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New documentary attempts to show 'The Real Charlie Chaplin'

A black and white photo of Charlie Chaplin
Courtesy of SHOWTIME
Charlie Chaplin in "The Real Charlie Chaplin."

A new film on Showtime, The Real Charlie Chaplin, presents a portrait of Chaplin as an artist and a person. For KUNC film critic Howie Movshovitz, the movie is smart, engaging and also something of a wild goose chase.

Charlie Chaplin is no longer known to everyone, but by 1916 he was the most famous person in the history of the world. There’s film of tens of thousands of people gathered to catch a glimpse of him. His was the most famous figure in the world.

The new often impressionistic documentary The Real Charlie Chaplin by Peter Middleton and James Spinney gives a beautiful sense of Chaplin’s work. No performer has ever been more graceful or had a deeper concern for the outcasts of human society — and been funny to boot.

Chaplin made hilarious short films between 1914 when he suddenly created his famous character called The Tramp or The Little Fellow, until about 1918 when the films began to get longer. In 1921, he made, The Kid, a masterpiece in which Chaplin’s homeless Tramp winds up caring for an abandoned little boy. The film can make you shake with laughter, but it’s also heartbreaking. That’s one of the things Chaplin brought to comedy, simultaneously the emotional depth of loneliness, abandonment and poverty and gorgeous, deep-seated humor.

Chaplin was born in London in excruciating poverty. His alcoholic father left the family early and Chaplin’s mother was in and out of mental hospitals. Charlie and his brother Sydney moved in and out of grim orphanages. But Chaplin also wound up earning money performing in music halls around the time he was ten. He became fabulously wealthy, yet his films continued to show the impoverished Little Fellow struggling to survive.

He followed The Kid with The Gold Rush, The Circus, City Lights and Modern Times, all silent and each of them among the greatest films ever. His talking pictures are good, but not like the silent movies. He grew preachy and lost the poetry.

The Real Charlie Chaplin gives a lovely account of Chaplin’s genius. A segment on City Lights describes how Chaplin spent months on the key moment in which a blind young woman who sells flowers on the street mistakes The Tramp for a rich man. Chaplin fired the actor then rehired her; he did well over a hundred takes but could not make the sequence work – until he figured out that the sound of a car door closing – an expensive car – would make the woman think that this man who buys a flower got out of that car and must be rich. In other words – the brilliant solution was to show sound in a silent film.

Finding the biography of the person of Charles Chaplin is harder than looking at the magnificent career. The best voice comes from Effie Wisdom, 92 years old when she spoke to film historian Kevin Brownlow in 1983. She was a playmate of Chaplin in that poverty-stricken neighborhood.

“Oh, he was a lovely little kid, but very temperamental. Very, very temperamental,” she said.

And Chaplin himself speaking in a rare recording about assembling his famous costume for the first time: “The moment I put on those clothes ...  I felt so free.”

But looking for some supposedly real Chaplin seems fruitless. He hid behind his enigmas and his celebrity. By recent standards, his marriages to noticeably young women and other sex scandals would have ended his career before it started. Some might call him a predator, although his last marriage to then 17-year old Oona O’Neill, the daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill, lasted until he died 34 years later and produced eight children.

Chaplin left America under heavy pressure from members of Congress who didn’t like either his left-leaning politics, his personal life, or the fact that he never became an American citizen. An interview in The New York Times led the writer to say that underneath the comic persona, Chaplin was dark and hard to figure — that was in 1920. The Real Charlie Chaplin is a fine movie, but it has no genuine answer to its question.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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