The Tramp Celebrates 100 Years: The History and Preservation of His Early Films With Serge Bromberg

December 16, 2014

I have a confession to make: I have a professional crush on a French film historian and archivist named Serge Bromberg.

 

This has been going on for a while; I can trace my admiration back to when I first saw him 'perform,' I'd say, at the TCM Classic Film Festival in 2012 when he presented a collection of shorts entitled "A Trip to the Moon and Other Trips through Time, Color and Space."

 

I've attended countless screenings that included intros or presentations by film historians, archivists, restorationists, academics, authors, etc., and generally, I've learned a good amount from every one of them. However, there are just some presenters who stand heads beyond the rest. One of those people is Serge Bromberg. 

 

So, I was even more excited to attend the Academy's 100th Anniversary salute to Charlie Chaplin's Tramp character in November 2014 when I heard they were bringing Bromberg in for a special presentation on the topic. From the moment Bromberg poked his head out from behind the curtain on stage after he was introduced, I knew it would another entertaining, informative evening! 

Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp.

I termed his presentation a performance because it felt like one. Bromberg didn't just stand on stage in front of a mic and spout off information - on the contrary, he took on many roles that night: entertainer, educator, and even musician! He was constantly moving, jumping and sometimes running between the middle of the stage and the piano off to the right, which he used to accompany the shorts he spoke about. In fact, he would sometimes even provide tidbits of information about the short while he was accompanying it. Bromberg's passion for the material was always evident; his eyes literally lit up as he spoke, and energy ran through his body as he glided across the stage. It was easy to tell he was excited to be there speaking to a packed house on a subject he sincerely adored.

Serge Bromberg.

His charm and magnetism certainly helped the audience follow along with the material, most of which was about a century old. For those not adequately versed in the technical side of archiving and restoration (me included), Bromberg made explanations of the process as easy to understand - audibly and visually - as possible, and even fun too! He came across more as a storyteller, since he had great personal relationships with many of the shorts he screened, because his company was active in many of the restorations.  

 

 

The Tramp

For most people, it's hard to disassociate Charlie Chaplin from The Tramp, but Chaplin was performing well before he breathed life into the character 100 years ago.

 

Bromberg started with some background. Chaplin's childhood was a rough one: his father passed away when he was 11, and his mother was in and out of asylums for the remainder of Chaplin's childhood. Soon, he found himself performing with his brother Sydney on the streets of London and eventually the stage.  

 

Bromberg briefly explored Chaplin's influences. While many details are still murky about this period in Chaplin's life, one famous French comedian in particular was highlighted by Bromberg: Max Linder. In researching this thread, Bromberg uncovered a sole signed photo inscribed from Chaplin to Linder, but other than that, he found no evidence of any friendship or professional relationship.

 

Until recently.

 

When Chaplin left America in 1952, he also left a substantial amount of film behind, including outtakes from his early work. Some of these pieces were stored with the Chaplin family, and while rummaging through the footage, Bromberg stumbled upon a reel featuring Chaplin goofing for the camera - with Max Linder! Their humorous bit was certainly short, but even so, clearly both men shared the same comedic sensibilities, and to be featured together, they must have been on friendly terms; there's even one moment in the footage where Linder gives Chaplin a kiss on the lips! 

Chaplin and Linder hamming it up for the camera. 

Now that we know at least one of Chaplin's influences, how was The Tramp born?

 

Chaplin began working with producer Mack Sennett in 1914. In coming up with a costume for one of Chaplin's character's, Chaplin recalled his thought process in his autobiography: he wanted to wear something that was contradictory; thus, he paired the baggy pants and the tight jacket with oversized shoes and a small hat to round out the look on the bottom and top, respectively.  Chaplin wasn't sure of the specific age Sennett was looking for, so he added the mustache to make the character appear older while still retaining all facial movement.

 

The Tramp's first on-screen appearance is not exactly as clear cut as one would think. Bromberg screened a 1914 short titled Kid Auto Races at Venice, which is staged exactly as the title implies. Apparently, Chaplin heard about an auto race in Venice, California and ventured down with a camera and small crew to film. The short took a mere two hours to shoot, and it shows. Visually, the film looks as if it was shot as a home movie: the camera pans through the action, capturing the races and crowds, while Chaplin, credited as The Tramp, continually pops his head in front of the moving camera, hamming it up.

