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Will this captivating biographical documentary change the way you see Charlie Chaplin?

Reviews by Joyce Glasser The real Charlie Chaplin (February 18, 2021) Cert 12, 114 mins

The great achievement of Peter Middleton and James Spinney’s captivating documentary is that even as we learn about the real Charlie Chaplin, we keep seeing his magnificent creation and alter ego: The Tramp. And that might explain why, even after Kenneth Anger revealed some ugly truths about Chaplin in his book Hollywood Babylon More than 60 years ago we still see Chaplin as that lovable, childish vagabond with the pleading eyes, the torn clothes, the duck-walk; the homeless, egoless little man with the big heart – and the uncanny survival instinct.

This cradle-to-grave tale reveals many admirable and many nefarious traits in the search for the real Charlie Chaplin. The technique the directors use to distract from the negative revelations is Chaplin’s immense talent, which can be seen in dozens of fabulous film clips. The directors are doing what Chaplin did: they eclipse the driven film mogul with a penchant for young girls behind the directionless, unassertive nobody who belonged to everyone — and made everyone laugh.

As with Charles Dickens, Chaplin’s childhood poverty in Southwark, London, and the demoralizing experience of the workhouse at age 7 when his parents, musicians in the musical hall, could not provide for him, fueled his determination and ambition. After his father got drunk to an early death and his mother was sentenced to a mental institution with syphilis, Charles left school at 13 and followed his parents into vaudeville.

At age 24, during a second tour of the States, Chaplin was recruited by Keystone Studios to replace one of the outgoing Keystone cops. Mack Sennett, the inventor of the slapstick pie toss series, was his boss. His first appearance in front of the camera made no waves, his second in February 1914 did. with Children’s car races in Venice When the tramp first appeared on screen in an outfit chosen by Chaplin and glared at the audience, Chaplin was a star.

The film quotes from his autobiography about how he chose the costume are themselves contradictory. The coat was tight; the trousers baggy. The hat small; the shoes big. He added the mustache to hide his age without hiding his facial expression. Then Chaplin gives us the key to his addiction to the tramp: “The moment I was dressed, the clothes and makeup made me feel like who he was. I started to get to know him and by the time I got on stage he was fully born.’

That’s not entirely true, and one of the film’s flaws is that it spreads too thinly to analyze how the tramp’s character has evolved over time and with the zeitgeist. When Chaplin was attacked, the tramp became more sympathetic.

In 1915 and 1916 Chaplin began writing, directing, and then producing several short films). Its popularity was worldwide. In silent films such as The Immigrant the vagrant – who has no country, speaks no language, blurs gender and sexuality and sends up class – talked to everyone. His only goal was to make people laugh.

Behind the scenes, Chaplin is not a tramp but a businessman. By 1919 he had formed the production/distribution company United Artists, although the film skimmed that and his relationship with Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. This gave Chaplin more freedom and control, and added another layer of income (he was already a producer, writer, director, and soon editor and composer) to his films. The longer masterpieces such as The Gold Rush and The child are the result.

Four years after sound images became all the rage in 1927, Chaplin took a big risk when he made the sentimental silent film. lights of the city (1931). as The real Charlie Chaplin shows, the production was fraught with problems as Chaplin tried to figure out why his script wasn’t working. But with its theme of the random nature of wealth and poverty, it both hit the mood and offered a way out of the Great Depression outside, and was a huge hit.

But already Chaplin’s womanizing affected his filmmaking – if not in the time in which he lived, his popularity. Chaplin’s first marriage was to 18-year-old Mildred Harris, although they began sexual relations when she was 16 (and he was 27). They divorced after their three-day-old baby died after a year of marriage. Lita Gray was the “flirt angel” in The child at the age of 12, but at 15 when he used them The Gold Rush, she was pregnant. To avoid possible jail time, when she was 16 and he was 35, they married. They had a second child 10 months after the first in 1926.

Her acrimonious divorce settlement, the largest on record at the time, with Grey’s lurid allegations about her husband’s cruelty and sex life, made headlines. But in 1925, Chaplin was the first actor to make the cover time magazine. At 42, he began dating 21-year-old Paulette Goddard (who was born in modern times) and married her around 1936 during a trip to China. It lasted until 1942.

The great dictator was Chaplin’s last hurrah. In a dramatic scene he speaks with a (rather distinguished) British accent for the first time and condemns anti-Semitism, racism and authoritarianism with his dark anti-Hitler satire. His socialist-sounding battle cries caught the attention of J. Edgar Hoover, who, with the help of gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, managed to tarnish his public reputation. The irony is that Chaplin, the wealthy, unindoctrinated individualist, was hardly communist material.

Perhaps his most troubling relationship was his marriage (1943 until his death in 1977). shadow and substance Actress Oona O’Neill (daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Eugene O’Neill). They fled when she turned 18 to avoid publicity about her ex-girlfriend Joan Barry’s paternity suit. Their marriage and the birth of eight children (the last was born when Chaplin was 73) coincided with Hoover’s communist witch hunts. When the family sailed to the European premiere spotlight in September 1952 Chaplin’s citizenship was revoked. Thanks in part to Oona’s trips to America to settle his affairs, he acquired a large lakefront estate in Switzerland that was isolated but thrived off the sale of his share of UA, royalties, and his property. Daughter Jane Chaplin remembers being afraid of her father, who couldn’t be wrong. The world revolved around dad but when the camera was on him he was still the clown. Unfortunately, there is no investigation behind the relatively long marriage and one wonders if Oona was a long-suffering martyr or Charles’s reformer. She destroyed much of her autobiographical writings and got drunk into oblivion.

But here’s the thing. Even after Chaplin and his controlling, misogynistic personality were scaled down to their height (he was only 5ft 4in). The real Charlie Chaplinit’s impossible not to see him as an innocent, sexless tramp or one of Hollywood’s most daring and creative actors and filmmakers of the early 20th century.



Will this captivating biographical documentary change the way you see Charlie Chaplin?

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