When Charlie Chaplin passed away on Christmas Day in 1977, aged 88, he left the screenplay for a last unfinished film titled “The Freak,” a passion project about a young woman with wings named Serapha who is exploited in all kinds of ways.
Italy’s Cineteca di Bologna archives, which have long been in charge of the preservation and restoration of Charlie Chaplin’s oeuvre, has just published a book that for the first time unearths the final version of Chaplin’s complete “The Freak” script. The book also comprises previously unseen materials, such as preparatory notes, drawings, photos and stills from filmed rehearsals of the film that Bologna archives chief Gianluca Farinelli calls Chaplin’s “artistic testament.”
Born to a couple of British missionaries, Serapha winds up in Patagonia, where she becomes an angel-like figure at a pilgrimage site for invalids seeking to be cured; she is then kidnapped and brought back to London to be displayed for cash to crowds of miracle seekers before managing to escape and being put on trial to prove she is in any way human.
“The Freak” — which was meant to star Chaplin’s then young daughter Victoria as the lead — features rape, murder and the girl’s death in the Atlantic Ocean, as Serapha tries to return to Patagonia. There was a small cameo for Chaplin himself as an incredulous drunk who watches her fly above him in the London sky.
Chaplin conceived and developed the idea for the film in 1968/69 when he was almost 80. Even before trying to raise the financing, he personally hired designers to produce storyboards and explore solutions for the necessary pre-CGI effects.
The Cineteca di Bologna book about Chaplin’s unmade film, which took 10 years of work, is being published in Italian before being presented to international publishers. In 2014, the Bologna archives published Chaplin’s previously unpublished novella “Footlights,” the basis for his final finished film “Limelight,” about a young ballerina and clown. That book, “Footlights: The World of Limelight,” with a commentary by British critic and Chaplin biographer David Robinson, has now been published in 18 languages.
The book about “The Freak,” which also features commentary from Robinson, was assembled by Bologna’s Cecilia Cenciarelli, who has been working with the Chaplin Archive for years, and found the materials among the papers of Chaplin producer Jerry Epstein.
Cenciarelli worked on the book in close collaboration with Victoria Chaplin, who in a conversation chapter provides insights and personal testimony on the project, as does principal art director Gerald Larn, during preparation of the film. Kate Guyonvarch, managing director of the Paris-based Chaplin Office that licenses Chaplin rights worldwide, also collaborated closely on the project.
Farinelli calls “The Freak,” which lashes out against the almighty power of money, the growing impact of advertising and media culture, and even the rise of religious fanaticism, a “very powerful story.” Though borne from the imagination of an aging master, Farinelli notes that Chaplin’s final project is also very rooted in 1969 — the year the script is dated — “just like [Francois] Truffaut’s ‘The Wild Child’ and Dennis Hopper’s ‘Easy Rider,’” he says.
In the book’s afterword, Farinelli instead points out that “The Freak” is the first Chaplin film in which a woman is both the protagonist and the “only positive character.”
“The Freak” was “supposed to be an homage to the women in his life,” Farinelli writes. A tribute to the great actresses Chaplin worked with, among whom he cites silent-era star Mabel Normand, Edna Purviance (“The Kid”), Claire Bloom (“Limelight”), his fourth wife Oona O’Neill, and his beloved daughters, in particular Victoria.
Farinelli also points out that, being an octogenarian, Chaplin had at that point freed himself from the burden of appearing on screen himself, so that “his imagination can run freely.” At last the tramp, the oddball, for his final work “could take on the semblance of a bird-woman, of a freak.”