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


(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.

Charlie Chaplin in MABEL’S STRANGE PREDICAMENT (1914) – Quite a lively hotel


(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Strange, indeed. Mabel Normand gets her name in the title, and Charlie Chaplin walks off with the film.

Chaplin provides what might be called “punctuation” to the movie’s comic conceit – but what grand punctuation! The movie begins with Charlie trying and failing miserably to flirt with Mabel in a hotel lobby while she is walking her dog. After Charlie gets snubbed by Mabel and several other women, he spends the rest of the evening getting drunk.

Meanwhile, Mabel has gone to her room, gotten into her pajamas, and is playing fetch with her dog. The ball bounces out into the hallway. Mabel quickly tries to retrieve it but ends up locked out of her room. Charlie happens upon Mabel in her “scandalous” state (a woman in her PJ’s, outside of her room! Shocking! At least in 1914!), and never was lust more hilariously conveyed. Charlie flits in and out for the rest of this one-reeler, but whenever he appears, he makes it clear that Mabel is carnal manna sent from heaven just for him. Harpo Marx couldn’t have done it better.

The rest of the movie is the broad farce you’d expect – Mabel hides under the bed of a nearby lodger, she’s found and the lodger is accused of sleeping with her, etc. But every time Chaplin comes upon the scene, we forget the hoary contrivances and wait to see Charlie’s next reaction. It’s the kind of delight the one-reeler was invented for. Superb.

Charlie Chaplin in THE PILGRIM (1923) – Nowhere to run


As a finale to Chaplin’s First National era (and, in a way, to his “simpler” pictures), The Pilgrim is simply a delight – a solid storyline, with lovely laughs and some quiet social commentary lightly brushed in.

Here, Charlie is an escaped convict who must quickly change into the first civilian outfit he can find – which, as luck would have it, is a minister’s uniform. Happenstance leads him to Texas, where a modest rural church awaits the arrival of their new pastor, whom Charlie quickly becomes. Charlie quickly finds that the church’s deacon (Mack Swain, understated and priceless) and a few of the other church members aren’t quite as sanctimonious as they present themselves to be. Later, Charlie runs into trouble when a former cellmate of his (Charles Reisner, the movie’s assistant director) recognizes Charlie and tries to steal from the family with whom he is boarding.

Charlie also, naturally, makes time with the boarding-woman’s daughter (Edna Purviance) (as well he should — this was Chaplin’s last movie encounter with her in character. After that, he would star her in his drama A Woman in Paris in the dashed hope of providing a future movie career for her).

The movie has lovely vignettes sprinkled throughout, not the least of which is Charlie’s encounter with a congregation member’s slap-happy child (Charles Reisner’s son Dean, who memorably recounts the experience in the documentary Unknown Chaplin). There’s also Charlie’s unforgettable stint as Sunday-morning preacher, which he treats mostly as a show-business stint.

Also notable is the location shooting by Chaplin’s veteran cinematographer, Rollie Totheroh, which lends much authenticity to the story of a man on the run through Texas. (It’s a bit startling to see so much byplay with an actual locomotive, considering how Chaplin later skimped on the same prop for similar gags in The Great Dictator.)

The movie’s final scene, and shot, are a perfect symbol of Chaplin’s Tramp character: caught between this land and that, unsure of his footing no matter where he lands. It’s a perfect ending for the film and for Chaplin’s First National period.

Charlie Chaplin in A BURLESQUE ON CARMEN (1916) – Essanay’s burlesque on Chaplin’s contract


This movie was intended to be Chaplin’s spoof on both Bizet’s famous opera Carmen and a popular contemporary film of the opera. Sadly, it was tampered with after Chaplin left Essanay; its two reels were expanded to four, via a dreadfully unfunny subplot involving cross-eyed Ben Turpin as the leader of a gypsy gang.

Thus, it’s difficult to judge what Chaplin’s own version would have amounted to. However, based on the extant footage here, parody isn’t primary upon Chaplin’s mind. More likely, Chaplin intended to get laughs by placing his usual stomach-kicking slapstick (and there are stomach kicks galore here) within the context of a high-culture opera.

