Exactly what was it that made Charlie Chaplin so extremely popular at the very beginning of his film career? The question has puzzled many, even well-known authorities on the subject. Playwright and critic Walter Kerr came up with the (in my opinion somewhat far-fetched) theory that Chaplin with his Keystone-films made his audience a "promise," whereas poet Lars Forssell in his analysis on Chaplin remains bewildered as to why the comedian at all was considered extraordinary more or less from the start. And little wonder; Chaplin's Keystone-films were very much worn out by the time said writers attempted to analyze them. Throughout the 1910s and 20s, the films had been frequently re-edited by insensitive hands, taking full advantage of the fact that Chaplin did not legally own his films at that point, and played in theaters over and over and over again. Add this with how poorly celluloid tends to age, and you're left with a rusty if not downright disturbing experience.
Until BFI's restorations on the Chaplin-Keystones were finally released a few weeks back, no soul could imagine just to what degree the original pleasure of his first films had been obliterated. I had personally been waiting six years for this set to become true, and am immensely happy to finally witness it being completed, like so many other Chaplin-fans. Now, we are finally able to study Chaplin's evolvement both as an actor, director and story constructor during his first year in the medium of celluloid; and what's more, we're forced to recognize that the reason why Chaplin made it big so quickly was because he made damn funny films from the very beginning.
First of all, I want to tip my derby in gratitude to everyone involved in this project. Several of the films are crystal sharp, as though they've been led to the spring of youth, and even when that's not quite the case, it's still a hundred times better than what has been available in the past. Original nitrate-prints have been used whenever accessible, making a section of the previously unwatchable one-reeler RECREATION in perfect shape. A number of talents have been involved in the musical arrangements, some well known (Robert Israel) and some more obscure, but it is evident that everyone has been equally anxious to do the films justice.
As for the films themselves, I'm thrilled (though not really surprised) to confirm that the more than thirty films which Chaplin made at Keystone during the single year of 1914 all in all stand as much, much better than we've been tricked to beleive previously. A film like A FILM JOHNNIE has all of a sudden been transformed into something more than a vaguely amusing parody on early film-making; restored and played at the proper speed, it is actually a pretty funny little film, with several sure-fire gags which previously went over my head. Another revelation was the two-reeler THE KNOCKOUT; previously I had considered this film, which was really a Roscoe Arbuckle-vehicle, rather overlong and dull, except for Chaplin's few minutes in it as a referee. Seen through this new restoration, however, the film became a different experience; the scenes at the end with the Keystone Kops had me really laughing out loud.
People only casually acquainted with Chaplin should be aware that his "Tramp character" as such is not fully developed at this stage. He is often prone to rather sadistic impulses; there's a lot of kicking and hitting of a more brutal variety than in his later classic films. However, with the films now being generally crisp and clear and seen at the proper running-speed, one realizes that the humor of the Keystone-films, which Chaplin here blends with his own training from music halls, was the result of a deliberate comedy style, much less impulsive than acknowledged previously. Also, even at this early point Chaplin's pantomime is often remarkably subtle; in THOSE LOVE PANGS, he picks up a fork in order to cause his rival Chester Conklin severe pain in the latter's rear end...a vulgar bit of business in itself, but what makes Chaplin different from his Keystone-contemporaries is his way of building up our expectations with the gag. He isn't just a mere slave to his own twisted ideas; on the contrary, he examines the fork thoroughly, glances at us, making sure that we're in on the joke, and...OUCH!! This sort of performing was more advanced for film comedy of 1914 than anybody alive today can fully grasp.
Other than his inevitable pantomimic skills, Chaplin's abilities as a story constructor are also hastily developing throughout the four discs. THE MASQUERADER, THE ROUNDERS and DOUGH AND DYNAMITE are downright hilarious. Indeed, some films are better than others (I'm still rather indifferent to MABEL'S BUSY DAY, for instance) but it is invariably a pleasure to see every one of them restored, making it possible to judge them fairly. We won't ever see them in their proper context (unless a time-machine is invented and takes us back to the turbulent year of 1914), but thanks to the restorations of BFI, we're at least given access to the second best thing: to see these films as sharp and well-trimmed as they once were, and finally get to understand just why producer Mack Sennett was told to do more Chaplin-films as quickly as possible only a few weeks after the latter's debut, on a day when Sennett in fact had considered firing the comedian.