[17 October 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Some legends are impossible to capture on film. When an icon inexplicably becomes something to everyone, no matter the era, that personal pliability and universal appeal is as elusive to illustrate as any other kind of large scale cine-magic. For decades, the mythos of Charlie Chaplin, one the greatest silent comedians of all time, was an incomprehensible motion picture mystique. Because of the public adoration of the man combined with his undeniable skill as an actor, director, innovator, and visionary, the subject promised to be too big, the scope too massive, for a standard mainstream audience to appreciate. But Oscar winning director Richard Attenborough wanted to try. Hiring the then hot Robert Downey Jr. for his biopic on the little tramp, Chaplin offered up history as half-baked studio schmaltz. Some 15 years later, we can utilize many of its numerous charms to overcome some of the obvious creative flaws.
It is clear from the earliest days of young Chaplin’s life that he would grow up to be a complex, incomplete man. While exceptionally talented, his mother had difficulty raising both he and his brother Sidney. The boys eventually wind up in the poorhouse, creating a lifelong desire for success in the small Charlie. Eventually, their parent goes insane, and the Chaplins are left to fend for themselves. Using his extraordinary abilities as an acrobat and physical comedian, Charlie becomes a UK musical hall sensation. While on tour in America, he learns about films, and is instantly fascinated. Starting with the famed Mack Sennett before striking out on his own, Charlie takes the country by storm. Soon, he has brought his family over to help with his career, while scandal bubbled beneath the surface. As with modern superstars, his status brings scrutiny from the press, the FBI, and his fellow Hollywood heavyweights.
Using the bookend narrative device of an elderly Charlie recounting his life to a biographer (Anthony Hopkins), Attenborough’s attempted encapsulation of his celebrated subject (offered up on a brand new 15th Anniversary Edition DVD by Lionsgate) has flashes of familiar genius. We love the moment when a stage struck Charlie learns the magic of live laughter. We relish the introduction to Sennett, the minor bit of pantomime confirming the actor’s ID to the egotistical producer. When he hobnobs with fellow motion picture personalities, including Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, we enjoy the celebrity camaraderie. But then Chaplin stumbles once the man’s unusual personal life comes calling. Charlie was someone who liked his women attractive, available, and often underage. It would be one of several dark clouds that would hang over, but not destroy, his megaton reputation.
Indeed, the balance Attenborough tries to create throughout Chaplin, an uneasy equilibrium between what happens on set and what occurs in the bedroom (and later, the courtroom), seems counterproductive to the story he is attempting. This is cinematic hero worship, make no bones about it, a clear endeavor to redefine the man outside of his obvious character flaws. By employing Downey, who was beginning his own downward spiral toward tabloid infamy at the time, Attenborough found a kindred spirit. Only 27, he captured all the elements of Charlie, from his free wheeling love of life and the art of creation to the more miserable moments when the world seemed to strategically target his fame. A great mimic, the actor brings many classic moments from the idol’s canon to life. Yet as with most biopic presentations, he seems as aloof and incomplete as the film surrounding him.
And as if to remind audiences of how great Downey was (he was nominated for an Oscar, losing out to Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman), the new DVD set offers up a selection of featurettes which focus almost exclusively on the link between the subject and the performer posited to take him on. “All at Sea” provides a rare glimpse of the real Chaplin at home. Here, he takes a boat trip with then gal pal Paulette Goddard. “Strolling in the Sunset” is a very frank discussion about the flaws found in the film. Oddly enough, most of the criticism comes from the mouth of Attenborough himself. As if to emphasize the already obvious impact of his monumental renown, “The Most Famous Man in the World” and “Chaplin the Hero” are exercises in deconstruction, explaining the actor’s ability to maintain his mythos even in light of the controversy he caused.
Of course, the most important added content is not found on this new release. Attenborough claims that his original cut of Chaplin was over four hours long. At the studio’s behest, he went back to the editing bay and trimmed the picture down to 150 minutes. Still not satisfied, he was mandated to remove an additional quarter of an hour of what he now considers to be “crucial” material. As a result, the filmmaker is still not entirely happy with the end results. Why Lionsgate didn’t appease the 85 year old stalwart and provide the missing footage remains a mystery. Perhaps they understood the limited appeal of the film itself - it was not a box office hit upon release, and remains a movie of mixed reactions - and figured a few new extras and a polished up transfer would be good enough.
Except when it comes to Charlie Chaplin, merely average is not acceptable. Like the other silent greats who he often battles for cinematic supremacy (Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, FYI), his importance to the artform and the overall growth of the burgeoning medium cannot be underestimated. These were men who made history by actually opening up a blank page in cinema’s struggling primer and writing down the very first rules. They didn’t redefine a genre or reinvent a type. Instead, they laid the foundation for almost everything that film would become in later decades. While one would never suggest that their story is incapable of being told properly, it’s clear that Chaplin’s outsized importance can’t be reduced to a single storyline - four hours or forty hours long. Robert Downey Jr. is a significant reason why this 1993 effort is worth revisiting. Everything else feels piecemeal and perfunctory.