Dir: Richard Schickel. US. 2003. 125mins
An admiring portrait of an artist who helped create the language of film comedy, Charlie: The Life And Art Of Charles Chaplin does an honourable job of covering the many facets of a complex and controversial figure. A straightforward mixture of talking heads and extensive film clips, it is a comprehensive beginners guide to the subject. Commissioned by MK2 and Warner Home Video as part of a significant promotional campaign backing an extensive DVD release of material from the Chaplin estate, the film is respectful without being bland. The opening night presentation of the new Silverdocs Documentary Festival in Maryland this June, it played as a special screening at Cannes, before at Edinburgh in August and touring the festival circuit. It is also part of a series of Chaplin projects organised by the British Film Institute and designed to restore Chaplin's faded reputation in his native land.
Beginning with Chaplin's appearance in the 1914 short Kid Auto Races At Venice, the documentary places the emphasis very much on his career. His Little Tramp character would become one of the most influential figures in cinema history, making Chaplin one of the most famous and wealthy men of his time. Critics and commentators look for the autobiography in his work, finding it especially in The Kid (1921), which mirrored the misery of his Victorian childhood, and in Limelight (1952), which celebrated the music hall of his youth and addressed his fear of failure and hunger for an audience's loving applause.
The documentary covers familiar ground for most movie buffs and never places Chaplin in any historical context. It sometimes appears as if screen comedy began and ended with him. There is no mention of his music hall contemporary Stan Laurel or his silent screen rival Harold Lloyd. Posterity has championed Buster Keaton as the greatest of all the silent clowns, yet he is only considered because of his appearance with Chaplin in Limelight. The film does touch gently but firmly on the areas of controversy in Chaplin's life, from his fondness for young girls to the political alignments that would lead to a self-imposed 20 year exile from the US. Narrator Sydney Pollack sternly notes: "there's no doubt about it - he was leftist."
There are some fresh insights on offer as historian David Thomson notes that the perfectionist Chaplin was "Kubrick before Kubrick - and Kubrick never put his own money into films". It also makes a persuasive case for considering Chaplin as an unconscious surrealist.
A collection of fresh interviews prove of variable value with the best material mined from those who had some personal connection to Chaplin, among them actor Norman Lloyd and Chaplin family members. Martin Scorsese offers typically incisive comments on A Woman Of Paris (1923) and Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and Richard Attenborough recalls how The Gold Rush (1924) made him want to become an actor. Other commentators are less impressive, offering vacuous auto-pilot testimony to the brilliance of a genius.
There are notable absences along the way - nothing from Sophia Loren who starred in Chaplin's last film, no voices raised in anything but praise for Chaplin's body of work and very little in the way of interview material from Chaplin himself, although it just could be that little actually exists. Home movie footage and newsreel appearances add considerable personal touches to a picture that joins a growing collection of Chaplin documentaries that range from The Gentleman Tramp (1975), made during his lifetime, to the excellent Kevin Brownlow/David Gill series The Unknown Chaplin (1980). It is an excellent introduction to an icon.
Prod co: Lorac Productions
Int'l sales: MK2
Ed: Brian McKenzie
Cinematography: Elia Lyssy
Ed: Clelio Benevento
Narrator: Sydney Pollack
Interviewees: Woody Allen, Richard Attenborough, Claire Bloom, Geraldine Chaplin, Johnny Depp, Norman Lloyd, Martin Scorsese