AP reporter John Curran on the rediscovery of a home movie of Charlie Chaplin, shot by Alistair Cooke in 1933.
As she sorted through her father Alistair Cooke’s belongings after his death, Susan Cooke Kittredge came across something odd: an old 8 mm film canister with yellow tape spelling out “Chaplin film.”
What she found inside was intriguing: “All at Sea,” an 11-minute home movie shot by a 24-year-old Cooke on a 1933 yacht cruise that included silent film great Charlie Chaplin, his “Modern Times” co-star Paulette Goddard and Alistair Cooke.
The black-and-white silent film, which shows a relaxed Chaplin aboard his boat “Panacea” miming Greta Garbo, the Prince of Wales and Napoleon, was apparently never seen, ending up amid piles of books, manuscripts and other knickknacks in the New York apartment where he lived for 55 years before his death.
“This is something that’s intrigued people for a long time,” said Chaplin expert Frank Scheide, a University of Arkansas professor who has edited books on the Little Tramp. “The fact that it still exists is very exciting.
“Clearly, Cooke and Chaplin had a really good association at the time. He’s really comfortable improvising before the camera,” said Scheide, who has seen snippets of it.
Cooke, the refined and legendary host of “Masterpiece Theatre” on PBS and a longtime BBC correspondent, died March 30, 2004, at his New York apartment at age 95. His “Letters From America” was a radio fixture in Britain for 58 years.
After Kittredge discovered the film canister, she had the print cleaned up and restored.
Until recently, it had been shown only once — at a film festival in Italy, in 2007. On April 7, Kittredge, who lives in Shelburne, Vt., screened it again for about 100 people in a church in Vermont’s capital, part of a Vermont Humanities Council series of events.
“Modern Times” it isn’t.
“I should say: It’s a home movie,” said Kittredge, a 61-year-old United Church of Christ pastor. “It’s not a big deal. It just happens that the people on it are interesting.”
Cooke was then an aspiring journalist who managed to score an interview with Chaplin that led to a friendship that spanned about two years.
He was no ace with the camera.
The movie, with crudely arranged graphics and extended shots of scenery on a weekend cruise to Catalina Island, Calif., shows Chaplin and Cooke acting like old friends, arm in arm, singing and goofing around in slapstick style. At one point, Cooke has a long pipe in his mouth and Chaplin repeatedly turns his head and bumps his cheek into it.
He is also seen alone, grabbing a mop to vamp impersonations of Garbo and others, while Goddard is shown sunning herself, her head tossed back as the yacht motors to Catalina Island and back.
Dressed casually in a blazer and crew neck sweater, Chaplin looks nothing like the on-screen persona he created in “The Immigrant,” “City Lights” and “The Great Dictator.”
“Any window on what he was doing at this particular time is of interest,” Scheide said. “On the one hand, it’s a footnote, but given the two personalities and that they were working together and friends, this one is particularly intriguing.”
Those who watched it from pews in the Trinity United Methodist Church sat rapt, though not all were impressed.
“It was disappointing not to see more of the historical Chaplin that we know,” said Alban Richey, 85, of Montpelier. “It was interesting in the sense that amateur movies of that time were so different.”
Kittredge, who plans a second showing in Middlebury on May 5, as part of a lecture about her father’s life, has no plans to sell the lone copy of the film, or seek a wider audience for it.
“It’s one of those things where it’s so valuable that you don’t know what to do with it,” she said. “If it weren’t so valuable, it would be easier. We would never sell it. We might license rights. I haven’t gotten there yet.”