Monday, 10 December 2012

A chat with Kevin Brownlow

This week we sit down with Kevin to look at how important Charlie's London was  to Charlie's Hollywood, and consider the evolution of the Tramp - from London slums to Hollywood lights.

The 80s seems to be incredibly popular at the moment. The music, the fashion, the films - even the shoulder pads seem to be creeping back into the shops. This aside, I can safely say that the 80s were defined for me by two major breakthroughs in Chaplin research: the unsurpassed biography by David Robinson, and thebreathtaking documentary by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill - Unknown Chaplin

Now, for anyone that doesn't know, I was born in 1982. So unfortunately I missed the original broadcast in 1983, and was only three years of age when the original publication of His Life and Art hit the shelves also. But I do know that both my mother and grandmother watched it. In fact, they recorded it onto VHS and kept the copy for many years - the same copy I would later watch in amazement as I sat tucked up under my blanket on the sofa one cold Saturday afternoon at just seven years old.

Myself and Kevin at the Giornate, 2012
Fast forward twenty years and that very moment is ringing around in my ears with anticipation and increased excitement. Yet this time, there is no bed blanket or wet rainy afternoon! Now I am sat in beautiful Pordenone during the 31st LeGiornate Del Cinema Muto and sharing a coffee and chat with Kevin himself; a surreal moment I have no doubt my grandmother would have been very proud of.

In the editing room, circa 1918
I first met Kevin in January 2012 at the annual Bristol Silents Slapstick festival, an event that still holds a special place in my heart. He presented a fantastic talk about another great silent star, Buster Keaton and I was lucky enough to speak to him afterwards. It was very brief and there was so much more that wanted to say. Now, sat across the table I had every opportunity. I was thrilled when Kevin agreed to talk to me about The Unknown Chaplin - I had always wanted to know so much more about the sections used from How To Make Movies.

"It's always amazing when you find little treasures for the first time..." The How To Make Movies still Kevin hadn't seen

How To Make Movies is an interesting little picture. Originally, it was intended by Chaplin as one of the films agreed for release as part of his First National obligations. However the distributors rejected it and for years it remained an unseen gem of the silent era. I love it for so many reasons. First of all, its a view around the Chaplin Studios at the height of Charlie's fame. It is also a comical and subtly clever little docu-picture that, in my opinion, only Chaplin could make. With this in mind, it would be easy to savour the piece for this alone, but the historian in me wanted to know more. It is after all a piece of primary research - a source that any film historian or enthusiast would snap up without hesitation. To me it is a fantastic historical source that shows so much about Chaplin we are still yet to discover. The enthusiast and historian in me wanted to know more, there was only one person with the answers, Kevin himself.

I decided to get the nerves out of the way and show Kevin the reason I had dragged him away from a showing or two in the festival to speak about Chaplin. I showed him Charlie's London, and I'm happy to say he was impressed (which definitely settled me a great deal). We proceeded to look at some photos and talk about the background to my research and interest in Charlie. Kevin was amazed to hear about my relative, William Goodman, and the photos from my own family collection - especially the one of Lemon Court in comparison with the famous scene from Easy Street. In David Robinson's Chaplin presentation at Slapstick in early 2012, even he noted the similarities between East Street, a place in Walworth called Hard Street and the setting of the1917 film, Easy Street. When I was able to show David the family pictures he also agreed the connections were uncanny. "Charlie made these films the way only Charlie could. American streets just do not look like that" he answered. I smiled; It warmed me to know my research and passion was actually working towards something.

Easy Street, 1917

Pointing at the picture of the Easy Street set upon my laptop Kevin drew the set to my attention down to the smallest details and highlighted the bollards in the roads - on both pictures - and highlighted the lamp posts too. He noted that "they just are not American, even down to those little things Charlie retains something very English in his set". I nodded in complete agreement. It was nice to have an expert opinion match my very humble one, especially as it was something I had felt so passionate about for such a long time. Even the brickwork of the buildings looked virtually identical, at least to me (as I am sure all my readers know) this is where Charlie's appeal for me really is.

Lemon Court
While still sat with laptop at hand, I decided to take the opportunity to show Kevin a few of the other items that I had collected throughout my research including - some rare and beautiful photos. Now, I'm sure that we we all have our favourite photographs. Sometimes I find it very hard to choose them if I'm honest. I normally end up back on the Keystone promotional 1914 picture - or the Cello picture (anyone who knows me knows the two I mean). However, I do have another that seems to hang around my desktop on aregular basis, a still from How To Make Movies. I showed Kevin and he agreed with me that it was a beautiful still - and one he did not recollect, admitting that (as I always feel) “it's always amazing when you find little treasures for the first time. Even if it isn't a first for the world – but it's a first for you, sometimes that can feel as though the world has just given you something so precious that you are utterly thankful for it.....”

A personal favourite...
We all know, Kevin. It is exactly how we feel about the priceless, timeless and truly remarkable work you did for Charlie those years ago. From every Chaplin fan I say thank you - from the bottom of our bowler-hatted and twirly-caned hearts.

For those wanting to find out more about the story about the Unknown Chaplin and the rediscovery of How to Make Movies, I cannot recommed highly enough Kevin's book – The Search for Charlie Chaplin.

Thank you for reading everyone, see you again soon...

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