Chaplin's Earliest Films Reborn

Ninety-one years ago, Charlie Chaplin was a skinny music hall actor from London, trying his luck on the big stage of America -- no script, no lighting, no direction, just Charlie Chaplin in the raw.

"Kid Auto Races at Venice" was Chaplin's second film, and he simply improvised in front of a crowd watching a kids' auto race in Venice, Calif., in 1914.

"They drove down that morning, set up a camera and started to improvise," said Mike Hammond of the University of Southampton in England. "There's a camera in the frame, where it shows a director trying to film the races, and then this tramp keeps getting in the way of the camera. It's a moment in film history where [Chaplin's most famous character] the tramp appears fully formed on the screen."

The birth of Chaplin's most famous character may seem like an historic event now -- but at the time, people in the crowd at the races probably were just wondering who on Earth the guy was.

"All these spectators around think this guy's just a jerk, is just, you know, sort of -- 'What is he doing?'" said Andrea Kalas of the British Film Institute, which is restoring Chaplin's earliest films. "They had no clue that they were watching this superstar in the making."

Even after Chaplin's early films came out and were successful, they did not always get treated with respect. In the haste to get the films out, negatives were destroyed, and perhaps 20 prints were made and duplicated. Those were then copied, and so on, so the films quickly got degraded and damaged.

What's more, movie theaters or other interlopers often would cut the films down to save time, so whole scenes were lost. Some films even had different endings, and there could be dozens of different versions of the same film.

Nine decades later, the British Film Institute and Cineteca of Bologna, Italy, scoured the world's archives and private collections for as many different versions as they could find. Then, they painstakingly reassembled new master copies from all the different permutations to bring the films back as close as possible to the original versions.

ABC News' "Nightline" recently showed scenes from the restored versions, including "Kid Auto Races at Venice," for the first time on U.S. television.

"He's immediately graspable because he is so extraordinary," said Tom Gunning, a cinema and media studies professor at the University of Chicago. "It has to do basically with the style of performance, with his control. He's both an acrobat and a dancer and a comedian, all at once."

Getting Ahead by 'Goofing Off'

Nobody is certain how Chaplin settled on the tramp character that day at the races.

"It wasn't something he'd been planning," Gunning said. "There are various stories, all kind of legendary. But he put it on, the baggy pants, the too-small hat, the tight waistcoat, the large shoes. And of course, the addition of his cane is a would-be dandy. He adds this kind of sense of flair."

The character helped Chaplin reach the top of the movie industry -- to the point where he was able to co-found a major studio, United Artists, with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith.

"He was almost immediately popular," Hammond said. "The meteoric rise, it's hard to underestimate it. He went from $150 a week in 1914 to $10,000 a week in 1916."

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