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Unknown Chaplin

Unknown Chaplin(1986)

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Unknown Chaplin (1986)

Playgoers and critics have long wondered about the enigmatic Hamlet of William Shakespeare or longed to know the secret behind Mona Lisa's smile in the famous painting by Leonardo da Vinci. What if one day someone found Shakespeare's initial drafts for his play or Da Vinci's early sketches for Mona Lisa? Something like that very thing happened with one of the greatest artists in movie history - Charles Chaplin.

Chaplin never meant them to be seen. His brother Sydney, who jealously guarded his brother's business enterprises, avidly collected all the out-takes and unused sequences from his famous sibling's movies from 1916 on, keeping them in a warehouse at Chaplin's studio. When Charles Chaplin left America during the Red Scare of the early 1950's, he sent word back to his loyal cameraman of 40-plus years, Roland Totheroh, to destroy every bit of this massive collection.

Why did Chaplin want it all destroyed? This may never be known. Totheroh was too good an employee to question the wishes of his long-time employer, so he gathered all the material and sent it off to the incinerators. Somehow, however, a lot of the reels did not reach the flames. Instead, this incredibly valuable footage found its way into the hands of Raymond Rohauer, the Los Angeles-area film collector. Rohauer may have enjoyed watching the material privately, but there was nothing he could do with it. If word had gotten back to Chaplin that the footage still existed, he would almost certainly have demanded it be destroyed.

It was only after Chaplin's death, that British film historian Kevin Brownlow and his documentary-making partner David Gill discovered Rohauer's stash while making their series Hollywood (1980). Coordinating with the Chaplin estate, Brownlow and Gill recovered the material from Rohauer, receiving a van tightly packed with reel after reel of unseen Chaplin footage. Some of the material, sadly, had deteriorated beyond repair due to nitrate damage, but the rest provided an incredible insight into the work of the most famous filmmaker of all time.

Episode 1 of Unknown Chaplin (1982), the documentary crafted from this material by Brownlow and Gill for Thames Television, deals with a handful of shorts Chaplin made for the Mutual Film Corporation in 1916 and 1917. Chaplin, who once told his cameraman Totheroh, "Film's cheap!" would build sets or set up a premise with no script and few specific ideas. With camera rolling, Chaplin would meticulously work out gag after gag as these surviving out-takes show. In The Floorwalker (1916), Chaplin puts an escalator in a department store then builds a story around it, requiring him to always run the wrong way down the moving staircase. In Behind the Screen (1916) Chaplin works out an elaborate gag involving footage running backwards, a sequence that did not survive the final cut. The Cure (1917) goes through take after take built around a story that sees Charlie as a bellboy in a posh health spa. Only after working and re-working the material does he discover he needs to be in another role. The biggest changes of all come in another 1917 short, this one built around Chaplin's fear of aggressive waiters. Working backwards from a cafequence, Chaplin creates a meeting place for him and his heroine, a ship bringing new arrivals to America. As the rushes show, an idea for an inauspicious comedy bit led to one of his greatest triumphs, The Immigrant (1917).

The Unknown Chaplin is one of the most wonderful insights into the processes of an artist ever provided. Had Chaplin succeeded in having this material consigned to the flames, it would have been an incalculable loss, not only for film lovers, but also the history of 20th Century art.

Writers/Producers: Kevin Brownlow and David Gill
Narrator: James Mason
Music arranger/conductor: Carl Davis
Video Editors: Terry Badham, Grant Goodwin, Tom Kavanagh
Film Editor: Trevor Waite
BW & C-53m.

by Brian Cady

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Unknown Chaplin (1986)

"Genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains," said the English social reformer Jane Ellice Hopkins. An easy sentiment if you are an artist whose materials consist of nothing more than a pen and a blank page or paints and canvas. However, when your medium is motion pictures, taking pains can mean thousands of dollars a minute and studio heads breathing down your neck while you wait for that drop of inspiration.

Charles Chaplin was a genius, a genius of movie comedy. In episode 2 of Kevin Brownlow's and David Gill's documentary Unknown Chaplin (1983), we see just how painful it sometimes was to bring that genius to the screen.

The first example is The Kid (1921), the first feature film Chaplin directed. By this point, Chaplin was so popular he not only had total artistic control over his films, he had even built his own studio just to create them. Here Chaplin would continue to make features in much the same way he had made his shorts, building sets around his unfinished ideas and shooting take after take as he devised comic bits of business. Meanwhile a crew on full salary would stand around, waiting for the moment when Chaplin would need their services.

This process was not fast enough for those who had hired him and were paying for all this. First National, later to be absorbed into Warner Brothers a few years after the coming of sound, were a loose confederation of movie theater exhibitors who had the idea of forming their own studio to supply them with films. Snagging Chaplin was quite a coup for the young company, but a steady engine of motion picture production Chaplin was not. Meanwhile, features were taking over from shorts as the primary content of an evening at the cinema and Chaplin realized he had to take the plunge that lessened his already paltry output of short comedies. The shooting of The Kid took a year and a half but when he was finished, Chaplin had created a masterpiece that enthralled audiences and set a new benchmark that other comedians strove to reach in vain.

