“The misery that is upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.”
Encapsulating a man like Charlie Chaplin, who was born in a slum, orphaned at a young age, ground through the same kind of workhouse that Dickens railed against before going on to become the most famous actor in human history before his 30th birthday, is a seemingly impossible task. Chaplin’s work bridges the 19th and 20th centuries, and is really the missing link between live theater and film. He was fiercely, angrily populist in his politics, such that he became an enemy of America’s vicious authoritarians during the reign of McCarthy and Hoover, and spent much of his autumn years in exile from the States.
Peter Middleton and James Spinney’s documentary, The Real Charlie Chaplin, attempts to reckon with all of this—and with Chaplin’s well-documented abuse allegations and controversies—through a kind of deconstruction. It starts by forcibly splitting Charlie Chaplin the man from Charlie Chaplin the character, then mining oral history and the historical record to fill the space that exists in the midst of that dichotomy.
The documentary makes use of several audio interviews with people who knew Chaplin, often dramatizing the interviews with actors lip-synching along to the voices as the interview unfolds. Though great care was taken in the staging of these sequences, which are many times framed as if they are being captured by a documentary film crew, their artificiality can sometimes butt heads with the rest of the film. That largely consists of footage of Chaplin’s work and newsreels from the world in which he lived, and these are the parts where The Real Charlie Chaplin does an admirable job of trying to put the viewer in the mindset of the Gilded Age that gave rise to the performer.
The documentary picks one woman, who knew Chaplin from a young age, to serve as a sort of framing device, setting up the humble beginnings of the boy who would become the world’s most famous and recognized actor, and then circles back with her to hear recollections of meeting him again decades later. The film’s narrator (Pearl Mackie), meanwhile, draws an immediate distinction between this real man and his character, “The Tramp,” which was itself a callback to the old vaudeville archetype.
The movie traces the origins of both Chaplin and the role from which his body of work is inextricable, and puts movies like The Kid (about an abandoned youth) and The Gold Rush in context with the man’s life. I went into the movie knowing little about its scope, and after a solid hour of fastidious historical positioning, of interviews with the manager of the comedy troupe where he first got his start and old video of his rapturous reception by audiences around the world, I was worried it was not going to go where any movie titled The Real Charlie Chaplin has to.
All of Chaplin’s genius and compassion, controversy and craft, must be viewed in context with the man’s personal life. Almost every one of his four marriages began with relationships with underage girls—an aspect of his personal life that was aired again when his second wife published a tell-all book, but seems as if it’s largely been forgotten thanks to efforts in the late ’80s and early ’90s to rehabilitate the man’s legacy. 1992’s Oscar-nominated Chaplin, starring Robert Downey, Jr., included those parts of Chaplin’s history, but gave them short shrift. Thirty years on from that film, it stands as the last word on Chaplin from filmmakers who were his contemporaries, and ends in a scene where long excerpts of his film career are aired as old Chaplin drinks in the laughter of a modern-day audience.
In her excellent Lolita Podcast, Paste contributor Jamie Loftus dedicates a portion of her deep dive to Chaplin, and how his own abuses are now barely remembered in many assessments of the man. A great example of a remembrance of Chaplin’s work that didn’t mention his complicated legacy was the one I wrote when I focused on The Great Dictator. The tramp, it seems, often eclipses the man.
Chaplin was able to weather those controversies—even as they were publicly and loudly recognized at the time, as The Real Charlie Chaplin goes into in great detail as the second hour of the documentary begins. It’s here, finally, that some of the women in Chaplin’s life get a voice, and the documentary also draws in interviews with several of his children. Chaplin’s divorce filings during the dissolution of his second marriage were so sensational that the publicly available document was apparently copied and sold on the street by scalpers.
From here, the documentary shifts to Chaplin’s later career and the controversies that followed it, linking these with the death of his tramp character-that curly-haired, mustached man with a bowler hat and cane who everyone, for a whole century, has thought of when the name “Charlie Chaplin” has ever been uttered. Seeing that separation—between the boy partly raised in a workhouse and the tramp who leads The Kid—is crucial to understanding the forces that made Chaplin’s tramp character resonate in the Gilded Age.
The Real Charlie Chaplin manages all of that while also centering how the sex scandals surrounding Chaplin were hijacked by authoritarian forces to discredit his politics, all while the women who were harmed by his actions were shoved to the side and silenced. It forces the audience to grapple with the fact that same man seduced a 12-year-old while making movies like The Kid—a fact that is itself crucial to understanding how the power dynamics that surround a “genius” have changed as little as the problems of progress and humanity that so ate at Chaplin.
”Let us all unite! Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power, but they lie! They do not fulfill that promise, they never will! Dictators free themselves, but they enslave the people!”
One of the more amusing bits of The Real Charlie Chaplin comes as it draws superficial similarities between Chaplin and another of the 20th century’s most important historical figures: Hitler. Both came from nothing, saddled with resentment against parents who had abandoned or abused them, and they were both just dorky little dudes. Chaplin, whose comedy always made authorities and police the butt of jokes (his breakout roles came from the same company that originated the term “Keystone Cops”), was on record as hating Hitler, and the Nazi regime reciprocated the feeling. As the era of the “talkie” swept filmmaking, Chaplin had been stubbornly against making anything but silent films, but he finally relented and opened his mouth in The Great Dictator.
The monologue that ends The Great Dictator forms an anchor point in the documentary’s late stretch, though it leaves out some of its most revolutionary bits. It was the end of the tramp, and, the documentary argues, a moment when caricature and actor became one, right in front of audiences’ eyes. Chaplin does speak in the film prior to this moment, both as the dictator and as the man’s doppelganger, a Jewish barber, but the former is treated as noise that makes fun of Hitler’s cadences and spastic delivery, and the latter has relatively few lines that seem almost perfunctory. The Jewish barber masquerading as a dictator is not the one speaking to a fascist army. Charles Spencer Chaplin is speaking, from 1940, to you, in 1940 or in 2021, or in a century yet to come.
The Real Charlie Chaplin treats it with great importance. In truth, it may have been one of the most important moments in the entire history of film: The world’s most famous actor annihilating the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience.
Moments like these make it feel as if The Real Charlie Chaplin brings the Chaplin of 1920 or 1940 into the present, if only briefly, and with the caveat that even those closest to him still wonder at what was really going on inside his head. It’s a look at one of film’s formative artists in a way that draws a direct line from his Gilded Age to our own, and acknowledges that some of the people he hurt will never get to have a word about the full measure of the man.
Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Movies. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.