PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Film

Chaplin: 15th Anniversary Edition


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.

6

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.

Books

Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.

Music

Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.

Books

Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Music

The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller
Music

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.

Music

When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.

Music

20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.

Music

The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.

Books

Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.

Music

Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."

Music

50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.

Film

Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.

Film

The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.

Music

Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.