Charlie Chaplin Collectors’ Guide, Part 4

by Brent Reid

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 

This is part of a series covering Chaplin’s life and career. 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.


Early Keystone restorations

Until recently the Keystone era marked the biggest minefield for collectors, as all that was available were innumerable compilations all recycling variations on the same very poor quality material. Thankfully that’s all changed for the better. Prior to the complete series’ restoration, only a handful of Keystones were extant in good or even reasonable condition. Those few have appeared in various 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. Also, as with the Sennett Collection below, it has several films starring his brother Syd who, before giving up his career to manage Charlie full-time, was a film star in his own right. 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, focusing on Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, and his Silent Locations is one of the very best film blogs around.

Chaplin at Keystone (BFI) UK DVD box set

UK BFI DVD box set

All box sets have identical content and most have 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 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 masters. 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. Another thing to note is that initial copies of the BFI set have a mastering error on disc 1. When playing each film individually, Twenty Minutes of Love (10:40) stops at 5:21 then goes back to the menu. The easy workaround is to select “Play All” and skip forward to Twenty Minutes, which will then play straight through. Alternatively, you can request a replacement disc free of charge by emailing the BFI. The set has so far been released by these companies:

Recreation… the opening [formerly missing] scene sees Chaplin outside of a cinema, one prominently displaying posters for some of its attractions. Somewhat prophetically, given where Chaplin was to work for the next few years after leaving Keystone, one is for a production by Essanay (his next destination) entitled The Open Door, whilst another comes courtesy of Mutual (the following destination) for a film named The Alternative. Of course, there was no way the significance of their presence could have occurred to anyone at the time, and yet it demonstrates just how much is to be gained by this new boxed-set. The films can finally be viewed as near to intended as seemingly possible, tiny little inadvertent in-jokes and all.” – Anthony Nield review at The Digital Fix

As brilliant as the Chaplin at Keystone box set is, it’s far from perfect. In reality, no restoration of any silent film, but especially Chaplin’s shorts, could ever be. That’s due to a huge variety of factors which I won’t go into in detail, but a few important ones specifically apply. Firstly, many of the countless disparate fragments of the shorts only survive on smaller gauge, slightly lower quality reissue prints, such as 8mm and 16mm. With only a few exceptions, those behind the Chaplin Keystone Project decided to only use 35mm sources to maintain a higher, more consistent image quality throughout. Along with that they chose to use longer, more complete runs of lower quality footage uninterruptedly, rather than splicing in sections of higher quality footage whenever available. This was again to minimise the overall amount of image variation.

This approach has caused a lot of indignation among the Chaplin Faithful; for example, see the passionate discussions here and here. The alternative is using, to a greater or lesser degree, every scrap of footage that can be found, from whatever format it exists on. Personally, I’m with film historian and Keystone expert Brent E. Walker, who said: “I’ll take continuity over quality every time, especially if there’s key action in the shot.” The sole exception to aforementioned policy is the centrepiece of the set, the fully restored feature Tillie’s Punctured Romance. Although later refined and released under the aegis of the Keystone Project, Tillie was actually a separate, UCLA-led endeavour. In that case, the decision was to make her as complete as humanly possible, down to the last frame, by any means – and source – necessary. Consequently, there are many fluctuations in the image as it cuts between different sources, but I’ve never actually heard a single complaint about it. Funny that. Pun intended.

Tillie’s punctured legacy: Observations on the restoration of Chaplin’s first featureRoss Lipman

Laughing Gas (1914, Charlie Chaplin) US poster. Chaplin's Keystones were originally distributed by Mutual in the US.

US poster. Chaplin’s Keystones were originally distributed by Mutual in the US.

The upside of the Tillie method is that continuity in the action is maintained; there are fewer, if any, annoying jump cuts and no missing gags or disorientating gaps in the narrative. This way, she’s more complete and much closer to the way Chaplin intended and her original audiences enjoyed; surely the whole purpose of restoration. The only downside is having to deal with more frequent changes in visual quality, but of course much can be done, especially in the digital realm, to ameliorate the effect. Nonetheless, it can still be quite jarring, especially to someone unused to imperfections in old films, but your eyes and brain adjust very quickly and you don’t notice anymore as you get drawn into the onscreen shenanigans. If not, maybe anyone hell-bent on visual perfection above all else is simply not cut out for silent film.

