Interview Transcript - Glenn Mitchell

Photo © Glenn Mitchell

We talk about why it is important to restore the Chaplin Keystones in an interview with Glenn Mitchell, author of The Chaplin Encyclopaedia and tireless documenter of the Keystone prints.

Bryony Dixon: Okay, so this is: interview with Glenn Mitchell, about the Chaplin Keystones. Glenn, do you think the Keystone films are funny?

Glenn Mitchell: I'm starting to think so. For many years I did not find them terribly amusing, I have to say. There were exceptions. There are a few I've always enjoyed. Laughing Gas was one I've always thought was rather good, and then the less choppy prints, His Musical Career... Some of them I look at and think 'well this is academic interest only' and I've noticed, or have come to realise now, that that's largely in the cases where the available prints were not very good, and I think this gives us rather the key to the importance of these restorations.

BD: So the restoration process itself actually changes your view of the film.

GM: Yes, it does, very much. One of the more recent restorations we've had screened - and this was at the conference - was The New Janitor, the importance of which, in terms of its plotting - the serious plotting - has always been known. It was a rather pivotal moment: Chaplin was exploring dramatic possibilities within a short comedy. What I didn't think was that it was terribly funny, and frankly my eyes are rather opened by the restored copy, for the simple reason that I became aware, for the first time, of the amount of nuance. You can see Chaplin's expressions, which you can't see in the usual poor dupes of this film. And suddenly I found myself enjoying it on an entirely new level, because I could see the subtlety in Chaplin's facial expressions, if nothing else, and I think that, perhaps more than any other example I've seen of late, again brought home to me the importance of this restoration work.

BD: Okay, so the clarity of the image is important. There's a particularly fine shot in The New Janitor, if I recall. It's a beautiful stunt with him shooting through his legs at the guy who's coming to burgle the vault.

GM: Yes, he's got he villain covered and keeps him covered, even with his back turned, by doing a fold-over and, yes, pointing the revolver at the villain between his legs. And it's done with such finesse... that gets laughs even if it's a bad print, but if it's a good one, it's an absolute riot.

BD: The other thing, apart from the clarity of the image of course, is the narrative continuity. These films have been, as we know, much, much abused - they've been recut and reissued in different forms. They're missing footage, the order has sometimes been changed, the intertitles sometimes changed. Can you talk a bit about that?

GM: Yes. In addition to the problem of massively degraded image, we have the further complication of the amount of reediting that's taken place on the Keystones. The narrative structure, with Keystone, I think was rather an informal affair to begin with but, by the time the various reissue merchants had got their hands on the films, they made even less sense. They had a habit of trimming beginnings and ends, and cutting within a sequence. Sometimes it's clear that any establishing scenes were sacrificed so that they could crash straight into a Chaplin gag at the beginning. Or, anything that was considered to be a superfluous tailing-off at the end would have to go. And they would often rearrange the sequence of events, which made the slender plots of the Keystones much more difficult to follow. And, just to make the job even harder, you would sometimes find things like a shot being omitted and the gap being bridged by a single shot being cut in two, and one end of that shot being moved over, to cover the gap. So you can sometimes finish up with a very confused narrative indeed, and people come away from the Keystone films thinking that a) they were rather poorly photographed, and b) they didn't make any sense. If you see one that's in its original form - which is very rare - or if you see one, as we're seeing now, that's been put back to its original intended version - more or less - then you do get a rather more favourable impression of these films.

BD: That order, and the making-sense thing, is certainly how I first had problems with the Keystones I've seen. Mainly TV shows when I was a kid, where they were very much cut about, and there was also a voice-over, trying desperately to explain this incomprehensible jumble. So I really had a very poor opinion of them. And I have to say, having seen now about... I don't know, nearly twenty restored titles, they're easy to follow, I think, relatively easy to follow, and make a lot of sense.

GM: They are quite easy to follow and, in a sense, this rather explains what had been something of a mystery, in that the Chaplin Keystones had tended to be rather more muddled affairs, that some of the non-Chaplin Keystones that had survived in any case because, of course, when they exist, because they weren't being constantly reissued because of the Chaplin name - because he's not in them - they were less inclined to be messed around with. So the narrative on those seems altogether more... easy to follow, less jumbled. And you wonder why somebody as cohesive, as meticulous as Chaplin, would have made films that were more jumbled than the non-Chaplin subjects were. But the answer is, of course, he didn't.

