June 10, 2023

The Real Charlie Chaplin


Peter Middleton & James Spinney’s documentary The Real Charlie Chaplin examines the rich legacy of the man behind ‘The Little Tramp’, charting a remarkable life and career stretching over eight decades from his early days as a child vaudevillian from the Dickensian slums of Kennington to his final years as an exiled elder statesman in Vevey, Switzerland. Narrated by the actress Pearl Mackie (“Doctor Who”), the documentary examines Chaplin’s somewhat arduous journey to superstardom through undisclosed audio recordings and personal archives charting Chaplin’s quest for perfection, his meticulous approach to acting and directing – and his personal relationships which included four wives, 11 children and countless lovers (rumoured to be as many as 2,000 women). There is also valuable contributions from his counterparts including the actor and director Mack Sennett, the actress Virginia Cherrill (star of City Lights), and his second ex-wife Lita Grey Chaplin – with a recording of Chaplin himself, taken from an interview with LIFE over a 3 day period in 1966.

Chaplin’s natural gift for slapstick saw him rise through the ranks from West End vaudeville to become a teen sensation as a member of Fred Karno’s troupe, which saw Chaplin perform in America in 1910, alongside his colleague (and fellow boarder) Stanley Jefferson (Stan Laurel). Chaplin, in the eyes of his fellow performers appeared aloof and distant, but was recognised for his gift in mastering anything he put his hand to, whether it be music, ancient greek or yoga. He was also a shrewd businessman with steely tenacity borne from his time in care and as a disciplined child performer in West End vaudeville, and it was in his guise as ‘The Little Tramp’ that Chaplin secured a contact with The Mutual Corporation in 1916 which was see his annual salary rise to $670,000. His alter ego as the impoverished tramp  in his baggy trousers, bowler hat, mustache and cane, would see Chaplin become the most expensive and lauded British export of early 20th century cinema. He surpassed all expectations in 1919, when he became one of the Co-Founders of United Artists alongside D.W Griffiths, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Now for the very first time, Chaplin would have full artistic control of his ventures as an actor, writer, director, editor, producer, composer and studio boss. Chaplin had become a one man enterprise.

Yet despite all the trappings of global superstardom and celebrity, Chaplin found it difficult to forget his early days on the streets of South London, marred by poverty, alienation, the abandonment of his alcoholic father Charles Chaplin Sr, and the death of ‘first love’ and muse, the Irish vaudevillian Hetty Kelly – who died of Spanish influenza in 1918. Prized apart by his beloved mother, Hannah in the workhouse (now The Cinema Museum in Kennington) he witnessed Hannah’s devastating breakdowns, and made several heartbreaking visits to see his mother in a series of sanitariums until Chaplin sent for her to join him in California where he paid for her 24 hour care.

Yet Chaplin remained an enigma off-screen, and as his star rose, his iconic image as The Little Tramp eclipsed all his contemporaries, causing mob hysteria from his devoted fans who all followed his character in cartoons, across merchandise,  and on cinema billboards. Despite his reversal of fortune he remained insecure; “He never felt anybody loved him,” according to Lita Grey, the mother of Charlie Jr and Sydney Chaplin. “He never believed it. He said, ‘Why would anybody love me?.’” Chaplin’s relationship with Grey remains one of the darkest episodes of his private life. Grey had first worked with Chaplin as a spritely 12 year old ‘angel’ on the set of The Kid, but later became reacquainted with him in her teens during the filming of The Gold Rush. Pregnant at 16, they married in haste on the suggestion of Grey’s mother in Mexico away from the prying eyes of the authorities, but cracks soon appeared in their relationship due to Chaplin’s workaholism and his alleged infidelities. Under the influence of greedy lawyers, Grey sued him in the most expensive Hollywood divorce case up until that time ($1 million), with the press calling her out as a jezebel and harlot in the wake of the ensuing scandal. The divorce litigation would run to 50 pages. Grey, for her part would later regret her own part in their relationship, admitting that her first memoir was mostly made up.

