Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Check this out when you have the chance:

I’ve wanted to see this 1983 production for a while, and it did not disappoint. Narrated by James Mason, and written and directed by film historians Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, the Thames-produced Unknown Chaplin is a three-episode series revealing Charlie Chaplin’s working methods. Those methods were, to say the least, unique. Chaplin worked out his routines on-film (his form of brainstorming, basically) and though most of this footage naturally met the bonfire, enough remains to provide a fascinating look at the master and his work.

Even today, Chaplin is famous for his perfectionism. He would reshoot the same scene hundreds of times, exhausting actors who could detect no difference between the take they’d just performed and those performed hours, days or even months before. If they couldn’t master a gesture as Chaplin desired it, he simply acted out their parts in front of them, as a guide—female roles included. As one commentator suggests, the clown’s greatest regret was his inability to be both in front and behind the camera simultaneously.

If an actor was wrong for a part, Chaplin was willing to scrap months of work in favour of recasting. He worked without a script, improvising many of his own scenes, so a film had no truly defined shooting schedule and literally no end in sight. How could he do it? As Mason explains, it was due to Chaplin’s already enormous fame and box-office clout. Episode One, “My Happiest Years,” catches the artist around 1916, as he begins work for the Mutual Film Corporation. Mutual was already Chaplin’s third production company, and this one was willing to pay him a then-ungodly $670,000 (plus bonuses) to produce 12 short films. He was otherwise unrestrained. And so Chaplin handpicked a stock company of talented actors, including the menacing Eric Campbell and favoured ingénue, Edna Purviance, and got to work.

Everything rested on the genius’ whim. For The Floorwalker (1916), he commanded a department store set to be built. There was no story to go with this set, mind you; nor was there a story to go with anything else; Chaplin simply waited for inspiration, and eventually, it arrived.

Episode Two, “The Great Director,” starts with a behind-the-scenes look at Chaplin’s filmmaking for First National, which paid him $1 million to produce only eight films over an unspecified period. This arrangement led to several classics, including Shoulder Arms (1918), Sunnyside (1919) and Pay Day (1922). We also see the sometimes troubled (and incredibly slow) development of his United Artists features, The Gold Rush (1925), The Circus (1928) and City Lights (1931).

Episode Three, “Hidden Treasures,” is mostly a collection of long outtakes and rarities, including home-movie-style clips of Chaplin entertaining dignitaries, such as Winston Churchill. They invariably ask him to perform a bit, and he does. As Mason explains, Chaplin was always performing, always working out ideas—he had ‘a mind like an attic,’ said one friend. Nothing was forgotten, only squirreled away. To prove the point, we see footage of a dinner party where Chaplin entertains his friends by juggling a globe. He used a variation of this gag years later in The Great Dictator (1940).


Chaplin’s unparalleled artistic freedom allowed him to work in his own way, and from that, produce a series of masterpieces that compromised on nothing. He used his popularity, and the perks that came with it, to do this. More power to him, not only for being inspired, but damn shrewd, too.

Look for Unknown Chaplin here.

Silent Volume has featured several of Charlie Chaplin’s films. Have a look at essays on Shoulder Arms, Pay Day, The Circus and Modern Times (1936).

For some quick Chaplin facts (plus a truly gorgeous photo of the artist playing the cello—I LOVE this pic) visit Noir and Chick Flicks.


  1. I've never heard of this--sounds fascinating. I'm a new reader, and I've been enjoying your blog. Looking forward to future posts!

  2. Thanks for reading. I bet you could find a copy of this DVD at smaller/better video stores in your area.

    Another worthwhile watch is the sequel: 'Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow.'