by Kevin Brownlow
In the world of film collecting, the claim “find of the century” may sound an unpardonable exaggeration. But what discovery can equal it? Collectors had hailed the discovery of the occasional lost Keystone comedy in which Chaplin played, but nobody had the slightest idea that somewhere in England, somewhere in France, and somewhere in the United States lay three separate treasure troves of silent film which would, for the first time, reveal the working methods of the greatest single figure of the cinema. It was a treasure hunt involving innocence and guile, accident and coincidence. A treasure hunt which took us to Switzerland, France and the United States. The treasure, when it was uncovered, revealed information as precious as the film itself. From the material, we compiled a television series called Unknown Chaplin, three hour-long documentaries produced for Thames Television. Apart from the experience of making the series, we learned so much about Chaplin we could not squeeze into the commentary we decided to preserve it in the form of a book.
When we began research, the first thing that struck us was the paucity of knowledge about Chaplin as a filmmaker. His private life had been splashed across the newspapers of the world, and the vicious melange given the dignity of hard covers. With so much gossip to occupy their attention, journalists could hardly be expected to care how the man made his films, even if those films were the most successful ever made. Yet one expects more from serious historians.
Something like three hundred books have been published about Chaplin. So many follow the same line – a recounting of the life, followed by the stories of the films – you begin to suspect that the authors have read five and written a sixth. Virtually none of them took the trouble to interview Chaplin’s associates.
Albert Austin (d.1953), Henry Bergman (d.1946) and Edna Purviance (d.1958) were overlooked, despite the wealth of information they would have been able to provide. And Sydney Chaplin (d.1965). I have used it about the miraculous discovery by Wales Film Archive of the 1918 epic on David Lloyd George, which certainly deserved it, despite being ignored shamefully by the press and even by Welsh Channel 4.
Charlie’s half-brother, would have known more than any of them, yet only one author, R.J. Minney, bothered to capture any of his memories. I write harshly on the subject, yet I am to blame myself. When I began researching the silent cinema, Sydney as well as Charlie, was still alive. Yet Chaplin was low on my scale of priorities. I was convinced that everything that could be said about him had already been said – repeatedly. By the time I realised how wrong I was, it was too late. Fortunately, David Robinson published his masterly biography in 1985 – too late for our programme, but not too late for him to play a vital part in getting it to happen.
In our researches, we found that Chaplin’s assistant on The Circus
and City Lights, Harry Crocker, had written his memoirs. (The unpublished
manuscript is preserved at the Academy library.) And Eddie
Sutherland, assistant on A Woman of Paris and The Gold Rush, had
recorded his. (The tape and transcript is at the Oral History Department
of Columbia University.) Even more important, someone had persuaded
Chaplin to sit down and talk into a tape recorder – and that story is
worth relating in the detail it deserves. While some of the information
we found is supported by documents, and can thus be proved, a great
deal of it comes under the heading of educated guesswork. We worked
very much like archaeologists, studying the evidence of our eyes. To be
strictly accurate, I should use the phrase “might have” a great deal, for
my comments on the Mutuals, for instance, are surmisals only. But they
are surmisals based on such strong evidence that it would be irritating
to be so half-hearted. I want to make this clear at the start, for the
benefit of future historians of Chaplin’s work.
Throughout the book, I use the name Chaplin for the man, and
Charlie for the character.
In England, where Chaplin was born and where he enjoyed the fan
worship usually reserved for royalty, public opinion has undergone a
radical change. As though embarrassed by the adulation of their elders,
new generations have poured cold water over Chaplin’s reputation.
