While watching the bonus features on the new Criterion Collection release of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, I had to pinch myself: there is a 1921 newsreel that follows Charlie’s seagoing journey from the U.S. to England called “Charlie” on the Ocean that I don’t remember seeing before. Ever. To be sure my memory wasn’t playing tricks on me, I asked David Shepard, who maintains the Blackhawk Films collection (which is credited as its source) and he confirmed that as far as he knows, this is its public debut.
It’s been a great year for silent-film comedy, with the discovery of Laurel and Hardy’s long-lost gem The Battle of the Century, a spectacular new book on L&H by Randy Skretvedt (which I will be reviewing shortly), the opening of Charlie Chaplin’s home in Switzerland as a museum, and Lobster Films’ major Buster Keaton restoration project.
If you are a longtime collector of DVDs or Blu-rays, you may think you’ve seen it all before when it comes to Kino Lorber’s release of Buster Keaton: The Shorts Collection, a spectacular five-disc set. But, as curator Serge Bromberg explains in a booklet that accompanies the discs, “Not a frame, not a sound in the Blu-ray or DVD set in your hands has come from previous editions. New orchestral scores, international film research, fresh film scans in 2K or 4K…the year we spent in intense work with our team of ten colleagues, building this edition shot by shot, flew by at the speed of light.”
Serge is speaking figuratively, of course: piecing together the best elements of Buster Keaton’s two-reel comedies (with and without Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle) was an incredibly complex, labor-intensive process. Here are the credits for just one short: “Day Dreams was restored by Lobster Films in collaboration with Film Preservation Associates from a 35 mm safety dupe negative made from Czech materials at the Cinemathèque Française and two nitrate prints from EYE Film Institute (Netherlands) and the Lobster Films Collection (Paris). Some shot fragments were added from a safety sound aperture fine grain in the Blackhawk Films collection at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Intertitles were reconstructed according to the original font of the film, based on the translation of original French and Czech cards.”
A demonstration of how Bromberg and his team pieced these films together, one frame at a time, to fix continuity jumps and create a consistent look for each short subject says it all.
What’s more, there is some genuinely new material here. The great discovery, which has been shown at several film festivals, is an alternate version of The Blacksmith with four minutes of absolute hilarity. (The supposition is that the version we’ve seen for decades was in fact a work print, not the final release from 1922.) There are also alternate endings to Coney Island and My Wife’s Relations, and a clip from Buster’s 1951 television show Life with Buster Keaton in which he recreates a “Salomé Dance” that Fatty Arbuckle first performed in The Cook.
A new essay by Jeffrey Vance and newly-commissioned scores by such estimable musicians as Stephen Horne, Timothy Brock, Robert Israel, and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (among others) are icing on the cake.
As for Charlie Chaplin, Criterion’s release of The Kid is another example of a film that has been on home video before, but is well worth re-purchasing. In addition to a stunning 4K transfer of the film, there is a cornucopia of bonus material, including an informative commentary track by Charles (Chuck) Maland, a video essay about Jackie Coogan’s life and career, three scenes that Chaplin deleted from his 1972 reissue of The Kid featuring Edna Purviance, brief footage of Charlie conducting his orchestral score for that release, and much, much more.
The high spot for me is Ben Model’s A Study in Undercranking. I saw Ben do this ground-breaking presentation at Cinefest a few years ago, as he did at the Mostly Lost festival in Culpeper, Virginia. There is even a version of it on YouTube. But thanks to Criterion, he is able to make his case using copyrighted material, not just public-domain footage, featuring Chaplin, Lloyd, and Keaton. You may know Ben as a prominent silent-film accompanist, but he is also a historian and the man behind a number of DVD releases featuring obscure silent comedies on his Undercrank Productions label.
His scholarly research into the manipulation of silent-film speed by leading comics is nothing short of a revelation. What’s more, he has documentation to prove that what he is saying (and showing) is not based on conjecture and a sharp pair of eyes. To see a great Chaplin gag from City Lights as he filmed it, at 14 frames per second, and then as he intended it to be seen, considerably faster, is to appreciate the art of silent moviemaking in a whole new way.
So here we are in 2016, still learning about the great work committed to film some 90 to 100 years ago. How fortunate we are that there are scholars, preservationists, and home video companies willing to share this material with all of us.