THE BOOTLEG FILES: ZEPPED

BOOTLEG FILES 383: “Zepped” (1916 short that includes unauthorized footage of Charlie Chaplin).

LAST SEEN: The last known public exhibition was in 1917.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Chaplin was the target of a lot of bootlegging.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Maybe some day.

This week’s column is somewhat different because I have not seen the film that I am writing about. In fact, very few people have seen it since its last known public screening in 1917. The film is called “Zepped” and it is one of the most intriguing mysteries to emerge in recent cinema studies.

The seven-minute “Zepped” is billed as a Charlie Chaplin film, although there is no evidence that Chaplin had anything to do with the work. Footage featuring Chaplin was culled from outtakes of his shorts “His New Profession” (1914), “A Jitney Elopement” (1915) and “The Tramp” (1915), with new intertitles linking these unrelated works into a vaguely cohesive whole. Because the film has no director’s or writer’s credit, it is unclear who was responsible.

“Zepped” was probably made in London at the height of World War I, when the British capital was facing the wrath of German zeppelin aircraft. According to press reports, the film incorporates fanciful animation (including a sequence of Kaiser Wilhelm emerging from a sausage) and newsreel of a zeppelin in flight into its comic tale of Chaplin’s Little Tramp single-handedly defeating a German attack on London.

Now here’s the fun question: why would someone bootleg Charlie Chaplin’s films into a weird hodgepodge film like “Zepped”? Actually, this was not the only time that Chaplin went up against bootleggers.

It is not widely known, but film bootlegging was extremely prevalent during the silent film era. The practice was so shameless that one enterprising miscreant actually tried to sell Georges Méliès a print of “A Trip to the Moon” without realizing the French filmmaker created the 1902 masterwork. There was no federal legal enforcement of copyrights, and the distribution patterns of the early silent years were so haphazard that film producers could barely keep track of their work.

Into this environment came Chaplin, an obscure British music hall comic who abruptly found stardom in the helter-skelter world of silent comedies. Within two years of his 1914 film debut, Chaplin was the most famous and beloved man in the world, and audiences could not get enough of his work.

To feed this audience hunger for all-things-Chaplin, enterprising distributors routinely re-released Chaplin’s films under a variety of different titles. When Chaplin left the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company in mid-1916 to work for the rival Mutual Film Corp., Essanay cobbled together alternative takes from earlier Chaplin comedies and footage from an unfinished Chaplin production called “Life” for the 1918 offering “Triple Trouble,” which was billed as a new Chaplin comedy. Chaplin sued Essanay but lost in court, and an emboldened Essanay sewed together additional footage into “Chase Me Charlie,” which played throughout the silent film era and was re-released in the 1930s with a comic narration performed by character actor Teddy Bergman (who later changed his name to Alan Reed and went on to be the voice of Fred Flintstone).

Complicating matters was the presence of a man named Billy West, who copied Chaplin’s Little Tramp character (complete with the same costume and make-up) in a series of comedy shorts that were such precise facsimiles that many exhibitors dishonestly marketed them as Chaplin films. Today, of course, West would be sued for violation of intellectual property.

While Chaplin was aware of the Essanay and Billy West shenanigans, he never knew about “Zepped.” He might have been embarrassed if he was aware that this film existed. During World War I, some prominent Britons criticized Chaplin for not returning to his native country and help in the war effort. Thus, having a “new” Chaplin film where he takes on the Germans may have been received rather strangely in wartime England. Chaplin never acknowledged World War I until 1918, when he created the films “The Bond” and “Shoulder Arms” – both focusing on the U.S. war effort.

There is no evidence that “Zepped” was released in the U.S., although the lone surviving print includes a 1917 certificate of approval by the Egyptian censorship board. Indeed, the film was long forgotten until 2006, when  British film historian Mike Hammond discovered a long-forgotten reference to the film in 1916 edition of a Manchester magazine. The film was considered lost until 2009, when British collector Morace Park purchased an unlabeled film tin on eBay for approximately $5 – and its contents included the sole surviving nitrate print of “Zepped.”

To date, however, “Zepped” has not been seen by the general public. Park has screened the film for several historians, and last month he unsuccessfully tried to auction the nitrate print for $160,000. But even if Park sold the film, the new owner could only claim ownership of the physical print – “Zepped” is now a public domain work and anyone that obtains a copy can make dupes of it.

A new documentary on the discovery of “Zepped” is currently in production, and it is possible that the film will be made widely available in the near future – if only for theatrical exhibition rather than DVD or online video viewing. While it is a bizarre footnote in the Chaplin legacy, it would still be fun to see this early example of outrageous bootlegging.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!




Posted on July 8, 2011 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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