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The Real Charlie Chaplin (2021)

I’ve made clear in past write-ups that I struggle with Charlie Chaplin. He certainly is one of, if not the most, legendary comedian to come out of the early twentieth century. In fact, he played a vitally important role in shaping the course of comedy as we see it today. With that thought, he was also a notoriously complex figure. Whether it was his politics, his personal life, or the auteurist style of his films, Chaplin is challenging. He was a genius and everything that implies, but he was also a man. It is in this lies the focus of the new documentary, The Real Charlie Chaplin. The film strives to look beyond “The Little Tramp”, and examine Chaplin as an artist, a creator, and a man. 

The Real Charlie Chaplin follows the career of Charlie Chaplin, widely recognized as one of the top silent comedians. It’s always Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. The Big Three. The documentary follows the legend beginning with his impoverished childhood in London all the way through his 1977 passing. Peter Middleton and James Spinney direct the documentary from a script they co-wrote with Oliver Kindeberg. 

The Real Charlie Chaplin tackles an almost Herculean task in their chosen thesis. Chaplin passed away 44 years ago and since then the passage of time has quieted the voices of silent cinema. Even the youngest performers have now passed away.

Where this documentary truly shines is in its incorporation of sources. The Real Charlie Chaplin makes beautiful use of not only period stock footage but also audio interviews. The use of these rarely heard clips manages to give voice to not only Chaplin but the figures around him. Perhaps most impressive is an audio interview with Chaplin at the end of his life.

Also quite illuminating is an included interview with one of Chaplin’s childhood friends. In her nineties at the time of recording, the woman gives insight into the comedian to which few were able. Meanwhile, silent buffs should also enjoy a brief clip of legend Mack Sennett discussing Chaplin’s early years with his studio. While, Pearl Mackie’s narration paints the film with wistful nostalgia. Each of these choices put together makes the film a pleasure to watch as it carries you through the breadth of Chaplin’s life.

At the same time, the filmmakers use some truly great clips to tell the story. These manage to showcase the comedian not only in front of, but behind the camera as well. I found myself particularly interested in the extensive footage from City Lights. The use of behind-the-scenes clips is extensive and shows a tired Chaplin fighting his perfectionist tendencies. As he tries to nail one particular scene, we see his humanity. In a documentary called The Real Charlie Chaplin, this is what we’re here to see. We see Chaplin not as “The Little Tramp”, but as a man. In the moment he looks human and impossibly relatable.

The documentary comes up against a true challenge though when dealing with the comedian’s personal life. History has immortalized his demons, from his political battles to his struggles during the Red Scare. In fact, the subject matter makes for powerful emotional beats when played over clips from The Great Dictator. However, another facet to finding “The Real Charlie Chaplin” is honing in on Chaplin as a husband and a father. This is a challenge unto itself.

Chaplin married four times and fathered eleven children over his life. Chaplin’s wives tended to be quite young (and the documentary makes note of this). Three were teenagers when they married the comedian while the oldest was 26.

The narrative targets two specific periods, namely his marriages to Lita Grey and Oona Chaplin. Grey remained active and gave occasional interviews after their much-publicized divorce. Meanwhile, Oona Chaplin was mother to eight of Chaplin’s children and remained with him until his 1977 passing.

Any handling of Chaplin’s personal life is going to open up a can of worms and unfortunately, there’s little available research to explore the murky waters of his marriages. The film sources interviews from Lita Grey which do not paint a flattering picture of the comedian. She accuses him of extreme mental cruelty and abuse. It is important though that the film highlights the abuse she also received from culture as a whole. At the time of their divorce, Grey was 19 years old. In this research, we see many period academics “slut shame” the teenager. Meanwhile, many more period sources craft Grey as a Lolita seducing the almost 45-year-old Chaplin.

Interestingly, the documentary skips over third wife Paulette Godard to focus on Oona, who was 18 when she married Chaplin. At this point, the documentary is able to make use of interviews with the comedian’s children. The images and clips paint the union as a happy one (the couple would be married for almost thirty-five years). However, Chaplin’s children paint a complex picture of their father. Listening to the clips, I found myself wondering what they weren’t saying. They express not only the overwhelming nature of Chaplin’s persona but also his rigidity and even fear of their father. In fact, Michael Chaplin openly blames his father for many of his children leaving home at a young age.

Ultimately, I’m not an expert on Chaplin and can’t speak to what’s going on behind the scenes. However, any discussion of Chaplin’s personal life will be at best complicated and at worst problematic. It is frustrating to see so little voice given to his wives (only Grey truly speaks for herself here). These are the people who knew him best. This feels particularly poignant when discussing Oona Chaplin. Chaplin’s last wife never gave interviews. Sadder still, while she was a prolific writer, she reportedly destroyed her own papers prior to her 1991 passing. With the loss of those documents, we lost not only her voice but a very real portrait of “The Real Charlie Chaplin”.

All in all, The Real Charlie Chaplin is liable to be a bit of a challenging viewing for some. This is particularly true for those with an idyllic view of the comedian. Chaplin often comes with a bit of a halo in film history circles. He can do no wrong and we often forget there was a man behind the facade. Could the documentary have dived deeper into certain elements? Sure. However, The Real Charlie Chaplin still crafts a compelling and interesting story. Charlie Chaplin is an icon of cinema and he built the medium we all know and love. Beneath all that creativity though, was a man. While he was a genius, he struggled with personal demons. No one is perfect and this documentary shows it is possible to celebrate a legend while acknowledging their humanity.

The Real Charlie Chaplin airs on Showtime on December 11th.

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One thought on “The Real Charlie Chaplin (2021) Leave a comment

  1. Your comments about his politics were a bit cryptic. The only thing I can think of that was problematic was they were poor match for the sick, paranoid venal capitalist regime of the country he chose (for a time) to live and work in. Those particular demons had names like McCarthy and Cohn.

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