Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Early Charlie Chaplin: The Formative Years at Keystone

Chaplin At Keystone
Mack Sennett and Keystone Studios, one Hollywood’s earliest film production companies, hired Charles Chaplin in 1913. Before his short stint at Keystone, Chaplin was a little-known British vaudevillian. In only a year, Chaplin established his Tramp character, became a major film star who was widely recognized in the U.S. and abroad, and learned how to write and direct films. Chaplin at Keystone, a four-disc DVD set from Flicker Alley, collects 34 of 35 of Chaplin’s Keystone films (one is now lost). While none of these primarily short films reach the quality and sophistication of later silent masterworks (The Kid [1921], The Gold Rush [1925], City Lights [1931], and, Modern Times [1936]), it’s still fascinating to watch Chaplin as a developing actor, director, and comedian. Chaplin directed 17 of the 34 films and wrote the scenarios for 20. A few of them are admittedly slow, especially for a modern audience, but I found most thoroughly entertaining. My six-year-old son even watched most of them with me. He was a little confused sometimes, but he always laughed during the drunken brawls. (Who wouldn’t?) And there are plenty of drunken brawls to like.
Charlie and Fatty Arbuckle
Speaking of brawls, Keystone certainly did not shy away from repetitions. In nearly every film we see exceedingly drunken characters, men lusting after women other than their spouses, buffoonish policemen, or straight policemen who are easily duped. But only two of the films, Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914)—considered the first feature-length American comedy— and The Knockout, showcase Keystone’s trademark Keystone Kops. By 1914, Sennett began putting the Kops in background roles in order to highlight up and coming actors like Chaplin and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, whom we see in several of the Chaplin films.
Despite the lack of superlatives in these early Chaplin films, a few standout. The Tramp character makes his first appearance in Chaplin’s second film, Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914). The film’s basic situation is pretty simple; a film crew documents the auto races, but the Tramp persistently walks into the frame, looking at the camera and usually playing with his hat. The director talks to him and then pushes him out of the way, but he quickly returns. Here is Kid Auto Races from Youtube:

In addition to Tillie’s Punctured Romance, which is quite good and at times affecting, even if the story is predictable and clichéd (again, my 21st century bias comes creeping in), The Knockout, The New Janitor, His Trysting Places, Dough and Dynamite, and His Prehistoric Past are among my personal favorites. All of these are from 1914 and are written and directed by Chaplin (excluding Tillie’s and The Knockout).
Chaplin's The New Janitor:

In His Prehistoric Past, Charlie has a dream in which he lives in prehistoric times. A king has a harem of young and beautiful women and Charlie’s character, wearing bearskin and a bowler hat, seduces one of the women and tries to kill the king. With this, the last of Chaplin’s Keystone films, we clearly see the development from films made earlier in the year. His Prehistoric Past has a more sophisticated story, slightly more complex characters (though I wouldn’t take that too far—they are still basically stock characters), humor that is mostly in keeping with the story itself, and a more fluid pace.  
What’s a bit surprising in watching Chaplin’s earliest work is that the often tragically pathetic and utterly human Charlie that we know and love today started by playing some real rapscallions. In one called “Mabel at the Wheel,” for instance, Charlie plays the unsympathetic villain—something akin to Captain Terror on Speed Racer or Dick Dastardly from the Hanna and Barbara cartoons, who themselves were clearly inspired by silent movie villains. Charlie kidnaps and ties up a man, makes a few cars crash, and has two idiotic henchmen to assist him. Even when Chaplin plays the Tramp, it’s not the sympathetic character we are used to. He’s often drunk and sort of mean. In one scene two lovers are kissing and Charlie rolls his eyes and mockingly kisses a tree in parodic fashion.

But not all of his characters are mean. And whether Chaplin is mean or kind or desperate or unassuming, he is a joy to watch. Even as a novice, we can see Chaplin’s bright future ahead.
You can watch all of the films mentioned above on Youtube, but the quality is not going to be as good as the restored Flicker Alley collection, which is unfortunately not available on Netflix. I got it from the King Country Library.
Here's a link to Dave Kehr's review from The New York Times:
Here's a link to Flicker Alley's website:


  1. I heard Wyatt talking to some kids at the park about how funny Charlie Chaplin is...the kids kind of looked at him blankly, but I thought it was cute. A little silent movie culture for the Transformers 3 crowd.

  2. He still likes Buster Keaton better, which I think is even cooler. He likes the part in The General where Buster is sitting on the train axle (not sure if that's the right name of the part), and Buster goes up and down.