First World War propaganda film starring Charlie Chaplin for sale

The only known surviving copy of Zepped, a unique First World War propaganda film starring Charlie Chaplin and featuring footage of a Zeppelin bombing raid over London, is due to be auctioned next week by Bonhams.

The only surviving copy of the 1916 film Zepped, starring Charlie Chaplin and showing scenes of a Zeppelin raid over London, is due to be sold by Bonhams next week in their Entertainment Memorabilia Auction on June 29th. The film is almost seven minutes long and recorded on extremely fragile 35mm nitrate film. It was designed to be sent on a morale boosting mission to troops in Egypt and to defuse the terror inspired by the frequent Zeppelin bombing raids over London during the First World War.

Although scholars disagree as to whether the images of the Zeppelin are real, the film features some of the earliest known animation in film history. According to Professor Paul Wells, Director of The Animation Academy Research Group at Loughborough University: ‘the zeppelin is possibly real, but could also be a premature from of puppetry’. If the images of the Zeppelin are genuine, however, then it would be the only known live footage showing a Zeppelin over London at that time.

The vendor, Morace Park, bought the film enclosed in a battered cinema reel tin from an online auction site in 2009. ‘At first [he] had no idea what [he] had’. However, after visits to film experts in Europe and the United States, he explained how ‘it soon became clear that Zepped is a very special film [...] none of them had ever seen this type of film before’.

The film was classified by the British Board of Film Classification in 1917. The last known reference to the film is an advertisement in the publication Manchester Film Renter, which listed a trade viewing of the film at Victoria Street in Manchester. The advert is also the only surviving evidence of any public screening of the film. A footnote in the records shows that the film was given an export licence. The beginning of the film also features censorship frames indicating that it was used as propaganda to boost the morale of troops in Egypt.  

Charlie Chaplin, however, may not have known of the film’s existence. According to the film critic and official biographer of Chaplin, David Robinson: ‘it is highly unlikely that its star ever knew of the film’s existence. Certainly Chaplin had no hand in its making. 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 this video Stephanie Connell, Head of the Entertainment Memorabilia Department at Bonhams, the owner of Zepped, Morace Park, and Dr Michael Hammond from Southampton University comment on the significance and historic importance of the film. 

Which parts of London were targeted by the German Zeppelin bombing raids? This map on the Londonist website reveals the areas that were most heavily hit by these unprecedented air attacks.