The Charlie Chaplin Archives (★★★★★ Empire Book Review)

CharlieChaplinArchiveSquareFifty years after the publication of Charles Chaplin Jr.’s autobiography, and a century since the debut of his most famous creation, The Tramp, what is there left to say about the life and work of the man George Bernard Shaw described as “the only genius to come out of the movie industry”? A lot, as it turns out.

Published in its customary lavish ‘coffee table’ style – i.e. roughly the size and shape of a coffee table – Taschen’s latest treasure trove trawls the Chaplin family archives, and Chaplin’s own extensive writings, in an unprecedented attempt to assemble the entire Chaplin history in words and pictures (900 of them). It’s a colossal undertaking, but one quite manageable for an editor (Duncan) familiar with the Kubrick archive.

Among the treasures unearthed are previously unpublished contracts and playbills, press clippings (including a review of a 1904 stage tour of Sherlock Holmes, in which Chaplin is singled out), handwritten memos and telegrams, posters and designs for Chaplin’s films, including many planned but unrealised projects. Some of the most exciting discoveries include the storyline for The Professor (revealed for the first time), the production designs for the deleted ‘monoblimp’ sequence from The Great Dictator, photographs and documentation on a previously undiscovered deleted scene from The Gold Rush, the sketch that Chaplin and Buster Keaton used to develop their routine in Limelight, his contracts for Karno and Keystone (which reveal what he was really paid, rather than what he remembers), and a news story from 1915 in which a man, arrested for pirating Chaplin films, was said to have netted $50,000 (in 1915 dollars!) on one film alone (The Champion).

All of this makes for fascinating reading for anyone interested in the life and work of the world’s first, and most enduring, international movie star. But what sets The Charlie Chaplin Archives apart, even for aficionados, is its exploration of how Chaplin actually learned to make movies. Delving deep into his pre-film phase, the book examines the development of his craft, including learning to act, write, direct, produce, distribute, market and compose for his films, establishing himself as one of cinema’s first true auteurs. It’s an astounding piece of work, even by Taschen’s own lofty standards.

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