As such, the quality of the comedy is rather in-and-out. Edna Purviance makes a plausibly seductive Carmen next to Chaplin’s Don Jose, and when the comedy fits (as with an extended sword fight between Don Jose and a gypsy), it fits perfectly. On the other hand, Chaplin’s usual comedy method of transposition doesn’t always work here. Two examples: When Carmen lies down in Don Jose’s lap to woo him, Don Jose unthinkingly rests his elbow on her chest while carrying on in conversation. That’s funny. But later, when Don Jose kills a man, he casually rubs the man’s arm for any faint sign of life and then turns the rubbing into an all-out massage. What’s the point of massaging a dead man?

The massage gag underlines the Mel Brooks-like “We’re only kidding, folks” aspect of the parody, as does the final scene, where Don Jose furiously murders Carmen with his dagger and then stabs himself as well. At first, the scene is played straight, and Chaplin plays the rage-and-remorse so plausibly, you forget you’re watching a comedy. Then, the movie’s ending takes great pains to show Don Jose and Carmen springing back to life, with Don Jose showing us that his dagger is made of rubber, and with everyone laughing cutely for the fade-out. Of course, one doesn’t expect a real murder in a Chaplin farce, but one doesn’t expect a cop-out ending, either.

The few seconds prior to movie’s end showed how well Chaplin could truly play drama. A few years and studios later, he’d be doing this sort of thing in earnest.

Charlie Chaplin in MAKING A LIVING (1914) – His prehistoric film debut


(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Hindsight, of course, has its rewards. Nevertheless, cinemaphiles can be grateful that Charles Chaplin took Kid Auto Races at Venice as his template from which to build, rather than his first film, Making a Living.

For one thing, while Chaplin’s Tramp character is iconic and instantly identifiable (in more than one sense), the dandy Chaplin plays in Making a Living is just this side of androgynous. In his fey carriage and not-quite-Trampy body language, Chaplin here looks like a 70-years-removed version of future rock star Prince.

Furthermore, the main storyline – Chaplin finagles a job as a newspaper reporter – doesn’t even raise its head until about one-third of the way through the movie (and this is only a one-reeler). It starts off with Chaplin first hustling a dollar from a man on the street (Henry Lehrman, who also directed the movie). Then Chaplin hits (rather crudely) upon a woman who, shortly after, turns out to be Lehrman’s girl.

This results in a brawl between the two men, whose moves mostly consist of Lehrman grinding his hand into Chaplin’s face (Lehrman must have thought this was a real laugh-getter; that’s about all he does to Chaplin in Kid Auto Races), and Chaplin trying to best Lehrman by wrapping his legs around him in a move just short of homoerotic. (If that sounds too explicit, watch the movie and see if you don’t agree.)

Then Chaplin sees a sign for “Local Reporter Wanted” and tries to get the job before getting kicked out of the office – where, conveniently, Lehrman is already employed as a reporter. Lehrman happens upon a car wreck and immediately takes pictures and interviews the driver. Chaplin happens upon the whole thing second-hand, grabs Lehrman’s camera and notes, rushes back to the newspaper office, and gets a job on the basis of this “scoop.” Lehrman tries to stop Chaplin but fails, the two tangle up again (this time next to a streetcar – named Desire, perhaps?), and the movie fades out before we can read anything else Freudian into it.

There are a couple of all-too-brief moments that hint at the greatness that is to come: a bit where Chaplin backs away from someone he has outraged and then does his “harmless little me” coy face; another bit where he continually slaps the knee of the editor for emphasis and, when the editor moves his knee away, moves the knee back into position so he can slap it again. The rest of Chaplin’s work here relies on the same frenetic pacing of every other Sennett/Keystone comedy.

In a pseudo-epigram much quoted since, the publication Moving Picture World described Chaplin as “a comedian of the first water” based on his debut movie performance. But it would be his second movie where Chaplin would truly end up getting his feet wet.

