Watching The Real Charlie Chaplin documentary, I was struck that Chaplin’s star persona and the image of the Little Tramp has been tackled so extensively by historians and documentarists that it would be difficult to put an original spin on the narrative. But no matter how deep the archives around Chaplin’s stardom go, this documentary from Peter Middleton and James Spinney, acclaimed filmmakers behind Notes on Blindness is unique in that it dwells on the slow and gradual waning of Chaplin’s career as much as it focuses on his heyday.
The Real Charlie Chaplin
Directors: Peter Middleton and James Spinney
Release date: October 14, 2021 (LFF)
Many of the important parts of Chaplin’s stardom and ascent to fame played a prominent part in this documentary: the crazy known as Chaplin-oia kicks off the profile of this mysterious figure, as does his fear of poverty and his relationship with his mother before he was catapulted to international fame. We have a whistle-stop tour of his early career, although there are disappointingly few mentions of the early films that really cemented his persona, such as Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914, the first appearance of the Little Tramp character), The Tramp (Essanay, 1915) and The Immigrant (Mutual, 1917). We dwell a little longer on The Kid (1921), which he produced and co-starred in opposite young Jackie Coogan, but only so that the film can draw a link between the storyline of an abandoned boy and Charlie’s underprivileged upbringing.
Nevertheless, the doc explores the transition from silent film to talkies, a pivotal point in cinema history that polarised a lot of filmmakers in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Going against the mass exodus at the time, Chaplin made the bold move of producing a silent film, City Lights, and many would consider it his finest work. I found the section on this notoriously difficult silent feature, produced against the grain of emerging talkies, very compelling. It took months of shooting, 190 days in total, and the doc labours the angle that Chaplin was a great perfectionist, an artist absolutely committed to his art and who couldn’t afford to make a single mistake, lest it break his reputation.
Over and over again, Chaplin and his crew shot and re-shot the scene in which the Little Tramp and Virginia Cherrill’s blind flower girl meet, and it’s only months into shooting that Chaplin finally lands on the sound of a saloon car door as the inciting factor in the girl misidentifying the Tramp and sparking their romance. By all accounts, City Lights is a masterful film, full of pathos, but Middleton and Spinney show just how painstaking the process was for Chaplin and his crew.
Like the 2018 documentary The Great Buster, I wonder whether people will enjoy this for the subject matter over the craft. Chaplin is always deserving of attention and scrutiny for his legacy, but untangling that from the way the film has been produced is another argument entirely. Middleton and Spinney have crafted a comprehensive overview of this persona with diligent research: clocking in at just under two hours and with its never-before broadcast interview, it’s certainly bringing fresh takes to the subject.
One thing that the documentary did well was to use found footage, tapes, film footage of press conferences and streets. There are never-before broadcast interviews with Effie Wisdom for a prominent Life magazine feature, in which the 92-year-old recounts knowing Chaplin as a boy growing up in London. She speaks about his temperament and deeply sensitive nature: how he could invent a stage persona one minute and recede into doubt the next. In many ways, it seems to say, he had a life of doubt: he accomplished his dream but never overcame his painful self-awareness and fears.
There are also interviews with children later in his life: “I’d grown up with the icon, but I had no idea who the man was,” they say. All these disparate elements come together to show the gap between his star persona and his private life, asking: who was Chaplin? It’s a feedback loop, with the private and the public feeding into each other. Silent film historians will long have been familiar with the concept that, by playing an everyman, Chaplin was everybody and nobody all at once. It’s an important point, but the documentary fails to acknowledge that this question has already been debated at length.
We’re walked through Chaplin conspiracy theories, a campaign that right-wing press and FBI seemingly muster up after jumping on Hollywood gossip columns. Chaplin is presented as a callous and depressive figure, and with four wives in total, he was often remarked to be unstable. The press coverage of young star Joan Barry’s pregnancy in an awful media frenzy leaves Chaplin’s reputation somewhat tarnished but lands Barry in a psychiatric hospital for the rest of her life. Chaplin certainly isn’t the man everyone expects him to be, says this documentary. While he may have written his own account in his autobiography, and to a greater extent curated the public image of himself, he seems to have been quite another person under the surface.
I have to say, though, I thought that anyone who has already read Chaplin’s autobiography won’t glean a whole lot more information from the film. Many will already know about the allegories between capitalism and communism as laid out in Modern Times (1936). Many will also be aware of his comparison to Hitler in The Great Dictator (1940). Then, following the Little Tramp’s first speech promoting equality and unity, we’ll have heard about the subsequent allegations of his being a Communist sympathizer during the era of McCarthyism in the United States that ultimately had him forcibly extradited from his adoptive home of the US. But I felt that the commentary was a little lacking, considering what a compelling life the star led.
If Chaplin’s films and the history books try to promote his cheerful, everyman persona, this documentary probes at his unravelling. It’s taking a forensic look at some of the highs and lows of his career and examining the supposed motivations behind his actions. There’s no doubt he was a troubled, even tortured figure, but it’s sometimes difficult to separate this notion from that of the man we have heard so much about. The highlight of this documentary is certainly the new interviews it offers, because these real-world insights give a glimpse of who the man might really have been.