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A Document of Pathos, Passion, and Perspiration
30 September 2012 | by (Westchester County, NY) – See all my reviews

From the moment the first title card appears on screen it's clear that "All at Sea" is a home movie, made privately for fun, and not a professional product. But it's also clear that this is no ordinary home movie, for that same opening title card announces that our leading players are Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard; and then, just as we're absorbing that information, a sudden breeze blows the letters off the screen! If you're like me, i.e. a lifelong Chaplin fan, you'll want to see this charming little film at least once.

"All at Sea" was made during the late summer of 1933, when Chaplin, Goddard, and their friend Alistair Cooke went on a weekend cruise around Catalina Island on Chaplin's boat, The Panacea. Charlie and Paulette had been a couple for about a year, and she was unknown to the public; their first co-starring film Modern Times was still in the future. Cooke, the journalist and (in later years) broadcaster, was 24 years old at the time of this pleasure cruise, and was working as a research assistant to Chaplin on a proposed film biography of Napoleon -- a subject of fascination for Chaplin over a period of many years. It was Cooke who brought along his home movie camera and made this cinematic record of their weekend; the long-forgotten film was found among his belongings after he died in 2004.

It looks like they had a nice trip. The weather is perfect, everyone is relaxed, Chaplin mugs for the camera like an impish boy, and Paulette is gorgeous. At first the film looks like anyone else's home movies (i.e. there are shots of the boat, the sea, the horizon, etc.), but after a while little comic bits are improvised. Chaplin impersonates Janet Gaynor and Greta Garbo, and then, fittingly, strikes Napoleonic poses. While watching his antics I wondered if the Napoleon project, which was ultimately canceled, morphed into The Great Dictator instead. At one point Chaplin and Cooke create a cute little routine using Alistair's pipe as a prop, as Charlie turns his face repeatedly and bumps it. The two men also mime a sing-along to "O Come, All Ye Faithful" (the lyrics are easily lip-readable). Towards the end, someone fishing off the side of the boat manages to land an actual shark, although the identity of the lucky fisherman is not clear from this film; it may well have been The Panacea's skipper, Dave "Andy" Anderson, a former colleague of Chaplin's from Keystone days.

As long as you know what to expect, "All at Sea" makes a nice lead-in to viewing a Chaplin feature, Modern Times in particular. This charmingly off-hand, privately made short is a pleasant souvenir of a weekend enjoyed by three friends, a long time ago.


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