Serge Bromberg Discusses his Special Program of Restored Films at BAM

August 1, 2013 | By Florence Almozini

On Sept 5th, world-famous film preservationist and entertainer Serge Bromberg returns to BAM with this special program of films from Mutual Company, where Charlie Chaplin spent the happiest years of his career, and Essanay Film manufacturing Company, where Max Linder made his American debut. Accompanist, historian, and showman extraordinaire, Bromberg will guide us through these silent comedic gems, including early masterpieces from The Tramp (Easy Street and The Pawn Shop) and a few big surprises!

For this special occasion, Florence Almozini asked Serge a few questions about his selection.


Florence Almozini :  Serge, this is a very exciting program that you are presenting this year, we know you never say anything ahead of time about the many surprises that will be in the show but could you say a few words about the restored Chaplin?

 

Serge Bromberg : One always speak of lost films that have just been rediscovered. For example Chaplin's appearance in "A Thief Catcher", a 1914 curio that did not appear in any filmography. But in the case of the twelve films Chaplin made at Mutual in 1916-1917, the situation is very different, as these films exist everywhere in 16mm, sometimes 35mm, and have been released on DVDs many times. So why restore a film that already exists in thousands of copies and negative ? 

Well, this is the incredible magic : like a Xerox copy, every time you copy a film, you lose about 20% of its original quality. Year after year, generation after generation, the films have become grayish, full of lines, cuts, almost out of focus. They have been altered, scenes have been cut because ether were not fit for younger audiences, titles were changed, and little details who were visible in the 1st release image have now disappeared in the contrasty versions that survive. During three years, we (Cineteca di Bologna, Film Preservation Associates/David Shepard, and my company Lobster Films) have searched for the best surviving prints and negatives all over the world, and we have realized that actually, no one had spend the time to do this work and go back to the 1st generation image. I must say that major Archives throughout the world have made accessible their elements (a special thank you To Moma and the Library of Congress and the Academy for Motion Pictures in Los Angeles): without their collaboration, nothing would have been possible.

And the result is amazing ! Now that the films are restored, they are totally different. Visually perfect, they show jokes that we've never seen, censored scenes, details. 

And all of a sudden, they are not simply funny film for kids and the entire family, and we understand why Chaplin was such a genius and had so much success even the first years : these films are masterpieces.

 

FA: How did you find or discover these films? And are all of these restored by your company Lobster Films? 

SB : We found those films among collectors, archives, and our own collections. Almost all of them were identified, but as I said, on a computer listing, there is no difference between a 5th generation print of an abridged version and an incomplete fragment of a vintage first generation print from 1917 that may retain a lost clip. 

So contrarily to the Keystone project (his 1914 films), where we've had a hard time finding one single good print, this time we had to find the good material among thousands of prints, "the needle in the haystack". It is just like the stole letter of Edgar Allan Poe : everyone is searching for it, but no one looks in the most obvious and logic place, on  the author's desk, where it has always been. 

Just to show how important these films are, the restoration of these films has been sponsored by major film directors : Martin Scorcese Film Foundation, George Lucas, Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist), Alexander Payne (Sideways), Amitabh Bachchan, etc. 

Technical restoration was carried out in Bologna, at L'immagine Ritrovata lab, using the latest digital technologies; But the good thing is that now that we've spend all this time reconstructing the films, they can be showed as if time had not passed: they are so funny that you forget that they were films exactly 100 years ago.

 

FA: In addition to the live presentations that you give at BAM and other fortunate venues, how can people have access to these films?

SB : So far, no one has ever seen these restorations except in Bologna, where they premiered in June (some of the films with live symphonic orchestras, and new scores). They will be available shortly on Blu Ray (Publisher Flicker Alley), and I hope they will circulate around America in 2014 on the big screen, the centennial of Chaplin's first film. As for now, for the titles we will show tonight, the BAM presentation is the American première of these titles.

FA: Is there anything in particular in this year's program that you would like to bring to the audience attention?

SB : Oh yes !!! Who ever thought that there were Chaplin films that have never been restored ? Well, all the same, there are films that are discovered that no one believed to exist. For 11 years now, I come to BAM almost every year with my "treasures from a chest" program to present those films. I play the piano,  tell behind the scenes stories, etc. It is a complete show, not a simple film presentation, I always bring new discoveries with me. You do not need to be a film specialist, on the contrary : and you'll love it ! This time, among the few surprises I'll bring, I'll include a film shot by French comedy master Max Linder in the USA, at Essanay the same year, where he was hired to replace a certain… Charlie Chaplin !

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