A throughly researched and extremely informative survey of the life and work of one of the great figures of world cinema, Richard Schickel’s “Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin” is a must for lovers of cinema. Docu will be getting its U.S. preem next month with an unspooling at the American Film Institute and Discovery Channel’s Silverdocs documentary fest in Silver Springs, Md. Pic will then be screened at the Edinburgh fest before playing other fests around the world over a 12-month period. It will also receive a seven-day run at an L.A. theater to qualify for a documentary Oscar, and will preem on the small screen via Turner Classic Movies. A very long life on DVD is also indicated for a welcome addition to the growing gallery of studies of Chaplin, which also include “The Unknown Chaplin” and “The Tramp and the Dictator.”
However, no other documentary about Chaplin has attempted such a comprehensive look at the man’s career. There are excerpts from dozens of short films, starting with “Kid Auto Races at Venice” (1914), the first film in which the famous Tramp character appeared. Schickel’s lucid narration, spoken by Sydney Pollack, follows Chaplin’s career at Sennett, Essanay, Mutual and First National, his increasing fame and earning capability and his elevation into the world’s first superstar. Throughout, film excerpts are accompanied by photographs, newsreel footage and some fascinating home movie material, especially in the later stages.
A small handful of people who knew Chaplin personally is called upon to talk about him. Three of his children, Sydney, Michael and Geraldine, are extremely informative as to what it was like to have such a man as a father, and they’re also quite objective about the films themselves: for instance, Geraldine opining why her father never mentioned “The Circus” (1928) in his autobiography. She is also frank about his fondness for very young women, a fondness that often got him into hot water with the authorities.
A trio of collaborators also lend their insights. Norman Lloyd, who appeared with Chaplin and Buster Keaton in the famous death scene in “Limelight” (1952), is full of interesting anecdotes, and David Raksin, who arranged the score for “Modern Times,” talks of the man he regarded as a father figure and offers interesting insights into the making of one of Chaplin’s more political films.
And Claire Bloom, cast in the lead role of “Limelight” when she was an inexperienced 19-year-old, talks about the way Chaplin prepared her for the scene in which she is a cripple who discovers she can walk again.
Chaplin biographers, including David Robinson and Jeffrey Vance, also offer insights, as do film critics and historians, notably Andrew Sarris and David Thomson. Thomson, speaking of Chaplin’s famous methods of laboring for months to get a particular scene exactly right, opines that “he was Kubrick before Kubrick — and Kubrick didn’t use his own money.”
Mime artist Marcel Marceau talks of seeing “The Circus’ as a child and being inspired — he re-enacts a piece of Chaplin comedy from the film.
Equally fascinating are the comments from current practitioners from the film community. Martin Scorsese is characteristically enthusiastic as he analyses scenes from “A Woman of Paris” (1923) and “Monsieur Verdoux” (1947). Woody Allen offers some critical assessments, not always entirely favorable, while Richard Attenborough, who in 1992 directed a feature biopic, “Chaplin,” reveals that he was inspired to become an actor when he saw “The Gold Rush” (1924).
The star of Attenborough’s film, Robert Downey Jr., adds his impressions of the genius he portrayed, while Johnny Depp, who emulated Chaplin’s famous “dance of the rolls” in “Benny & Joon” (1993) provides an insightful analysis of “The Immigrant.” Perhaps most interestingly, Milos Forman talks about seeing “The Great Dictator” (1940) in his native Prague after the war: “The Allies liberated us physically,” he says. “‘The Great Dictator’ liberated us spiritually.”
Ultimately, “Charlie” will serve as an appetizer for the about to be released DVDs of most of the Chaplin collection, but Schickel’s film is a most valuable and affectionate document in its own right. Late films like “A King in New York” and “The Countess From Hong Kong” are too quickly skipped over, but, overall, this documentary successfully re-ignites interest in the work of a cinema giant.