The Real Charlie Chaplin is now showing in selected theatres and on digital.
If you were to ask me to list my all-time favourite films, The Kid, Goldrush, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator would all make the list. However, no matter how often I revisit these beautiful works of art, the actor, comedian, director, producer, and musician at their heart remains elusive. I am, of course, referring to Charles Spencer Chaplin Jr, who has long been a fascinating and complicated puzzle. Chaplin is a man whose career was centred on a self-constructed character, the image of the Tramp a world away from his own as he found success. However, Chaplin and the Tramp were also linked through his personal history of abject poverty before becoming Hollywood royalty, then losing public adoration as he dismantled the Tramp who made him famous. For many years, Chaplin’s Dickensian rise to fame has fascinated me; in fact, one could argue Chaplin and Dickens had more than a few similarities. For example, Dickens would treat his first wife with disdain, just as Chaplin would treat several wives with utter contempt. But, unlike Dicken’s, Chaplin’s fall from grace was due to his spoken words after years of silence. Peter Middleton and James Spinney’s new documentary The Real Charlie Chaplin offers us the most detailed exploration of the man and the comedian we have been offered to date—a man who was electrifying, magnetic and mysterious.
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The Real Charlie Chaplin casts new light on the private life of a multi-faceted man who shunned attention, including a timely and often uncomfortable re-examination of Chaplin’s treatment of the young women who dared enter his world. These teenage girls were drawn into Chaplin’s imaginary world through the Tramp, only to find a dark, moody, volatile man outside the raggedy costume. But, for me, The Real Charlie Chaplin is at its most assured when exploring the socio-political downfall of Chaplin and his troubled escape from the Tramp that made him famous. In many ways, The Real Charlie Chaplin is a classic exploration of the comedian whose creative genius is haunted by inner demons and doubt. I found myself questioning whether Chaplin ever really left the workhouses of Lambeth he encountered as a young teen or overcame his fear of failure. In this respect, Middleton and Spinney’s documentary leaves us to ponder in much the same way as we still do when exploring the life and death of Peter Sellars or Kenneth Williams.
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But despite the unanswered questions that will forever cloud Chaplin and his artistic genius, Middleton and Spinney still manage to paint one of the most complete portraits we have seen. Using recently unearthed archive footage and reconstructions, The Real Charlie Chaplin is a fascinating journey into the life and thoughts of a man whose public image hid his inner doubt and whose artistic choices reflected an often turbulent world of seismic social change.
The Real Charlie Chaplin is at its most assured when exploring the socio-political downfall of Chaplin and his troubled escape from the tramp who made him famous.