 

What is especially astounding about this short is the fact that those in the crowd were not extras - they weren't aware Chaplin was shooting a short, nor did they know who Chaplin even was. With that, exactly 100 years later, those of us in attendance were watching The Tramp's first audience; we had the unique opportunity of observing the completely authentic reaction and laughter of those lucky ones in the crowd who were witnessing the birth of one of the most iconic characters in cinema history. 

Chaplin filming Kid Auto Races at Venice. I love everything about this photo.

A behind the scenes look at the filming of Kid Auto Races at Venice. Another great shot. 

There were a lot of oohhs and ahhhs from the audience when Bromberg pointed that fact out. I doubt any of those people in the crowd thought they'd be part of such a historical event, or that their images would be flickering in a theater over 100 years later!

 

But...was this really the first time Chaplin donned The Tramp outfit?

 

Technically, it was not. Though Kid Auto Races at Venice is billed first on Chaplin's filmography (at least according to IMDb.com), another short, Mabel's Strange Predicament, was actually produced around the former; Kid Auto Races at Venice filmed on January 11, 1914, while Mabel's Strange Predicament straddled that shoot, as it was made on January 9 and January 12. There's even physical evidence to prove it: Chaplin wore the same oversized pants in both films, and at one point in the middle of Mabel's Strange Predicament, a hole appears in his trousers (which Bromberg delightfully stopped his piano playing to point out). Where did this come from? The set of Kid Auto Races at Venice, that's where!

As usual, The Tramp is in the middle of another strange predicament, this time Mabel's. 

Compared to the short excerpt of Kid Auto Races at Venice that we saw, the full version of Mabel's Strange Predicament was a treat, and, to me at least, a smidge racy for 1914: the main character gets locked out of her room in her nightgown and finds herself in her married neighbor's room, where she's forced to hide under the bed from his wife and the amorous Tramp (not to mention her lover, who barges in later). Chaplin's Tramp was the "Drunk," a character he would come to play often. Bromberg explained the reasoning for this as being tied to the fact that vaudeville audiences would come to shows to drink. Consequently, inebriated characters were a welcome mainstay within the vaudeville circuit. 

The Inebriate vs. The Tramp: which is the better nickname?

After he shared a good amount of background on The Tramp, Bromberg focused his attention on the restoration of some of the character's shorts, including the 1915 film The Bank. A few years prior, Bromberg put out the word in the archiving community that he was looking for elements from the movie, and replies rolled in from a few institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the UCLA Film and Television Archive. MoMA held a fine grain master, a positive print made from the original negative. Pretty good, Bromberg recalled, but UCLA one-upped them: they had in their possession the original camera negative! Jackpot, right? Well, not exactly. Though UCLA's print was indeed the original piece of film that ran through the camera in 1914, physically, it had seen better days: the reel had shrunk by 2mm, and lengthwise, it had lost 1000 feet. Luckily, two other organizations, the Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique in Brussels and the Library of Congress, uncovered copies of The Bank as well, though in varying forms of completeness and condition; for example, the Library of Congress' reel was tinted yellow and decomposing.

 

Bromberg had placed all four elements side by side on his computer screen to exhibit just how difficult reconstruction could be; in fact, he dubbed this one the "impossible reconstruction," so we knew we were in for an educational treat! "Wait for it...it'll be like fireworks," he told us, and he sure wasn't joking: when Bromberg pressed play at a specific point in the movie, each of the four images, assembled in a square on the screen, began flickering, all at different times. To me, it looked more like a light up memory game than four separate film reels. In instances such as this, Bromberg said archivists and restorationists have to choose the best - or in certain cases, the only - available frames and assemble them together to make one (hopefully) unified copy. All in all, The Bank required 215 cuts, which is remarkable considering the short's running time is only 25 minutes.

Even after all the research and work that goes into reconstructing and restoring these films, sometimes the job isn't truly done - and one may never even know it. In the case of The Bank, Bromberg screened the short in its fully reconstructed form at a film festival in San Francisco. Afterwards, a man approached him and said he had a 16mm copy of the movie that he would like Bromberg to watch. After spending so much time on the film, Bromberg was hesitant to view it again but eventually accepted, and it's a good thing he did. When the all-too-familiar end arrived, Bromberg expected a fade to black, but instead...the action continued for another 30-45 seconds! None of the four other prints he examined included this finale. Lucky for those of us in the audience that evening, the newly discovered frames were included in the cut we saw, and it was obvious: the 16mm footage was extremely grainy, to the point that it almost looked out of focus. Still, it was a treat to experience the real end of the film, which left the story and the characters in a completely different set-up than the previously-thought finale had - and within a span of only about 30 seconds!   

