Chaplin at Keystone

The National Film Theatre is running a season of all Charlie Chaplin's Keystone films during August and September. Chaplin was already a major stage star in music-hall when Mack Sennett hired him for his Keystone comedy film studio in 1914: Keystone made one-reeler (about 15 minutes) slapstick comedies which were often largely improvised. The films Chaplin made during his single year at Keystone have had a rough life - pirated, cut about, retitled, many times copied, extra 'funny' subtitles added, and so on - so that for decades it has been impossible to see them in anything like their original form.

Now a major restoration process has produced viable copies of most of the films - a few are lost or survive only as fragments - which are being shown in this season. I would have liked to see all of them, but that was hardly practical, so I picked a couple of shows. Of course the films don't show the complex and brilliant Chaplin of the later, more familiar, films - this was the start, Chaplin learning the film trade - and are roughly made and often not all that funny.

In his very first film, Making A Living , Chaplin appears in top-hat, frock coat, monocle and a drooping moustache as a swindler (right): one or two trademark gags are in evidence but little to suggest what was to come. His second released film, and the first to be seen with the tramp character, Kid Auto Races At Venice, runs only seven minutes and consists entirely of Chaplin getting in the way of a crew supposedly filming box-car racing at Venice, California, to the bemusement of the genuine audience (one lady plainly doesn't want to be involved and covers her face with a paper).

The third film to be released, Mabel's Strange Predicament, was planned before Kid Auto Races was shot, and it was evidently intended to use the character from Making a Living. By the time it was shot, Chaplin had invented the tramp costume. He plays the tramp as a drunk in a hotel lobby, and later in the corridors where Mabel Normand has locked herself out of her room in her pajamas. Using the tramp character doesn't quite work: the tramp would have been thrown out, not helped up every time he fell over (not that logic was ever a strong suit with Sennett): Chaplin simply used the drunk character he had made famous on stage, but after that he didn't play the tramp as a permanent drunk (though there are a couple of drunk scenes in later films).

A later program included A Busy Day, Chaplin's only appearance as a woman (in a couple of later films the tram character disguises himself as a woman, but here the character is a woman throughout); no plot to speak of but a lot of obviously improvised knockabout. In The Fatal Mallet Chaplin appears with his boss, Mack Sennett - who wasn't actually much of a comedian: again, largely kicks, punches and brick-throwing.

The Knockout is more interesting: it's a two-reeler (32 minutes) starring Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, with Chaplin in a bit part as a boxing referee who gets hit more than the fighters. This film actually has a plot and a reasonably strong structure: Arbuckle was an experienced performer, a huge, fat young man with surprising agility and a major comic presence

Seeing a lot of these Keystone films together gets a bit wearing as they are all very similar, and obviously thrown together quickly; but it's interesting to watch the development of the character, quite visible as the films progress and Chaplin moves away from the rather coarse character to the more sympathetic tramp. In less than a year he made 35 films and at the end of that time was already a major star. He moved on to make films for Essanay, and then Mutual. Just three years after his first film for Sennett his command of cinema and the tramp character was superb: they made him the most famous person in the world.

Posted: Sun - September 7, 2008 at 08:48 AM by Roger Wilmut          



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Published On: Mar 11, 2016 05:00 PM