Unknown Chaplin The Master at Work
Narrated by James Mason
Written and produced by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill
A&E Home Video 2005
Never having been a big fan of the little tramp but still interested in his work, especially the brilliant The Great Dictator, Unknown Chaplin, a Thames and A&E produced documentary on Charlie Chaplin and his work, was something I was mildly curious about. Unknown Chaplin is one of the most interesting, best put together, fun to watch movie-making documentaries I have seen in a long time. Logically enough, fans of the little tramp will probably be blown away by this 163 minutes feature on Charlie Chaplin, his story and his working methods just because of the sheer quality of this program. The fact Unknown Chaplin contains footage and rushes not seen in some seventy years is only part of the reason this is just a great DVD. Perhaps this is why it won an Emmy for Best Informational Series.
The first chapter of Unknown Chaplin is devoted to Charlie Chaplin’s sixteen month stint doing two-reelers at Mutual after he left the Mac Sennet Studio. Instead of showing the usual clips, this section uses rushes (out-takes) not seen in seventy years to show the master at work. This is a particularly important find because the little tramp was very secretive about his working technique and so little has been left for film historians and comedy fans to study. Chaplin improvised his movies and the few remaining rushes allow the fan, viewer, or student of filmmaking a behind-the-scenes look at how this great comic actor could do many takes before getting it just right. This section includes unseen footage from Easy Street, The Floorwalker and the first ever escalator joke, The Cure, The Adventurer, and Chaplin’s take on life at the Mac Sennet Studios titled Behind The Scenes. We also see out-takes from The Immigrants and The Adventurer.
Many of these out-takes show how Chaplin improvised his movies, usually starting with a premise and trying out various scenarios and gags throughout the day until things slowly meshed together. You see him start with an idea and drop it when something in the scene he is improvising gives him a totally new idea for a scene. You also see Charlie Chaplin wrestling with the possibilities of a single gag idea until it develops into a full-blown comic moment. This kind of lost footage may be invaluable to scholars and such but it is also great fun to watch for fans of the silent comedy and Chaplin movies.
The second chapter of Unknown Chaplin, The Great Director, covers the period from Chaplin’s years at First National starting in 1918 to his 1931 classic City Lights, a movie that took two years to make. This chapter includes interview segments with Jackie Coogan of The Kid, Dean Reasmer (The Pilgrim), Lita Grey Chaplin (who played an angel in The Kid and was in The Gold Rush for a while to be replaced by another future Mrs. Chaplin, Georgia Hale. A lot of time is spent on the filming problems of City Lights with Virginia Cherril (the flower girl). Although there is rare footage of Chaplin directing, the second chapter is, relatively speaking, not as magic as the first. Perhaps this is because the documentary makers used interviews to fill in the blanks instead of archive footage that allows the viewer to fill in the blanks by himself.
The Hidden Treasures section of the Unknown Chaplin DVD is just as magic as chapter one. A home movie by Douglas Fairbanks shows Charlie Chaplin playing the clown and coming up with an idea he would use to great effect in The Great Dictator. Other films from the Chaplin Vault show unfinished or barely started silent movies like The Professor, home movies part of Chaplin’s unreleased How To Make Movies that include improvised scenes with visitors to the studio lot including Grand Prince Fredrick of Denmark, boxing champion Benny Leonard, and British music hall legend Harry Lauder who improvises a scene Chaplin would use some ten years later in one of his own movies. Chaplin, it seems, might have discarded footage but never an idea in itself. This chapter also includes a very funny discarded barbershop scene from Sunnyside that was the inspiration for a similar scene in The Great Dictator.
The gems in Hidden Treasures are Twin Attractions, a complete short the producers had the intelligence to give no voice over with involving twin boxers one of whom picks on the little tramp in a restaurant. The other gem is Modern Age which includes a deleted street-crossing scene from Modern Times and the original opening sequence to City Lights with a re-recorded Chaplin score.
Special features on Unknown Chaplin include The Story Behind Unknown Chaplin, The Making of The Count (an analysis with a film historian) and the short Chaplin Meets Harry Lauder.
Unknown Chaplin is a must have for any silent film buff and a very interesting watch for anybody who is interested in movies in general.
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