Charlie Chaplin Collectors’ Guide, Part 4

Keystone 1914

  • The Little Tramp makes his first foray into film and refines the art of motion picture comedy
  • More than mere early sketches, Chaplin’s earliest films offer much broad and rewarding humour
  • There are many additional choices for collectors beyond the latest restorations 

If you’ve landed directly on this page I strongly recommend you start from the Part 1 introduction.

Firstly, take note: if you’re new to Chaplin his Keystones aren’t generally considered the best place to start, as they’re less sophisticated than his later works. Although uniformly fast-paced and energetic, they’re firmly based in broad slapstick and somewhat thin on characterisation and plot development. This is inherent in part, due to their being part of an infant art form, and with having restricted budgets and running times. That said, they are great, simple fun and with the recent restorations we’re extremely lucky to be the first fans since the 1910s able to view them close to the way they were originally presented.

Kid Auto Races at Venice aka The Kid Auto Race (1914) US one sheet poster. Chaplin's second released film and the one in which the Little Tramp made his first public appearance. This poster's a real rarity and possibly the only surviving example, though it and others for his first few films were adapted from a generic variant. Relatively few copies were printed as Chaplin was not yet famous, which explains why it looks so little like him – but all that would change immeasurably by the end of his Keystone Year.

Kid Auto Races at Venice aka The Kid Auto Race (1914) US one sheet poster. Chaplin’s second released film, in which the Little Tramp made his first public appearance. This poster’s a real rarity and possibly the only surviving example, though it and others for his first few films were adapted (with a simple title change) from a generic original. Relatively few copies were printed as Chaplin was not yet famous, which explains why it looks so little like him – but all that would change immeasurably by the end of his Keystone Year.


Contents


Early Keystone restorations

Prior to the complete series’ restoration, only a handful of Keystones were extant in good or even reasonable condition. These few have appeared in various US collections produced by the likes of David Shepard. All have quality transfers and custom scores by top musicians. Naturally, these versions and scores are not available elsewhere, so are essential for the Keystone Kompletist:

American Slapstick Volume 2 (1915–1937) (All Day 3-DVD box set 2008) is also of interest, as it contains some 1910s Chaplin cartoons and, as with the Sennett Collection below, several films starring his brother Syd Chaplin. Also present are various films featuring Little Tramp knock-off characters, from the likes of Billy West and Harold Lloyd.

Cinema with Charlie Chaplin Keystone films display, 1914

Cinema with Chaplin Keystone films display, 1914


2010 Keystone restorations

The majority of Chaplin’s Keystones were in a particularly shocking state since soon after their first release, but thankfully they were all recently the subject of a major, eight-year-long restoration project (ABC News; CNN, ABC vid & pt 2). It was a collaboration between 11 of the world’s leading archives, with vastly improved results over anything existing before. They were given great customised piano and orchestral scores and issued in a 4-DVD box set, complete with a substantial, informative booklet. Extras consist of Charlie’s White Elephant (1916, 6min), one of many cartoons made at that time reflecting the Little Tramp’s huge popularity; Inside the Keystone Project restoration featurette (2010, 10min); Silent Traces: The Keystone Locations featurette (2010, 12min) and a photo gallery (4min). The latter featurette is an excellent piece by film historian John Bengtson, who specialises in finding and documenting silent era filming locations. He’s written several wonderful books on the subject, including one on Chaplin, and has one of the very best silent film blogs around.

Chaplin at Keystone (BFI) UK DVD box set

Chaplin at Keystone (BFI) UK DVD box set

All box sets have identical content and the same locally-translated booklet. However, note that the European and Australian DVDs are actually ahead of the US’s in image quality. This is because the actual restorations were carried out in Europe and PAL (Euro/Oz TV/DVD standard) masters were created from these. To cut costs when transferring PAL-originated material, Flicker Alley don’t create fresh NTSC (US standard) masters; instead they manufacture their discs directly from the unconverted PAL transfers. This results in a blurring or ‘ghosting’ of the image, especially noticeable whenever there is any rapid movement onscreen. This policy is most unfortunate; they’re one of the best home video labels around and do inestimable good for the world of silent and classic film. But the fact remains that their PAL-sourced releases are compromised from the start.

The set has so far been released by these companies:


Keystones in HD

Although Chaplin’s restored Keystones haven’t been issued in their entirety in HD, three of them are available as part of two Flicker Alley BD sets. The Thief Catcher, long thought lost, and Recreation are included in the superlative 3-BD-only set, The Mack Sennett Collection Vol. One (2014, Amazon Video). It also features three shorts starring Chaplin’s brother Syd, who before giving up his career to manage Charlie full-time, was a film star in his own right. The third HD Keystone, Mabel’s Strange Predicament, is part of Flicker Alley’s groundbreaking Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology 3-BD/3-DVD dual format box set (2017).


Keystones in print

When it comes to the printed word, Chaplin is by far the most analysed, anthologised and dissected person ever, and there are many, many fine books to be read concerning his incredible life and work. In fact, there are over 1,000 unique titles, not counting reprints or translations. However, as with those books discussing Hitchcock’s unrestored British films, be wary of any pre-dating the restoration of Chaplin’s shorts, especially the Keystones. Their authors were stuck with relying heavily on the crappy public domain prints that were all that was available at the time. As a result, they’ve dated very badly and are so severely comprised as to make reading them almost pointless. Especially so when you have to wade through page after page discussing the relative (de)merits of PD videos and DVDs, before getting completely redundant buying recommendations. Sadly, such is the case with the first half of CC at Keystone and Essanay: Dawn of the Tramp (2005) by Ted Okuda and David Maska. Quite honestly there’s little excuse for it still being in print and I’m not sure why such an appraisal of the Keystones was even attempted at the time: for the most part, its authors don’t even seem particularly fond of them, and who can blame them when faced with those awful PD copies? In short, it should be pulled from sale forthwith, pending a drastic rewrite. Conversely, no such problems afflict the remaining Keystone-focused books and all come very highly recommended:

Making a Living (1914, Charlie Chaplin Keystone) UK poster

Making a Living (1914) UK poster


If you’ve any questions or suggestions, post in the comments below.

I started Brenton Film because I love film – quelle surprise! The silent era, 1930s and 1940s especially get my literary juices flowing though. So you’ll see a lot about those. For more, see this site’s About page.

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