 

With The Bank, Bromberg showed the audience that it can be tough deciding which frame works best for a reconstruction.  However, that's not the only issue faced when looking at more than one film element. Usually, two negatives that appear to be of the exact same material are indeed the same, but what happens when they aren't? Using footage from One A.M. (1916), Bromberg revealed that the two elements he was screening for the audience were actually from two different cameras, because the angles were clearly off when you compared the two. Consequently, it was entirely possible that different footage could show up in different prints around the world, especially in silent cinema. In this case, one film came from the BFI and the other from Brussels. When reconstructing a film like this, another more creative layer is added: a choice has to be made as to which piece of footage to pull from (if both are of acceptable quality, of course). 

Sticking with One A.M. as an example, Bromberg switched his focus to the restoration of intertitles. On the big screen, Bromberg projected a chart capturing screen shots of the title cards from both the BFI and Brussels versions, along with a copy of the titles as sent to the Library of Congress by the production entity, which was common practice during that time. Some of the title cards were missing between the two elements from Brussels, and compared to the Library of Congress record, there were even some slight changes, which shows that the filmmakers sent the information over to the Library of Congress before the movie was even finished. Furthermore, the titles from the BFI version were completely different and had nothing to do at all with the originals. Only in silent film can something like that happen!

 

Bromberg wrapped up the evening by taking us back to Chaplin's years on the stage. He mentioned earlier that Chaplin joined the vaudeville circuit at the end of the first decade of the 1900s with Fred Karno's troupe and performed a stage show called Mumming Birds. With the film industry still in its infancy back then, the pioneers turned to the theater for influence, and Pathé, one of the first film production companies, basically lifted Chaplin's act for one of its shorts. The company was sued for plagiarism, and apparently all the prints were destroyed.

 

Even after Chaplin started in the picture business, he would appear on stage once more - well, on stage on film - in the 1915 short A Night in the Show, in which he played dual roles, one a Drunk, sitting in the balcony with the rest of the 'commoners,' and one a Pest, who hops from seat to seat on the lower level annoying the upper class patrons. Between the action in the audience and what takes place on stage, the film hilariously resembles a vaudeville act. In actuality, it most likely closely mirrored Chaplin's own stage act, though it must have been tinkered with enough so they wouldn't get sued.

Chaplin (center) as the Drunk in A Night in the Show, sitting up in the balcony with the commoners, including a man in drag with a baby and another in blackface, both to Chaplin's left. 

Pouty Chaplin as the Pest annoying all the rich folk in A Night in the Show. 

But Bromberg wasn't finished yet. Remember two paragraphs ago when I mentioned that Bromberg said the prints to an unauthorized film version of Chaplin's Mumming Birds were destroyed? Well, it seems that at least one escaped demolition! While in Mexico a while back, Bromberg attended a screening series called "What Chaplin Saw," documenting what were most likely influences in Chaplin's career and life. There, he watched a 1907 Pathé film called At the Music Hall, the short that was supposedly "wiped off the face of the Earth," starring none other than Max Linder. Afterwards, Bromberg approached the event organizers and asked about the film, telling them he could go about this two ways: he could sneak up to the projection booth and take the movie without permission, or...he could go to the projection booth and take the movie with permission.

 

Legally or illegally (assuming the former), Bromberg got his hands on the short and screened it for us, which was spectacular. The movie was a historical highlight in Chaplin's career, even though it would be six years before he graced the big screen. As Bromberg acknowledged Linder as one of the main influences in Chaplin's career, it was fun to see the switch: here, Linder imitates Chaplin, most likely from his Mumming Birds routine on the stage, and it was easy to identify the building blocks of Chaplin's mannerisms in Linder's character. Soon enough, the world would know and love these quirks, and it was amazing to view them slowly coming to life years before the character was formally introduced into the film world by Chaplin.

 

Who knew what a legendary character that partly inebriated, somewhat helpful, always klutzy, aborably amorous fellow would become! 

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I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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