Silent film documentary to be screened at former Charlie Chaplin workhouse

A documentary that looks at the dark side of the silent film era will be screened at a London cinema that was once a workhouse where Charlie Chaplin lived.

The making of Looking for Charlie has been a three-year labour of love for its directors, Coventry University history lecturers Darren Reid and Brett Sanders.

The documentary tells the story of comedians Marceline Orbes and Francis “Slivers” Oakley and their connection to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

During the early 20th century the pair regularly entertained audiences of thousands of people in theatres in New York and across America.

They inspired the legendary silent film stars Chaplin and Keaton, who even recreated some of their routines.

But after cinema became more popular, Orbes and Oakley dropped out of the limelight and both ended up dying in obscurity after committing suicide.

Looking for Charlie tackles the issues of depression, suicide, memory, influence and the powers of cinema and laughter.

A team of 18 history undergraduate students served as the film’s crew. They helped produce and sound edit the documentary and acted in it.

The film-makers recreated the comedians’ routines – filming one in New York’s Central Park – and also interviewed film experts, including director and critic Mark Cousins.

On Thursday (November 1st), Looking for Charlie will be screened at the Cinema Museum, in Lambeth.

The building was once a workhouse where Charlie Chaplin lived as a child when his family hit rock bottom at the turn of the 20th century.

Dr Reid said: “To have Looking for Charlie screen at The Cinema Museum is a real honour, not least because this is the place, for better or for worse, that helped to turn Charlie Chaplin into the man he became. Our film is about the dark side of the silent era, the way in which beauty emerged from tragedy, and The Cinema Museum encapsulates that perfectly.

“The Chaplin family first entered the workhouse in the 1890s, a miserable experience which helped to shape the deep sympathy for the poor evident in so many of Charlie’s films. Now the site of The Cinema Museum, the workhouse that so tortured Chaplin has become a symbol of his enduring importance as one of the twentieth century’s most important icons and advocates for the needy.”

“The film tells a really compelling story. It looks at the history of depression and how people have struggled with it in different circumstances, as well as showing how performers, comedians in particular, have shaped our cultural landscape. The message from it for people who have struggled with life and depression is that everyone matters.”

The film screening on Thursday, 1st November, includes a Q&A with directors Darren Reid and Brett Sanders. Doors open at 6.30pm. The screening starts at 7.30pm.

Pictured: Students Robin Jones and Elizabeth Hagyard, who play Marceline Orbes and his wife in the film, director Darren Reid and the crew filming Looking for Charlie in New York.

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