Early Charlie Chaplin: Artist as Apprentice at Keystone Studios

Author: James L. Neibaur

Only a couple of years ago BFI released a four DVD set of all the surviving one and two reelers and the one feature film that Charlie Chaplin made for Mack Sennett and Keystone Studios following years of painstaking reconstruction. Many of these films had not been seen for years. Between January 1914 and December that year Charlie Chaplin rocketed from little musical artiste touring America with the Karno Company to his first film for Mack Sennett and the famous knockabout slapstick studios to becoming one of the biggest box-office draws in Hollywood. In this mere 1 year with the studio he made 36 one and two reeler films and one feature film. All of them are on both the BFI DVD and are included in James L. Neibaur’s book in which he studyies all of these films individually and in detail. It is believed that only one film has not survived which is truly remarkable for the age of these films. Needless to say, as the author acknowledges the films are in varying degrees of condition. He also acknowledges in the introduction that the inspiration behind the book is the aforementioned release by BFI of the films and as a result Neibaur charts the subtle development of Chaplin’s alter ego in the form of the little tramp over this one year period.


Neibaur is no stranger to this book’s publisher, Scarecrow Press as he had already written books for this publisher and others including books on ‘The Fall of Buster Keaton’, a book on both Keaton and ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, ‘Chaplin at Essanay’ a book about the early films of Laurel and Hardy as well as a new one about the silent films of Harry Langdon; clearly a specialist on silent film comedy. The beginning of the book puts Chaplin into context and perhaps more could be written about how Sennett came to discover Chaplin and about that transition from stage to screen before making his first appearance as a conman in a one reeler called Making a Living (all these films were made in 1914) before going on to film the one day shoot Kid Auto Races at Venice Cal. in which Sennett filmed this comedy at an actual event, as something his low budgets allowed him to do. Significantly this is the first filming of Charlie as the little toothbrush mustached tramp making mischief and trying to get in front of Sennett’s camera. What is apparent on re-watching these films again in preparation for writing this review was how he developed this character from a mischief making monkey often prone to violence to the sensitive waif that his character would later become and he began to refine later on. From time to time Chaplin would digress from the tramp and would in one of the lesser and poorer efforts play it in drag as a fishwife (in A Busy Day) or in others even as one of the Keystone Cops. In other films he would even be second fiddle to the likes of Arbuckle. But it is the violence and nasty spirit in the name of slapstick that was stock-in-trade for Sennett and he made some of the biggest names of the silent era, none more so than Chaplin. In the book’s appendix there are brief biographies of performers who were in these films with Charlie, nearly all of whom had a very mixed bag of success.


The author splits up each film and sets out them out chronologically according to their release dates. He begins with the films title before setting out how many reels the films are (a one reeler would be a little over 10 minutes), their filming dates followed by release date, the main crew including director and details of the cast. Then each film would get about 3 – 5 pages on the film itself and where it stood in Chaplin’s development. It is clear that the author loves Chaplin’s films and rarely criticizes them too harshly. It becomes apparent from quite early on how Chaplin fell out with many directors who would not allow him any creativity until his star ascended and he would go on to write and direct all his films. It is also interesting to note Chaplin’s relationship with other Keystone stars from Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Ford Sterling, Chester Conklin and one of his favorites to perform alongside, the big and burly Mack Swain; evidently Chaplin liked the contrast in sizes as the author oft repeats. The last film Keystone released and starring Chaplin was also the very first feature length comedy (at 6 reels), Tillie’s Punctured Romance which bookends Chaplin’s career at Keystone as he once again plays a conman. The film although looks flawed today was a huge critical success on its release and helped further set Chaplin’s name on the road to super stardom – all this in one year.


There is also a final chapter that covers what Chaplin did when he left Keystone – basically grew more autonomy and became one of the most recognizable and biggest stars in the world. Many have criticized Chaplin’s early films and dismissed them, but on watching them back to back which naturally the author here has done it is evident that these were the films of a driven artist honing his craft. For anyone interested in the films of Chaplin this is a well researched book about an artist he clearly has a lot of love for and is more than a worthy book about the year that launched Chaplin’s career and as the title says was his apprenticeship.


Chris Hick


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