BD: So why would these reissue companies... why were they reissuing films like this? What was going on in 1914 and after? Was it just that Chaplin was becoming a huge star?

GM: The Chaplin films, I think, were the most reissued and recycled of the Keystones because, simply, he became the biggest name very quickly, and stayed that way. There was always a demand for Chaplin product. There's the famous story of the cinema in America that played nothing but Chaplin pictures. One week they decided to try something different and they put on a film with a Chaplin imitator, and business plummeted so badly they had to reinstate the old Chaplin programme immediately. And so Chaplin was always a draw, you just needed the name on the billing outside the theatre, or a photograph or a cut-out of the man's figure... it would be enough to get customers in. Outside of the cinema the Chaplin name alone was enough, better still if you had a still or a cardboard cut-out of the man's figure on display. Either way, the mere hint of Chaplin would be enough to get patrons into the cinema. And to satisfy that continuous demand, there were always reissues and, generally, the Keystones, passed through more hands than most for the simple reason that the earlier ones were not genuinely copyrighted, despite any claims on the main title cards. They weren't actually starting to copyright them until somewhere... perhaps about halfway through 1914.

So the earlier ones were fair game for anyone who wanted to run them off, and even the later ones passed through a number of different hands, I think, partly through the intrigues that followed the disappearance of Keystone into Triangle, and the collapse of Triangle, and the dealings within Mutual, and WH Productions, and other companies such as Tower, and a number of other reissue concerns. They all had access to material of varying degrees of originality - it could be first/second generation, it could be eighth or tenth - but they all had access to them. And between them they managed to copy and recopy, but they would also put out what they considered to be perhaps improved versions. They would reedit sometimes. One of the most surprising things is that WH, which was the most authentic of the reissue concerns, and the most directly linked to the original company, would sometimes issue, more-or-less the same version, just with new title cards inserted. But on some of them, the main title tells you that it's 'adapted from' whatever the original film was. And so you'll get one that's a straight retitling, and some that's really somebody else's idea of a reedit, to 'improve' the picture. And it's deeply frustrating that WH didn't have a consistent policy.

BD: Ah, so they vary.

GM: So they can vary. I would love to know what they did to The Rounders, which is described - even on a separate card, I think, not just on the main title card - as 'adapted from The Rounders' rather than just 'formally known as', which straight reissues would have been. So they didn't have a consistent policy. Some of the other people... the policy's unknown, but we do know that they would reedit, they would chop down the length, very often to save either running time in the theatres - and quite often exhibitors would chop prints down, so that you would get more showings in per day - but there was also the business of reducing the negative length to save on raw stock on the pos prints. So if you've got, say, 200 release prints and you're saving 20-30 feet on each, that adds up pretty quickly.

BD: And presumably when these films were exported, also they would be sent with flash titles...

GM: They'd have flash titles, yes. Quite often, yes, an overseas copy would have the titles just in flash form, if inserted at all. I'm afraid on more than one occasion, the Keystone had a habit of not keeping the titles permanently inserted into the negative. This is not borne out by the Keystone negatives I've seen, but there seem to have been cases of Keystone retitling its own subjects within a year or so of the first issue, for me to think that perhaps in some cases they weren't permanently inserted. Unless, of course, I've been fooled by fake Keystone titles that...

BD: Yes, this is the problem, this is a real forensic job... So it seems that Chaplin's very popularity means that the survival of his films, intact as they were first released, has actually threatened that, although we do know that nearly all of the films exist.

GM: This is the thing. It's very much a mixed blessing. The mere fact of Chaplin's enormous popularity meant that his earlier films were kept in constant reissue and have therefore survived. The drawback is the fact that they are... varied types of reissue means that they aren't necessarily authentic versions, or necessarily in good quality. So I think the way to look at it simply is that we should be grateful that they do exist because of the constant reissues. The mere fact of their survival is the main thing. It's just rather a shame that they don't necessarily exist in their original form.

One of the things that people often bewail, as regards silent cinema - comedians in particular - is the lack of opportunity to see almost the entire body of work, to trace that comedian's development. There were so many whose existence depends on a number of subjects, which may not even necessarily be representative ones, or they're just isolated examples from a specific period. There are one or two others from earlier on, perhaps. I'm trying to think of a few good examples, here, but... not necessarily, because the basic principle is simply that many comedians exist only in unrepresentative sections of their work. With Chaplin, we've got the whole lot. Even the famously missing Keystone, Her Friend the Bandit... there is now thought that that may not have been Chaplin anyway.

