UNKNOWN CHAPLIN (1983) – Manna from heaven for Charlie Chaplin buffs

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

It’s not for nothing that silent-film historian Kevin Brownlow has been regarded as a demi-god among Hollywood buffs and received an honorary Oscar in 2011. And if he, along with partner David Gill, had accomplished nothing in his life but Unknown Chaplin, Brownlow would have more than earned his accolades. Acid test for Chaplin buffs: Watch just the first two-and-a-half minutes of the first segment, and see if you’re not moved to tears.

This is an extraordinary silent-film documentary that, by rights, shouldn’t have existed in any form. Like a master magician, Chaplin was secretive about the tricks of his trade, and it was believed that he had destroyed all unused footage from his films. Happily, this documentary proves us wrong – and all the richer for it.

Besides providing eye-popping footage that shows, in a wildly different light, films we thought we’d endlessly seen and known, Unknown Chaplin clearly demonstrated Chaplin’s working method: that of “rehearsing on film,” as it’s described by actor James Mason (who does a lovely job of narration throughout). Time after time, we see Chaplin fleshing out a germ of an idea – sometimes to full fruition, other times to heartbreaking pointlessness and deletion from the final film.

The documentary also makes clear that Chaplin didn’t care how much time and money he spent to get things right. The “suits” at Mutual and First National often had to be placated when it seemed as though Chaplin was blowing their budgets to no result, but when Chaplin became his own producer at United Artists, his behavior was the same, putting his money where his mouth was in order to achieve a quality film.

Unknown Chaplin is divided into three 50-minute segments. The first, “My Happiest Years” (Chaplin’s description of his 1916-17 period with Mutual Film), uses generous clips to detail the origins of many of his Mutual shorts. The Immigrant, for example, began as a simple comedy of manners set in a small café, with Chaplin trying to impress Edna Purviance, and Chaplin’s long-time associate Henry Bergman played a not-very-assertive waiter. After much trial and error, Bergman was replaced by the far more intimidating Eric Campbell, and Chaplin stumbled upon a valid reason for Purviance’s appearance: she and Charlie had just come to America as immigrants. Several other examples show Chaplin grinding away to no apparent purpose, only to come upon a perfect excuse for risible comedy.

The second segment, “The Great Director,” features generous interviews with several of Chaplin’s co-stars, such as Jackie Coogan (the kid from the same-named movie) and The Gold Rush’s Georgia Hale (who makes it abundantly clear that the romance she portrayed with Chaplin wasn’t just acting). The bulk of the segment is devoted to City Lights, with Chaplin frustrated by Virginia Cherrill’s initially limp acting as the blind flower girl (Cherrill, interviewed here, offers no ill will towards Chaplin), and Chaplin’s desperation to derive a plausible reason why the blind flower girl would think the Tramp is a rich man (Solution: The Tramp, eluding a cop, slipped through the door of a real rich man’s limo and thereupon met the flower girl).

For me, the weakest segment is the final one, “Hidden Treasures.” The first half is mesmerizing, as it demonstrates how Chaplin would do casual comedy routines, such as at parties, that later turned up in his movies. The segment also shows a fascinating fragment from a never-completed Chaplin film, The Professor, in which he was to play a run-down stage performer with a flea-circus act (some of which Chaplin later incorporated into his feature film Limelight).

On the other hand, the segment also shows scenes which make perfectly clear why Chaplin deleted them. There’s a very lengthy passage that was to have been in The Circus (part of it even involving split-screen special effects) in which a jealous Charlie tries to prove himself superior to the circus’ high-wire man. The movie as is states the theme and then moves on briskly; this protracted segment would have slowed the film and, frankly, doesn’t even make sense on its own terms. (At one point, Charlie is clearly irritated when a stranger in a restaurant bullies and pesters him; yet shortly thereafter, Charlie befriends the man to suit his own purposes. Huh?) Similarly, deleted scenes from City Lights and Modern Times provide a big build-up to a small pay-off.

But these scenes are hardly enough reason to discourage any Chaplin buff from indulging in this lovingly produced documentary. It’s as though Chaplin left one more remnant of film behind, just for some close friends.