Another upside to including everything possible is that if better quality footage turns up it’s easier to do a more or less ‘straight swap’. Therefore any pre-recorded scores, synced perfectly to the action, are more likely to be reused, needing little or no re-editing to fit. Much harder to do when splicing in whole new chunks of footage. That in turn brings two immediate benefits: particularly long-lived, long-loved accompaniments remain in circulation for even longer; just look at all the great scores forever tied only to older restorations of Nosferatu (1922). Secondly, costs are kept in check by not having to constantly finance the recording of new scores for every incrementally revised and improved version. In reality of course, that only happens for the war horses anyway: there just isn’t enough money to justify such expenditure for all but the most popular silents. With others, the necessary recording of new scores is yet another of the associated costs that conspire to keep them from being upgraded or even released at all.

Dough and Dynamite (1914) US poster

US poster

Many also feel Chaplin’s Keystones have been transferred too slowly, and that being sped up by just a few frames per second would enhance the comedy. That’s a matter of opinion and comes down to personal preference and differing ways of interpreting existing historical records on the subject. A definite downside to the set is that it’s been discovered various relatively minor errors were made in following the original cutting continuity, so many shots and even short scenes are misplaced. This is symptomatic of numerous perennially insurmountable problems hampering the overall success of this or any restoration project. They can only be worked on up to the point that time, budgetary constraints, access to materials and current knowledge allow. It’s inevitable that the minute the results of all that hard labour are released into the world, new information and often new raw materials are going to arise as a direct result. It’s a chicken and egg situation. For example, there’s an editing error on the two currently circulating restorations of Nosferatu. Soon after its latest BD release I mentioned it to Patrick Stanbury, who worked on Murnau’s vampire film. As a result, said error was corrected in Photoplay’s DCP and for future releases, but it’s still baked-in to all current home video versions. Such is the nature of the (undead) beast.

The bottom line is the Chaplin Keystone box set is still by far and away the best way to view his earliest films and that’s not going to change for a very long time – if ever. Get in!

Cruel, Cruel Love (1914, Charlie Chaplin) US poster

US poster

Keystones in HD

Although Chaplin’s restored Keystones haven’t been issued in their entirety in HD, some of them are available as part of several superb collections of early films:

Recreation and the full version of The Thief Catcher, long thought lost and also extracted in the Chaplin set, are included in Flicker Alley’s superlative 3-BD-only The Mack Sennett Collection Vol. One (2014, region 0, Prime Video US | UK). It also features three shorts starring Syd Chaplin.

Mabel’s Strange Predicament is part of Flicker Alley’s groundbreaking Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology 3-BD/3-DVD dual format set (2017, region A/1).

A fourth HD Keystone, Caught in a Cabaret, appears in Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers (2018, region A/1), an even more comprehensive 6-BD or DVD set from Kino in the US.

The last two shorts’ inclusion in these sets is by virtue of the fact they were directed by Chaplin’s co-star in both, Mabel Normand. Like so many accomplished women filmmakers and comedians of the silent and early sound era, history has unjustly overlooked her in favour of her male counterparts. Thankfully, the tide of indifference is turning. An expanded iteration of Flicker Alley’s set has been released by the BFI in the UK. Their 4-BD-only Early Women Filmmakers set (2019, region B), in addition to Predicament, contains His Trysting Place and two more of Normand’s Keystones.

More HD Chaplin Keystones are sure to come: Dough and Dynamite was initially earmarked for The Mack Sennett Collection Vol. Two, though it’s currently off the shortlist. But there are at least four more from Mabel, including her much loved 1918 feature, Mickey.

Keystones in print

When it comes to the printed word, Chaplin is a frontrunner for the title of 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, over 1,000 unique titles have been published to date, not counting reprints or translations. But the many fantastic film restorations of the past few decades have brought an inadvertent downside. As with those books discussing Hitchcock‘s unrestored British films and so many others, be wary of any pre-dating their restoration and the availability of quality home video editions. With Chaplin’s shorts, especially the Keystones, authors were usually stuck with relying heavily on terrible public domain prints, as they were all that was available at the time. Inevitably, the results have often dated badly and many allowances have to be made while reading them. For instance, in addition to glaring gaps in their narratives, you may have to wade through page after page discussing the relative (de)merits of PD videos and DVDs, before getting completely redundant buying recommendations. Conversely, no such problems afflict the post-2010 restoration Keystone-focused books and all come highly recommended.

Walker’s history is not only the best book on the Keystone and Mack Sennett Comedies overall, but one of the finest – and certainly the most comprehensive – silent film books ever written. The most recently published volume, CHASE!, is a collection of essays by some of the world’s leading silent film experts that inevitably mention Chaplin extensively throughout.

The Making of Tillie’s Punctured Romance (2004) – Bo Berglund

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

UK poster

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