Charlie Chaplin in WORK (1915) – A labor of love and laughs


(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Work is the kind of farce Chaplin seems to have been aiming for in By the Sea, but here it’s smartly stretched to two reels. It’s superb.

Charlie is a put-upon paperhanger’s helper, a fact pointedly emphasized by his having to drag a workcart containing the day’s supplies and his boss (Charles Inslee) through the city streets and up a hill. Their day’s work is at a mansion run by a snobby couple (Billy Armstrong and Marta Golden). In a beautifully pointed gag, Marta takes one look at the woebegone paperhangers and quickly locks up her good silver in a safe. The duo quickly figure out what she’s getting at and return the favor, storing their good pocket watches in Charlie’s pocket for safe-keeping.

From here, you could guess that the movie would be one long slapstick slog through glue, and you’d mostly be right, but it’s well-done nonetheless. Chaplin obviously began to have an eye towards “extended” gags, because two of them pay off beautifully. One is a small nude statue which continually catches Charlie’s eye. He finally puts a small grass skirt on it and makes it dance a naughty hoochie-koochie for him. The other is a gas stove whose small explosions accelerate each time the impatient house-owner tries to light it. This ends up giving the movie a perfect “wow” ending, abetted by a subplot of the housewife’s extra-marital lover (Leo White) entering the house to make his moves at precisely the wrong time.

Like the movie’s errant stove, it seemed to take Chaplin a few Essanay shorts to catch fire again, but Work was the payoff. It’s a winner.

(If you really want your intelligence insulted, check out the public-domain print of Work at The Internet Archive, wherein an ostensibly helpful narrator thoughtfully describes each and every gag that Chaplin has had acted out quite clearly in front of us.)

MABEL’S MARRIED LIFE (1914) – The best of Charlie Chaplin’s Keystone short subjects

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

In my humble opinion, Mabel’s Married Life is where the Chaplin legend really starts to take hold.

For one thing, instead of Charlie being a hyper-aggressive clown who comes out kicking and punching for no reason, this movie actually stops to give him a bit of a background. The first shot we see of Charlie is his making polite domestic banter with his wife (Mabel Normand) in the park.

Then Charlie goes to a nearby bar for a drink, leaving Mabel alone to be hassled by a married man (Mack Swain) who’s nevertheless looking to flirt. Charlie leaves the bar, sees what’s happening, and tries to thwart Mack’s efforts, to no avail. (One great detail: Charlie’s first attempt to subdue Mack is his usual arse-kicking routine, which results only in a great deal of dust flying off Mack’s behind.)

Mack gets a two-for-one special by flirting with Mabel and belittling Charlie, and the whole thing could go on forever if Mack’s wife didn’t finally come on the scene to break things up. She pulls Mack away, and Charlie goes back to the bar to drown his sorrows.

On her way home, Mabel passes a sporting-goods store that is selling a boxing dummy. By no small coincidence, its attire looks exactly like that of Mack’s. Mabel buys the dummy and sets it up right past her front door, so that Charlie will confront the dummy as soon as he enters the house.

Later that night, a drunken Charlie enters, and thus begins one of Chaplin’s great scenes of transposition: imbuing character into an inanimate object. In his drunken state, Charlie figures that Mack has come around to his house for Round Two. He tries reasoning with the dummy and is annoyed that he gets no response. He gently pushes him and is alarmed when the dummy pushes back. It’s a delightful routine, tailor-made for silent movies.

(Mabel Normand also has some nice routines throughout, especially after she has set up the dummy in her home and imagines Charlie’s reaction to it. She briefly imitates Charlie’s waddle-walk, hits the dummy self-effacingly, and then says a silent prayer for her husband.)

Some of Chaplin’s Keystone shorts are so bereft of something the audience can relate to that when the “End” title finally appears, it’s like an act of mercy. You have the feeling that if Mabel’s Married Life was allowed to continue, Chaplin would still be coming up with routines for himself and the dummy.