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UNKNOWN CHAPLIN

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Georgia Hale, Eric Campbell, Albert Austin, Sydney Chaplin, Henry Bergman, Mack Swain, Virginia Cherrill, Lita Grey
Narration: James Mason
Directors: Kevin Brownlow, David Gill
Audio: English 2.0
Subtitles: None
Video: Color, black & white, full-frame
Studio: A & E
Features: The Story Behind Unknown Chaplin featurette, two bonus shorts, Chaplin biography
Length: 163 minutes
Release Date: November 29, 2005

"All I need to make a comedy is a park, a policeman and a pretty girl." - Charlie Chaplin

Film ****

Back in the 1980's, long before the advent of the DVD format, fans of Charlie Chaplin were quite restricted in how they could see the comedian's silent classics.  A few faded and washed-out public domain copies were available on VHS tapes, but the older the movie, generally the worse the condition of its images.  Many prints were simply downright unwatchable.  The Chaplin estate, in cooperation with Playhouse Video, eventually issued high-quality copies of many of Chaplin's feature films and First National films on VHS.  Before that point, however, fans had no option but to suffer through inferior prints, often derived from poor and deteriorating 16mm reduction prints.

Unknown Chaplin must have seemed like a miracle to Chaplin fans, then.  Originally airing on public television in the early 1980's, this three-part documentary unveiled numerous Chaplin clips and sequences never before publicly exhibited.  The vast majority of these clips were also in very good condition, too, and the difference was night and day between the quality of the images shown in Unknown Chaplin and elsewhere on VHS tapes.

Some of these sequences have invariably made their way onto current Chaplin DVDs as bonus features.  However, Unknown Chaplin remains the best (or only) source for viewing many of these out-takes and deleted sequences together in their finest form.

Viewers interested in Chaplin's earliest years will enjoy "My Happiest Years," the first part of Unknown Chaplin.  This first segment focuses almost entirely on Chaplin's Mutual films, made in 1916-17.  The Mutual films, twelve two-reelers in all, are generally considered classics of silent comedy and reflect Chaplin during his most productive and artistically creative phase.  Not surprisingly, the Mutual period was also the happiest of Chaplin's film career.

"My Happiest Years" demonstrably reveals how Chaplin rehearsed and experimented on-screen to develop and perfect his sight gags.  Before Unknown Chaplin, Chaplin's mysterious working methods were almost entirely unknown!  Glimpses from many of Chaplin's Mutual films are shown, particularly from The Cure, The Immigrant, and The Adventurer.  Chaplin's inventive genius with props can be seen in the escalator sequence from The Floorwalker and the revolving door from The Cure.  Discarded sequences are equally delightful, such as several humorous wheelchair sequences from The Cure and a hot radiator sequence from The Adventurer.  There are many more comic gems, of course, but I don't want to give everything away!

"The Great Director" is the second part of Unknown Chaplin and examines the period from Chaplin's First National years through City Lights.  After Chaplin concluded his Mutual contract, he signed with First National to deliver eight two-reelers.  Chaplin eventually took six years to fulfill his contract, but rather than delivering just two-reelers, he created some very elaborate films, among them his earliest feature-length masterpiece, The Kid.

Unfortunately, almost no out-takes survive from the First National years.  As a result, most of the clips come from The Kid and How to Make Movies.  This latter short was intended to show how a Californian orange orchard was transformed into Chaplin's new, state-of-the-art movie studio, courtesy of First National.  The short also provides a seemingly rare look at Chaplin "directing" (but actually just goofing around with members of his cast for the camera).  While never publicly released, portions of this short were later incorporated into the introductory sequence for The Chaplin Revue.

The remaining clips in "The Great Director" are from The Gold Rush and City Lights.  Unlike the first installment of Unknown Chaplin, which consists entirely of archival film footage and out-takes, the second part includes contemporary interviews with several of Chaplin's former leading ladies (Lita Grey Chaplin, Georgia Hale, and Virginia Cherrill).  Intriguing still photographs in this second part hint at an extended chicken chase scene from The Gold Rush and extensive on-location photography for The Gold Rush, much more so than actually appears in the film.  As an interesting note, Lita Grey was originally offered the role of the romantic interest in The Gold Rush but had to acquiesce to Georgia Hale after marrying Chaplin during filming and becoming pregnant!

Similarly, Georgia Hale was briefly cast in City Lights as a replacement for the role of the blind girl played by Virginia Cherrill, who eventually returned to complete the role.  Hale's interpretation of the memorable final scene from City Lights can be seen in some extremely rare out-takes.

