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Lost Chaplin film discovered in $5 can bought on eBay

Rare footage – and possibly unknown work – found in nitrate film container from 1916, writes Kaleem Aftab

When Morace Park bought a can of nitrate film on eBay for $5, he was surprised to discover that it contained footage of Charlie Chaplin.

The inventor was utterly astounded when his friend John Dwyer, a former member of the British Board of Film Classification, told him that he had discovered rare footage of the performer, and possibly an unknown Chaplin work. Unlike many nitrate films, the contents of this 1916 can were still intact.

The unearthed film, called Charlie Chaplin in Zepped, features footage of Zeppelins flying over England during the First World War, as well as some very early stop-motion animation, and unknown outtakes of Chaplin films from three Essanay pictures including The Tramp. These have all been cut together into a six-minute movie that Mr Park describes as "in support of the British First World War effort". It begins with a logo from Keystone studios, which first signed Chaplin, and there follows a certification from the Egyptian censors dating the projection as being in December 1916. There are outtakes, longer shots and new angles from the films The Tramp, His New Profession and A Jitney Elopement.

The main, animated sequence of the film starts with Chaplin wishing that he could return to England from America and fight with the boys. He is taken on a flight through clouds before landing on a spire in England. The sequence also features a German sausage, from which pops the Kaiser. During the First World War there was some consternation that the actor did not join the war effort.

Mr Dwyer persuaded Mr Park, from Henham, Essex, that they should make a documentary about the discovery and their attempt to unearth the story behind the movie. The filmmakers enlisted the British director Hammad Khan – whose first feature Slakistan, about slackers living in Islamabad, is in post-production.

Mr Park and Mr Dwyer raised £120,000 from friends and family to finance the shooting. The project, currently known only as The Lost Film Project, follows the duo as they visit locations associated with Chaplin. Their journey began in Henham then they visited several locations in London frequented by Chaplin, as well as Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, the site of one of the big Zeppelin crashes.

In the past week the men have been in San Francisco, riding the world's largest Zeppelin over the city, and Niles, Fremont, home of Chaplin's Essanay studios. They are currently in Los Angeles, where they met and showed the footage to Ric Robertson, the executive administrator of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The filmmakers are staying at Montecito Inn, the hotel that Chaplin built for his friends to stay in. They have also been in contact with the Chaplin family.

The filmmakers organised a transfer of the nitrate film on to a DVD, which they have been using to show footage of the film to Chaplin experts.

Mr Park said that most of the questions being raised are about the astonishing animation sequence and whether Chaplin himself was involved in the creation of the film.

Film historian Simon Louvish, author of Chaplin: The Tramp's Odyssey, cast doubts on whether Chaplin would have been involved in its creation.

"There are a number of these compilation films around, and in Senegal there were a number of films that had been cut together by other people using Chaplin footage," said Mr Louvish. "Keystone Pictures was going bust at the time and footage from these Chaplin films was freely available.

"This is less so of the Essanay films. Chaplin by 1916 was signing multimillion-dollar contracts and was very aware of the copyright on his films.

"It would be no surprise though if someone in Egypt, which was under British occupation at the time, decided to use one of the world's most famous figures to support the war."