leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh
Comprehensive and reverential, film historian Richard Schickel's workmanlike documentary about the groundbreaking silent-movie comedian is built around the rather obvious idea that Chaplin (1889-1977) was driven by lust for the limelight (what performer isn't?), but delivers the facts and illustrates the work with a generous selection of well-chosen clips. Born in London's poverty stricken East End, Chaplin was the son of music-hall performers and first appeared on stage at age 5. His high-strung mother suffered a nervous breakdown, his alcoholic father abandoned the family and little Charlie spent time in a workhouse. As a teenager, he toured with a vaudeville troupe that eventually brought him to America and Mack Sennett's Keystone studio, which produced popular comedy shorts. Chaplin made his first movie in 1914 and three years later, aged 28, was wealthy and famous beyond his wildest dreams. He refined a deepened a popular comic figure, the Tramp, into one of the most distinctive images of the 20th century, a beset-but-never-beaten everyman who was simultaneously forlorn, hopeful, mischievous, status-conscious, romantic, crafty, pratfall-prone and nimble as a dancer. Chaplin parlayed his popularity into behind-the-scenes control; he wrote, directed and later produced his own pictures, moving from studio to studio and letting his brother, Sidney, negotiate ever-more-lucrative contracts. One of the first movie-made celebrities, Chaplin was famous on a scale previously reserved for kings and saints; Chaplin-related cartoons, games, toys, comic books and collectible figurines helped usher in the fledgling age of movie-related merchandising. In 1919 he, director D.W. Griffith and fellow stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks formed United Artists, the first studio run by filmmakers instead of salesman. But Chaplin's leftist politics and scandal-plagued personal life his relationships with ever-younger women cost him small fortunes in divorce settlements and legal fees gradually eroded his image and his comic style fell out of fashion. Though Chaplin spent his last years an exile in Europe with his last wife, 36-years-younger Oona O'Neill, recreating his signature routines in home movies, he lived long enough to see his work appreciated by a new generation of filmmakers, scholars and the audiences whose approval he so desperately craved. A wide range of interviewees lend their voices to this portrait of a life in film, including Chaplin's children Michael and Geraldine, mimes Marcel Marceau and Bill Irwin, filmmakers Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Richard Attenborough, who made the biopic CHAPLIN (1992) and actors Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp.