For Sale: Charlie Chaplin's Movie Camera
By James Grahame
Christie's will be auctioning the Bell & Howell Model 2709 camera once owned by Charlie Chaplin on July 25, 2007 [update: It didn't meet the reserve bid]. It is expected to fetch between £70,000 and £90,000 ($140,000 to $180,000). The auction includes a copy of the original sale document indicating that the device was sold to Chaplin about a month after he founded Chaplin Studios Inc. with his brother Sydney in 1918. At the time, this state of the art device sold for $2,000 - about $31,000 in 2006 dollars.
The Bell & Howell 2709 was a hand-cranked 35mm camera that became the mainstay of Hollywood silent movie production upon its introduction in 1911. In fact, nearly every major Hollywood production of the era was shot on a 2709 or its competitor, the Mitchell Standard. Unbelievably, this model remained in production into the 1950s, although I suspect many of the later units were used for animation purposes, rather than hand-cranked live action.
Chaplin's company owned three other 2709s, but this camera is special because it was the only camera purchased by Chaplin himself -- one of the few Bell & Howell 2709s owned by an individual. It is very likely that this camera was used to shoot some of his most important work, including A Dog's Life (1918), Shoulder Arms (1918), The Kid (1921) and The Gold Rush (1924), since the studio possessed only one other Model 2709 during this period. It's also probable that the camera remained at Chaplin's side through the 1930s, when he continued to cling to silent film while others made the leap to sound. As a result, it could have played a role in the production of his highly regarded later works including City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936).
This auction lot includes the original camera, a selection of lenses, a Mitchell side-mount viewfinder, wooden legs and a pan-and-tilt head, along with four top-mount "Mickey Mouse Ears" 400 ft. Bell & Howell film magazines. Interestingly, the magazines aren't the originals that were shipped with the camera, for the simple reason that these were probably worn out from years of hard use.
It is hard to imagine any other vintage camera that had such an enormous impact on the film industry. Modern equipment is usually rented from companies such as Panavision because of its prohibitively high price, so the cameras remain largely anonymous. This particular machine had a far more organic relationship with its owner, since Chaplin and cinematographer Rollie Totheroh hand-cranked many thousands of feet of film through its magazines over the span of decades.