The Showtime documentary The real Charlie Chaplin isn’t the only movie that focuses on the legendary comedian, and it’s not the best, but it’s probably the busiest.
It’s one thing to overcompensate in terms of craftsmanship when you don’t have the resources to tell your story in another way. With The real Charlie ChaplinHowever, directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney overcompensate despite an impressive wealth of footage and information about The Tramp and the actor-writer-director-editor-songwriter behind the film’s character. The cinematic choices too often cloud any potential idea, but there is so much good stuff in the documentary that fans of the subject might be powerless to resist. (And there are so many good things that it absolutely should have been a miniseries.)
The real Charlie Chaplin
The bottom line
Great footage, solid ideas, and lots of boring creative choices.
Middleton and Spinney’s approach begins here with the observation of Max Eastman: “Take advantage of whatever Charlie Chaplin you are lucky enough to meet, but don’t try to relate them to anything you can grab hold of. They’re too many. The theory is therefore that through archival interviews, reenactments and film footage galore, it is possible to expand the notion of Chaplin’s myriad identities, even if attempting to isolate one ” true ”Charlie Chaplin would be a futile exercise.
I’ll start by setting aside my feeling that, at most, The real Charlie Chaplin proves that there were two Charlies Chaplins – the character people saw onscreen and thought they knew from Hollywood’s early promotional devices, and the real Charlie Chaplin, who might have been a complicated guy who didn’t was not so easy to like. I don’t think “Imagine a comedian seeking approval to cover up desperate loneliness or repressed trauma” is a revolutionary peg for a documentary; it’s probably the connecting line for every documentary ever made about a comedian.
Here, the directors trace Chaplin’s story from his upbringing in the slums of Victorian London to the start of his theatrical career that shaped his gifts of physical comedy. They follow his rise in cinema, first in short films, then as the mastermind of some of the most ambitious films of early silent and sonic eras. Then they follow Chaplin’s supposedly invisible personal side. But this side of him was seen and known even during his lifetime, when his troubling relationships with women – at times genuinely troubling and at times spelled out in high-profile conspiracies – and inferences about his politics led to a dramatic fall in politics. Grace.
In telling the story, Middleton and Spinney make a lot of choices, none inherently bad, but which together add up to excess.
Choosing not to have film historians or Chaplin biographers in front of the camera to convey information and analysis, but rather a largely crushed and totally sourceless narration – delivered warmly, but without internal artistic logic, by Pearl Mackie – is a choice.
Choosing not to have new talking heads, but then effectively creating talking heads by doing staged reconstructions of period audio interviews with Chaplin and one of his childhood friends is a choice.
Having, in fact, hardly any new interviews at all, and leaving audiences wondering if multiple conversations with Chaplin’s children, identified only by chyrons on old family films, is a choice.
Having as many behind-the-scenes movies and footage as the filmmakers have, then deciding at semi-arbitrary times to manipulate the footage with jittery freeze frames and digitally simulated melted celluloid is a choice.
The press notes usefully refer to these choices and many others – all accompanied by an aggressive musical score – as a “kaleidoscopic documentary collage”, bordering on triple redundancy. Which makes it a very apt description.
There is so much going on in The real Charlie Chaplin that it’s pretty easy to point to a lot of parts of the documentary that I really enjoyed. These include the explanation of how Chaplin’s vaudeville background influenced his acting style, the origin story of his Tramp costume, a long segment on how City lights came to be a nearly two-year shoot, and the rather charming home movie footage of Chaplin and his family in a Swiss estate during his exile from Hollywood.
Watching long clips of The child Where Modern times, nor to get any idea of Chaplin’s insane popularity through news footage of the crowd that accompanied him on his promotional tours or the myriad Charlie Chaplin impersonators he spawned. This makes the first half of the documentary much more effective than the second, although I really wish there had been an effort to establish what the “voice” of that bloated storytelling is. Sometimes it’s a tribute to the tone of silent movie titles, sometimes as a way to convey dry details. And sometimes it takes several minutes to make obvious points, as in the side-by-side edit which points out that even before The great dictator, there were superficial similarities between Adolph Hitler and Charlie Chaplin.
The second half, starting almost on time with the introduction of unsavory details about Chaplin’s second wife, is less sourced and less decisive in its ability to define the ‘real’ Charlie Chaplin. This second wife, actress Lita Gray Chaplin (deceased 1995), has done several television interviews, and this material gives her a voice here. Chaplin’s fourth wife, Oona, has not given any interviews or written any memoirs, but several of his children have been interviewed in what you must guess are new conversations. The filmmakers don’t quite fill the gaps on Chaplin’s other two marriages (his co-star Paulette Goddard was wife No.3) or one of his various alleged mistresses. As for the extremely fascinating chapter of his life in which Hedda Hopper and J. Edgar Hoover tried to bring him down, the documentary barely reaches a catch-all story level.
I’m not sure the documentary offers any idea, other than the presumably correct assumption that if Chaplin had socialist sympathies, if not affiliations, they would be tied to his impoverished childhood. Anyway, for almost everything to do with Chaplin’s personal life and the after-Great dictator film career, you better listen to episodes of the formidable You must remember this Podcast.
Would have The real Charlie ChapliDid he come close to his goals at four or even six? May be! It certainly would have given the directors more room for the material that is so good here, but it would also probably have opened the door for more “kaleidoscopic documentary collage.”