Showtime’s attempt to reveal who Chaplin is in THE REAL CHARLIE CHAPLIN is terrific. Not only do we get to know more about the boy facing problems as his family was falling apart, but also we get a sense of how that strengthened him, for better or worse. Chaplin Senior abandoned his child and wife. The documentary makes allegations but we don’t really know for sure if all that affected the troubled youth. The kid struggled before being “discovered.” He was part of a clog-dancing group known as the Eight Lancashire Lads, and he didn’t last long there. Afterwards, he got small roles. From one dramatic act to a comedic one, he realised where his future lay.
All of this information is in many written biographies. But what those treatments don’t unveil is the pathos of what drives this auteur. This work by Peter Middleton and James Spinney does a great job of making us feel for the young man. They’ve gathered many excellent interviews with people who remember the man before and as he became a tour de force in Hollywood.
If Chaplin didn’t hone his emotive skills in vaudeville, he wouldn’t have lasted. Mack Sennett took a chance on him, and thus THE LITTLE TRAMP was born. Some discussion is made about who borrowed from whom, as it was not trademarked, and I’m glad this detail gets examined.
This work doesn’t get into the specifics of how he, D. W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks formed United Artists. This studio was created to allow these talents to control their works more than the businessmen who operated the studios. It’s a detail scholars nitpick about, but I would find diverging to discuss the historical aspects of this era distracting. What we see instead are thoughts from his contemporaries on what was in this filmmaker’s mind when he made THE KID, A WOMAN IN PARIS, CITY LIGHTS and THE GREAT DICTATOR.
His interest with younger starlets had many people criticising him. Also, as the Cold War emerged, right-wing conservatives targeted and wanted him ejected out of America. But why hate The Tramp? It’s because the actor rather than the character was very vocal about various social injustices going on. This film is very much about a person in that fight instead of sitting on the sidelines. His films reflected that, and they are excellent satires of an era now forgotten.
Although this documentary doesn’t reflect upon how America wanted him back, and his honorary Academy Award in the early 70s, it ends on a proper note–to recognize the man, and what he stood for.
THE REAL CHARLIE CHAPLIN is now streaming on Crave in Canada and Showtime in the United States.