Charlie Chaplin was, arguably, the greatest comic actor ever.
For years he was the highest paid performer in the world, and his 'little
tramp' character is still know all around the world. There have been
many books written and movies made about him, but the best is David Gill
and Kevin Brownlow's 1983 documentary, Unknown Chaplin. The
first of three documentaries examining the biggest silent era comedians,
this is an excellent look at Charlie Chaplin's films, and how he made them.
This three part series, each installment running about 50 minutes, gives
a rare look at how Chaplin made his films. Before this documentary
was released, no one really knew what Chaplin's process was. Using
reels and reels of Chaplin outtakes that Raymond Rohauer had squirreled
away and hidden from the world, as well as his studio's records, David
Gill and Kevin Brownlow were able to recreate how this comic genius came
up with his ideas. Working without a script and just waiting
for inspiration to strike, Chaplin would try many different scenes and
gags before he came up with the one that was just right for a film.
Using two of his Mutual films, The Cure and The Immigrant, as examples
the series shows how Chaplin would start with just a seed of an idea and
play with it until he could create an entire scene. Chaplin's genius is
that he made it look so easy in the finished product. The weeks and
months of agonizing are all missing, and all that's left is a gorgeously
The series also discusses his later films, the bulk of the second episode
is taken up by his filming of City Lights. It has interviews
with Jackie Coogan who played the title role in The Kid, Lita Grey
who was also in The Kid, Virginia Cherrill who was the female lead
in City Lights, and Georgia Hale who stared in The Gold Rush.
Their comments about how Chaplin worked and what he was like on the set
were interesting and insightful.
The series also examines how Chaplin would rework an idea years, sometimes
decades, later. When something didn't quite fit into one movie, he
would revisit the idea in a later movie. There are several extended
scenes that were left on the cutting room floor, including a long segment
from his aborted film The Professor. This movie was to feature
Chaplin in a role other than that of the Tramp. He would later change
the character around a bit and used him in Limelight.
One of the things that was particularly refreshing about this documentary
was that they concentrated on how Chaplin crafted his films and brought
his ideas forth in film. His often sordid personal life wasn't the
focus, or even mentioned. They talk with Chaplin's second wife, Lita
Grey, but the clips that were limit her comments to working on The Gold
Rush and in The Kid, and doesn't mention their acrimonious divorce
or his many infidelities.
There is a wealth of information included in this documentary, and it
is very entertaining too. The sequences that Chaplin discarded are
more entertaining than the gags that many comedians left in their movies,
making this a fun documentary. The rare clips are a wonder too.
I was particularly interested in seeing some of the footage of City
Lights that Chaplin reshot with Georgia Hale after he fired Virginia
Cherill. (The film was so far advanced that he had to re-hire Cherrill,
at double pay, and Hale's scenes were never released.) A truly great
The two channel soundtrack is solid and fits the show well. The
musical accompaniment comes through clear and there is a good amount of
dynamic range. Narrator James Mason's voice is easy to discern and
comes through well. There weren't any audio defects worth noting.
There are no subtitles.
This documentary is presented with a full frame image, as it was intended.
The picture is good overall, though it hasn't been restored. The
image does have some grain and there are some spots even in the more recent
interviews. The image was a little bit on the soft side but not too
much so. This is an average looking picture for a 20 year old show.
In addition to the great documentary, there are a couple of interesting
bonus features. The Story Behind Unknown Chaplin is a 13-minute interview
with Kevin Brownlow who relates how they obtained the footage for this
special and how difficult it was working with the infamous Ray Rohauer.
The Making of The Count features some outtakes that were newly discovered
in the reels and reels of negatives that Gill and Brownlow used for Unknown
Chaplin. Historian Frank Scheide, who was hired to catalog all of
this film, talks about the making of The Count With discarded scenes and
alternate takes, he talks about the construction of the film and points
out some interesting items.
Chaplin Meets Harry Lauder is a short that the two comedians made to
raise money for men maimed in WW I. There is no record of it ever
being show publically.
This is an excellent documentary. Even after all that had been
written about Chaplin in the past, Gill and Brownlow were able to come
up with a new angle to this complicated man. A vastly entertaining
show, this will has information that both new silent film fans and Chaplin
scholars will find useful. I can only hope that this pair's
other documentaries on silent comedians will be released soon. Highly