Both a critical profile of the great comedian and a history of cinematic stardom, The Real Charlie Chaplin, though not offering anything revelatory, is as thoughtful and incisive as the best documentaries should be. The question offered by the film’s title (who is the real man behind the mustache?) never receives a definitive answer, but then again, that was never really the point. Whatever the controversies of his private life—and there were many—the Chaplin we know will never be anything other than The Tramp: the funnyman of the silent screen, the ever-present entertainer, cinema’s first true superstar.
Peter Middleton and James Spinney, who previously made 2016’s Notes on Blindness, tell the tale of Charles Spencer Chaplin alongside the development of cinematic entertainment. When he first tours the United States as the star of a London vaudeville act, he confidently exclaims, “America, I am coming to conquer you!” They are the words of an entertainer through and through, a man driven by a need to please. As his appeal and fame grows, so too does his cinematic presence, of a sort that appeals to citizens of the United States, France, and Japan alike. This is when the film is at best: watching the growth of Chaplin as the cinema does the same. Chaplin is, in many ways, a synecdoche for the Hollywood machine, and observing their parallel developments is riveting.
For the most part, the film unfolds conventionally, moving from Chaplin’s humble beginnings to his unmatched celebrity, concluding with his late-career controversy and eventual exile. The editing and narration (voiced by Pearl Mackie) are steeped in a sense of penetrating curiosity, constantly prying away at the “real” Charlie Chaplin. We find that his life behind the camera was oftentimes despicable: several teenage marriages and abuse allegations plague his character. This journalistic rigor—brought to life through the innovative technique of live-action reenactments of pre-recorded conversations—paints as full a picture of the man as anyone could hope for.
The film ends without a cogent answer to its central question, somewhat meekly concluding that Chaplin’s essence can never be truly understood. This may in some ways be seen to undercut The Real Charlie Chaplin’s express purpose—to reveal the truth behind the persona, to discover the man under the bowler hat—but perhaps this answer in itself reveals Chaplin’s most essential quality. Always the entertainer, Chaplin evades authenticity, turning on his funnyman switch the moment the camera starts rolling.
Filmhouse is currently screening Charlie Chaplin films as part of their The Films of Charlie Chaplin season.
Image Courtesy of Insomnia Cured Here, via Flickr.
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