Book Recommendation by matthew c. hoffman

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“We go to this bunker. It was kind of scary. There’s nothing but a single electric light bulb on a bit of wire, hanging in the middle of this place, which was full of drums and drums of film. Maybe three hundred metal drums. This person looked kind of unscrupulous, I must say. And there was another man who had the keys. I said, ‘You own all this?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ So we took off the lids, and there’s film right to the top. I reached in and pulled some out and there was Modern Times, City Lights, reels and reels of Limelight…” ~ film distributor Raymond Rohauer on his discovery of the Chaplin material, The Search For Charlie Chaplin

Film historian Kevin Brownlow has been the greatest champion of silent cinema. He has brought a new awareness of– and appreciation for– our cinema heritage. For his efforts in documentary filmmaking, Brownlow was recently honored with a long overdue and well-deserved honorary Academy Award– the only one given to a film historian.

Besides his fine documentaries about movie history, Brownlow has written extensively on silent film, most notably 1968’s The Parade’s Gone By. His most recent book, The Search For Charlie Chaplin (UKA Press, 2010), tells the story behind one of his greatest documentaries– and film discoveries– Unknown Chaplin, which he made in the early 1980s with his producing partner David Gill.

All three parts of Unknown Chaplin will be shown during our “Legends of Laughter” series at the Park Ridge Public Library prior to the films. The documentary offers a fascinating look into Chaplin’s creative process. As a result, it makes the viewer see Chaplin in a whole new light. The film is made up of material that had been slated for destruction (by Chaplin). These were rushes and out-takes from his feature films as well as from his Mutual two-reelers. (750,000 feet of Mutual out-takes, to be exact.) Chaplin modestly believed that no one would ever be interested in seeing it.

The Search For Charlie Chaplin is the story of how that footage was able to survive through the decades and wind up in the hands of Brownlow and Gill. It is also an anecdotal story made up of interviews with those who had known Chaplin. It is a revealing account of the real Chaplin– not the one demonized in so many spurious bios out there today. With Brownlow’s name attached, there is an authenticity at work and we feel Chaplin the man, a sensitive artist who lived on the applause of the world.

Unlike an 18th century classical composer or a great 19th century novelist, Chaplin was an artist from our modern age. Four hundred years from now people will still be talking about him. Yet, he passed away as recently as 1977– not so remote in time that witnesses to his genius weren’t still available to the historians. Several key figures were willing to pass on the oral history of having worked with him. Since Chaplin had cast younger girls in his films, these ladies were alive 30 years ago. Their vivid memories make up the chapters of the book. Actresses like Lita Grey (whom Chaplin married), Georgia Hale (The Gold Rush), and Virginia Cherrill (City Lights) were interviewed. Hale’s recounting of her experiences with Chaplin are especially touching because we see what his films had meant to her as a little girl born into poverty. What didn’t make it into the 1983 film can now be read here in its full text.

Like a detective story, each testimony is another piece to the complicated puzzle that was Chaplin. The story of how distributor Raymond Rohauer came by the Chaplin material, for example, is one of the more intriguing sections in the book. At a time when it looked as though the government might seize Chaplin’s possessions (after his visa was revoked in 1952 and he was not allowed to re-enter the US), his wife, Oona, gathered what she could and shipped it to England. The material that was not retrieved ended elsewhere until Rohauer was able to get his hands on it. Though the legalities behind Rohauer’s clandestine dealings with other parties may have been questionable, if it was not for collectors like him, the unstable film negative could easily have perished forever. What did survive became the visual evidence needed to fill in the puzzle of the great clown’s silent technique.

What the out-takes reveal is a man working out ideas on film– changing the direction countless times if necessary, even winding up at a point  far from where he had started. The evolution of Chaplin’s classic The Immigrant is a case in point. This film originally was set in a cabaret and had nothing to do with immigrants. It is Chaplin’s process, seen before our eyes, that is fascinating to behold.

One should probably read the Brownlow book first and then view Unknown Chaplin. Besides its ability to excite readers about cinema’s first immortal, The Search For Charlie Chaplin reveals the dedication and passion of its author. There is no better time than now, on the eve of the 2011 Oscars, to read this and learn who Kevin Brownlow is. What he has accomplished is more than just the removal of dust from perceived antiques; he has made people aware of a sense of pure cinema– films that live on as undying entertainment. No one in the movie business deserves an Academy Award more. Though most readers probably have never heard of Kevin Brownlow, this gracious and humble man is a film historian the world film community is indebted to.

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