Charlie Chaplin was very secretive about the way he worked, his biography generalising his methods almost to the point of obscurity, making this 1983 documentary from the makers of the classic Hollywood TV series and compiled from Chaplin's archive of out-takes one of the most important pieces of cinematic archaeology ever produced. Deleted scenes and post-edit point footage (when the camera continues to roll for a few seconds after the action has finished to allow the editor leeway) throw light on his approach as Chaplin is seen losing his temper, breaking up with laughter and, most revealingly, looking on with mounting disappointment at an uninspired actor in an out-take from The Immigrant.
Following an uncomfortable introduction by Geraldine Chaplin, the first episode deals with his two-reelers for Mutual and has the lion's share of the rediscovered footage but no interviews, since there were no living survivors of the period at the time the series was made.
Working with no script but a basic idea, Chaplin used the props and sets as a springboard, rehearsing on film, and it is the out-takes that show how he would chisel away at an idea until he found something that would work, constantly refining it. The highlights of the first episode are the development of The Cure and, particularly, The Immigrant, both of which started out very differently to the finished product.
Some of the scenes were cut for obvious reasons, but there are gems along the way, such as Charlie playing traffic cop with wheelchairs in The Cure. There are also plenty of good ideas that went wrong, such as the dance of the cleaning ladies from Behind the Screen: elaborately staged sequences that were cut, such as a joke involving a real axe from the same short and a special effects sequence using double-exposure to have two Doc Stones in the same shot.
The second episode has the bonus of several interviews: Dean Reisner (the irritating child from The Pilgrim), Jackie Coogan (the child star of The Kid and, in later years, Uncle Fester in The Addams Family), director Robert Parrish (who played a child newsboy in City Lights), Lita Grey (the child actress in The Kid who became Chaplin's child bride), Georgia Hale (who replaced her in The Gold Rush and, subsequently in Chaplin's affections) and Virginia Cherrill (the blind girl in City Lights).
He would frequently call off production, reshoot with different actors and sometimes take months on a single scene. The show provides a striking example in the sequence where the Tramp meets the blind Flower Girl in City Lights, seen in home movie footage of Chaplin directing: by the 534th day of filming, only 166 days had been spent working against 368 idle, making Stanley Kubrick look speedy by comparison. There's also footage of Churchill's visit to the set and a fascinating reshot ending with The Gold Rush's Georgia Hale after he fired Virginia Cherrill.
The third episode is the thinnest, but has ample compensations. There is footage of Chaplin guest conducting the Abe Lyman orchestra in 1923, doing the dance of the bread rolls at a party, out-takes from a short he made with Harry Lauder to raise money for wounded British soldiers and some fascinating demonstrations of how his on-camera fooling around with visitors to his studio sparked ideas that would be fully reworked into later films. Chaplin had a mind like an attic - he might discard ideas, but he would never throw them away, as is demonstrated by The Idle Class, which grew out of a (much funnier) abandoned Mutual short with Albert Austin.
The highlights of the final episode are The Professor, an abortive attempt to get away from the Tramp character that saw Chaplin in Eric Campbell-style bushy eyebrows as a flea circus act forced onto hard times and losing his performers in a doss house; the original opening sequences from Modern Times (both rather drawn out); and, best of all, a full nine minutes from The Circus, later described by Chaplin as the most miserable experience of his life, including a scene in which Charlie tries to learn tightrope walking on a rake and a hysterically funny sequence with some fish. There are the domestic scenes cut from Shoulder Arms because distributors wanted a short rather than another feature.
The picture quality is very good indeed, although, perversely, due to the decades of duping, the extracts from the finished films are of vastly inferior quality to the out-takes (sadly, the extras give a hint of why this is - because of legal wrangles with Raymond Rohauer that stretched on for years, much of the material was never preserved on film because a deal couldn't be made: when it finally was years later, much of the material was beyond preservation). With narration by James Mason underlining the quality of the series, this is easily one of the most fascinating and unusual film documentaries ever produced, and comes very highly recommended. There's also a small but sweet extras package of out-takes from The Count, Chaplin's own gfootage of a visit to the set of A Dog's Life by Scottish comedian Harry Lauder and an interview with Kevin Brownlow.