Saturday, April 15, 2023

Stubs - The Real Charlie Chaplin

The Real Charlie Chaplin (2021) Narrated by Pearl Mackie. Starring Jeff Rawle, Paul Ryan, Anne Rosenfeld, Dominic Marsh. Directed by Peter Middleton, James Spinney. Written by Oliver Kindeberg, Peter Middleton, James Spinney. Produced by John Battsek, Mike Brett, Jo Jo Ellison, Steve Jamison, Ben Limberg. Run time: 114 minutes. Color/Black and White. USA. Documentary.

With few options for entertainment on a recent flight, I happened across this documentary. Being a fan of Charlie Chaplin, I was interested by the title. With someone like Charlie Chaplin, the real can and does, in this film, refer to different facets of the man’s life. Primarily, there is separating Chaplin from the Tramp character that he invented while working for Mack Sennet’s Keystone studio.Then, there’s Chaplin’s Tramp vs. the apparently many impersonators, including those who, in essence, made their own Tramp films. And then, there's really who is Charlie Chaplin, the man himself.

Charlie Chaplin in his 20s.

This is a different re-telling of Chaplin’s life than Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin (1992). While that film relied on Robert Downey’s acting, The Real Charlie Chaplin uses audio recordings that are then lip-synched to by actors portraying the real-life people.

Born on April 16, 1889, four days before Adolf Hitler and the same year as the founding of Nintendo, Chaplin lived in poverty with his mother Hannah and half-brother Sydney, most notably in an attic apartment before Hannah was taken to an asylum. The poverty he grew up in would play a major part as the settings for his films.

One of the biggest omissions of The Real Charlie Chaplin is Sydney. While his name may have been mentioned once, he definitely gets short shrift in the telling of Charlie’s story in this documentary. It was Sydney who got Charlie into Fred Karno’s comedy troupe, which is where Charlie blossomed and got him to America. Sydney would also appear in films and later be Charlie's business manager. But he barely gets a mention in the documentary.

Ford Sterling was surprisingly pivotal in Charlie’s career. A very popular comedic star for Sennett, Sterling, according to the documentary, decided to leave Keystone and the studio needed a new male lead. Sennett remembered having seen someone in the Fred Karno act, though he couldn’t remember the correct last name, and Chaplin was eventually hired. Chaplin was originally expected to act like Sterling and it was failing to do so that led to the creation of his signature character, the Tramp, using clothes, including Sterling’s boots, from the Keystone wardrobe department.

The film opens with a look at the popularity of Charlie Chaplin. He was, at one time, arguably the best-known man on the planet. As such, there were Chaplin impersonators and contests. It is reported that Chaplin himself entered one such contest and came in third.

Charlie Chaplin as the Tramp.

There are scenes which would be reminiscent of Beatlemania, but may have been even more intense, given the time and the fact celebrity was a relatively new thing in the early 1910s. Charlie appeared to be everywhere, from men in the streets dressing like him, to other actors in films portraying him. One such actor, Carlos Amador, was billed as Charles Aplin in films based on Chaplin’s. In one such film, The Race Track, he dressed up as the Tramp (in identical costume and makeup), copied Chaplin’s mannerisms, and recreated his physical comedy routines. The Race Track itself was a blatant rip-off of Chaplin’s earlier film The Kid Auto Races at Venice.

Carlos Amador, billed as Charles Aplin, as the Tramp.

Aplin’s defense was that he wasn’t copying Chaplin, but rather another well-known impersonator, Billy West, who had made 24 films in which he mimicked the Tramp character. It was West’s moving on to other projects that prompted those film’s producers, Sanford Productions, to hire Amador and bill him as Charles Aplin. The judge, and subsequent appeal judges, sided with Chaplin and all negatives of The Race Track were ordered destroyed. The case established that because Chaplin was the first person to portray his character on film, his character’s performance style was his intellectual property.

The scene that took 342 takes to get right, from City Lights. Chaplin with Virginia Cherrill.

It was sound that would eventually bring down the Tramp, but Chaplin resisted the innovation at first. His next film, following the coming of sound, was the silent City Lights (1931). Working without a script, which was his way, Chaplin worked on one scene for 342 takes looking for a way for the Tramp to be confused for a rich man by the blind flower girl. It was that scene that Chaplin returned to over and over again during the film’s two-year production, even at one point firing Virginia Cherrill and hiring Georgia Hale, his co-star in The Gold Rush (1925), before firing her and rehiring Cherrill. Finally, he hit on the idea of the sound of a car door closing as the cue. This working without a script is how Chaplin always worked, as has been documented in Kevin Brownlow’s mini-series Unknown Chaplin (1983).

