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 THE CIRCUS (1928) – Even “mid-level” Chaplin is wonderful


(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Coming as it did between Chaplin’s almost-legendary bookends The Gold Rush and City Lights, The Circus was for many years maligned as one of Chaplin’s back-burner numbers. But while it has no big agenda to burnish, The Circus is the kind of movie that would be a masterpiece in the career of any other silent-movie comedian, and it’s not exactly chopped liver on Chaplin’s resume either.

Before the main plot even gets underway, there’s a superb opening sequence involving Charlie, a cop, and a pickpocket (Steve Murphy, recognizable in face and character as a variation on the conman he played so smoothly in Buster Keaton’s short Cops [1922]). This entire segment could have played by itself as a short subject, and at first it seems almost a pity that the melodramatic plot has to be squeezed in.

The story is that a very unsuccessful circus has come to town. It’s run by a tyrannical ringmaster (Allan Garcia) who regularly abuses his daughter the circus walker (Merna Kennedy). Charlie happens into this non-laugh-fest while escaping from the cop, and he makes such a mess of the show that the audience, thinking he’s part of the act, laughs and applauds him wildly.

The ringmaster has Charlie audition for the show, but since Charlie didn’t know he was being funny, his attempts at being deliberately humorous fall flat – although with this circus, who can tell? The ringmaster has Charlie watch a couple of the circus’ comic routines and then orders Charlie to imitate them. That seems a strange request, since these routines are the same ones that aren’t getting any laughs, and Charlie’s innocent bollixing-up of them plays better than the straight routines do.

Charlie gets turned down for the job (he tells Merna that he and the ringmaster “couldn’t come to terms”), but then he gets hired as a prop man at the last minute, and he’s the laugh hit of the show once again. Only Charlie himself doesn’t realize this, and the ringmaster does his best to keep the news under wraps. When Merna finally lets Charlie in on the secret, he’s able to finagle a better salary for himself and no more mistreatment for Merna.

Things look rosy for Charlie, until the circus hires a new act: Rex (Harry Crocker), a dashing tightrope walker. This makes Charlie, who had designs on Merna (unbeknownst to her), very unhappy. And it brings about a couple of the movie’s most interesting moments. The first is when Merna and Charlie are on the sidelines, watching Rex do his act, and Charlie laughs with demented glee whenever it looks as though Rex is on the brink of disaster; it brings to mind all the sadistic thoughts we had as children of high-wire acts that might go ker-plop.

The other interesting bit is when Charlie observes Rex and Merna talking and hitting it off. Through double exposure, Chaplin shows us what Charlie wishes would happen: His alter ego steps out of his body, slaps Rex around, and knocks him unconscious. I find this interesting because that’s probably just what Charlie would have done to Rex, back in the old Keystone/Essanay days; it shows us just how far Chaplin has “evolved” his Tramp character.

The love triangle leads to the movie’s climax. One night, Rex cannot be found for his act (another strange example of “convenience,” the kind of plot contrivance that Chaplin claimed to have abhorred) and Charlie, who has been practicing a makeshift tightrope act of his own, is ordered to take Rex’s place. Far be it from me to spoil the surprises here; it’s enough to say that there are sufficient laughs and gasps to make this one of Chaplin’s best wrap-ups.

The final scene, too, is Chaplin at his best: Pathos without ramming it down our throats. Even as a “minor” number, The Circus is Chaplin at his most appealing and satisfying.