Unknown Chaplin closes with "Hidden Treasures," a collection of rare home movies and completed but deleted sequences from Chaplin's later films.  The home movies clearly suggest that even while playing for the camera, Chaplin never forgot a potentially good gag; for instance, some tomfoolery with a globe in a Douglas Fairbanks home movie is later transformed into a similarly memorable scene in The Great Dictator.

"Hidden Treasures" is filled with many more such moments.  A barber shop sequence that was (ahem) cut from Sunnyside re-emerges as a classic sequence, played to the tune of The Barber of Seville, in The Great Dictator.  An impromptu sparring match with a visiting boxing champ is the inspiration for the boxing match in City Lights, while a William Tell mock-up from a home movie ends up as a delightful sequence in The Circus.  Even a golf scene from the never-released How to Make Movies re-appears as mishaps on the greens from The Idle Class.

Among the other deleted sequences, there is a gem of an army physical examination from Shoulder Arms in which the Little Tramp inadvertently swallows all manners of medical equipment.  In the unfinished First National film The Professor, one of Chaplin's many attempts to shed or modify his Little Tramp screen persona, we see the genesis of a flea circus act that re-appears later in Limelight.  A delightful cafe sequence, with the Little Tramp ill-advisedly challenging a professional boxer, can be seen in a deleted sequence from The Circus.

Last and best of all, there is the original opening sequence to City Lights.  In a mere seven minutes, Chaplin demonstrates more inspired comic invention than most modern "comedies" have in their entire running length.  The premise is so simple - the Little Tramp struggles with a piece of wood stuck in a metal grill - that we must simply marvel at Chaplin's genius for transforming such a seemingly minor act into a classic sequence.  To think that such an unforgettable scene did not meet with Chaplin's own high standards begs the question - what other classic Chaplin gems may still exist out there, waiting to be rediscovered, but how many more were lost or destroyed by Chaplin himself at the end of filming?

We may never fully know, but at least we have Unknown Chaplin.  Covering the most productive decades in Chaplin's early career, this landmark documentary is a true treasure trove highlighting the comic gifts of this most famous of silent film clowns.  Newcomers to silent comedy will delight in these rare glimpses into Chaplin's comic talents, while long-time fans will surely find something new and delightful here.

Video **

Unknown Chaplin looks quite good, and its numerous clips (derived from the original camera negatives) look quite superb, considering the age of many of them.  Some degree of emulsion damage and age-related deterioration is to be expected, although the clarity of details and wonderful contrast levels will amaze fans long accustomed to scratchy or washed-out images of Chaplin on film.

Audio ***

For what it's worth, the audio is provided in stereo.  James Mason drolly narrates the proceedings while music from Chaplin's films (mostly the First National films and later features) accompanies many of the clips.  Coincidentally, Chaplin was not a trained composer but nevertheless created much of the music for his later films (with the help of a composer to arrange and orchestrate his melodies).

BONUS TRIVIA:  The poignant theme music for Unknown Chaplin is the theme from Chaplin's The Kid.

Features **

The Story Behind "Unknown Chaplin" (12 min.) covers the making of this exceptional documentary.  Kevin Brownlow relates the astounding discovery of multiple reels of previously unknown Chaplin out-takes and bloopers in various private collections worldwide.  He also describes how, after these images were arduously assembled together, Chaplin's highly secretive directorial methods were revealed, including the surprising revelation that he rarely worked with a script but instead developed the story on camera as he went along.

Two bonus shorts are provided.  "The Making of The Count" (12 min.) provides an example of the meticulous research done by the makers of Unknown Chaplin to reconstruct Chaplin's secretive working methods.  Clips and out-takes from the Mutual short The Count are used to demonstrate Chaplin's on-screen experimentation, rehearsals, and tinkering with sight gags until he perfected (or discarded) them.

"Chaplin Meets Harry Lauder" (8 min.) offers a rare opportunity to see two of the twentieth-century's greatest comedians side by side.  Harry Lauder was a stage vaudevillian whose world renown at its peak rivaled that of Chaplin's, although his success was mostly limited to music hall venues.  In this short film, Lauder joined Chaplin for a couple of skits, including a mimicry of each other's well-known gait.  This eight-minute short was part of an unfinished fund-raising project for injured soldiers during the war effort.

Lastly, there is a Chaplin biography, although at only a few paragraphs in length, it is hardly comprehensive.

Summary:

Unknown Chaplin is the perfect introduction and a fine homage to one of cinema's most beloved comedians.  Even for Chaplin's most avid fans, this landmark documentary will surely hold a few surprises!  Highly recommended for silent film fans!

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