Chaplin as the Tramp as Dictator Adenoid Hynkel in The Great Dictator.

It wasn’t until The Great Dictator (1940) that the Tramp and his doppelganger Dictator Adenoid Hynkel, spoke. Hitler, which the film shows, was once mistaken for a Chaplin impersonator, hated the comedian and banned his film Modern Times (1936) from Germany. Well, the feeling was mutual and Chaplin was one of the first Hollywood filmmakers to take a shot at the dictator, starting filming at about the time the Nazis invaded Poland. And while the final speech in the film was eloquent, FDR had him repeat it at his inaugural. That was the end of the Tramp. And about that time, trouble was ahead for Chaplin himself.

His relationship with Cherrill was the film’s chance to discuss Chaplin’s obsession with young women. Cherrill, who in real-life disliked Chaplin, in discussing rumors of an affair between the two, said that at twenty, she was too old for him. Chaplin, arguably, had a thing for teenage girls, marrying Mildred Harris, Lita Gray and Oona O’Neill when they were all teenagers. Paulette Goddard, his third wife, is another omission in the film, getting less mention than Lita Gray did in his book, My Autobiography. But it was another young lover that would tarnish Chaplin’s reputation.

In 1941, when aspiring actress Joan Barry, then 21, became pregnant by Chaplin, there was a trial for support. Even though it was eventually proven, through blood type, that Chaplin wasn’t the father, so much dirt came out about the actor during the trial that he lost a lot of public support.

You get a real sense the press is turning on Chaplin
in the re-enactment of his 1947 press conference.

This, is turn, is apparent during Chaplin’s press conference in the Hotel Gotham, New York City, April 14, 1947 to discuss his newest and first post-Tramp film Monsieur Verdoux, that it obvious the press is against him, questioning his patriotism, morals, communism and even his film-making.

And the tide continued to turn against him as both Edgar Hoover’s FBI and Hearst columnist Hedda Hopper joined forces against him. The FBI would feed rumors to Hopper, who would report them in her column and then the FBI would quote her column in their reports. This led to Chaplin’s ouster from the US in 1952, when he traveled overseas to promote Limelight.

This transitions to the final chapter in Chaplin’s life. Settling in Switzerland with Oona and their children Geraldine, Michael, Josephine, Victoria, Eugene and Christopher, Chaplin was apparently an estranged father to the children. One daughter even wished for years to just have a one-on-one conversation with him, which finally came through.

The Switzerland years are sadly not that well documented. Oona, the daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neil, apparently kept voluminous diaries and journals during the marriage, only to destroy them upon his death. We’re left, instead, with the children speaking about him, but sadly they didn’t actually know their father very well.

Charlie Chaplin about the time of his 1966 interview with Life Magazine.

Chaplin’s final two films, A King in New York (1957) and A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), don’t really get much play here, but the film does mention his triumphant return to Hollywood to receive an Honorary Academy Award for "the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century" in 1972.

The documentary does a pretty good job at keeping a lively pace, thanks in part to the narration by Pearl Mackie, and there is certainly a lot to cover when speaking about someone like Charlie Chaplin, who was a genius but apparently not a great man when it came to women and his children.

The film doesn’t break new ground in his story, but the reenactment of audio interviews; one from 1966 with Chaplin (Jeff Rawle) speaking to Life magazine at his Swiss mansion; and the other between in the other, Chaplin's childhood friend, Effie Wisdom (Anne Rosenfel), reminisces about him to film historian Kevin Brownlow (Dominic Marsh), give the film a certain intimacy that most historical documentaries lack. However, neither really gives much away about the man that isn’t already known.

The film does make a passing reference to the effect of Charlie's upbringing on his films. The most obvious example is the late Victorian setting of The Kid (1921), which clearly reflects the London of Chaplin’s youth, particularly the attic room at 3 Pownall Terrace where Chaplin had lived.

The attic set of The Kid is reminiscent of where Charlie lived as a child with his mother and brother.

While I enjoyed the film, the one thing new I came away knowing was the year Nintendo was founded, which isn’t really the point of the movie. If you’re new to Charlie Chaplin, then this might be an interesting introduction to the man, as it does, with the exceptions noted above, appear to cover most of the bases. But don’t come away thinking you know The Real Charlie Chaplin. I’m not sure anyone ever really did.

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