The Real Charlie Chaplin (2021)
The real Charlie Chaplin, 2021.
Co-written and directed by Peter Middleton and James Spinney.
Charlie Chaplin was a key figure in cinema. In this documentary, Peter Middleton and James Spinney explore what made this silent film conundrum turn, thanks to unprecedented access to archival material.
For anyone who knows cinema, Charlie Chaplin is a legend. A certified silent movie star, who built her own studio, became her own mogul and formed United Artists alongside Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks Junior and DWGriffith. What movie stars like Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt are doing through their own production companies can be seen as the model in contemporary terms, but even these actors haven’t built a studio. That sort of thing has been left to people like Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen with Dreamworks. Which brings us to the question of what new perspectives this latest documentary brings to the table.
Overall, the Peter Middleton and James Spinney film offers nothing new. It quickly traces the birth and rise of Charlie Chaplin from workhouse sea urchin to vaudeville star, highlighting his gift for physical comedy and his unwavering ambition. A shift from music halls to America encompasses Mack Sennett, before quickly moving on to his creation of the tramp. Elsewhere, archival interviews are interspersed with dramatic reenactments, while personal films from Charlie Chaplin’s coffers fill in the blanks.
From these elements emerges a portrait of creative duplicity. The dichotomy between his personal and public figures reveals a man at odds with being both a father and a public figure. It’s here that The real Charlie Chaplin comes to life, gains credibility through its exploration of man visually rather than on paper. What also stands out is his meticulous attention to detail, where performances have been refined to the point that even Stanley Kubrick would have stepped away.
Always writing, acting, and relying on an endless stream of ideas, Charlie Chaplin’s film series is awe-inspiring. Of The child up to Modern times and The great dictator, he was clearly charged with an intellect and a desire to communicate ideas beyond the personality of the bum. Admittedly, his position on the political questions of the time may have had its detractors, but this heritage cannot be denied. He may have been blacklisted during the McCarthy witch hunts, ransacked by attention-seeking columnists and hunted down by the FBI, but Charlie Chaplin had earned his stripes.
In his golden years, he retired to Switzerland and put a certain distance between himself and the industry which made him rich. The talking heads of the surviving family members cast a vague light on the man depicted in the family movies relaxing in his vast estate, but audiences are unlikely to be any more enlightened by the latter element. Unfortunately, for a documentary that promised to put itself under the skin of a cinema icon, The real Charlie Chaplin never quite up to the task.
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