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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Unknown Chaplin
Unknown Chaplin
A&E Video // Unrated // November 29, 2005
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by John Sinnott | posted November 25, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
E - M A I L
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P R I N T
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The Show:

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 constructed comedy.

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 documentary.

The DVD:


Audio:

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.

Video:

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.

Extras:

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.

Final Thoughts:

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 Recommended.

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