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 LIMELIGHT (1952) – If 1914 had been a little different for him…


(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

My favorite film critic, the late Pauline Kael, “made her bones” as a movie critic with her debut review (in San Francisco’s City Lights magazine) of Chaplin’s Limelight. Kael made no bones about despising the movie; her review was headlined “Slimelight.” The review’s truncated version, which appeared in Kael’s capsule-review collection 5,001 Nights at the Movies, I quote here in its entirety:

[The movie is] Chaplin’s high-minded and sentimental view of the theater and himself. His exhortations about life, courage, consciousness, and “truth” are set in a self-pitying, self-glorifying story. As Calvero the old, impoverished English clown, he appears at a gala benefit and shows the unbelievers who think him finished that he is still the greatest, and then dies in the wings as the applause fades – this is surely the richest hunk of self-gratification since Huck and Tom attended their own funeral – and Chaplin serves it up straight. The mediocrity of Calvero’s stage routines may be the result of Chaplin’s aiming at greatness. At one point Calvero awaits a young ballerina (played with considerable charm by Claire Bloom, and danced with authority by Melissa Hayden). In the darkened theater after she has performed, he says to her, “My dear, you are a true artist, a true artist,” and the emphasis is on his eyes, his depth of feeling. And is it because Chaplin didn’t talk on screen until late in his career that he doesn’t seem to have a dramatic instinct for language? (He talks high-mindedly and incessantly.)

Other than Kael’s remarks about Calvero’s routines and Bloom’s charm, I can’t find any point to debate – and yet I still find the movie alluring.

The movie began life as an autobiographical novel titled Footlights — the “Chaplin Collection” DVD of the movie contains sound clips of Chaplin reading two brief passages from the erstwhile novel – so it’s not too surprising how self-absorbed the movie is. It’s set in London in 1914 (ironically, the year Chaplin became a hit in movies). Calvero (Chaplin), a washed-up stage comedian, happens upon Terry (Claire Bloom), a young girl in his apartment building who has attempted suicide. Calvero saves her from death and nurses her back to health. Terry is a wanna-be ballet dancer who fears she has lost the use of her legs, and basically, she and Calvero take turns building up each other’s self-confidence.

Terry eventually meets up with Neville (Chaplin’s eldest son Sydney), a composer with whom she had briefly crossed paths, and Calvero urges her to forge a bond with him. But Terry is so grateful to Calvero that she pushes Neville aside and insists to Calvero that she loves him. There are a couple of major obstacles with this plot point. Kael notwithstanding, I found Bloom’s performance mostly two-note; she’s either heroically enduring pain or bleating out her deepest thoughts. And as with the supposed charm of the lead character in Monsieur Verdoux, the supposed passion that Terry feels for Calvero is more talked about than shown to us, so that when Terry finally declares “I love you” to Calvero, it’s as much a surprise to us as to him.

Secondly, the movie would be far more interesting if this passion were acted upon, in any manner – say, with Calvero denying his true feelings for Terry while being jealous that Neville is making time with her. Instead, Calvero clucks that Terry can’t possibly be in love with her while enjoying her worship at the same time (he’s not even jealous of Neville, who seems to be one more person within his orbit of worship). So this May-December romance is an intriguing plot thread left dangling all the way to movie’s end.

The other major problem is the movie’s pacing. The movie’s present-day (1914) story grinds to a halt several times for flashbacks – Calvero’s dreams about the past, Terry’s story about her first meeting Neville, etc. Mind you, many of the flashbacks are the movie’s most worthwhile moments, especially when they revolve around Calvero’s stage act. Yet one wishes Chaplin could have compacted them better into his script. (Perhaps if he’d gotten rid of some of Calvero’s long-winded philosophizing…)

And yet, the movie is not without its merits. While Bloom is so-so and (poor) Sydney registers zero as an on-screen presence, much of the acting is quite enjoyable. As Bodalink, the impresario who arranges Calvero’s eventual comeback, Norman Lloyd looks and plays like a link to Show Business Past. In her brief but lovely appearances as Calvero’s buxom landlady, Marjorie Bennett seems as though she could have played with Chaplin in one of his two-reelers, especially when Calvero is trying to woo her into another month’s rent-free stay at his apartment.

I also don’t agree with Kael’s comments about Calvero’s stage act. The bit with the “trained” fleas is at least amusing, and Calvero’s banter with Claire Bloom on-stage brings to mind the quote often attributed to Chaplin wherein he told Groucho Marx, “I wish I could speak like you on-screen.” Here, he just about does so.

And of course, there’s the famous, wordless stage duet that Chaplin does with Buster Keaton near movie’s end. If you haven’t seen the movie and you ever fantasized about two movie comedy legends getting together…well, for about ten minutes, this movie grants your wish.

(And perhaps it’s my imagination, but the shot of Calvero finishing his act, and then looking out in horror to a sea of empty seats…Did they pay homage to that shot in The Rocky Horror Picture Show? It sure looks like it.)

Limelight is yet another of those Chaplin vehicles that’s flawed but fascinating; you wish it was better than it is, yet even in its final state, you can’t keep your eyes off it.