For me, comedy begins with Charlie Chaplin. I know there were screen comedies before he came along, and I appreciate the work of everyone from Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew to Max Linder. But none of them created a persona as unique or indelible as the Little Tramp, and no one could match his worldwide impact.
The miracle of the “golden dozen” two-reelers he made for Mutual Film Corporation in 1916-17, just a few years after his motion picture debut, remains unmatched almost a century later: twelve perfectly-formed comedies (The Immigrant, Easy Street, The Adventurer, The Cure, et al), filmed one after another, that remain as fresh and funny as the day they were made. (Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s landmark documentary Unknown Chaplin reveals how much hard work, and trial and error, went into the creation of these films, but of course the effort doesn’t show in the final product.)
Curiously, Chaplin’s earliest work for Mack Sennett’s Keystone Company has been difficult to see, except in scattershot fashion, over the years. What’s more, because no one claimed ownership of the films and most of the original negatives vanished years ago, it has been virtually impossible to find decent copies of many titles from Chaplin’s first, formative year in the movie business.
No one argues that these are great comedies; most of them aren’t. But what if we couldn’t read all of Shakespeare’s plays, or explore Mozart’s lesser compositions? The 35 films Chaplin made at a rapid clip during his initiation-year in motion pictures are essential viewing. They allow us to witness how an experienced, if youthful, comic from England became a self-assured performer in front of the camera—and sowed the seeds that would transform him into an artist.
Now, thanks to a consortium of international archives and private collectors, and the efforts of Serge Bromberg’s LobsterFilm in France, the best existing prints and negatives of all but one short from 1914 have been gathered, examined shot-by-shot, and—
—digitally restored to produce the finest possible copies of his work. Every film is accompanied by a newly-commissioned music score by an all-star array of silent-film accompanists including Robert Israel, Stephen Horne, Rodney Sauer and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, and Ken Winokur’s band, to name just a few. The four-disc set, Chaplin at Keystone, released by Flicker Alley, also includes Chaplin’s first feature-film appearance, in Sennett’s Tillie’s Punctured Romance, an early Chaplin cartoon, and even an excerpt from the heretofore-unknown short A Thief Catcher (recently discovered by Paul Gierucki of Laughsmith Entertainment) in which Charlie plays a Keystone Kop. John Bengtson does his usual fine detective work in tracking down Los Angeles locations where these films were shot, while an accompanying booklet includes documentation on the films, an essay by Jeffrey Vance about Chaplin’s work at Keystone, and some rare photos.
Some of the prints look great, and others merely adequate, but on the whole they are far superior to anything we’ve seen before—in 8mm, 16mm, or 35mm. Original main titles and intertitles have been painstakingly recreated from the most reliable sources.
Of course, the films themselves remain a mixed bag. Charlie’s first film, Making a Living, is actually quite enjoyable, although he plays a dandy, and not his familiar Tramp. Subsequent films in the chronology reveal his first appearances as the character who would achieve almost-instantaneous fame around the globe. But while the externals fall into place pretty quickly, this is not the little fellow we know and love: he’s crass and crude. It’s fascinating to see what bits of physical shtick Charlie brought with him from the Music Hall and which now-familiar mannerisms evolved over time. It is also interesting to see how the newcomer to Hollywood worked with his fellow clowns (Ford Sterling, Chester Conklin, the endearing Mabel Normand, the engaging Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, et al). We also get to see how Charlie develops as a director in these primitive, knockabout farces.
Kicking seems to be the primary activity in most Keystone shorts: kicking people in the rear, in the stomach, almost anywhere on the body so long as it registers anger or annoyance and causes the other person to fall down. Bit by bit, Chaplin manages to carve out his own brand of humor, and every now and then, he injects a piece of pantomime that is distinctively his own.
The Keystones almost never make me laugh, but I can’t stop watching them, looking for signs of the Chaplin-to-come. That is their heritage, and for that reason they are priceless.
If the Sennett oeuvre is Chaplin in embryonic form, Modern Times (1936) shows him at the peak of his powers. It is one of the greatest comedies ever made. I fell in love with it at the age of eight and my mother took me to see it when it was re-released theatrically.
I’ve owned Modern Times in more formats and versions than I can count, including a fine laserdisc produced by David Shepard and two previous DVD releases. Even so, I would recommend the new two-disc set from Criterion, not so much for the picture and sound (which were already fine, but look and sound even better) but for the generous number of superior bonus features. Chaplin chronicler Jeffrey Vance narrates an excellent background piece on the making of the picture, illustrated by rare photos from the Chaplin archives. John Bengtson has outdone himself with a piece about the locations where the film was shot that, also provides a thoughtful picture of a young, growing Los Angeles. Oscar-winning filmmakers and film buffs Craig Barron and Ben Burtt (who most recently hosted a behind-the-scenes look at Tarzan for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) focus on Chaplin’s use of visual and aural effects, a little-remarked-upon aspect of his work as a director. You’ll learn some fascinating tidbits.
Chaplin biographer David Robinson is heard on a commentary track, while that wonderful raconteur David Raksin tells of his experiences working with Charlie on the music for Modern Times. (This interview first appeared on the 1992 laserdisc.) Alistair Cooke’s home movie of Chaplin and Paulette Goddard on an ocean voyage aboard Charlie’s yacht—some of which was used on the most recent DVD release of Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin—is shown in its entirety, with a Donald Sosin piano score and an interview with Cooke’s daughter. There is also a Cuban short subject, For the First Time (1967), about an audience’s initial encounter with Modern Times, and a charming documentary about the context and impact of the picture featuring the gifted Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, which appeared on the Warner Home Video release of the Chaplin comedy. Finally, Criterion has included David Shepard’s restoration of the great 1916 two-reeler The Rink (with an orchestral score by Carl Davis) which spotlights the same roller-skating prowess Charlie displays in a famous scene in Modern Times.
As usual there is also a handsome booklet with original essays about Chaplin, including a piece by Lisa Stein that excerpts the magazine articles he wrote during his global tour in the early 1930s called “A Comedian Sees the World.”
If you want to lift your spirits, and do a lifelong favor for a young person you care about, watch Modern Times together.
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