Thursday, December 09, 2021

The Real Charlie Chaplin, on Showtime

Enjoy this documentary while you can. It seems like it will only be a matter of time before Charlie Chaplin gets an Ansel Elgort-Woody Allen-style canceling. After all, he had a habit of marrying young women in their early teens. According to his second wife’s memoir, Chaplin was quite an abusive husband. He also financially supported his friend Fatty Arbuckle after the screen comedian was acquitted on notorious rape and murder charges. Of course, Chaplin’s stature as the first true mega-movie star and a genuine cinematic auteur should trump all that—but it doesn’t work that way under the current anti-cultural climate. Probably arriving just under the wire, Peter Middleton & James Spinney’s The Real Charlie Chaplin premieres this Saturday on Showtime.

Chaplin’s origins could be any humbler. After his father absconded and his mother was institutionalized, the young boy was literally consigned to a work-house. Eventually, he found success as a vaudeville performer in a particularly physical troupe. While on tour in America, he was signed to a film contract by Mack Sennett. Chaplin had a less than auspicious debut, but once he adopted his famous “tramp” persona, his career sky-rocketed.

By any measure, Chapin was the biggest, traffic-stopping star of the silent era. He was such a big star, he could still produce a silent classic like
Modern Times in 1936, well after the industry adopted sound as a standard. He eventually went talkie with his classic satire The Great Dictator, which skewered Adolph Hitler mercilessly. However, much of the pro-Soviet sounding rhetoric he engaged in during this time would come back to haunt him. Yet, arguably, Chaplin’s antagonism with the HUAC Committee has ironically helped insulate him from criticism of his personal life.

Indeed, that was certainly true of prior bio-docs, like partisan spin displayed in
Chaplin—Legendof the Century. Instead, The Real Charlie Chaplin does a decent job of presenting a comprehensive warts-and-all portrait of Chaplin that never whitewashes his problematic personal behavior. They still largely give him a pass on his political pronouncements, even though they happened at a time when the Moscow Show Trials were well in public record (but the Ukrainian Holodomor genocide story was still getting spiked in Western media outlets). Still, this is not hagiography, by any measure.

We even hear from Chaplin himself, sort of, through rare recordings of a late career interview, dramatized with lip-synching actors. Weirdly, this technique works better for Kevin Brownlow’s interview with Chaplin’s childhood friend Effie Wisdom, which is surprisingly sweet and endearing, thanks in large part to thesps Dominic Marsh and Anne Rosenfeld.

Chaplin was a complicated figure. To their credit, Middleton and Spinney fully convey his complex, ambiguous persona. There was much more to him than two bad relationships and some poor political judgments, but nuance is lost on the canceling barbarians. That is why Chaplin fans should consider buying some of his great classics, before they are pulled from streaming services. You can scoff now, but don’t say you weren’t warned later. You should also watch
The Real Charlie Chaplin when it debuts this Saturday (12/11) on Showtime—at least while you can.