Charlie Chaplin was the Jerry Lee Lewis of silent cinema—several times over in fact. Fortunately, he lived in an era when men could simply marry the under-aged girls they might have impregnated and sweep the whole business under the rug. Of course, it was all dashed uncouth for J. Edgar Hoover to use that sort of thing against him. Chaplin’s loyalists keep up the PR fight, but it feels rather awkward in the post-Jerry Lee, post-Cosby era. At least, there is also a fair amount of old school Hollywood history in Anne Le Boulc’h & Frédéric Martin’s Chaplin—Legend of the Century, which premieres this Thursday on Chicago’s WWTW.
Presented by co-writer-narrator Laurent Delahousse, Legend was originally produced as part of France 2’s Une Jour, Une Histoire documentary series. The production’s Gallic crew and perspective probably helped secure the participation of Chaplin’s Francophone grandchildren. In fact, the film opens with the elderly Chaplin about to return to Hollywood to accept an honorary Academy Award after twenty admittedly comfortable years of exile in Switzerland. However, we are told J. Edgar was also gnashing his teeth ominously in his Federal Triangle lair.
After the bittersweet triumph of the Oscar ceremony, Delahousse and co-writer Laurent Seksik flashback to Chaplin’s early Dickensian years in late Victorian London. His father, such as he was, had once attained a measure of fame as a vaudeville performer. Clearly, his absence and failings and his mother’s subsequent mental health breakdowns had a formative influence on the young lad. Based on his stand-out clowning in a touring British variety show, Chaplin was signed by Keystone Studios, where he would eventually develop his celebrated “Tramp” persona.
Chaplin, Hoover’s bête noire, would become the first motion picture star to earn a million dollar contract. He would also marry two women under the age of eighteen, under rather hasty circumstances. The Laurents and the Chaplins try to dismiss this as part of his parental baggage, but it is tough for contemporary viewers to shake off the creepiness of it all. At least, his third marriage to eighteen year-old Oona O’Neil (playwright Eugene O’Neil’s daughter) would be the one to last.
Nobody will deny Chaplin’ cinematic genius. He even a few great talkies in him, including The Great Dictator, which slyly capitalized on the toothbrush style of moustache he shared with the rising Adolph Hitler. However, the narrative of victimization Delahousse and Seksik try to spin gets tiresome quickly. Still, Le Boulc’h, Martin, and editor Florent Maillent shrewdly incorporate vintage clips from his talking pictures that speak directly to each stage of his life.