Unknown Chaplin, a documentary made by Kevin Brownlow and David GIll in 1983 and newly released on DVD is as close to a perfect film documentary as you can get.
If you’ve never watch a Chaplin film, or have claimed to see all his films – then Unknown Chaplin will amaze you with the content it unravels.
Running 189 minutes, divided into 4 main chapter ‘My Happiest Years’ , ‘The Great Dictator’ , ‘Hidden Treasures’ and ‘Extras‘ - it is the ultimate in archaelogical finds.
Never before seen shots of Chaplin at work. Outtake after outtake of him refining jokes, reworking stage movements and prompts, and creating gags on the fly. The genius who many assumed meticulously planned his shots and scenes, reveals his ability to think within the moment – if a gag doesn’t feel right, he tries it again, perhaps with a different actor beside him.
It is almost implausible to think, that such a significant trove of incalculable work was hidden away for years from the public.
But there it was, in the private film vault of Lady Chaplin, not in decay reel tins, but pristine tins neatly laid out across shelving, each with a blank paper denoting their content - ‘City Lights’ , ‘The Kid’.
The genius of Chaplin’s work is one thing, the genius of Kevin Brownlow and David Gill to create this documentary is another.
Lovingly attached as a special extra on the DVD itself, Brownlow relates the story of obtaining the rights to publish such important film moments. Couple that with the fact the film is narrated by James Mason, who himself narrated the flawless earlier silent film documentary ‘Hollywood‘ by Kevin Brownlow (which may never get a DVD release due to numerous right issues.)
Everything you witness in the documentary has never been shown to a film audience before. If anything, it lay stored in the Lady Chaplin vaults, occasionally viewed by a family member or maybe Chaplin himself in a moment of nostalgia.
Every scene in ‘Unknown Chaplin‘ will surprise you. Mason’s narration guides you through different short films of Chaplin, pointing out key differences in the takes, suggesting reasonings for it, and somehow managing to bring you closer to Chaplin than anything you could have imagined. Watch the alternate opening to City Lights, or Chaplin playing it up in a Douglas Fairbank home movie of 1929 – there he is portraying a Grecian spirit – childishly playing with a globe of the earth; a scene that shakes you when you suddenly realise it is a precursor to his famous ‘Great Dictator’ balloon scene. The edit from the home movie to the film extract is wonderful.
The quality of this DVD is outstanding. From the definitive collation of the unseen Chaplin material, to the three additional extras:
‘How Unknown Chaplin was made‘ - approximately 12 minute interview with Kevin Brownlow about the journey to get this documentary to screen.
‘The Making of The Count’ - an insight to a Chaplin short, showing you the inner workings of him on set.
‘Chaplin Meets Harry Lauder’ – two silent comedy geniuses play up for the camera in a lovely 10 minute shoot.
Unknown Chaplin is one of cinema’s finest documentaries.
It’s one of those rare moments in cinema history – a trove of cinema magic and the silent film magician working together to bring us a documentary that makes you so lucky to be alive.
5 stars / 5 stars