It's the story of how the Tramp befriends a poor blind woman, the Girl, and, as he leads her to believe he's a well-off man about town, he entangles himself in a series of intricately choreographed escapades that can only be called Chaplinesque. Through it all he manages to steal enough money for the operation to cure her, and when arrested, proudly goes off to jail. The Girl knows nothing of this, of course. Months later, when she is no longer blind and working in a successful flower shop, the Tramp has been released and is still, well, a tramp. They accidentally meet. The Girl naturally expects her hero to be tall, rich, and handsome. When she sees short, poor, and dirty, the disappointment in her benefactor is palpable.
Naturally we expect resolution -- a neat, huggy, kissy happy ending, maybe? Hopefully? But she just stares at him. And he stares back. All that yearning and embarrassment, and the fear of what she thinks of him, registers on Chaplin's face, connecting with us in a way only the great cinematic figures find possible. It's a heartrending final close-up, a freeze-frame before there were freeze-frames, and as splendid a moment as movies can offer.
Richard Schickel's documentary Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin is most fascinating when it explores the methods of this unique, creative genius and how he generated such unforgettable results in front of the camera. Schickel, once the film critic for Time magazine, is a film scholar and writer-producer of many documentaries on the movies. He employs the standard style here - clips interlaced with talking-head commentary. Nothing wrong with that: You'll get more out of watching this documentary than reading another biography on Chaplin. Seeing the Tramp is better than writing about him, and Schickel's format perfectly suits his subject.
The documentary covers everything, maybe trying for a little too much. Chaplin's Dickensian childhood: abandoned by his father; mother institutionalized. In his fortuitous, yet deliberately provocative, initial shenanigans as the Tramp in 1914's Kid Auto Races at Venice, we see a man born for the movies. Then there's his still hard-to-believe, "no-one-rose-so-far-so-fast" climb to be the highest paid man in the world, a meteoric three years later. And of course all the marriages, divorces, and the dismayingly frequent affairs with teenage girls. An over-fifty Chaplin dating, and later marrying, Eugene O'Neill's sixteen-year-old daughter?
But it's the film clips and rare footage with voice-over commentary by directors and actors that make Charlie memorable. Johnny Depp says the famous "dance of the rolls" sequence from The Gold Rush cannot be copied (he tried in Benny and Joon) because facial expressions and movements are beyond mime and exclusive to Chaplin's Tramp character. He goes on to point out that today's audiences "have lost their patience for comedy and a seven/eight minute gag is now impossible." Woody Allen calls the celebrated globe skit from The Great Dictator bland and predictable. Martin Scorsese shifts into pure movie-lover glee discussing the hows and whys of Chaplin's camera angles.
There's much, much more: Critics and biographers Andrew Sarris, David Thomson, and David Robinson; some people who worked with Chaplin, Norman Lloyd, David Raskin, and Claire Bloom; and his children Sydney, Geraldine, and Michael providing their personal experiences and comparing them with public perception.
In the fifties, persecuted by the FBI for communist sympathies, Chaplin decided to leave the United States and spent his last decades living out a self-imposed exile in Switzerland. Here Schickel changes tone from discovering Chaplin the cinematic master to knowing and understanding the man. And he does it with a simple sequence of Chaplin revealing himself in his own home movies. On his estate, the man who was arguably the first worldwide star, who invented what we know today as the financial power of movie stars, who was "ubiquitous and inescapable, the first movie star as a media and marketing barrage," spent his time puttering around making little 8mm movies of his grandchildren. Unable to give up that compulsive need to dominate the camera and everything within its frame even for them, he constantly jumps in, redoing Tramp antics and comic bits as Schickel intercuts with clips from the original movies. It's a sequence that says all you need to know about Chaplin: the old Tramp madcapping and mugging as he did in Kid Auto Races at Venice while his granddaughter rides by on her tricycle.
Charlie: The Life and Times of Charlie Chaplin is not currently in wide release but is making the rounds at some film festivals and various theaters throughout the country. It was sponsored by Warner Home Video to coincide with new releases and reissues of many of Chaplin's movies on DVD. It made the final list for the Academy Award for Best Documentary but didn't make the top five. It'll be broadcast on Turner Classic Movies in March and probably be out on video and DVD soon after.
Run time: 132 mins
In Theaters: Thursday 11th September 2003
Distributed by: Warner Bros.
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 95%
Fresh: 18 Rotten: 1
IMDB: 8.0 / 10
Director: Richard Schickel
Screenwriter: Richard Schickel
Starring: Sydney Pollack as Narrator, Woody Allen as Himself, Richard Attenborough as Himself, Jeanine Basinger as Herself, Claire Bloom as Herself, Geraldine Chaplin as Herself, Michael Chaplin as Himself, Sydney Chaplin as Himself, Johnny Depp as Himself, Robert Downey Jr. as Himself, Miloš Forman as Himself, Bill Irwin as Himself, Norman Lloyd as Himself, Marcel Marceau as Himself