Blu-ray & DVD: Chaplin (1992)
How on earth do you fit Charlie Chaplin’s life into a two hour film? Well, you can’t. You can only skip lightly through it, and this is what director Richard Attenborough does. Based on Charlie’s autobiography and a screen play by whiter than white Bryan Forbes, here we have an extremely sanitised and glossy tale of a poor boy done good.
A few years ago I was lucky enough to go to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and see the Hollywood costume exhibition. There, amongst such gems as Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers, Scarlett O’Hara’s curtain dress and Marilyn’s Monroe’s white dress was ‘The Tramps’ costume, complete with cane. I was struck by how tiny Chaplin was, perhaps no more than 5 feet 4 and stick-thin. Seeing this raggedy costume I reflected on how I’ve never found Chaplin ‘funny’ and always preferred Laurel and Hardy and Harold Lloyd.
So it’s worth mentioning that Chaplin really did rise from nothing. This is touched on in the film, as is his mother’s (played by Geraldine Chaplin, daughter of Oona and Charlie Chaplin) mental health problems. Possibly born ‘in a gypsy caravan in Smethwick, near Birmingham’ in April 1889. By 1915, Chaplin was the most famous man in the world, so famous that Lenin said ‘Chaplin is the only man in the world I want to meet.’ He was courted by the rich and famous, stayed with Churchill at Chartwell, he met Shaw and was friends with H.G. Wells and Debussy. All this from an illegitimate kid from Birmingham. However, he was somewhat self assured of his talent famously stating ‘I am known in parts of the world by people who have never heard of Jesus Christ,’ America wanted to Kill John Lennon for nearly saying something similar.
None of this really comes across in Attenborough’s film. His obsession with film work is briefly touched on, and his ‘genius’ is never far from the fore, but perhaps one of the most interesting omissions from the film, is Chaplins sexual behavior.
He portrayed himself as a waif, a saviour and the everyman, when in fact he could be a monster who liked to fuck very young girls, and sometimes marry them to avoid scandal. When he first ‘met’ them, some ages were; Mildred Harris 15, Lita Grey 15, Paulette Goddard 17, Oona O’Neil 17.
So as you can see, Chaplin is a complicated but irresistibly entertaining idol, and this film could have been so much more if Attenborough had taken one area of his life, or even one era, and showed him in all his glory. But this is a film about a slightly flawed, work obsessed genius, emphasis on genius, from his beginnings to the end. It’s glossy and the role of a lifetime for Robert Downey Jr, garnering him an Oscar nod, BUT, imagine Robert making this film now, as the 53 yr old Chaplin? Now wouldn’t that be something?
Now I’m not saying I don’t like this film, it’s very entertaining and I really enjoyed watching it, but unfortunately my interest in ‘classic’ cinema and stars means I more or less know the real story, which makes me yearn for more than a life on fast forward.
I suggest if you ARE interested in a really great Bio of Chaplin, ,check out the great Peter Ackroyd Bio.
- ‘Strolling into the Sunset’ featurette
- ‘Chaplin the Hero’ featurette
- ‘The Most Famous Man in the World’ featurette
- Theatrical trailer
- Charlie Chaplin Shorts: The Cure (1917) The Floorwalker (1916) The Vagabond (1916) Behind the Screen (1916) The Fireman (1916) The Rink (1916)