Looking For Charlie – The Breakdown
Looking For Charlie – “The story of the suicidal clowns who inspired Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton”
We all know Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, and Harold Lloyd. Their films made them immortal. But what about the generation of comedians who inspired those silent-era luminaries? What about the comedians who commanded the vast stages of the New York and London Hippodromes, who inspired and delighted, but were forgotten when new and innovative comedies, which they helped to inspire, hit the big screen? Looking For Charlie: Or, The Day The Clown Died is the story of Marceline Orbes and Francis ‘Slivers’ Oakley, a pair of once-legendary Edwardian comedians who entertained millions, inspired silent-era superstars Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, but who died in obscurity by their own hands. The film explores the overlapping lives of Orbes, Oakley, Chaplin, and Keaton, asking questions about the psychological and social pressures faced by the people who make it their life’s work to make us laugh. Looking for Charlie is a personal journey and exploration of the forgotten comedians who set the tone for a century of laughter.
The film primarily explores the interlocking and overlapping lives and experiences of Marceline Orbes, Francis ‘Slivers’ Oakley, Charlie Chaplin, and Buster Keaton.
- Marceline Orbes – c. 1873-1927. An ‘august’, Marceline’s clown makeup was minimalist; his emphasis was upon ‘pathos’, the building of a sympathetic relationship between performer and audience. He was a star at the London Hippodrome before he took up a decade-long at the New York venue of the same name. In the early 1900s he worked with a young Charlie Chaplin who would recall the encounter in vivid and unusual detail decades later in his autobiography. Orbes attempted to make the transition to the Silver Screen but his film, Mishaps of Marceline (1915), failed to gain market traction. He attempted to enter the restaurant business in the late 1910s but those endeavors also failed. His later return to show business was not a success. Shortly after his wife left him in 1927, Orbes shot himself in the head.
- Francis ‘Slivers’ Oakley – 1871-1916. Oakley built his reputation with the Barnum & Bailey circus, working in an outlandish set of costumes and makeup. His signature act, ‘The Baseball Game’, an one-man pantomime, helped to make him a star on the stage of the New York Hippodrome. Like Orbes, with whom he would team-up for a double-act on the stage, Oakley became a well known fixture of the stage, gaining a nationwide reputation as a result. In 1916, following a sudden downturn in his career and the failure of a problematic relationship, Oakley locked himself in his room and gassed himself to death.
- Charlie Chaplin, 1889-1977. One of the most important figures in the history of film, Chaplin is best known for his work in the silent era though later films such as The Great Dictator (1940) and Limelight (1952) demonstrate that he was just as able when it came to constructing dialogue-driven films. Chaplin’s career was explosive and, at times, controversial. His ‘Tramp’ character became a trans-generational icon but he was unfairly exiled from the United States during the McCarthy era. Chaplin elevated cinematic comedy to an art form. The roots of his method are to be found on the stages of the British Music Hall scene. As a child he worked with Marceline Orbes and his latter-day masterpiece, Limelight, told the story of an aging stage-clown dealing with a failed career.
- Buster Keaton, 1895-1966. Under appreciated throughout much of his career, Buster Keaton’s life was defined by some dizzying heights and tragic lows. His film The General widely considered to be one of the greatest comedies ever made and his career has been widely celebrated since the 1960s. Like Chaplin, Keaton was a fan of Marceline Orbes. He was also enamored with the work of Francis ‘Slivers’ Oakley, who he would remember decades later as ‘the greatest clown’. In his film The Cameraman (1928) he would recreate Slivers’ signature routine, ‘The Baseball Game’ (over a decade after Oakley’s suicide). In 1952 he appeared with Chaplin in film Limelight in a sequence where the main character finally, and counter-to-reality, is able to reconnect with his audience one last time.
Why This Film?
The making of Looking For Charlie has been a long, emotional, and involving experience into which the filmmakers have poured their hearts. Their journey to discover meaning for the lives of Marceline and Slivers has been a personal one which has continually informed the evolving shape of the film. Our piece is not a straight forward biography but a film which explores the psychological hardships faced by comedians in any age. We are not making this movie to tell a life story – we are making this movie to understand, in some small way, how we can make sense of any life, how we can give it narrative meaning. That journey will be a part of this film because we believe honesty in documentary making to be a vital part of the process.
Why Any Film?
There are many ways to explore the lives and importance of early performers like Marceline and Slivers, Chaplin and Keaton. Books, articles, stage plays -all can accomplish that exploration in one way or another- but film offers a range of possibilities beyond those other mediums. The first is irony. The coming of sophisticated, cinematic comedy did much to destroy the careers (and ultimately lives) or Marceline and Slivers. And without film, without a record of their performances, they remain little remembered. Using film to explore their lives provides an opportunity to reflect further upon the power of that medium. The second major possibility of film is our ability to engage with our subjects and their lives in a more personal way. The process of making this film has been long and difficult, entwining our subjective selves with our larger intellectual journey. Film offers us the opportunity to integrate that subjective discovery of truth. Finally, film offers a visual language which will allow us to explore our subjects in a sophisticated, intelligent way by layering symbols; visuals, music, commentary.
Provisional work on Looking For Charlie began in late 2014 before the commencement of active production in March 2015. With the assistance of a brilliant crew made up of students from Coventry University, filming took place in New York (USA), London and Birmingham (UK), Berlin, Munich, and Nuremberg (German), Kingston (Jamaica), and Hong Kong (China). The film is both a critical biography and a personal journey.
- Following the completion of shooting in New York, the filmmakers experimented with a wide range of colour-grading options before settling on a black-and-white look for the finished production. Such a look was originally resisted by the filmmakers until new test footage showed swayed them.
- Students who took part in the film worked as actors, camera operators, animators, assistant directors, sound recordists, production assistants, and runners.
- As production progressed, the filmmakers were forced to confront their own subjective engagement with the stories they wanted to tell. Elements of that journey which help to expand the main discussion will be included in the final film.
- Making memories – more than stories, important examples Slivers’ and Marceline’s art were recreated for the film:
- In Central Park, New York the crew recreated a version of Slivers’ long lost signature routine, ‘The Baseball Game’.
- A team of animators produced a stop-motion animated recreated of one of Marceline’s popular routines from the London Hippodrome.
- Other animations include a short film telling the tragic stories of Marceline’s life. Live action interactions between Marceline and Slivers, and Marceline and his wife, were also shot for the film. Scenes with a young Buster Keaton were also shot.
- Aside from appearing in the main feature in various forms, complete short films of these recreations will accompany the main film as extra features.
- The film is currently in the last phase of its production and is due to enter post-production by late October 2015.
Looking For Charlie is currently in production and will be released in 2016. A very early teaser trailer can be viewed by Clicking Here. An introductory video can be viewed below. As production wraps and post-production begins, more content from the film will be released on the run-up to its release. The teaser trailer and introductory video provide only very early insights into the project. A new series of promotional videos are planned for release during post-production, providing a much more accurate look of the final film.
Discover more about the lives and importance of some our principle subjects from this earlier series of video podcasts:
- 5 Minute History: The Birth of Chaplin’s Tramp
- Charlie Chaplin’s The Immigrant – Film with new Audio Commentary and Analysis
‘Since the author once again puts the ancient masks on stage, he wishes to resume the old customs in part…A nest of memories was singing one day in the depths of his soul, and he wrote with real tears’ – ‘Si può?’ from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s opera I Pagliacci
Following the Project
This website will post updates on Looking For Charlie, including this series of production diaries. For more immediate updates you can follow me on Twitter @ThatHistorian or search for #LookingForCharlie.