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Looking for Charlie

Lab Contact: Helen Keegan
Team: Katherine Wimpenny


Looking for Charlie; Or, Why Do Clowns Kill Themselves

“A Documentary about Life, Art, Show Business, and Dying Alone”

When we think about the most important comedians of the early twentieth century a list of familiar names come to mind – Laurel & Hardy, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and, of course, master of them all, Charlie Chaplin. Their images are ingrained in our collective memory, as sharply defined and realised as if they were stood in the room with us. But those names are so familiar now because, as masters of cinema, we can recall them any time we want.

We need only watch a DVD or visit youtube to remind ourselves of their genius. Lost, however, is the comedic generation which blazed the trail which Chaplin, Lloyd, and Keaton followed. Marceline Orbes and Francis ‘Slivers’ Oakley were legends in their own life time, comedic artistes whose work on the New York stage drew applause and adulation from hundreds of thousands of screaming (and laughing) children and adults.

looking-for-charlie-3Students receiving direction in Central Park as they prepare to recreate Slivers’ long-lost routine

looking-for-charlie-4They were two the most popular and influential comedians of the 1900s and 1910s but, eclipsed by the sudden explosion of cinema, the pair fell out of the limelight as spectacularly as they had entered it. Alone and forgotten, the comic pair, the Laurel & Hardy of their day, committed suicide.

Looking for Charlie is a new documentary which explores the darker side of clowning. It aims to reconstruct the lives of Marceline and Slivers, showing how they influenced key figures in cinema, particularly Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, as well as exploring the psychological pressures faced by comedians who lose their audience.

The documentary is directed and produced by Darren R. Reid and Brett Sanders, lecturers in history at Coventry University. The film was shot on location in New York, Kingston (Jamaica), Berlin, Munich, London, and locations throughout the UK. A team of eighteen history undergraduate students served as the film’s crew, acting, filming, producing, and sound editing various aspects of the production.


Technology Used

This project involved extensive use of DSLR cameras, multiple lenses, stabilisation devices, sound recorders, and various other technical devices which our students had to learn to use to a high standard. The team deployed DSLR cameras in order to give our footage a look that approximated that of celluloid. In order to take advantage of this technology, students (who typically had only limited prior experience with this type of equipment) had to learn not only how to use the equipment, but also why the equipment was being used in the way it was – aperture size, frame rates, the different between shallow and deep focus; these were the new skills for history students more familiar with research and analysis. In the post-production phase, students will be introduced to industry level software and introduced to the process of colour correcting footage in addition to editing techniques. This use of technology brings a new dimension to humanities courses which typically focus upon traditional methodologies and techniques. Not only did our crew learn how to use equipment rarely employed in most history degrees, they gained work experience by taking part in this project.

• Canon D5 and Nikon D3100 cameras
• A range of lenses and filters
• Directional and lavaliere microphones, audio recorders
• Tablets with shot and set design software
• Industry level post-production software, including After Effects for colour correction
• Light reflectors and external lighting sources for scene composition


Project Timeline:

Start date

March 2015

End date

Spring 2016



Phase 1:
 Pre-production: writing, preparation for filming, etc.
Phase 2: Production: Principle photography, initial editing and colourisation tests
Phase 3: Post-Production: Editing together of footage, recording voice overs


Additional Info

Alongside and ahead of the film’s release, a series of youtube videos, interviews, behind-the-scenes production diaries, etc, will be released. For more information please visit for on-going updates.

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