Who was the real Charlie Chaplin? Does anyone really know? The great English comic, showman and composer who made his name in America is an enigma to this day, a new documentary further reveals about the man born into impoverished circumstances in Lambeth, south London, in April 1889.
The film, shown through fascinating archive footage from the day, rare tape recordings and narrated to lead viewers through the chain of events that led to Chaplin’s meteoric rise to his later days in Switzerland, this warts and all picture highlights a man bedevilled with doubts through his entire life. And no one - not even his family, who lived with the icon - seemed to know who the real man was.
Much of the history has already been told, but this film is worth seeing if only to put things in perspective. It is well narrated by British actress Pearl Mackie, who is best known for playing Bill Potts in the long-running television series Doctor Who, leads you through the various episodes of his life.
I’m not sure we are left any the wiser, although I knew much more about him after a screening in London’s Soho and at the end of film you can both admire and despise Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin (born 16 April 1889). Despite his greatness he was a serial adulterer and came on the wrong side of the authorities in the United States (U.S.) for what were deemed his “un-American” activities.
Indeed, on his return with his family by boat to England, the US authorities barred him from re-entering the country just 2 days after the ship they were on departed from New York. He was effectively hounded out of America by the FBI in cahoots with a Hollywood gossip columnist, radio broadcaster and actress, Hedda Hopper, with a following during the 1940s of some 35 million across the States.
Chaplin fell into the trap of saying too much and being less than forward in dispelling these anti-American sentiments, even his tried to deflect them. But it’s somewhat ironic they didn’t get him until he left the nation that had so fallen under his comic spell with the iconic Tramp character.
Hopper, a strong supporter of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings, named suspected communists and was a major proponent of the Hollywood blacklist. And the film points to the FBI feeding the gossip columnist titbits on Chaplin for her to write on. Then the FBI would use these articles to add weight to their case against him.
This documentary combines unheard audio recordings, dramatic reconstructions and personal archives. The filmmakers Peter Middleton and James Spinney trace Chaplin’s meteoric rise from the slums of Victorian London to the heights of Hollywood superstardom.
Chaplin Makes The Tramp, The Tramp Makes Chaplin…
The picture starts by tracing events from December 1916 when there were simultaneous sightings of Chaplin across America, what became dubbed ‘Chaplinmania or ‘Chaplinitus’. Later on in 1919 he co-founded Unite Artists with D. W. Griffith, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. The latter had said about Chaplin that he had “cold eyes", but was always centre of attention at parties.
He had originally come to America with the Fred Karno Circus after a 12-day sailing across the Atlantic from England, performing three shows a day. Among the music hall comedians who worked for Karno - as well as Chaplin - were his understudy, Arthur Jefferson, who later adopted the name of Stan Laurel.
There were lookalike contests across the country. In one contest he actually entered and is said to have come 20th. The only constants from among all the imitators were the hat, boots, cane and moustache.
When asked in an in-depth interview that he gave to Life magazine in 1966, when was it that he first realised that he was famous, Chaplin remarked: “When I stopped New York.” He also stated the case for silent movies when talking pictures were coming into play in the late 1920s/early 1930s: “A voice is very beautiful and great…but not as great as silence.” Another comment from the man was: “We think too much but feel too little.”
Initially he refused to move to sound films in the 1930s, instead producing City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936) without dialogue. And, he became increasingly political though he stated that he had never been a member of any political party.
The Great Dictator (1940), was his first sound film, which satirised Adolf Hitler. Interestingly Chaplin and Hitler were born four days apart. He abandoned the Tramp character in his later films, which include Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Limelight (1952), A King in New York (1957), and A Countess from Hong Kong (1967).
The 1940s were a decade marked with a fair amount of controversy for Chaplin, and his popularity declined rapidly. Accused of communist sympathies, some members of the press and public found his involvement in a paternity suit, and marriages to much younger women, scandalous.
Eventually Chaplin was forced to leave the U.S. and settle in Switzerland and live out his last in a grand chateau in Corsier-sur-Vevey, in the canton of Vaud, with his children and fourth wife, Oona O’Neill (Lady Chaplin). He is buried there in the cemetery there near to where friend and actor James Mason is also buried. One of his daughters, Geraldine, said that during their time in Switzerland: “I was living with the icon but I didn’t know him.”
On leaving the US to return to Europe in September 1952, his first visit to England in 21 years, the American authorities banned him from re-entering the country two days after the ship he and his family were on had departed.
The film runs for a duration 1 hour 57 minutes. The producers are Ben Limberg, John Battsek and Mike Brett. The UK distributor is Altitude Film Distribution.
For a trailer of ‘The Real Charlie Chaplin’ view this link.