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Unique Charlie Chaplin Film to Sell at Bonhams' Entertainment Memorabilia Auction
On extremely fragile 35mm nitrate film and almost 7 minutes long, the movie features some of the earliest known animation in film history. Photo: Bonhams.

LONDON.- Bonhams are to sell the remarkable, only known surviving copy of the film ‘Zepped’ in their Entertainment Memorabilia auction on Wednesday 29th June at Bonhams Knightsbridge.

In 2009 the vendor Morace Park bought a battered cinema reel tin from an online auction site. Once he eventually opened the tin it revealed a roll of film entitled ‘Charlie Chaplin in Zepped’. Having been unable to find any record or mention of the film during his subsequent research, Mr Park began a worldwide investigation to find out if he had discovered the last copy of a forgotten Charlie Chaplin film.

On extremely fragile 35mm nitrate film and almost 7 minutes long, the movie features some of the earliest known animation in film history. The reel shows scenes of a Zeppelin raid over London whilst Chaplin acts in his trademark comic style. During the First World War Zeppelins were used in bombing raids over England and France. They were referred to at this time as ‘baby killers’ and ‘terrors of the sky’ and it is believed ‘Zepped’, was designed as propaganda to defuse the terror inspired by these attacks, using Chaplin’s world famous comedy. Professor Paul Wells, Director of The Animation Academy Research Group at Loughborough University believes that “the zeppelin is possibly real, but could also be a premature form of puppetry.” If the image of the Zeppelin in the film is genuine then it would be the only known live footage showing a zeppelin over London at that time. Alternatively, if the Zeppelin footage is animation then it is an extremely rare and early example of this type of animation.

During his extensive research Mr Park found a record of it having been classified by the British Board of Film Classification in 1917 and stumbled upon an advertisement for a trade viewing of the film at Victoria Street, Manchester in the publication Manchester Film Renter - the advertisement is the last known reference to the film. A footnote in the records show that the film was given an export license, and the beginning of the film has censorship frames indicating that it was to be sent on a morale-boosting mission to troops in Egypt.

As the Manchester advert is the only surviving evidence of any public screening, it is thought that this may have been a test audience preview, and perhaps the comic depiction of a Zeppelin attack proved too raw and upsetting so the film was not widely distributed.

Morace Park comments, “At first I had no idea what I had. However it soon became clear that ‘Zepped’ is a very special film. I visited film experts in Europe and the USA and lost count of the superlatives that they came out with, but one comment was common: none of them had ever seen this type of film before.”

Film critic and the official biographer of Chaplin, David Robinson writes in the latest edition of the Bonhams magazine, “Though the opening title boldly announces ‘Charlie Chaplin in Zepped’ it is highly unlikely that its star ever knew of the film’s existence. Certainly Chaplin had no hand in its making. Yet this film has its own special interest as one of the earliest known compilations of found footage. The anonymous maker has put together out-takes from three earlier Chaplin films (His New Profession, made for the Keystone Company in 1914, and A Jitney Elopement and The Tramp, both made for Essanay in 1915) with sequences of stop-motion animation, and actual shots of dirigibles. In addition the film uses a technique of painting or scratching directly on the film to produce the effect of bomb explosions behind Charlie’s figure.”

Rare film experts agree that ‘Zepped’ redefines our knowledge of Chaplin and early film. It is unique in terms of composition and it is the earliest film known to combine real action sequences with animation. David Robinson also comments, “the techniques are unprecedented…and the fact that it has been tinted shows that they regarded it…they did not tint nothing films.”

It is expected to fetch a significant six-figure sum.

Stephanie Connell, Head of Entertainment Memorabilia at Bonhams says, "The fact that this fragile and flammable nitrate film has survived from 1916, features the most iconic film star of the period and has never previously been seen by the wider public, is incredible and it will no doubt become a significant contribution to the history of early film. We are honoured to be offering such an important piece of cinematography in our June auction and expect there to be great worldwide interest in its sale.”

Eddie Izzard writes about Chaplin in the Bonhams magazine, “When Peter Bogdanovich gave me Chaplin to play in the 2001 film, The Cat’s Meow, I had to attempt to play him ‘off stage’, as it were. I don’t think you can hope to act him when he was on stage, he was just too good. If you watch the actions that he could do, you’ll see that his gymnastic abilities were amazing. Having been a street performer I know what he was doing. I understand that kind of physical comedy. It wasn’t my comedy – my comedy is verbal dexterity, the speed of the mind – his comedy is the speed of his body. However, I did identify with him. He wanted to play the world and so did I. He wanted to play America, that’s what I wanted to do. Charlie Chaplin was universal – the first world superstar.”

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