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Unknown Chaplin

Unknown Chaplin(1986)

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The difficulty with films about great artists, whether dramas or documentaries, is that the creative process is by nature an internal one, making it nearly impossible to convey to an audience the inspiration or dedication involved in translating a work of art from the mind of the artist onto the canvass or the screen. As a result, even the most thoroughly researched documentaries or expertly written biographical films tend to end up dealing with the artists' outward frustrations and only superficially making connections between events in their lives and the art that grows out of it.

That is what makes Thames Television's three-part documentary Unknown Chaplin (1983) so extraordinary. Chaplin worked in a way that no other filmmaker dared: he approached the making of his films without a story--at times even without the germ of an idea--improvising from something as simple as a man eating in a cafe until he had developed one of his legendary two-reel silent comedies. The real difference with Chaplin is that he did his improvising directly on film. Although most of these "rushes" were burned at Chaplin's direction, film archivists Kevin Brownlow and David Gill were allowed access to Chaplin's own film vaults, where they discovered enough surviving footage to give an uncanny insight into the great comedian's creative process. Painstakingly piecing together the numbers outtakes from thousands of hours of footage, we are able to see some of Chaplin's works from genesis to fruition.

The first episode, My Happiest Years, focuses on Chaplin's days while under contrast to produce a dozen comedy shorts in a year for Mutual Film Corporation. Brownlow and Gill first focus on The Cure, a short that began merely with the idea of using a health spa as a setting. Through a collection of rushes we see Chaplin trying out various ideas, and how one would lead to another. For example, Chaplin begins with an attendant having difficulty wheeling an elderly patient into the entrance of the spa, and little by little drops elements (including the elderly patient) and adds others until he has developed a veritable traffic-jam of wheelchairs. Ultimately, the entire sequence would be scrapped. Chaplin himself would try on several roles, from attendant, to page, to visitor, while one of his stock players would appear as a inebriated guest. After literally dozens of permutations, Chaplin would finally cast himself as the inebriate, and the story would work itself out around him.

One of the most fascinating sequences of this episode is devoted to the short The Immigrant, which began with nothing more that the idea of Chaplin eating at an artists' cafe. We see Chaplin trying out a myriad of unrelated thoughts and themes, only to watch them jell into a masterpiece (and one of his best-loved shorts) through a special synchronicity of genius.

The second episode, The Great Director, finds Chaplin freed from the time constraints of the Mutual contract as he builds his own studio, and strikes an agreement with First National Pictures to produce eight feature length films, this time with no time limit on when he would deliver them. With total creative freedom, Chaplin was at last able to give free reign to his creative genius: something that would cause quite a bit of distress for both his stock company of actors and First National, as he would sometimes go for days (or even weeks) at a time when his creative instincts would fail him. The episode includes rare unused footage from The Gold Rush, The Kid, and others, and features interviews with Jackie Coogan—best known to modern audiences as Uncle Fester on The Addams Family TV series—who co-starred with Chaplin in The Kid, as well as Georgia Hale from The Gold Rush, Virginia Cherrill from City Lights, and co-star (and former spouse) Lita Grey, all of whom offer observations on the difficulties of dealing with Chaplin's unique working style. One of the highlights of the episode is a film showing Chaplin and Coogan cavorting on camera in front of a group of First National executives, who invited themselves to the studio due to their nervousness over Chaplin's slow progress in producing The Kid.

Hidden Treasures, the final episode, presents comparisons between Mutual footage that Chaplin shot, working out ideas that would not make it into the shorts, and later variations that would appear in his feature length films (one friend quipped that Chaplin's mind was like an attic, where things were stored but never thrown away). The most striking is the memorable barber scene from The Great Dictator, reflected in footage shot decades earlier that had remained unused; as well as a lengthy early sequence about a man with a flea circus, which would eventually be echoed in Limelight. The series winds up with and astonishing seven minute sequence that was originally filmed to open City Lights, but was later dropped. The entire sequence involves The Little Tramp's efforts to remove a small piece of wood that has become wedge in a grill on the pavement.

Narrated by James Mason Unknown Chaplin is an outstanding, enlightening documentary that is an absolute must, not only for fans of the great comedian, who will undoubtedly be delighted with the opportunity to see complete scenes that were cut whole-cloth from Chaplin's films, but also shouldn't be missed by anyone who is interested in the creative process.

A&E Home Video's new DVD of the documentary includes two short "making of" featurettes, as well as a seven minute film of Chaplin meeting legendary British Music Hall star Harry Lauder.

To order The Unknown Chaplin, go to TCM Shopping.

by Fred Hunter