The next feature in this episode is Chaplin's first starring movie for the film company he formed with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith, United Artists. The Gold Rush (1925) would be Chaplin's biggest hit of the silent era but, as Unknown Chaplin shows, his attempt to film the comedy under the snowbound conditions of Truckee, California, site of the Donner Party disaster of the 19th Century, were bound to fail given Chaplin's slow and meticulous methods. He quickly returned to his studio.

The last is City Lights, released in 1931. Shooting, however, began over two years before and in a different film world. On December 27, 1928, the first day of shooting, talkies dominated the movie world but had not yet pushed silent movies out of the running. All the major studios were still producing them. By the time Chaplin finished however, his silent comedy was an anachronism. Nevertheless, it was a very successful film, a testament to Chaplin's talent and star power. As rare home movie footage shot behind the scenes shows in this episode of Unknown Chaplin, it was not the coming of sound that caused the long shooting schedule, but rather one small detail of the story; how does a blind flower girl mistake a tramp for a rich man?

Only a star and director of Chaplin's greatness could have combined these incredibly high standards of film making with the time and money necessary for perfection. Unknown Chaplin details the slow and painful process sometimes required to create the illusion of effortless storytelling.

Writers/producers: Kevin Brownlow, David Gill
Narrator: James Mason
Music: Charles Chaplin, Carl Davis
Cinematography: Ted Adcock
Film Editor: Trevor Waite
Video Editor: Tom Kavanagh
BW & C-53 min.

by Brian Cady

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teaser Unknown Chaplin (1986)

Episode 3 of Kevin Brownlow's and David Gill's wonderful documentary Unknown Chaplin (1983) is called "Hidden Treasures," but current DVD owners might think of it as the "Deleted Scenes" section. Here we see the material that Chaplin felt did not quite reach the standard for a final release. For him it was not a waste. Much of this excised material would return in a re-worked form in his later movies.

Chaplin stock company member Albert Austin seems to have been the one whose scenes most often landed on the cutting room floor. In out-takes we see him participating in a golfing skit for an unfinished Mutual short that would later be re-worked for The Idle Class (1921), being tortured by Charlie as an untalented barber in I>Sunnyside (1919) that would turn into a musical routine in The Great Dictator (1940) and finally a long bit cut from Shoulder Arms (1918) in which Austin loses a variety of medical instruments down Charlie's throat while giving him his Army physical.

How to Make Movies, shot sometime between 1918 and 1923, is a comic documentary shot behind the scenes at Chaplin's studio. Located at 1416 La Brea Avenue in Hollywood, the Charles Chaplin Studio was the site of all Chaplin's comedies from A Dog's Life (1918) until Limelight (1952). After Chaplin left America, it became the headquarters of A&M Records and now is the location of the Jim Henson Company.

The Professor (1922) is the source of one of the biggest mysteries in Chaplin's filmography. Telegrams show that Chaplin held it as an alternate title for First National if they refused to give him a 70-30 split for his four-reeler The Pilgrim (1923). The content of these messages implied that Chaplin had a two-reel length version of The Professor ready to hand over if First National rejected his terms. However, when Brownlow and Gill went through the surviving out-takes, the five minute clip shown in Unknown Chaplin was all they found. Did the two-reel version of The Professor actually exist?

The cafequence, excised from the released version of The Circus (1928) was shot in October 1926 with the sidewalk scenes shot in November. This movie was the most troubled of Chaplin's career. The month before, Chaplin's friend Rudolph Valentino had died. Chaplin stopped production to travel to New York and serve as one of the pallbearers. Shortly after his return, a fire gutted one of the stages at his studio, destroying the movie's primary set. Then, not long after the sidewalk scenes were filmed, Chaplin's marriage to Lita Grey ended followed by a public and very bitter divorce trial that caused further filming delays.

His next film, City Lights (1931), was not so heartbreaking but was, nevertheless, difficult, leading to a very long shooting schedule. Chaplin's "unveiling" at the beginning of the film is probably his greatest movie entrance. The pity is that it had to replace the sidewalk scene shown in Unknown Chaplin; a several minute comic routine built around a stick caught in a sewer grate that provides a perfect distillation of Chaplin's genius.

One small detail in another out-take provides an interesting commentary on the new world of celebrity that began with Chaplin. In a section on films of famous visitors to Chaplin's studios, we see Crown Prince Frederick of Denmark joking with Chaplin and his co-star Edna Purviance, then participating in a skit on the set of Sunnyside (1919). Now at the beginning of the 21st Century, modern viewers think nothing of seeing such familiarity between royalty and a movie celebrity. At the beginning of the 20th, however, there was still a huge gulf between the potential leader of a nation and a mere clown in the movies. Chaplin's worldwide celebrity kicked down those barriers as easily as his tramp gave the boot to his enemies' backsides. This film clip is a small treasure among the many recovered for this three-part series that provides a look behind the scenes at the creator of a lowly tramp who became one of the most important people in the world.

Writers/producers: Kevin Brownlow, David Gill
Music arranger/conductor: Carl Davis
Video editiors: Roger Holmes, Tom Kavanagh
Film editor: Trevor Waite
BW & C-53 min.

by Brian Cady

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