`Unknown Chaplin' -- a striking view

`HE'S here!'' One of Charlie Chaplin's leading ladies is recalling how the call would go out across the studio when he returned to the set after one of his long absences. It was a big moment. The company might have been waiting for weeks.

When out of ideas, Chaplin would stand or sit on the set, hands in pockets, letting an army of paid staff stand idly by, then send them home -- for a day, a week, or in the case of one scene from his classic ``City Lights,'' for 62 days -- until inspiration returned. When it did, the results were often brilliant.

These memories and other facts of Chaplin's artistic life are beautifully recounted in Unknown Chaplin (PBS, Monday at 9 p.m. ET, July 14, 21, and 28, check local listings). Originally an award-winning documentary film produced and written by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, it is now a three-part series-within-a-series on ``American Masters,'' a 15-part WNET/New York anthology that profiles creative artists.

``Unknown Chaplin'' consists almost entirely, as narrator James Mason points out, of ``film never before seen in public.'' Chaplin destroyed most early unused scenes and did little to disabuse the public of the legends and half-truths about his career -- perhaps even seeking refuge in them. Some of that mystery is dispelled in this richly documented series of outtakes, interviews, home movies, and other material that take the viewer on a kind of guided tour of a great film creator's mind.

What emerges from all the footage is a perfectionist of maddening determination, going to seemingly endless lengths to achieve exactly the feeling he wanted, no matter how short the scene. Over and over again he'd shoot a sequence, improvising on camera, trying this and that, adding and usually discarding -- the film equivalent of a dissatisfied writer yanking sheet after sheet from his typewriter and crumpling them up.

You see some of this happening, for instance, in ``The Floorwalker,'' a film made before Chaplin was his own boss. Chaplin determinedly experiments with an escalator as a comic prop (``Why didn't I think of that!'' Mack Sennett is reported to have said). The moving stairs become the perfect foil for his genius. Even Chaplin's private home movies reflect that same mad comic drive. In one of the snippets, Chaplin is seen breaking into a mock ballet -- like an inspired court jester -- for his visitor, Winston Churchill.

Bullies loom large in this series. Burly waiters gang up on a diner who can't pay his bill in one scene. But Chaplin decided the waiter didn't have the proper menace, so he replaces the actor with a more glowering type -- which meant reshooting. In ``The Professor,'' Chaplin worked out a whole brilliant comedy sequence involving a flea circus, but never finished the film. And he tries repeatedly to get Virginia Cherril, the little blind flower girl, to hand Chaplin's famous Little Tramp a flower in just the right way in ``City Lights.''

Talkies were already here when that film was made in 1931, but ``City Lights'' was a silent. Wasn't it old-fashioned thinking -- and maybe arrogant -- for Chaplin to reject sound, some critics wondered? But, as the narrator points out, ``. . . he knew the Tramp could never speak.''

Such decisions (this one was vindicated) were Chaplin's own to make, because by then he had his own studio, so his drive for the ideal take knew virtually no bounds. He didn't seem to mind letting money burn while he redid whole sections or simply waited as long as it took for the right idea to pop into his head. Once it did, Chaplin could change his mind again after all kinds of effort. In one long outtake from ``City Lights,'' Chaplin's Tramp tries to dislodge a piece of wood from the pavement grating and ends up with half the city in a turmoil. Some of the program's most touching scenes are also from that film's outtakes, as when the flower girl recognizes Chaplin as her benefactor.

There are many other striking examples of Chaplin's often amazing working methods, in which his evolving ideas materialize before your eyes. History, of course, has more than justified his endless trial and error. And so have generations of kids. A few years ago I remember a group under age 10 watching a Chaplin comedy in a darkened recreation room. They knew nothing of Chaplin, having been raised on fast-talking film and TV fare in color. Yet there they sat, eyes glued on the shaky black-and-white images as the projector whirred and Chaplin's genius leaped silently across the decades. A new chapter in the Chaplin legend was being written.

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