For decades now, Charlie Chaplin has been regarded as an enigma by film historians and buffs alike: an acknowledged master film maker but one whose working methods were known only by hearsay and recollection.
Then, in 1977, British film historians Kevin Brownlow and David Gill happened upon a veritable gold rush: a sizable stash of Chapliniana--outtakes, abandoned featurettes and even home movies--that they had been told repeatedly didn't exist.
These prized snippets form the backbone of "Unknown Chaplin," the three-part British television special written and produced by Brownlow and Gill (Reviewed by Sheila Benson on Page 1).
Gill, a soft-spoken Englishman with a decidedly Oxonian accent, said in a telephone interview from his home in a London suburb that coming across the clips was "like walking into the tomb of Tutankhamen."
"It was incredibly exciting," he enthused. "We couldn't have believed we would come across this kind of find--it's truly a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence."
Gill said he and Brownlow discovered the Chaplin cache while researching another documentary, "Hollywood: The Silent Years," which aired in 1980. They encountered difficulties in obtaining Chaplin footage and went directly to the Gentleman Tramp himself in early 1978 to see if he would help.
"After that did us no good, we heard from (Chaplin's) business manager, and she took us to his vaults outside London for a 'snippet' or two," Gill recalled. "In the vaults, there were all the things we expected to see--'City Lights,' 'Modern Times,' all of those.
"But there were also other piles of less shiny cans titled with names like 'Good Old Times,' 'The Professor' and 'How to Make Movies,' " he continued. "She said they were just 'Charlie's amusement items.' We asked if we could see them, and she said, 'Why not?' Well, imagine our amazement when the first thing we saw was a sequence from 'City Lights' that neither of us had ever seen before. Kevin and I looked at each other open-mouthed."
After the pair finished with "Hollywood," they turned their attention to Chaplin's outtakes. Gill said that he and Brownlow went to Oona O'Neill Chaplin, Charlie's widow--three years after approaching Chaplin himself--to ask her permission to use the footage in a documentary.
"I said to her, 'This stuff, worthless though it may seem, is greater than all of us put together. It's like finding the rest of Schubert's 'Unfinished Symphony,' " Gill recalled. "And I guess it worked, for she agreed with us and helped us."
After securing Oona O'Neill Chaplin's permission, Gill and Brownlow compared what they had with the collection of New York producer Raymond Rohauer, who controls the U.S. distribution rights to most of Chaplin's films.
"Between Rohauer's stuff and ours, we found that these outtakes and such showed us definitely that Charlie rehearsed everything on film," Gill said. "We were able to find exactly how his work progressed--how roles would change, scenes would change. How a completely new direction would be stamped on a particular film, even after it had been shooting for weeks. It was a revelation to us, this method."
Another side of Chaplin the clips revealed was his directorial face: "More or less, it was 'do it like I do it,' " described Gill with a laugh. "He said he preferred actors with minimal experience because that way he could teach them his own particular method of film acting."
Indeed, the whole of Part 2 of "Unknown Chaplin" is devoted to those glimpses of Chaplin behind the camera: the restless perfectionist, shooting scenes dozens of times; the struggling idea man, who would shut down the set of "City Lights" for days at a stretch while waiting for inspiration to strike; and the egotist, seldom open to any opinions other than his own.
"Chaplin was a demanding director," Gill said. "He had no idea how demanding he was of himself, and this would make him seem rough on his fellow actors."
Part 1, showing tonight, is titled "My Happiest Years" and chronicles Chaplin's Mutual Film Co. tenure, where he would begin filming with only an abstract plot notion and work it out as he went along.
"Hidden Treasures," the third and final episode, looks at the Chaplin home movies and filmed studio visits by European royalty and other important persons--where Chaplin worked his illustrious visitors into skits made up on the spot.
It's this kind of offhand material that Chaplin wished discarded that most sharply focuses Chaplin as film maker, Gill said.
"We were told that all the extraneous stuff wasn't around anymore, that all the rushes and so on had been burned by Chaplin after the film was finished," Gill said. "Now we know that no one knows everything about the way Chaplin's films were made. But this represents a very bright light where before there was only shadowy guesswork. And lucky us to have found it."