DVD Review: Chaplin at Keystone

Taking us back to a time when Charlie Chaplin wasn’t a global sensation and his film appearances were still being honed, Chaplin at Keystone, the BFI’s latest release is no mere repackaging of previously available material.

While copies of the films made at the Keystone company have been available before, those were very much the bottom of the barrel when it came to picture quality and actual content. Thanks to reels of film being screened hundreds of times and the work of judicious editors through the years, many of whom decided to recut Chaplin’s output to their own tastes, the full versions of his work have rarely been seen since their debut in 1914.

Now, thanks to a global restoration project, which saw different versions of the same films spliced together to ensure the best quality, and the most complete, negatives were used, we now have 34 films across four discs which show a young Charlie plying his trade on screen for the first time.

From the initial appearance of The Tramp, Chaplin’s mustachioed alter ego who become infamous in later years, at a car rally in Kid Auto Races at Venice, where the crowds have no idea that he’s an actor getting in the way of the camera and think he’s just a troublemaker, it’s clear that something special is being born in front of our eyes.

Unlike later Chaplin productions, where he would take on writing and directing duties as well as the lead role, he has less input in the first few scripts, and it shows. Keystone shorts, usually around 12 minutes in length, weren’t the most sophisticated, and it can get tiring to see yet another rock being hurled at someones head or fruitless chase sequence. It took stars such as Chaplin to change audiences’ perceptions of the genre.

From Laughing Gas on disc two of this set we’re into the Chaplin directed films, titles such as Dough and Dynamite, The Rounders and His Musical Career brought back to something like their former glory.

Harmless bouts of violence may be in evidence for most of these films, but we’re also able to see the look on the tramp’s face when he falls for a new girl or tries to get comeuppance against one of his rivals. Chaplin’s star quality was obvious here, as was the common touch which endeared him to a global audience.

With the final disc including the feature-length Tillie’s Punctured Romance and featurettes on the restoration project, the end product does, rather amazingly, offer viewers of these films something new after almost 100 years.

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