Appellate Judge James A. Stewart thought this was the story of Shemp Chaplin, the truly unknown Chaplin, but discovered it's really unknown footage of the well-known Charlie Chaplin.
"Creative people are not always languishing about in an ecstasy of
creative inspiration. You don't just come down one morning and begin, because
the muses don't work that way. You have to open the gates for them by
As James Mason's introduction to Unknown Chaplin states, "This program consists almost entirely of film never before seen in public." He goes on to explain: "In the silent days, Hollywood incinerators worked around the clock." Chaplin destroyed many of the outtakes and rushes from his work, and other pieces fell victim to age. "Chaplin was very secretive about the way he worked. Only once did he allow himself to be filmed in action," Mason intones.
Charlie Chaplin was the most popular actor of the silent film era, starting out at $150 a week for Keystone in 1914, and making $10,000 a week (plus a $150,000 signing bonus) for his Mutual two-reelers only two years later. In 1917, he signed the first $1 million deal with First National. His 1936 Modern Times was the last film of the original silent movie era. If you aren't familiar with Chaplin, you might be familiar with similar antics from Jacques Tati's Mr. Hulot, Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean, or cartoondom's Pink Panther. Smaller echoes can be seen in an occasional modern bit, such as Tony Shalhoub's pantomime battle with a musical get-well card on Monk.
Not much was known about the famous Charles Chaplin's directorial style until film historians Kevin Brownlow and the late David Gill got their hands on thousands of feet of camera negatives from his Mutual two-reelers (short films about 20 minutes long), made in 1916-17. As Brownlow relates the story in "The Story Behind Unknown Chaplin," Gill put the shots in numerical order to sort through the massive collection, and realized that the Great Director was making it up as he went along. From there, the two men realized this was film "that might be as revealing as the sketchbooks of a great artist." Using those outtakes and rushes as a framework, Brownlow and Gill built a portrait of Chaplin's work that became Unknown Chaplin, a three-part Thames Television documentary.
The first part, "My Happiest Years," delves into those Mutual cans most deeply, concentrating in depth on three films: The Floorwalker, The Cure, and The Immigrant. With Chaplin's first two-reeler for Mutual, The Floorwalker, it shows how Chaplin started by building a department store set, then experimented with the escalator to pull off a chase scene. Variations on a scene from The Cure show the evolution of a scene which, in its final version, ends up with Chaplin directing heavy wheelchair traffic through the lobby of a rest home, revealing how each version becomes more complex. For The Immigrant, the entire tone of the story changes from light comedy to poignancy.
The second part, "The Great Director," features people who worked with Chaplin talking about his creative style. It shows through then-child actor Jackie Coogan's eyes how Chaplin created a then-new mix of comedy and poignancy in The Kid, how Chaplin re-created a feature-length film from scratch for The Gold Rush, and the patient, slow workings of his creative process on City Lights. There's not as much in the way of rare footage here, but the documentary uses stills, studio memos, and a home movie from the City Lights set to re-create the productions.
The final part, "Hidden Treasures," looks mostly at other people's footage of Chaplin. Typical is a home movie from a party thrown by Douglas Fairbanks which shows Chaplin clowning around, which is then contrasted with a scene from The Great Dictator in which Chaplin, as the Hitleresque title character, bounces a beach-ball globe. This segment makes the point that ideas stayed in Chaplin's mind, coming back in new forms even years later.
Though you'll laugh with scenes such as the wheelchair traffic cop bit from The Cure or a bit about a flea circus that keeps escaping in a flophouse (from the abandoned film, The Professor, which Chaplin should have made just to put the flea circus clowning on the screen), the emphasis here is on uncovering Chaplin's style and showing how his comic movies evolved.
The first and third parts, which concentrate on the evolution of Chaplin's bits and make the most use of footage, are the most fascinating. You might not be able to picture how seeing a small bit of comic business evolve from one wheelchair being pushed to a traffic jam of wheelchairs, with each version changing just a little bit, can be involving, but I enjoyed this peek into Chaplin's creative process. Chaplin's Little Tramp character was retired after 1936's Modern Times, but remains an indelible image even with people who aren't silent film fans. If you've seen a few of his movies and liked the silent storytelling, seeing how Chaplin's character was shaped is a treat.
As you'd imagine, there's lots of grain and white splotches on these old films, but many of the scenes taken from the original negatives appear pristine. The music is authentic, drawing on Chaplin's own compositions for his films.
I found "The Story Behind Unknown Chaplin" the best of the extras, since it answered the questions I was wondering about how these filmic discoveries were made. The brief "Chaplin Meets Harry Lauder," a short made for charity which features the two comedians comparing notes on their styles, was the only complete Chaplin work featured here. The text biography is only the barest sketch of Chaplin's life, but you can find more detail in numerous places online or in print.
Not guilty, but next time I go to the department store, I'll be very careful on the escalator. And let's not go into those revolving doors.
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• "The Story Behind Unknown Chaplin"
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