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Category:    Home > Reviews > Documentary > Filmmaking > Unknown Chaplin: The Master At Work (1986)

Unknown Chaplin: The Master at Work


Picture: C+     Sound: B-     Extras: B     Film: B+



There is no question in my mind that of all the comic geniuses in the world of cinema that Charlie Chaplin ranks among the top, if not the numero uno spot.  Not only would he rank high in that category, but Chaplin was an innovator in other aspects as well, including being one of the most important film directors in the early years of cinema.  Without his contributions film and filmmaking would not be what it is today.  Chaplin had a unique gift of essentially bringing comedy to the filmmaking industry and defining for us what it meant to be funny in front of a camera.  He learned quickly how to capture these moments and knew how the format could be developed in such a way that the comic genius and timing of such could be preserved. 


Think about how comedy evolves.  For example, something funny a few years ago may have dated poorly and is either less funny than it was or perhaps it has aged into something more humorous.  Typically speaking though society changes in such a way that comedy wears out over time and this can be explained in two ways.  One way to interpret this is to say that we [humans] de-evolve in our senses with what is and what should be funny.  I constantly am reminded of people perusing through the movie sections of stores and I over hear the conversations that go something along the lines of, “That movie was funny…stupid, but funny.”  What exactly does that mean?  Does that mean that we find things that are stupid to be funny, or are funny things sometimes stupid?  Most people would probably agree that in the world of TV and movies that things are becoming less funny and going for a more ‘stupid’ or ‘gross’ factor replacing the humor with less satisfactory appeal.  The intelligence level goes down meaning that people nowadays laugh at things that are less funny, but our scale of what is and what isn’t funny has shifted over time.  Then we come across something brilliant, like Chaplin, which has become better with time. 


Chaplin turned comedy into an art form and his films are timeless.  We laugh at his characters because in some strange way we understand it, we understand the humanity of his humor.  Chaplin was a pioneer both in front and behind the camera making some of the most accomplished films from a generation when cinema was growing and developing on a constant basis.  His contribution was heavy from silent films to sound and his work became more advanced with different cameras, styles, techniques, narratives, etc as technology progressed. 


A&E has issued The Unknown Chaplin: The Master at Work, which captures as much of the great man as possible in a terrific series that is an absolute MUST.  The reason for such acclaim is simple:  Chaplin is becoming more underappreciated and even more unknown in today’s popular culture.  I remember a few years ago being in a toy store that had a large cardboard cutout of Chaplin on the display floor.  The unbelievable things was that a young boy around the age of six asked his mom who the cutout was and the mom replied, “I think it’s either Abbott or Costello.”  I was shocked!  I can understand the young boy not knowing, but has Charlie Chaplin really become that much of an unfamiliar face?  How could this be? 


This program is broken down into sections: My Happiest Years, The Great Director, and Hidden Treasures.  Each program covers a different era in Chaplin’s life and the total runtime of these combined is nearly 3 hours in length!  Nice!  There is much to learn in these programs about the legend, but interestingly enough that afterward you feel like a scholar, despite the program not feeling like a boring biography, but yet an entertaining in-depth look at such an amazing person.  Through celluloid Chaplin lives on and is burned into memories of past and of new and shall live on for a very long time.  The preservation of these films are vital to the legacy of Charlie Chaplin whose work has survived nearly a century already! 


The formula for these programs provides archived footage, old and new interviews, stills, and various other video footage assembled together to form a solid and prolific highlight of Chaplin’s life.  The audio presentation is 2.0 Dolby Stereo and works fine for the source material and also for a program of this sort.  Most people will be surprised by the overall length (163 minutes) plus the amount of extras which include the story behind Unknown Chaplin as well as two bonus shorts: The Making of The Count, and Chaplin Meets Harry Lauder. 


A&E is constantly bringing out terrific material that appeals to all generations and all backgrounds.  It’s great to see something that is both entertaining, but also important and detailed in just the right ways.  You don’t have to be a pre-qualified Chaplin fan to enjoy this material, but it’s probably safe to say that after watching this program you will have a much better sense of his contribution to cinema and have a deeper appreciation to a true artist like Chaplin.



-   Nate Goss


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