BD: Aha! Ah, so, right. So we really do have the lot.

GM: Presumably the lot. The only exception is that strange fragment, from which frames have appeared, showing Chaplin in civvies, with Mabel Normand operating a telephone switchboard, which doesn't seem to come from any known Keystone.

BD: Right.

GM: That was rumoured to have been variously things like Hello, Mabel, and one or two other titles, but they've turned up, and they've turned out not to contain this footage. So there does seem to be another lost, unidentified Chaplin Keystone out there, probably not documented because he does appear in civvies. Things do slip through the net if he's not recognisably Charlie. But really, to all intents and purposes, we have all of Chaplin's film canon and we can trace his development even through the Keystones that have been rather badly treated over the years, and are now hard to follow.

BD: So we've got the entire surviving output of Chaplin at Keystone, we think, apart from one mystery piece.

GM: Yes.

BD: So what do these films tell us about Chaplin? So we've got an intense period of him working, over a number of months in 1914, and we know that the impact of these films was immediate... and permanent... and international. These were an instant hit. So this was about some quality that Chaplin had. What is revealed through the Keystone films about this phenomenon?

GM : Some people wonder how much Chaplin brought with him from the music halls straight into the Keystones, something which immediately set him apart from the competition. It's very difficult to gauge, on the surviving evidence, but I personally think that what Chaplin brought was essentially the physical end of the British music hall star, not the vocal humour that tended to dominate, but just that specific niche within the halls where physical comedy was, if not predominant, then certainly integral. Chaplin brought the physical aspect that was so often integral to the British music hall, despite the predominance of the vocal approach. It's quite revealing that... I think it was a Bioscope review of one of the Essanays: By the Sea. It described him as the Dan Leno of the screen. And, of course, they would have seen Leno, and they would have been able to make the comparison. We don't have that luxury, unfortunately, with 30 seconds of Leno on film...

But I think it's fair to say that he brought the basic physicality of British music hall humour to film, but very swiftly adapted it within Keystone's structure. He seems to have learned, very quickly, the basics of film grammar and construction from Henry Lehrman, however unsympathetic a teacher he must have been, from what we know. I don't think he picked up very much more from George Nichols after Lehrman had gone. If you look at Making a Living, it's obvious that Chaplin had the music hall personality. I think he, in effect, is playing the crooked referee from The Football Match in Making a Living, and is still obviously finding his feet. By the time he's got the tramp costume, in the next two films, he knows what to do with the camera. He knows how to apply that music hall... not quite tumbling approach, but certainly that music hall mind. He knows how to relate that to a camera, how to contain it within the aperture, so to speak.

BD: And in fact the camera is working in his favour, because the luxury that he, as a performer, didn't have in the English music hall stage, particularly in the Karno sketch comedies, was this... up close... to see how good he was, physically - because it is microcosmically detailed, the physical performance. So he seems to have got that very quickly, that the camera was going to allow him to get much closer to his audience.

GM: It's true to say that Chaplin picked up very quickly that the camera could focus audience attention on him. There was no guarantee of that on stage, but with movies the audience had no choice - Chaplin was the centre of attention. He knew how to exploit it and, of course, what people tend not to pick up on is the fact that until then Chaplin had had no means of judging his own performance, as a detached individual, and we do know that - now, courtesy of Unknown Chaplin and the Mutual outtakes - we know that he rehearsed on film - he watched himself work - and Keystone gave Chaplin the first opportunity to view himself objectively as a performer. And it's quite interesting that in most of his shots, he keeps himself centre-frame wherever possible. Something that's often lost on reissues which have been cropped for a soundtrack... and so the whole image has shifted over to the side slightly, and they seem rather poorly framed, and Chaplin no longer seems centre-stage. See an original full-frame print and he's in the middle and he is eminently observable, both to himself and to his audience.

BD: Fantastic. Thank you very much.

GM: There was one point you asked me about earlier on, about the quality and the importance of... and how it became a vicious circle. I wonder if you'd like to add that and drop it in somewhere?

BD: Absolutely.

GM: Okay... The Keystones have tended to be overlooked, I think, largely because they were such poor quality in the available prints, and the reason the available prints were in such poor condition is because the Keystones are overlooked, so they've been the victim of a vicious circle.

BD: And now, finally we've got an opportunity to put that right.

GM: And now that vicious circle has been broken. We have the opportunity to put these films back into viewable and, with a bit of luck, people will start taking notice of them again and realise just quite how good they are.