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

UnknownChaplin

(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.

THE IMMIGRANT (1917) – Charlie Chaplin at his best

Poster

(WARNING: Spoilers abound!)

One of the many things that bothered me about James Cameron’s overblown romantic epic Titanic (1997) was the way it patted itself on the back for its blatant commentary on America’s class system. Cameron seemed to have forgotten that there was a two-reeler comedy that did the same thing eight decades previous – Chaplin’s The Immigrant – and did it probably for what it cost to light one of Titanic’s chandeliers.

Indeed, it’s kind of surprising that Chaplin stirred criticism where he thought to mix comedy and drama in The Kid four years later, seeing as he’d already done it so skillfully in The Immigrant. This is the perfect Chaplin combination platter: comedy, drama, pathos, symbolism, and yes, a smidgeon of social commentary – all delivered as smoothly and charmingly as you could hope for.

Chaplin plays the title role, a foreigner sailing for America on a rickety ship. Our first view of Charlie is his backside, as he hangs over the edge of the deck, seeming to relieve himself of nausea – only to turn around all smiles, showing off his prize catch of a fresh fish. (Contrast this with Chaplin’s later, far less imaginative A Day’s Pleasure, where he really does try to milk seasickness for ever-diminishing comedy.)

Edna

Eventually, Charlie meets up with a female immigrant (Edna Purviance) and her widowed mother. He befriends them and eventually gives them some money he won from gambling on the ship. Then comes the movie’s most famous shot. A title tells us the ship has reached “the Land of Liberty,” followed by a long shot of the Statue of Liberty, followed by Charlie and his shipmates being roped off like cattle before they can be let off the ship. (At least Charlie gets off a good kick to the guy doing the roping.)

The movie’s second half shows Charlie finding a coin on the street and using it to dine at a cheap restaurant. There, he reunites with Edna. In a perfect economy of action, Charlie (and we) see Edna alone and in black and immediately deduce that her sickly mother has passed on. Charlie expresses his sorrow and then tries to make the best of things, offering to buy dinner for Edna.

Eric

Then Charlie and Edna see a customer get batted about by the restaurant’s burly waiter (Eric Campbell) because he lacked a dime on his dinner bill. We’ve already seen the waiter get assertive with Charlie because he couldn’t take a hint to remove his hat in the restaurant. (Eric and Charlie’s hat routine will strike a chord with any Laurel & Hardy buff. In fact, much of this second half’s premise seems to have been bodily lifted for later use in the L&H short Below Zero [1930].)

Trying to assure himself, Charlie reaches into his pocket…and reaches…and reaches…and realizes the coin has fallen out. Chaplin manages to milk a good deal of business out of Charlie trying to avoid the waiter’s suspicious glare and to figure out how he will pay the bill.

As luck would have it, a nearby customer (Chaplin veteran Henry Bergman) is an artist who finds Edna and Charlie worthy subjects for his next painting. He confirms a deal with them and gives Charlie a couple of dollars in advance. In what is easily one of Chaplin’s most satisfying endings (emotionally and story-wise), Charlie drags coy Edna into the office of a local justice of the peace, to use the money to buy a marriage license for them.

The Immigrant is even more astonishing once you view the first segment of the astounding documentary Unknown Chaplin, which details the origins of many of Chaplin’s Mutual comedies. The Immigrant began as Chaplin’s vague idea of a comedy of manners, but it wandered aimlessly until Chaplin connected the dots and included the immigration concept. I wonder if Titanic began that modestly.