Watching Charlie Chaplin`s work for Keystone Studios is a bit like watching the earliest Mickey Mouse cartoons, and it may take a bit of adjustment for modern viewers. Like Walt Disney’s rodent, Chaplin’s Tramp persona was slowly polished into a screen character that audiences loved and rooted for. Populist tastes had much to do with this, but, in the process of refining the character for the masses, some of the Tramps’ rough edges were burned away. Revisiting the earliest incarnations of either character leads to a disconcerting discovery: the earliest versions were roughly etched and somewhat underdeveloped, but less predictable; they possessed not altogether sympathetic personality traits that contemporary audiences may find uncomfortable, especially when compared to their later refinements.
Earlier this year, Flicker Alley released the restored Keystone Chaplin shorts. That restoration was long overdue. For years, public domain labels had churned out DVD prints that were so execrable as to be virtually unwatchable.
In 1914 the Tramp is in his infancy, and his later self is only occasionally glimpsed. “Making A Living” (1914) is notable mainly as Chaplin’s screen debut. The Tramp is not yet born; rather, Chaplin appears as a swindling, Don Juan-like English dandy who foreshadows few characteristics of the famous persona. This mess of a film was directed by the Austrian native Henry “Suicide” Lehrman (so nicknamed by stuntmen because Lehrman, unconcerned about the danger of stunts, was risky to work for). Lehrman later dated actress Virginia Rappe. At the time of her death in the infamous Fatty Arbuckle scandal, Lehrman testified against Arbuckle at the trial and capitalized on the publicity. In the Chaplin at Keystone collection Lehrman appears as a reporter in Making a Living and as a film director in Chaplin’s second released film Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal. (which he also directed).