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Z: A MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION (2004) – Murder most foul

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It’s a bit disconcerting when you personally know the subject of a documentary. It’s even stranger when that subject was a murder victim.

Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession chronicles the ups and (many) downs of a deceased Los Angeles film buff named Jerry Harvey. If you think you’re obsessed with movies, you have nothing on Harvey. In the movie, Harvey’s ex-wife tells how he once literally spoke of nothing but Stanley Kubrick’s movie Dr. Strangelove for 24 hours.

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Harvey began as a programmer for a movie theater but made L.A. history when he joined The Z Channel, an independent cable-TV channel that began broadcasting in 1974. In the prehistoric days of cable before HBO, Z gained its reputation and cache by showing uncut movies of all kinds, 24 hours a day.

After Harvey wrote several letters of complaint to Z about their informational errors and lack of range, Z decided to hire him as a full-time programmer. Harvey went to town on movies, showing everything from obscure European art films to Star Wars.

In the movie, several major filmmakers and stars, including Robert Altman and James Woods, rave about how their more obscure movies received a second life via broadcast on Z. (Although Woody Allen’s long-time producer Charles Joffe is interviewed, strangely unmentioned is how it’s believed that Z’s frequent broadcasts of Annie Hall help to win the unsung comedy several Oscars, including Best Picture.)

Along with Harvey’s successes, the movie chronicles his checkered family history and his life-long battle with depression. When cable channels such as HBO muscled in on Z’s territory, Z’s owners looked more to the bottom line and decided to run sports events along with movies. The movie’s final half-hour covers the sad decline of both Z and Harvey, whose depression finally moved him to shoot and kill his second wife and then himself.

The documentary is well-done and extremely engrossing. Yet it almost serves as a cautionary tale, a Taxi Driver for movie buffs, showing how a singular obsession–-even with something as artistically worthwhile as film–-can have negative consequences.

(My personal connection with the story: Harvey’s murdered wife, Deri Rudulph, was my employer for the brief time that I lived in L.A. She was one of the most generous, wonderful people I’ve ever met. Ten days after I returned to Jacksonville, I received the sad news about her murder. I was asked to be interviewed for this movie but could not make it to L.A. in time.)

Les Blank’s GAP-TOOTHED WOMEN (1987) – One of the most life-affirming movies you’ve never seen

I’ll be very surprised if you’ve even heard of this movie, much less seen it. But it’s worth blogging about, and it’s worth seeking out. I saw it at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles in 1987, and I was mesmerized.

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Most people give me one of those “You’re kidding” looks when I recommend Les Blank’s documentary Gap-Toothed Women to them. It’s barely available on video (though you can find it for sale online at http://www.lesblank.com), and the only place I’ve seen it on TV was years ago on The Learning Channel. This is a great pity, because it’s one of the most charming, life-affirming movies I’ve ever seen.

Film critic Roger Ebert believed that the best documentary subjects are the simplest. Here, famed documentarian Blank takes a look at 30 of the title subjects. Some of the interviewees are definite notables, such as actress-model Lauren Hutton and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. But most of them are “regular” folk who tell tales about growing up with a complex in their minds over the gap in their mouths. One woman tells how she went to bed every night wearing a rubber band across her mouth, trying to “stretch” her mouth back into place. Another gap-toothed woman became an artist who explored the use of such women as seductresses in art.

The movie is quietly witty, never less than fascinating, and in its own modest way, it says a lot about the expectations our society puts on women whose forms are less than “perfect,” though it’s that very lack of perfection that shows these women at their most charming. The final interviewee is a belly dancer who subtly but movingly tells how she overcame cancer, and now even her worst day is something to look forward to.

As per usual with motion pictures, the best films are usually the most overlooked. Gap-Toothed Women is one of the most unjustly underrated movies in all of cinema. It’s short and sweet, and it would be a perfect companion piece to Steve Martin’s Cyrano de Bergerac update Roxanne (released in the same year as this movie). Inferiority complexes work both ways, after all.

Here’s three minutes from the start of the film: