THE REAL CHARLIE CHAPLIN – Review
Charlie Chaplin was the first worldwide superstar, thanks in part to the global nature of silent movies, which transcended language barriers and international borders. Charlie Chaplin was funny and clever but on screen he also generated a hypnotic magic, seeming to reach through the screen to interact directly with the viewers, an effect your can still feel today watching his films. But his charming, hilarious Little Tramp was a character, not the real Charlie Chaplin, the first thing we learn in THE REAL CHARLIE CHAPLIN, a new biographical documentary that looks at both the man behind the magic and his creation.
THE REAL CHARLIE CHAPLIN, like any film about the great Charlie Chaplin, is a most welcome thing. Reminding audiences about, or introducing them to, Charlie Chaplin is a good thing, since even today, Chaplin still remains as funny and charismatic as ever – even to those who have never seen a silent film. It is a testament to his genius that, more than a hundred years after they first flickered on screen, his comic films still entertain and surprise with their humor and cleverness, and Chaplin himself remains irresistible.
However, as a biography whose title implies you will learn about the man behind the mask, THE REAL CHARLIE CHAPLIN falls rather short. There are a number of problems, primarily in what it leaves out and partly in what it does choose to include. Some details are, at a minimum, misleading if not factually wrong. Those omissions and missteps make this documentary less an ideal introduction to this cinematic genius than it could have been.
Before we get to those problems, let’s look at what THE REAL CHARLIE CHAPLIN gets right. First of all, the documentary notes right away that the image we think of as Charlie Chaplin is not the real Chaplin but his famous tramp character creation, and then underlines that with photos of Chaplin in and out of makeup. The character had no name but was sometimes called the Little Man, the Little Tramp or just the Tramp. The other thing the documentary correctly starts out with is how incredibly famous Chaplin was, not just in the U.S. but across the world.
To spotlight just how powerful and international a popular cultural figure Chaplin was, the documentary begins with a remarkable internationla event that was wholly spontaneous: the whole world having a Chaplin moment. In this odd phenomenon, the whole world was simultaneously thinking of Chaplin, with simultaneous reports of sightings of the comedian around the world. Newspapers everywhere reported on this strange, unprecedented phenomenon, a culmination of people’s obsession with Chaplin, and what was spoken of as people catching “Chaplin-itis.” The global event demonstrated not only Chaplin’s unprecendented fame but showed the potential power of media, which was a new thing at the beginning of the 20th century with the invention of movies, radio, and the proliferation of newspapers. Chaplin suddenly seemed to be everywhere, not just movies and movie posters, but endless imitators, Charlie lookalike contests, toys, and knickknacks. It wasn’t a marketing plan but a spontaneous flood of knock-offs and all things Chaplin. The real Chaplin, who had copyrighted his work, tried at first to pursue legal action against these unauthorized uses, but was overwhelmed by the number of them. It was unstoppable.
The film follows up that splendid start with more usual documentary fare, presenting a plethora of archival stills, nice clips of Chaplin movies, as well as some Chaplin home movies. One of the most charming parts of the film are the recreations, with actors in costume, of audio-only recordings of interviews, with Chaplin and those who knew him, and other Chaplin-related material. Doing these re-enactments in costume with nice period sets lends a special delight that simple hearing them would lack, and is perhaps the filmmakers’ best idea. Another charming feature is the extensive use of Chaplin’s own musical compositions, from his films, throughout the soundtrack. Generous use of clips from his films, and a nice spotlight for the autobiographical “The Kid,” as well as his hit feature films “The Gold Rush,” “City Lights” and “The Great Dictator” are also highlights.
In the documentary’s look at the difference between the real Charles Spencer Chaplin and the tramp character everyone loved, it correctly notes that Chaplin himself was aware that it was the character people loved, not the real person who played him. Chaplin had played other characters before he hit comic gold with the Little Tramp, and the film also notes that “tramp” characters where a common comic type on stage long before films. It also points out that in many Chaplin movies, the Little Tramp is the star but Chaplin often also appears in a dazzling array of other parts and characters, even in drag.