Opinions, however, are not facts. The fact that neither Buster Keaton or
Harold Lloyd, the two other great silent comedians, could have come
to prominence without their way being paved by Chaplin’s huge commercial
success is beside the point. The fact that Chaplin’s early, and
admittedly crude, comedies of 1914-15 are compared to Keaton’s of the
sophisticated 1920s is also irrelevant. The important fact is that Chaplin
was, in his time, the phenomenon of the age. No one was so famous, no
one better loved. It is impossible for anyone who has not experienced it
to understand it. A letter we received from a viewer, Douglas Johnson
of Ilford, Essex, conveys a hint of it: ‘Whenever a Chaplin film was
showing the whole audience was intent on laughing and enjoying every
gesture. The feeling throughout the cinema would be electrifying. It was
wonderful to be participating in the warmth being shown to Charlie and
his supporting players. During my school years, you were either a
Chaplin fan or a Harold Lloyd fan, almost dividing the class into two.
My father would tell me “Given an empty room as a set, Charlie could
by himself make you laugh, whereas Harold would have great difficulty
without his props.” And that remained my argument for many years.’
The fact that Chaplin’s great films are so seldom shown, either in
the cinema or on television, is a crippling drawback. Yet, paradoxically,
Chaplin is an over-exposed comedian. His earliest, and least impressive
work, being long out of copyright, is churned out on television in
wretched prints with miserable musical accompaniment. As another
correspondent, stage producer Peter Cotes, put it, referring to the series:
“It was a bonus to have the unadulterated Charlie on the screen, and not
in the form that he’s been so often; badly re-edited and quite atrociously
‘accompanied’ by that orchestra so insensitively recorded in the Netherlands
sound studio by a barmy band!” Television, of course, is not the
medium for which Chaplin’s films were designed. Chaplin composed
his scenes in loose mid-shots, ideal for the big screen, but not close
enough for television. He was also confident of large audiences, united
by laughter. A large audience in front of a TV set is five people. The
electricity generated in the cinema does not exist. Comedies – and not
just Chaplin’s comedies – are often watched straight-faced, in stony
silence. Laughter is supposed to be infectious; the atmosphere at home
is often sterile. This is one reason why TV comedians are supported by
I remember showing some of our discoveries at a film festival.
There was a packed audience, and the people roared with laughter.
Some were almost hysterical. When we showed those same episodes on
videotape on TV monitors, there was no laughter. Oh yes, those watching
had enjoyed the sequences, but the experience could hardly have
been more different. Let us hope that the great Chaplin films will return
to the cinema, where they belong, and that they will be watched by large
and appreciative audiences. All it needs is the proper climate. To help
create that climate is the purpose of this book.
Kevin Brownlow (1983)
Since 1983, a number of important events have taken place. David
Robinson published his masterly biography in l985 – having helped us
immeasurably to get the programme made. His book was republished
with new material in 2001. David Shepard brought out excellent prints
of the Mutuals on DVD, with Carl Davis scores, through the British
Film Institute. MK2 and Warner Bros. have brought out superb transfers
of the feature films on DVD. And these features are now being
seen in live performance, thanks to composer-conductors Carl Davis
and Tim Brock, who tour Europe with 35mm prints.
In 2002, with Michael Kloft of Spiegel Television, I directed a film
about the making of the Great Dictator, The Tramp and the Dictator,
which used colour footage shot on the set by Chaplin’s brother Sydney,
found in the vaults by Chaplin’s children Christopher and Victoria.
Cineteca Bologna has become the repository of Chaplin material.
Richard Attenborough directed in 1992 a biographical feature film
noted for a remarkable, Oscar-nominated performance from Robert
Downey Jr. Several more books on Chaplin have been published and
in England, Bristol Silents’ ‘Slapstick’ Festival has attracted – and
undeniably converted – large audiences for silent films with orchestra,
and for Chaplin in particular.
Thanks to all these efforts, Chaplin’s reputation has been returned to
something like its original supremacy.
