Review by Ed Nguyen
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
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
I need to make a comedy is a park, a policeman and a pretty girl."
- Charlie Chaplin
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
TRIVIA: The poignant theme music
for Unknown Chaplin is the theme from
Chaplin's The Kid.
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.
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)
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.
there is a Chaplin biography, although at only a few paragraphs in length, it is