The image of the “little tramp” made famous by comic actor, writer and director Charles Chaplin some 90 years ago remains an icon to this day. The comic pioneer’s films are an anomaly: they are among the very few motion pictures of the pre-talkie era to remain available for viewing, with many of Chaplin’s films readily accessible on home video or cable showings.
Among film historians, as well as casual viewers, Chaplin himself is hailed as a genius, and the self-produced classics he created later in his career (such as “The Gold Rush,” “Modern Times” and “The Great Dictator”) are celebrated among fans along with most of his classic short films produced at the Mutual studio.
His earlier work, particularly his first films produced at Mack Sennett’s Keystone studio as well as the Essanay productions which followed, remains relatively neglected and undiscovered by contemporary viewing audiences.
Authors Ted Okuda and David Maska, have attempted to rectify this with a new book. “Charlie Chaplin at Keystone and Essanay: Dawn of the Tramp,” recently published by iUniverse. Both authors will discuss the new book at the Brookfield Public Library, 3609 Grand Blvd., tonight, April 5, at 7 p.m. Three of Chaplin’s short films also will be screened.
Okuda and Maska said they were prompted to write the book to address the unfamiliarity of most audiences with these early films, many of which are available in cheaply priced public domain DVD collections, where celebrated classic films such as “The Kid” might appear alongside obscure early titles like “Tillie’s Punctured Romance,” which do not feature the recognizable Little Tramp character.
Consumers unfamiliar with Chaplin’s work may pick up one of those releases out of curiosity and be turned off by material, which does not live up to the comic’s reputation.
“If you see ‘Modern Times’ at a video store for $25, and a collection of shorts for eight or nine bucks, it’s an easy choice for most people,” Maska said.
Many of these collections are marketed with somewhat misleading packaging showing the iconic tramp character on the cover.
“We can see someone somewhere saying, ‘Where is he?'” said Maska.
Still, the authors said that doesn’t mean Chaplin’s early work is unworthy of attention.
The book covers all the Keystone and Essanay films in chronological order.
“I had all the shorts on tape,” Maska said. “But I’d never watched them all.”
The authors viewed the films in chronological order, often comparing different versions of the same title released at different times by different distributors. Available copies of many films vary greatly from one source to another.
Chaplin was very popular in his day, and his films often were reissued for theatres, home movie editions, and later television, with different edits done at various times.
Many of the Keystone films were reissued later under alternate titles, resulting in much potential confusion.
Ironically, the wide availability of the films has resulted in the entire collection being preserved and available for viewing in some form, unlike many silent films of the era, which have disappeared due to a number of causes, including the unstable and flammable nitrate film stock used in the era, as well as suppression and even destruction of original film elements.
Though all Chaplin’s films were saved, the early films still may prove perplexing to potential viewers.
“He was new, and the medium was new, too,” Okuda explained. “He was still learning his craft.”
The authors said prior to researching the book, they themselves were unfamiliar with some of Chaplin’s early output.
“We had never seen a lot of those films, and we certainly had never seen them in chronological order,” Okuda said. “Some of them are kind of limited in terms of entertainment value.”
Certainly, the fast-paced, knockabout style of the Sennett studio was less than an ideal fit for an artist like Chaplin, whose finesse became more apparent later in his career when he had fully developed his character and was able to exert greater control over the way that character was presented.
The Keystone films “are like blueprints or sketches,” Maska remarked.
Okuda said the Chaplin situation is the reverse of other legendary film comedians such as Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers, who made great films early in their careers, but declined when movie studio executives denied them creative control as their careers were winding down.
“Chaplin is just the opposite of Laurel and Hardy,” Okuda said. “Books summarize his entire early career in one chapter.”
“These films have never been covered in detail before,” Maska added.
It is interesting to note that in the book’s introductions, both Maska and Okuda say they do not consider Chaplin to be their favorite comedian.
Both say they are fans of a wide variety of performers including Chaplin, but both cite Buster Keaton as their favorite silent comedian. Okuda said this is largely due to the way the authors were introduced to Chaplin’s films.
In the early days of television, the films of Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, the Three Stooges and others were widely available for viewing, but Chaplin’s films were less frequently seen in those days, partly because of events in the comedian’s personal and political life which led to his films falling into disfavor in some circles.
“When I first saw Chaplin, I was past the formative stages,” Okuda explained. “When people say he was the greatest comedian of all time, I certainly don’t disagree with that.”
Okuda said he hopes the book will lead other potential fans to rediscover Chaplin.
“This is the guide we wish would have existed,” Okuda said.