembled them in a four-disc set accompanied by a booklet with essays by scholar Jeffrey Vance.

We're accustomed to seeing these films in such poor quality that the Chaplin at Keystone restorations play as a revelation. The improved contrast allows us to judge performances, identify actors and assess the sets and locations. Most importantly, we witness the development of Chaplin's legendary Little Tramp character, which is literally invented while we watch.

A 100% raise in pay to $150 a week was the carrot that lured Chaplin away from Fred Karno's touring theatrical troupe to Mack Sennett's Keystone studio. Although they were rarely billed by name, Keystone had the stars: Mabel Normand, Fatty Arbuckle, Chester Conklin, Mack Swain. Besides the money, Chaplin later said that he thought being in films would help his stage work; he was well aware that comedians John Bunny and the Frenchman Max Linder were already known world-wide because of their films. Chaplin was excited to learn how Sennett made movies at his Echo Park-adjacent studio in Los Angeles.

In his first appearance in the one-reeler Making a Living, Chaplin played an English conman who tries to cheat a man out of both his job and his girlfriend. When the movie was assembled, Charlie was shocked to discover that many of his comedy bits were missing or trimmed in half. He realized that actors had no control -- his performance was cut up in ways he hadn't expected. To assert control he'd have to become a director as well.

Chaplin created a new identity for his second film, reportedly throwing his costume together in a couple of hours. "The Little Tramp" steps on-screen at the beginning of Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal. as a finished item, with his baggy pants, tight coat and some of his mannerisms already in place. The Tramp's sloppy shirt already sticks up from the front of his ill-fitting pants.

Made almost 100 years ago, Kid Auto Races is a perfect example of how Sennett would "hijack" a public spectacle to make a commercial film. The Tramp repeatedly gets in the way of a newsreel cameraman's shot, and is escorted, pushed and booted out of the frame innumerable times. That's the film's only joke, but Chaplin milks it for six minutes. We can see the onlookers becoming more interested in the skit, and laughing at Charlie's antics. The pleasure piers of Santa Monica and Venice would reappear as locations several times in Chaplin's Keystone films.

Sennett's films had action and slapstick, but often with only the slightest interior logic. Most Keystone shorts ended with a knockabout chase. Sennett liked Chaplin's style enough to slow the breakneck pace down to allow The Tramp's performance to play in one shot. Chaplin's contributed character refinements that worked with audiences. Although The Tramp began as a dishonest and often violent trickster, viewers became attached to him and looked forward to his next appearance.

Only a few pictures later, Chaplin was directing himself -- an advance hastened by friction with his directors. Chaplin flowered in this capacity, turning out a film a week. He often worked with just a starting point or a location in mind, building the film on the spot without a real script. The Tramp's personality and characteristic mannerisms were developed at this time. Chaplin's autobiography stated that he never played another character after he established The Little Tramp, a claim refuted by the short subjects themselves. Having the films so accessible allows us to cut through decades of bad information, some of it from the memories of Chaplin himself.

Chaplin became world famous before people knew his name. We're told that around the world, theater managers would simply display a standee silhouette of The Little Tramp tipping his hat, with a sign reading, "I am here." His movies were so popular that he began to receive offers from other companies. Not long before the end of his tenure at Sennett, Chaplin appeared in Tillie's Punctured Romance. At 85 minutes it is now considered the first full comedy feature. In this vehicle for star Marie Dressler, Chaplin is not The Tramp but a fortune-hunting cad. He marries Tillie when he thinks she's inherited a fortune, all the while scheming to keep Mabel Normand on the side.

Only 13 months later, Chaplin would graduate to the Essanay Company and true international superstardom. The full character of The Little Tramp was developed in films with larger budgets and more elaborate sets. In these earlier Sennett pictures The Tramp is often a nasty little jerk, stealing, cheating in ways more mean-spirited than mischievous. Many of the character's subtleties -- the sentiment and pathos that became Chaplin's hallmark -- came later.

The 34 films in the set show Chaplin working with most of the Sennett stars -- Charley Chase, Chester Conklin, Minta Durfee, Edgar Kennedy, Mack Swain and Mabel Normand. Jeffrey Vance tells us that at this stage of the game Chaplin appears to have been entirely absorbed with learning his craft, and didn't have much of a social life. Charlie's troubles with women were still years away.

Flicker Alley's DVD of Chaplin at Keystone is a beautifully produced filmic resource. The contents of the four discs are clearly laid out, and navigating between selections is kept as uncomplicated as possible. The individual slipcases note the exact length of each short, as well as its director. Before Chaplin takes over, the first fourteen or so shorts are directed by Henry Lehrman, George Nichols, Mabel Norman and Mack Sennett himself. The composing and performing talents behind the new stereo music tracks are noted as well: Eric Beheim, Neil Brand, Antonio Coppola, Frederick Hodges, Stephen Horne, Robert Israel, Eric Le Guen, Ethan Uslan and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. The music for Tillie's Punctured Romance is performed by Ken Winokur and "Tillie's Nightmare".

Restoration data appears before each film in a text title. Although a few shorts only exist in surviving 16mm prints, most are from very good 35mm material. We notice right away when missing parts of shots have been restored from other sources, because the image pops from a relatively clear image to less perfect source materials. The ability to see the scenes flow intact is what counts. Using the correct projection speed is a great help as well. Of the 35 films Chaplin made in that one year, only one is entirely lost.

The last disc contains four well-chosen extras. The Thief Catcher is a six-minute excerpt from a Sennett film discovered in 2010, in which Chaplin plays a small role as one of the Keystone Cops. Charlie's White Elephant is a cartoon (with French titles) lampooning Charlie and Fatty Arbuckle. The crude animation captures The Little Tramp's mannerisms quite well. Serge Bromberg explains the mix 'n' match nature of the restoration in the ten-minute featurette Inside the Keystone Project, illustrating the solutions to some of the technical problems encountered. A second featurette from film historian John Bengtson identifies a number of locations used for the Keystone films, finding a few buildings still standing now as they did in 1914. The map of Venice, Ca. was very different, with an artificial lagoon, extra amusement piers and an auto racetrack.

The final extra is a photo gallery from the Jeffrey Vance collection. Vance's thoroughly annotated text essays constitute an excellent guide to the separate films. He chronicles Chaplin's time at Sennett and fills us in on the background of each short. It's fascinating to see Chaplin's half-hour Dough and Dynamite, a comedy set in a bakery. Only months after encountering his first movie camera and a few weeks after taking up directing, Chaplin delivers a solid laugh at least every ten seconds, building on gags and paying them off in rapid succession. The pace is exhilarating, even by the standards of films made now, a hundred years later.

Additional resource: The Liveliest Art by Arthur Knight, 1957

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Chaplin at Keystone rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Two Featurettes on the restoration and Sennett locations; an excerpt from the newly rediscovered The Thief Catcher; early animated cartoon caricaturing Chaplin, still gallery. Insert booklet essay and program notes by Jeffrey Vance.
Packaging: Four slim cases and booklet in card box.
Reviewed: November 2, 2010

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2010 Glenn Erickson

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