Review of “The Real Charlie Chaplin”

Great was our enjoyment, occasionally swelling to awe, of Showtime’s The Real Charlie Chaplin, which we mentioned here a few days ago. Directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney pulled off something of a magic trick, wringing blood out of a stone as it were, amassing what little exists of candid Chaplin media material in order to get a better glimpse of the man behind the tiny mustache.

Some folks worried that this movie would cover well-trod ground, but it really didn’t. It dealt with the films themselves in the most cursory way, for that wasn’t the point, and there is no shortage of stuff on that. The chief treasures this film shares are: 1) a 1983 interview Kevin Brownlow conducted with 92 year old Effie Wisdom, a childhood friend and and neighbor of Chaplin’s; 2) audio of a 1966 interview Chaplin gave to Life magazine; 3) some of Chaplin’s wartime pro-Russia speeches; 4) downright shocking audio of the disastrous 1947 Monsieur Verdoux press conference in New York; 5) home movies of Chaplin and family at their home in Switzerland; and 6) rare interviews with his children Geraldine, Eugene, Jane and Michael, who are ordinarily pretty guarded on this topic.

Other great stuff: diagrams devised by Fred Karno to instruct his performers, color footage from the set of The Great Dictator, archival interviews with Mack Sennett, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Alistair Cooke, Virginia Cherill, Eddie Sutherland, and Lita Grey (lots with her, for obvious reasons). The film doesn’t shy away from Chaplin’s sexual pecadilloes and proclivities — it’s not flattering, but it is restricted to its own section (the Joan Barry trial is the fulcrum that shifts us over to that). I was gratified by a section that laid out the history of tramp comedians in vaudeville and music hall, many of whom I mentioned here. There was a bit on very early cinema, and lots about Chaplin’s early upbringing, including visual material not just on the street where he grew up, but the actual attic apartment he shared with his mother.

One quibble: the film contains several cinematic “re-enactments”, accompanying audio clips with fabricated scenes starring actors (mostly the Effie Wisdom and Life Magazine interview sections). I’m seeing more and more of this kind of thing in documentaries, and I don’t mind it on principle, but where it is employed I think it should be clearly identified as such. While there is a portion of the population that is growing ever more sophisticated about media, I assure you that there is another sector (probably a much more substantial one) that is quite the opposite. How do I know that? I follow political events. A third of this country wears a tin-foil hat. Truth and illusion must be spelled out for them. Or they will not know the difference. And the difference matters.

“Where you come from never leaves you”, quoth Jane Chaplin, and this film constantly reinforces our awareness of autobiography in Chaplin’s screen work. In its way this movie does a much better job of what Sir Richard Attenborough attempted in his 1992 bio-pic (itself about to turn 30 years old, ye gods!) Effie Wisdom’s cockney accent alone is worth a Yukon gold strike for what it reveals about Chaplin’s origins.

Naturally it whets one’s appetite for more, but there probably isn’t any, at least not much. At any rate, I was grateful for the thoughtful work the filmakers put into this doc, and I’m certain to watch it many more times. Again, it’s available here.