The Real Charlie Chaplin (2021)
Directed by: Peter Middleton, James Spinney | 114 minutes | documentary | Starring: Charles Chaplin, Jeff Rawle, Dickie Beau, Anne Rosenfeld, Pearl Mackie, Pearl Mackie, Matthew Wolf
His image has become a symbol of the early years of the film: The Tramp. The iconic character with bowler hat, walking stick, oversized pants and shoes and of course that signature mustache made Charlie Chaplin the very first movie star to enjoy worldwide fame. Because the films in which The Tramp played the lead had no sound, and the maverick was averse to hierarchy and social power relations, he appealed to a wide audience in a universal way. In the years in which he emerged, from 1914 onward, there were many who – like Chaplin – migrated from Europe to North America in the hope of a better life. Once they arrived in their promised land, it turned out that a hard life, at the bottom of the social ladder, was waiting for them there too. For all those people, The Tramp with its slapstick and physical comedy was not just an entertaining diversion; he also offered them something to hold on to in difficult times.
In their documentary ‘The Real Charlie Chaplin’ (2021), Peter Middleton and James Spinney try to reconstruct who Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977) really was. The man behind The Tramp. In just under two hours, they run through Chaplin’s entire life: from his tough childhood in London, which he spent most of the time in poor houses because of an alcohol-addicted and absent father and a mentally ill mother, through his great successes as a movie star to his eventual decline because of an alcoholic. his unpopular political views at the time and the many scandals that characterized his private life. In addition to using authentic image and audio fragments and fragments from Chaplin’s films, they also use reconstructions, pasting original audio fragments under a staged image, making use of a doppelganger. An admittedly somewhat contrived way to revive history, but in general this cinematographic trick works quite nicely. In any case, it works better than another trick Middleton and Spinney pull, which is zooming in and out of a black-and-white image to enliven it.
Anyone who has delved a little into Chaplin will know the story of the penniless young Londoner who left for America as a talented pantomine player and managed to bend the fledgling film industry to his will. The Tramp allowed Chaplin to build his own empire. He didn’t feel like dancing to the tune of the big studio bosses any longer. In addition to acting and dancing, he could also direct, write, produce and even make music. Together with DW Griffith, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, he founded the distribution company United Artists in 1919 and thus took full control of all his work. From the moment the ‘talkies’ made their appearance, around 1930, Chaplin’s career entered a new phase. And so did its popularity. Because he couldn’t give The Tramp a voice without taking away its universal character. At first, Chaplin stuck to the silent film with ‘City Lights’ (1931), although he did add a score he composed himself. The production of this film took no less than 21 months. The perfectionist Chaplin had a crucial scene redone 354 times, to the frustration of everyone else involved.
But even Chaplin could not hold on to the silent film and in 1936 with ‘Modern Times’ he made a satire not only on the ‘talkies’ but above all on the industrial revolution and emerging capitalism. For the last time he takes on the role of The Tramp, who in the most iconic scene is almost literally mangled in the gears of the raging economy. From that moment on, Chaplin shows his colors: he sympathizes with communism and comes into the mind of the infamous FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover. In his next film, ‘The Dictator’ (1940), he parodies Hitler, but the moment in which he does so is not considered too picky. Also not too picky is his predilection for very young women. Chaplin married four times and had dozens of affairs and a custody battle in between. In addition to the communist fighters of the HUAC (House of Un-American Activities), the infamous gossip journalist Hedda Hopper was on his tail, after which he left for Switzerland in 1953 with his 36-year-young wife Oona and stayed there until his death in 1977.
The documentary claims to show us the real Charlie Chaplin, and in part it succeeds: because no matter how rich he became, deep down he has always been that Tramp who was shaped by a lonely youth in poverty. The image of that one little man who takes on the established order is not only reflected in a large part of his films, but also runs as a common thread through his life. Furthermore, the film is not afraid to show us the lesser sides of the man: in audio recordings, daughter Geraldine Chaplin – also a gifted actress herself – says, for example, that he was a cold and distant father who wanted to be in control of everything. “I can imagine it was lonely being Charlie Chaplin’s wife,” she says of her mother. But the film also falls short here and there: why are only two of his four wives discussed in detail and only their names mentioned of the other two? That predilection for women – often girls – who could have been his daughter or even granddaughter is not explained either. Is that a childhood trauma? Who knows may say.
While ‘The Real Charlie Chaplin’ doesn’t provide any new information about Chaplin, it does provide a comprehensive and expertly crafted account of the rise and fall of one of the most iconic movie stars of the twentieth century. The documentary underlines once again that people who make a living from jokes often lead not such a cheerful life in everyday life.