It’s one thing to overcompensate in terms of craft when you lack the resources to tell your story any other way. With The Real Charlie Chaplin, though, directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney are overcompensating despite an impressive wealth of footage and information on The Tramp and the actor-writer-director-editor-composer behind the movie character. The filmmaking choices all too frequently muddle any potential insight, yet the documentary contains so much good stuff that fans of the subject might be powerless to resist. (And there’s so much good stuff that it absolutely should have been a miniseries.)
The Real Charlie Chaplin
The Bottom Line
Some great footage, some solid insights, and many annoying creative choices.
Middleton and Spinney’s approach here begins with Max Eastman’s observation, “Enjoy any Charlie Chaplin you have the good luck to encounter, but don’t try to link them up to anything you can grasp. There are too many of them.” The theory, then, is that through archival interviews, reenactments and film footage galore, it’s possible to expand on the notion of Chaplin’s myriad identities, even if attempting to isolate any “real” Charlie Chaplin would be an exercise in futility.
I’ll start by leaving aside my feeling that, at most, The Real Charlie Chaplin proves that there were two Charlies Chaplin — the character people saw onscreen and thought they knew from the early Hollywood promotional apparatus, and the real Charlie Chaplin, who maybe was a complicated guy who wasn’t so easy to love. I don’t think “Imagine a comedian who seeks approval to cover for desperate loneliness or repressed trauma” is a revolutionary peg for a documentary; it’s probably the logline 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 early theatrical career that shaped his physical comedy gifts. They follow his rise in cinema, first in shorts and then as the mastermind of some of the more ambitious films of the silent and early-sound eras. Then they track Chaplin’s supposedly unseen personal side. But that side of him was seen and known even during his lifetime, when his disturbing relationships with women — sometimes genuinely disturbing and sometimes ginned up in far-reaching conspiracies — and inferences about his politics led to a dramatic fall from grace.
In telling the story, Middleton and Spinney make a lot of choices, none inherently wrong, but together adding to excess.
Opting not to have film historians or Chaplin biographers on camera to convey information and analysis, but instead going with wildly overwritten and completely unsourced narration — delivered warmly, but without internal artistic logic, by Pearl Mackie — is a choice.
Opting not to have any new talking heads, but then effectively creating talking heads by doing staged reenactments of vintage audio interviews with Chaplin and with one of his childhood friends is a choice.
Having, in fact, almost no new interviews at all and leaving audiences to wonder if several conversations with Chaplin’s children, identified only through chyrons on old home movies, is a choice.
Having as much film and behind-the-scenes footage as the filmmakers possess and then deciding at semi-arbitrary times to manipulate the imagery with jittery freeze-frames and digitally simulated melted celluloid is a choice.
The press notes helpfully refer to these choices and many others — all accompanied by an aggressive musical score — as “kaleidoscopic documentary collage,” which borders on triply redundant. Which makes it a completely appropriate description.
There’s so much happening in The Real Charlie Chaplin that it’s reasonably easy to point to many parts of the documentary that I really enjoyed. These include the explanation of how Chaplin’s vaudeville background informed his acting style, the origin story of his Tramp costume, a long segment on how City Lights came to be almost a two-year shoot, and the rather lovely home movie footage of Chaplin and his family at a Swiss estate during his exile from Hollywood.
It’s never unpleasant to watch extended clips from The Kid or Modern Times, nor to get a sense of Chaplin’s insane popularity through newsreel footage of the crowds that accompanied him on his promotional tours or the myriad Charlie Chaplin imitators he spawned. This makes the first half of the documentary much more effective than the second, even though I really wished there had been some effort to establish what the “voice” of that bloated narration is. Sometimes it’s meant as an homage 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 montage pointing out that even before The Great Dictator, there were superficial similarities between Adolph Hitler and Charlie Chaplin.
The second half, beginning almost at the hour mark with the introduction of unsavory details regarding Chaplin’s second wife, is less sourced and less decisive in its ability to define the “real” Charlie Chaplin. That second wife, actress Lita Grey Chaplin (who died in 1995), did several television interviews, and that material gives her a voice here. Chaplin’s fourth wife, Oona, gave no interviews and wrote no memoir, but several of her kids were interviewed in what you have to guess are fresh conversations. The filmmakers don’t quite fill in the gaps on Chaplin’s two other marriages (his co-star Paulette Goddard was wife No. 3) or any of his various alleged mistresses. When it comes to 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 boilerplate level of history.
I’m not sure the documentary offers any insight at all, other than the presumably correct supposition that if Chaplin had socialist sympathies, if not affiliations, they would tie to his impoverished childhood. Either way, for almost anything relating to Chaplin’s personal life and post-Great Dictator cinematic career, you’re better off listening to episodes of the terrific You Must Remember This podcast.
Would The Real Charlie Chaplin have come closer to its goals at four hours, or even six? Perhaps! That certainly would have given the directors more room for the material that’s so good here, but it also probably would have opened the door for more “kaleidoscopic documentary collage.”