I remember sitting in front of my television, rapturously watching the documentary "Hollywood" created by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill in 1980. Each of the 13 segments dealing with a specific part of early Hollywood history, played on PBS and was a true delight. In this era before DVD, and even VHS, it was a great way to see a large number of rare clips from the Silent era. A few years later, they made "Unknown Chaplin", perhaps the most astonishing documentary ever created about the technical side of Hollywood. A few years later, "Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow" continued the tradition.
"Unknown Chaplin" was just released on DVD and is a must have addition for anyone even remotely interested in the history of film or filmmaking.
During production of "Hollywood", Brownlow and Gill naturally wanted to devote an entire hour to Chaplin but ran into a roadblock. The person who controlled access to Chaplin's work was only prepared to let them use a "snippet". They had to change their plans. They couldn't build an entire hour around a "snippet". After "Hollywood" aired, to great critical acclaim, they tried again. Chaplin's widow allowed them access to his personal vault. What they found there astonished them; row after row of film cans, many labeled with "City Lights", "The Gold Rush", "The Circus" and many with unfamiliar names. These contained clips never before seen, projects started but never finished and rehearsals for films like "City Lights". It was a treasure trove for any film historian.
Naturally, they believed they had just hit the mother load, but soon met a man named Raymond Rohauer. Rohauer, a film "collector", claimed to have many reels of film from Chaplin's Mutual days, the period immediately before Chaplin went independent and began to make his great feature-length films. The Mutual period is considered by many to be Chaplin's best, when he made his most famous two-reelers, "The Immigrant", "The Cure" and others along with "The Kid". As they viewed this footage, Brownlow and Gill made a major realization; Chaplin worked out all of his films on the set, while the cameras were rolling, providing a visual history of his work. Beginning with a bare outline he would began production, working out jokes on set, adding jokes, changing stories, and more. Sometimes, he would scrap everything and start over. Or get an idea and change everything around. And the camera was always running while he did this.
"Unknown Chaplin" premiered in 1983 to great critical acclaim, exposing many to the methods used by one of film's greatest comedians and most skilled directors. Imagine having the ability to watch Claude Monet create a canvas and get insight into the various decisions he made. Or to watch Frank Lloyd Wright work on his latest design and see why he decided to put that piece of word there. This is what "Unknown Chaplin" provides, access into the mind of a master.
Recently released on DVD for the first time, each of the three segments of "Unknown" look amazingly vivid and clear. Some of the better footage is so clear it looks like it was photographed yesterday. As James Mason narrates, guiding us, we begin to learn how Chaplin created his films. Every time I say this, I just get chills up and down my spine. How often can we expect to see a master, someone at the top of their craft, creating some of their most famous work? Considering how much of the Silent era was destroyed, the fact that this film exists at all is all the more impressive.
Part One is the most groundbreaking, presenting the footage from the Mutual days. Brownlow and Gill quickly realized that Chaplin filmed every take and frequently changed bits between takes. How should they deal with this wealth of material? They decided to arrange the clips in chronological order, recreating how Chaplin worked on the material as the cameras rolled. He began each project with an outline, but this is by no means how the projects were completed. He would work out the jokes and funny business on set, sometimes running into road blocks. If he couldn't work through it, he would scrap everything and start over. We get to see this process as we watch these clips unearthed by the filmmakers.
Part Two presents the material obtained from Chapin's vaults, after he became independent and began making feature length films. Less extensive, the footage still reveals a lot. For instance, a family friend stood near the camera and was able to take home movies as Chaplin worked on "City Lights". This footage is shown, and we get a glimpse of Chaplin, the director, at work. We also watch as Chaplin works through various location problems with "The Gold Rush", unused footage from "The Circus" and more.
Part Three shows us the unseen clips, portions of abandoned projects, unseen shorts and more Brownlow and Gill found in the Chaplin vaults. After Chaplin built his own studio, many dignitaries and famous people stopped by and the director filmed these visits, sometimes making quick shorts with them, on existing sets. If he did any funny business during these impromptu films, he frequently incorporated this into later works. He even started a few projects that were never finished, one of which shows Charlie as a down-on-his-luck `Professor' who owns a flea circus, temporarily abandoning his Tramp character.
"Unknown Chaplin" is a documentary almost solely devoted to the filmmaker's work. The few references to his personal life are made because they somehow affected his professional work. Because of this "Unknown" presents one of the most thorough, interesting and illuminating looks at one of film's true masters and true pioneers.