LONDON, Nov. 13, 2005 — -- 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."
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."
Ten years ago, a worldwide survey of film critics voted Chaplin the greatest actor in movie history. But admittedly, his earliest films for Keystone Studios aren't usually considered among his most finely crafted.
"There's a sort of drama to film restoration that it must be a great film," Kalas said, that "it must be 'Lawrence Arabia' you restore, that it's a great work of art, like a masterpiece. That we're actually going back and restoring this incredible sort of gravitas is a little ironic. It's just, yeah -- it's a bunch of guys at the Keystone Studio goofing off."
Chaplin was under contract to Keystone and cranked out more than 30 comedies in a year -- sometimes one or two a week. Nobody paid attention to who was copying them or how.
For instance, in Chaplin's 21st movie, "The Property Man," an old man talking to Chaplin leaves the room earlier in the shorter, un-restored version. Viewers ultimately will be able to witness the full extent of Chaplin's treatment of the old man in the restored version, and his triumphal reaction. Overall, two minutes have been recovered, one-tenth of the running time.
"They weren't re-cut by some genius who could improve on them," Gunning said. "They were re-cut usually by people who were almost doing it by happenstance, and maybe even accidentally -- something had fallen out and, you know, they just sliced it back together. The Keystone films have always been kind of neglected, partly because they are the younger films. But also because I think nobody's seen the original versions."
Sometimes, a film was reissued with a new title. Versions of "The Property Man" were released as "The Roustabout" and "Charlie's Vamping Venus."
Bringing the Keystones back into shape will take another three years.
"We'll always know there's more material out there than we're ever going to discover," said Kalas, of the British Film Institute. "The Chaplin material was duplicated so many times that there's no possible way we're ever going to be able to say, 'We have actually got every single film that ever existed on these Keystone films.' But we think what we've got is some of the best surviving material."
The material collected from multiple sources often dramatically improves the quality of images, so that the difference between old and new often is like night and day.
"What people have seen from Keystones before are very bad quality, difficult almost to watch, almost assaultive kind of images because they've been so badly taken care of over the years," Kalas said. "And it's really hard to actually enjoy a film when you're squinting. And so, what we're doing is bringing the best possible quality back to those films.
In "The Property Man," Chaplin manages the props at a small music hall, a jack-of-all-trades behind the scenes. A rehearsal starts off badly and the acts get muddled up. He gets to flirt with the girls and annoy pretty much everyone else. And there were different endings, too.
In one version, the film ends with Chaplin spraying the cast, as the audience claps for more. The restored original shows they did indeed get more -- more than they bargained for. Chaplin turns to apologize, and aims the hose by mistake at the audience, bringing a scene of classic, full-blown Keystone mayhem.
"Keystone was just a kind of a madhouse," Gunning said. "So it's very exciting to see this kind of freedom -- which actually contrasts a lot with Chaplin's later, very controlled films -- at this moment where kind of almost anything was possible."
Of course, the experts at the British Film Institute who are doing the restoration work already know and love Chaplin. But what about today's movie-going audiences? Neil Brandt, a composer who is one of only a handful of pianists in Britain who specializes in accompanying silent movies, believes they will respond.
"Up until now, these films have just been looked at as museum pieces for interest only to the couple who were interested in Chaplin," said Brandt, who is setting the films to music. "Well, no way. Now, we see that these are valid films for a modern audience. Great comedy. Doesn't matter they were made in 1914.
"If you get an audience sitting in front of that screen, with the right music and projected at the right speed, they're going to work just as well as they did then," Brandt said.
Brandt wasn't a big fan of Chaplin's early comedies until the British Film Institute began to restore them.
"These movies, when I first saw them, were kind of cut to bits," Brandt said. "Basically, [the films meant] watching a lot of people running around very fast, falling over and hitting each other. And there wasn't any kind of real structure to them or any sense of subtlety.
"Now," he added, "you can see very small changes in facial expression, which actually Charlie does himself. He'll do tired looks to the camera, for instance. There will only be a glance. But that is something you would never have been able to see in an earlier version. It had to be restored for you to be able to see that."
The restored version of Chaplin's 10th movie, "Mabel at the Wheel," got its first public screening in London's Trafalgar Square. For the film experts who worked so hard to re-create Chaplin's vision, it was a milestone. It was the silver screen at its simplest -- no special effects, no popcorn, but instead, a chance to see if Chaplin's comedy stands the test of time.
"By actually restoring that quality to the image, we give the next generation a whole new chance to actually discover Chaplin and discover why he became this international phenomenon," Kalas said. "So, if we don't do this, we don't give people an opportunity to really understand Chaplin."
"The significance of these films is that we get to see what we think they might be the way that people saw them at the time," said Hammond, of the University of Southampton. "But also, it shows us how the performance works. We have Chaplin from the English music hall. Fatty Arbuckle from American vaudeville. There are a number of different kinds of traditions that are coming together."
But the development of the art of film wasn't the only thing in flux. For instance, when projected simultaneously, it doesn't take long before four collected versions of one Keystone comedy, "A Film Johnnie," Chaplin's fifth film, are out of sync.
Then, as today, movie theater owners apparently were keen to sell as many tickets as possible.
"I think by and large, the cuts that were made to these would seem to be commercial," said Kieran Webb, one of the technicians at the British Film Institute breathing life into the old comedies, revealing the artistry and Chaplin's skills as performer. "They just wanted shorter versions, shorter running times, maybe."
Putting them back together the way the filmmakers intended is a process.
"Initially, we'll just be examining it to establish the continuity, as far as we can, of the original film," Webb said. "But [we'll] also be looking at how long each individual shot is, so we can build up an idea of the shot list. And that way, that will provide the cutting notes for our finished version."
"There's clues that we look for when we're actually trying to restore these kinds of films, especially when you have multiple sources," Kalas said. "There's codes on the edge of the film that will tell you the date that something was printed. That's a clue. There are certain slice marks that we know came from the original studio."
It may be intense work, but it often brings moments of great reward.
"There was a thing that was bugging me for days because I seemed to be missing a shot," Webb said. "And yet, all the copies were telling me the same thing. When I finally found that we had another copy with the missing shot, I realized that all the reissues, since they were missing that shot, had simply cut one of the previous shots in half and moved it along a bit. It's sort of a eureka moment when you're putting the jigsaw back together again."
Webb believes the films are funnier when they're restored.
"The people who worked for Keystone were very skilled comedians and knew exactly what they were doing and didn't really waste a lot of film," he said. "It's ironic that people felt they could re-edit their films to make them better."
For modern audiences, Chaplin's comedy seems quite tame, chaste even. Not in their day, though. The Keystones were hugely popular, but some critics found fault.
One reviewer of "The Property Man" wrote the following in the magazine Moving Picture World in August 1914: "There are very few people who don't like the Keystones, but they are thoroughly vulgar, and they're not the best pictures for a parlor entertainment. There's also some brutality in this picture, and we can't help feeling that this is reprehensible."
The review may suggest something else about Chaplin's films besides the reviewer's opinion.
"Chaplin created almost a sense of film that we've never lived up to again, I don't think, of it simultaneously being worthy of intellectual scrutiny and aesthetic discussion, and belly laughs from the common public," Gunning said.
"He's so important and yet, he's taken for granted," he added. "And for, I think, many people, even including some scholars, he's almost more an image than somebody whose films they know very, very well."
Now, about 90 years after they first came out, it's easy once again to get to know Chaplin's earliest films and judge them for ourselves.
ABC News contributor Sue Ellicott originally reported this story from London for "Nightline" on Nov. 8, 2005. ABC News producer Paolo Marenghi also contributed.