Born days apart from Hitler in Walworth, April 1889, Chaplin was unafraid to stand up to his adversary, who tried to ban his films in Germany, as Hitler believed Chaplin was Jewish. The documentary addresses the disturbing parallels in their lives; devoted to their mothers, they are estranged from their drunken fathers but are widely recognised as natural born orators with the ability to mesmerize their audiences. Undoubtedly Chaplin’s finest hour on screen is his rallying cry as the Jewish barber in the guise of Hitler’s satirical alter ego ‘Adenoid Hynkel,’ In the final scenes of The Great Dictator (1940) Hynkel implores people to stand up and be counted in the face of antisemitism and fascism (with some critics suggesting that his speech hinted at his underlying support for communism). Well received by the American public, the film grossed $5 million at the box office, earning 5 Oscar nominations.

However, government officials became increasingly concerned about Chaplin’s opinions as he became more outspoken about his views in the public arena as America became involved in World War 2.  A maverick spirit, his political views occurred the wrath of the FBI led by the fanatical J. Edgar Hoover, who led a vicious smear campaign against him. Branded a ‘foreign subversive’, and a ‘Communist sympathizer’ his problems escalated after he was issued with a paternity suit filed against him by a former lover, the actress Joan Barry (despite the DNA results proving Chaplin was not the father, he still had to pay Barry maintenance until the child was 21). He also experienced his first box-office disaster, after his first full-length talkie, the black comedy Monsieur Verdoux (1947) bombed at the box office. But the final death knell was served by the U.S government who refused to allow Chaplin to return to his adoptive homeland after the UK premiere of ‘Limelight’ in 1951. He would not return until 1972 when he would return on a temporary visa for a 12-minute standing ovation after receiving an Honorary Academy Award (seen by many as a public apology to their prodigal son whose talent, tenacity and business acumen had transformed the Hollywood Film Industry singlehandedly).

The Real Charlie Chaplin, is extremely poignant in retracing Chaplin’s ‘rags to riches’ story through staged reconstructions and the dulcet tones of Pearl Mackie, who declares that Chaplin was “more famous than any king, queen, or emperor, more famous than any philosopher, artist, or religious figure”. Upon his return to the UK in 1921 (to promote ‘The Kid’, his first six-reeler film), thousands of hysterical Londoners descended onto the streets of Piccadilly outside his residence of The Ritz Hotel. Yet Chaplin is unable to forget those hard, early days in Lambeth as a Victorian vaudevillian, despite his subsequent elevation to that of a multi-talented impresario and co-founder of United Artists. He constantly refers to hunger, poverty, class wars and oppression, drawing from his own fear and uncertainty in the workhouse. There’s moving footage of an elderly Chaplin caught on cine film on the doorstep of his former homes, as if he’s attempting to reconcile with the ghosts of the past. Chaplin was unafraid to be showy, vulnerable, and sentimental on-screen. He channeled his own sadness through his films, examining his own experiences of poverty, alienation and heartbreak through films including The Kid, his most semi-autobiographical film to date as a street urchin separated by his guardian, brutally mistreated by officious law enforcers.

However, it was in his later years as an exile in Switzerland, that he finally found happiness and contentment with his fourth wife Oona, the mother of his youngest 8 children. It was a union that lasted 44 years, but at a price – as it caused Oona to be permanently estranged from her disapproving father, the playwright Eugene O’Neill. For the first time in his life, Chaplin had finally found the embodiment of the perfect woman with Oona taking on the role as guardian, confidante, lover and best friend. Oona devoted her life to her husband, and it would be to her that Chaplin would consult with on all aspects of his work. There are short statements from his Geraldine, Michael, and Jane alluding to a strict, formidable, distant figure with strived for perfection but Chaplin never lost his mischievous sparkle in old age, whether it be performing magic tricks, ‘eating’ flowers, or pulling faces with his infant children which is perfectly captured in a succession of home movies filmed by the devoted Oona.

The Real Charlie Chaplin remains a fascinating snapshot into the life of one of our most iconic figures of 20th century cinema. It is a moving portrait of a brilliant but complex man who often hid behind the ‘larger than life’ persona of The Little Tramp, where the lines of fantasy and reality often became distorted. He identified and championed the underdog who suffered from ‘imposter syndrome’ within a cold, unfeeling society, giving him universal appeal that has remained timeless through two centuries. The Real Chaplin is well worth a look.

The Real Charlie Chaplin is released in UK cinemas on 18 February 2022.

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