“Brownlow’s importance cannot be over-estimated…Brownlow is regarded not only as the preeminent historian of the silent film era, he is also one of its leading preservationists…read more — Thomas Gladysz, The Huffington Post
“A few months ago I wrote a story about a film collector in Michigan who found a 16mm print of a 1914 Keystone comedy called The Thief Catcher, which features a previously unknown guest appearance by Charlie Chaplin. The story went all over the world, and said film collector is doing the same thing, showing the film at museums and festivals.
As discoveries go, it was impressive, but it paled next to the discoveries made by Kevin Brownlow andDavid Gill beginning in 1977, when they accessed a vast trawl of Chaplin outtakes from 1916-1917, followed by that holy of holies, the Chaplin vault itself, which held sequences that he had cut from his films as well as a lot of fascinating miscellaneous footage.
All this resulted in The Unknown Chaplin, a TV series that, along with Heart of Darkness, still stands as probably the documentary about the filmmaking process. The Search for Charlie Chaplin (UKA Press) is Brownlow’s story of the process of finding the films and piecing the show together, and it palpably communicates the difficulties as well as the primal enthusiasm that it takes to persevere in a necessarily incremental project such as The Unknown Chaplin.
Brownlow made himself a scholar, but I suspect he was born a wonderful writer, simultaneously lucid, elegant and witty. His gifts are on full display here, on a topic that’s worthy of them.
The book is illustrated with a slew of wonderful stills.” — Scott Eyman, author and editor of The Palm Beach Post
“An amazing treasure trove…”
“A must-read publication. The book is a collection of previously unpublished testimonies from those who worked with the great Charlie and from those who came into contact with him in various ways, such as The Kid, Jackie Coogan; the flower girl, Virginia Cherrill; script associate, Alistair Cooke; King Vidor; Lord Mountbatten; Oona Chaplin; and Lita Grey.
“It has been constructed like an investigation into trails of unedited material and has the whiff of a detective story.” – Cinecittà News
“In-depth and moving, and brings greater insight into the portrayal of a man who was shy and determined, modest and self-deprecating and unaware of his own genius.” – La Stampa
“A wonderfully well-written book that delights in its own anecdotes” – Il Sole
Here is the story of the celluloid find of the century – three separate caches of unknown Chaplin footage which, interwoven with rare interviews with Chaplin’s leading ladies and co-workers, formed the three-part documentary Unknown Chaplin (Thames TV 1983).
Now the programme is available on DVD, co-director Kevin Brownlow tells the story of how it was made – leaving out neither those who enabled it to happen, nor the obstructionists…
The Search for Charlie Chaplin by Kevin Brownlow. Silent Film Archeology at its Finest. — The Search for Charlie Chaplin tells the story behind the brilliant, award-winning three-part documentary, Unknown Chaplin (Photoplay Productions, Ltd., 1983). Comprised entirely of never-before-screened footage from Chaplin’s silent films (1916 to 1931), the program is a revelation–especially for a seasoned film collector like myself. One iconic scene from the Mutual two-reeler, The Pawnshop, wherein Chaplin exercises his improvisational genius using several everyday props, including a hammer, is as familiar to me as anything I have ever seen on a screen. So when Chaplin dropped that same hammer in one outtake, I almost jumped–the effect was that startling. Now, with the DVD of Unknown Chaplin readily available, I have viewed that episode so many times that when I see the original version of The Pawnshop, it almost seems wrong when he doesn’t drop it.
Just how the documtentarians Kevin Brownlow and David Gill came upon that amazing footage, and what metaphorical hoops they had to jump through in order to get their living subjects to tell their Chaplin-related memories on camera, is nothing short of incredible. Kevin Brownlow’s first-hand narrative (which is as honest as it is compelling) has only heightened my appreciation of the completed documentary. Accompanying the text are some rare photographs and razor-sharp frame blow-ups. The slim, 209-page volume does not waste the reader’s time with endless details of Chaplin’s life and career, all of which have been exhaustively covered in over 300 previous books. Instead, the material is fresh, candid–and fascinating.– Lon Davis, Author and Film Historian.