Though it’s perhaps difficult for us to fully conceive today, Charles Chaplin (1889-1977) likely remains the most widely recognized great artist in the history of movies. Chaplin’s startling degree of success in his own time, combined with the important fact that he worked in the “universal” language of silent cinema, made him a truly international figure of sorts — one who transcended the barriers of spoken language as well as national boundaries. As Jonathan Rosenbaum has noted, the only other artistic figure even remotely comparable to him in this regard is the jazz giant Louis Armstrong. But this iconographic image of Chaplin as early global movie star (for many, his very face is synonymous with silent film) and as beloved comic performer obscures another important aspect of his legacy: the fact that he directed and edited most of his own pictures.
The filmmaker Jean-Marie Straub has called Chaplin the greatest editor in the history of cinema because he “knew precisely when a gesture begins and when it ends, so he knew precisely when to cut.” This is an astonishing assertation when one begins to consider the importance that Chaplin held for later film artists like Bresson and Rossellini, filmmakers for whom cutting was central to the art of cinematic expression. For these reasons, as well as several others, the three-part documentary series Unknown Chaplin (1983), made by film historians Kevin Brownlow and David Gill for Thames Television in the UK, remains an invaluable resource because it concentrates not on Chaplin as myth or icon, but on his working methods as a filmmaker. This loving tribute to the inimitable master is narrated by the actor James Mason, an enthusiast of the period who also lent his voice to Brownlow’s and Gill’s previous series Hollywood (1980), which focuses more broadly on the origins of American silent cinema and the studio system in California, and which I also highly recommend.
Part of what makes Unknown Chaplin such a treat is that Brownlow and Gill were granted access to Chaplin’s private film archive by his widow Oona O’Neil Chaplin, so it incorporates rare and then-unseen material that Chaplin had left on the cutting room floor. Brownlow and Gill use this footage to act, in a way, as film history detectives, showing us how Chaplin might have constructed a particular sequence or gag before discarding certain aspects of it and (in most cases) refining its complexity or resonance. Most of this hitherto unseen footage was taken not from Chaplin’s features, but from his time at Mutual Film Corporation, where Chaplin produced a dozen two-reelers in 1916 and 1917.
As much as I love the features, the Mutual period remains in many ways my favorite period of Chaplin’s career, and it’s certainly the most adventurous. These short comedies (the most famous of which are The Immigrant, Easy Street, and The Rink) are more sophisticated than those Chaplin had been producing for Essanay in 1915 — here he begins to produce less films, to work more slowly and to illustrate each film with more detail. At the same time, the Mutual shorts possess a kind of wild, free-wheeling energy not always present in the more Dickensian and episodic long-form works, such as The Kid (1921). Chaplin’s trademark touches of pathos, as well as his abiding sense of an almost Victorian sentimentality, are aspects of his art that belong to the features, and these traces seep into the Mutual works only occasionally. This was a period of intense creativity and artistic maturation for Chaplin, and he achieved each of the Mutual films using the same stock company of character actors: Edna Purviance (usually playing the love interest), Eric Campbell (always a monstrous figure, referred to as “Chaplin’s Goliath”), and Henry Bergman (a more versatile actor who did many remarkable comedic bit parts for Chaplin).
Much of Brownlow and Gill’s commentary on the Mutual work can be found in the first episode of the documentary, “My Happiest Years.” The films’ (two, sometimes three) sets are often constructed around a large object or apparatus: in The Cure (1917), wherein Chaplin’s alcoholic tramp is sent to a health spa for rehabilitation, most of the gags revolve around a revolving door at the spa’s entrance and a fresh spring watering hole (that eventually becomes filled with liquor). In The Floorwalker (1916, a department store comedy), this apparatus takes the form of an escalator which modulates the tempo of the action and chase sequences. In both cases, the inspired research team of Brownlow/Gill shows us how Chaplin constructed his formal ideas around these sets, progressively adding more motion and more characters doing funny things in each successive take. For those like me who could just marvel at the degree of beautiful ingenuity and personal expression that Chaplin built into these little movies any day of the week, it’s quite a thrill to be able to see Chaplin construct these filmmaking ideas from the ground up. And for those of us who are interested in the great tradition of silent comedy and its legacy, it is invaluable to be able to see such a light cast on the work behind many of its most indelible moments.
Chaplin’s feature-length classic The Gold Rush (1925) is being presented through the IU Cinema Virtual Screening Room from April 28 through May 12 as part of the Any Day Matinee Classics: Make ‘Em Laugh series, which was curated by our blog’s very own Michaela Owens! You will be able to stream the film to the device of your choosing via a link and password which will only be provided through our Weekly Email. You must be subscribed to our Weekly Email to receive the film’s link and password.
Unknown Chaplin is available for streaming through Amazon, where each of the three episodes can be rented for $0.99.
All 12 of Chaplin’s Mutual comedies are currently streaming on the Criterion Channel in beautiful restorations.
Brownlow’s and Gill’s other excellent documentary series on American silent film, Hollywood (1980), is 13 episodes long and is available for free on YouTube.
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He graduated from Indiana University with a BA in English, and currently resides in Chicago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.