Unknown Chaplin: The Master at Work (1986)

Masters are deemed as such for a reason. Their work, be it written, painted, sculpted, recorded, or filmed, towers above the competition, enduring far longer than their physical presence on this planet.

But when it comes to such talents, we’re often left asking, “How’d they do it?” or even, “Who was this guy — or lady?” Occasionally, these virtuosos leave artifacts behind — notebooks, journals, sketches, demos — for future generations to dissect and mull over while contemplating a body of work. Others, though, seemed hellbent on their work speaking for itself, destroying — or deliberately avoiding — anything that would prove insightful into their methods.

This is the approach Charlie Chaplin took to his films, and unearthing the secrets to his techniques is the focus of Unknown Chaplin: The Master at Work.

Judging from the prologue to “My Happiest Years”, episode one of the documentary, which was filmed in 1983 and narrated by screen legend James Mason, pulling together enough footage for such an endeavor could be an exercise in futility. Chaplin, like many directors during the silent period, destroyed much, if not all, of the footage he didn’t use. Sometimes this meant dumping it into the ocean, but Chaplin burned it. And he was thorough, instructing his crews to get rid of every inch of the rushes, every unused take, anything that would show the warts of his genius.

Amazingly, some of this supposedly destroyed footage survived, allowing the documentary to escape the throws of futility and enter the realm of reality. What’s included in the three episodes of Unknown Chaplin is a striking look at the work ethic and seemingly maddening method to Chaplin’s genius.

Most of the footage focuses on Chaplin’s years with the Mutual Company, a period of his career that spanned 16 months and 12 two-reelers, including some of his greatest works, The Count, The Immigrant, and The Adventurer. Indeed, a striking moment in the documentary comes when we see the creation of The Immigrant and how Chaplin labored over every moment in the film.

The Immigrant was to be a short focusing on a café that artists frequented. There would be a rich man with a striking beauty on his arm among artists, waiters, and Chaplin’s Tramp. After trying a few things, Chaplin scratched that idea and made it a more generic restaurant scene. There was still a girl, but now she was downtrodden rather than affluent and the waiters were the heavies of the picture. Chaplin’s Tramp enters, eating a meal and ultimately ends up talking to the girl. An artist eventually sits with the couple and offers to paint the girl, a retention of some of the ideas from the previous incarnation of the film. But when it comes time to pay the bill, the nasty waiters come into play and hilarity ensues.

At least, it should have. But after Chaplin recast the heavy waiter in order to make him more menacing and reshot all of the scenes with the character, he went back to the drawing board. After contemplating what would make this scenario work logically, Chaplin reached an inspired conclusion. He set the opening action of the picture on a boat full of immigrants on their way to America, where Chaplin and the girl meet and form a relationship. They soon part, and when Chaplin ends up at the restaurant, he sees the girl from the boat, strikes up a conversation, and the film plays out as before. Chaplin retains at least one element from every incarnation of the film, and from that hellish process The Immigrant, one of Chaplin’s best pictures, was born.

No one would ever have known this creative process had taken place had someone not saved many of the negatives from Chaplin’s Mutual period. Prior to this documentary, the conventional thinking was that Chaplin worked like every other director — there was a script, he shot footage, tinkered here and there, and out popped the finished product. Instead, we get a much more interesting — and complicated — view of Chaplin as a filmmaker and artist. He wrote the picture in his head as he went along, at times frustrating his cast and crew, and he rehearsed on camera, something unheard of in any era of filmmaking. But, then again, Chaplin was — and still is — a singular personality.

The DVD release of Unknown Chaplin is long overdue. With its brilliantly in-depth and astutely investigated look at Chaplin’s work, as well as its incredibly detailed and loving reconstruction of lost footage from nearly every phase of his career, this documentary should have a home in any film lover’s collection. Sweetening the deal is the inclusion of a bonus feature on the making of The Count and one short that Chaplin made more for himself than an audience, Chaplin Meets Harry Lauder. Yes, another revelation from this documentary is that Chaplin would film almost everything he thought was important, like the meeting between himself and Lauder, a man at the forefront of post-World War I causes.

Chaplin even went so far as to make a film about making films, How to Make Movies. It’s a lark, certainly, with Chaplin yucking it up at every turn — he would never allow anyone outside the walls of his studio the privilege of knowing how he makes his movies. But it’s exciting nonetheless, evidenced by the stunned reaction Kevin Brownlow, one of the makers of the documentary, recounts having when seeing the canisters holding How to Make Movies in Chaplin’s vault: “You mean he makes movies for fun?”

Unknown Chaplin is, quite simply, one of the best looks at Chaplin that has ever been produced. And it’s a testament to its importance that, 23 years later, it’s still vital. But perhaps that’s more a reflection of Chaplin’s significance — that nearly a century after his career began he’s still one of the undisputed masters of filmmaking.