Drawing the distinction between the character and the creator is an important point, but the film also rightly points out that the dapper, smiling, handsome man Chaplin presented as his real self was also an illusion. Chaplin was famously secretive about who he really was, with perhaps even a dark and unknowable side. The documentary quotes that famous line about him: “Enjoy any Chaplin you happen to meet” in describing his chameleon-like off-camera persona. The film also has to be credited for pointing out that Chaplin’s genius and multiple talents as a director, composer, dancer, and actor as well as a comedian. Moreover, Chaplin understood the nature of film performance long before others, something the documentary conveys well.
Where THE REAL CHARLIE CHAPLIN falls short in its biographical portion, leaving out critical facts that would give additional or deeper insight on the real man. It primarily falls short in covering his personal relationships, instead focusing primarily on his romantic ones and the sex scandals, as so many have done before. While the film mentions his beloved but mentally unstable mother, it totally ignores perhaps the most critical figure in Charlie’s childhood, his beloved older half-brother Sidney Chaplin. Curiously, it shows a clip of the Chaplin movie “A Dog’s Life” that features the brothers, but fails to mention that the other comedian in the scene is Sidney. After their mother’s mental collapse, when the two boys were sent to an institution, it was Sidney who took charge to get them out. As one biographer noted “Charlie adored Sidney and Sidney would endure anything for Charlie.” Young Sidney not only went to work to get them out of the orphanage but he was the one that got them both into entertainment. Sidney became the star of Karno’s comedy troupe, while Charlie played Sidney’s role in second-string troupes, like the one sent to tour the U.S. But while Charlie was a minor star on stage, on film he became magic. None of this is mentioned in this documentary about the real Charlie Chaplin.
Like many Chaplin biographies, there is a focus on his love life, especially the dishy-er, scandalous portions and his fixation on younger women, often 17-year-olds, and his political troubles with J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and Sen. Joe McCarthy’s “red scare” witch hunt, although it leaves out critical details on that. It says little about his third wife Paulette Goddard, who told Chaplin she was 17 when they met although she was 22, even though in other sources Goddard offered insights on this enigmatic figure. However, it has a lot to say on the Joan Barry paternity scandal and his messy divorce from Lita Grey Chaplin. While it rightly devotes a lot of time to his last wife, Oona O’Neill Chaplin, including noting her age when they married, it oddly omits that she was the daughter of literary giant Eugene O’Neill. This fact put Oona on a different social plane than Chaplin’s three previous actress wives, and probably mattered to the class-self-conscious Chaplin as much has her youth and beauty. There is no mention of his pivotal earlier romances with Edna Purviance, his co-star in many silents, and little of his first wife Mildred Harris.
The documentary spends a lot of time with remembrances of their father by his younger children, who repeat, along with many others, how difficult it was to know him. But the documentary has only passing mention of his two older sons, who appeared with their father in LIMELIGHT. The film also overlooks important formative friendships and partnerships from his early days in film, not only Edna Purviance but his whole loyal cast and crew team that worked with him on his silent films and his once-close friendship with Douglas Fairbanks Sr., nor is there anything on his character-revealing failures in those friendships. Chaplin’s remarkable business sense and financial cunning, impressive given his impoverished childhood and lack of education, is only touched on briefly.
Of course, no documentary can cover everything but many of the choices made by these filmmakers are puzzling, and even undercut the documentary’s presumed intent, given its title. Still, THE REAL CHARLIE CHAPLIN is worthwhile to see, if for nothing else than its footage, the charming interview recreations and its mostly Chaplin-composed music. But anyone new to Chaplin should be cautioned to seek out more insightful documentaries and books on this comic genius, whose power on screen still glows for fans new and old, to know much about the real Charlie Chaplin.
THE REAL CHARLIE CHAPLIN debuts streaming on Showtime on Dec. 11.
RATING: 2.5 out of 4 stars