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The Screening Room

Early Chaplin films 'quite nasty, quite naughty, quite adult'

By Grace Wong for CNN
  • Chaplin's early films show he wasn't always the loveable tramp of his later works
  • The films are being refurbished as part of an international effort to preserve his film heritage
  • British Film Institute one of the organizations helping his films live on
  • Restored Chaplin films show his evolution as a performer in new light, highlight his comic mastery

London, England (CNN) -- Charlie Chaplin won the world over playing the Little Tramp, but the comic actor wasn't always such a loveable guy.

In his early films, Chaplin is "quite nasty, quite naughty, quite adult," according to Bryony Dixon, a curator at the British Film Institute.

"His expressions are funny and delightful, although he is not quite the character he later becomes," she told CNN. "He becomes nicer as time goes on, and more sympathetic as a character."

It's possible now to see Chaplin's evolution as a performer in a new light, thanks to an ambitious international effort launched by the BFI, Cineteca Bologna and Lobster Films to restore Chaplin's earliest comedies.

In a bid to preserve Chaplin's film heritage, the project has since 2003 been restoring his earliest comedies -- a collection of films he made in 1914 when he was starting out at Hollywood studio Keystone.

Video: Charlie Chaplin restored

In the span of the year he was working at Keystone, Chaplin underwent an "amazing transformation," Dixon said. In the films, "you see how he goes from being a stage performer to being a film star," she said.

Born in a south London slum in 1889, Chaplin's status as one of the most influential artists in cinematic history endures. He inspired a generation of filmmakers, including Richard Attenborough, and his influence can be seen in recent films like Pixar's "Wall-E."

Often touted as one of Britain's greatest exports to Hollywood, an exhibition devoted to his life and career opened earlier this month at London's Film Museum.

Chaplin not only stood out for his creativity, but was rare among early motion picture artists for the emphasis he placed on preserving his films throughout his career.

He becomes nicer as time goes on, and more sympathetic as a character.
--Bryony Dixon, British Film Institute

But, when he was just starting out at Keystone, he didn't have control over his prints or what happened to them. Keystone, which owned his films, would cut them up and reissue them with different titles, particularly as Chaplin's popularity grew, Dixon said.

As a result, over the years, bits of his films were rearranged into other works. These mutilated copies, with their disrupted narratives and lack of continuity, detracted from the reputation of his earliest films, which were widely viewed as being of poor quality.

But the refurbished films highlight his comic mastery, Dixon told CNN. As soon as the quality is restored, "suddenly you understand what a brilliant performer he is," she said.

When repairing a film, the aim is to create a film as close to its original release condition as possible, according to Kieron Webb, technical director at the BFI. Archivists essentially work out a film's original shape and texture and build it up from scratch

The restoration of movies like "A Film Johnnie," (1914) which was undertaken by the BFI, can be a painstaking process that requires tough decisions.

"It's important that you make the film as complete as possible, but it's also extremely important as a viewing experience that you make the film flow and that people can view it comfortably," Webb told CNN.

Bringing his work back to the public is, after all, one of the project's primary aims, Dixon said.

She said: "I think people will look at [his early films] in a completely different light and they will become quite important as records of his development as a screen star."