November 08, 2005

Nightline Tonight

In a few weeks, Ted Koppel leaves Nightline for good, and he has been doing his best to make sure we miss him -- when it hasn't been covering breaking stories, such as Katrina, Nightline has aired eccentric, wonderful shows. Tonight's is no exception.

Charlie Chaplin rarely makes me laugh. Same with Nightline producer Paolo Marenghi. Here's what's up tonight:

The Tramp Restored

Nov. 8, 2005 --

I was never a fan. He really did not make me laugh. So when the British Film Institute asked whether I was interested in re-edited, restored early Chaplin films I thought I would be the perfect litmus test.

In 1914, Charlie Chaplin was an obscure British vaudeville actor touring America when he walked into the Keystone Studios in California. He then proceeded to crank out over 30 films in the following eleven months, sometimes making over two films a week, many of which he directed. It was during this time that he adopted his classic tramp character, a real landmark moment in film history. In his second film, "Kid Auto Races at Venice," he simply improvised in front of a crowd watching a kid auto race in Venice, California. Those in the crowd were completely unaware they were watching a superstar in the making and were probably just wondering who on Earth he was.

In the haste to get the films out, negatives were destroyed, and maybe only twenty prints were made which were then duplicated -- those were then copied, and so on, so the films quickly got damaged. Movie theatres would often cut them down (with no real expertise) to save time, so whole scenes were lost. Some films even had different endings. What were left were dozens of different versions of the same film. They were even re-issued with new titles.

Now, 91 years later, the British Film Institute, together with Cineteca in Bologna, Italy, have been scouring the world's archives and private collections for as many different versions as they could find and then painstaking reassembling a new master copy from all the different permutations, to bring them back as close as possible to the original version.

So tonight you have the opportunity to see for the first time in over nine decades some of Chaplin's Keystone films close to the form in which they were first seen. To help we enlisted a pianist -- one of only a handful in Britain -- who specializes in accompanying silent films. He maintains that the restoration has transformed the way he plays to these films. Now he can actually see what is going on, because "before it was just bunch of guys running around hitting each other and falling over." Now you can actually see facial expressions.

Andrea Kalas, who leads the team of restorers at the British Film Institute, describes the work this way: "There is a sort of drama to film restoration that it must be a 'great film,' that it must be 'Lawrence of Arabia' you restore ?a great masterpiece?but what we are actually going back and restoring with incredible gravitas is a bunch of guys in the Keystone studios goofing off."

They were shown recently for the first time in London's Trafalgar Square. A sizeable crowd stopped, watched and laughed, proving that they are no longer just for the film buff.

By the way, I did laugh, and I think you will, too.

And it's Election Night: Important gubernatorial contests in New Jersey and Virginia, and referenda that could be key to Arnold Schwarzenegger's political future in California. Ted Koppel anchors, and George Stephanopoulos will bring us the latest returns and analysis.

Paolo Marenghi and the "Nightline" Staff
ABC News London