With the biopic Stan and Ollie now in theaters (although not playing anywhere near me, sadly) I thought I’d take a look at one of the more well-known silent star biopics, Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin. Most old movie fans seem to love it. As for me? Well, read on!
Biopics are a dicey genre. How do you, say, capture a legendary talent from a century ago and showcase him to modern audiences, especially if many of them (likely) haven’t seen one of his films? Naturally, an overview of his entire career is a lot to ask–after all, there were tons of personal and professional events packed into those decades, and it would be tough to do justice to all of them.
Well, Richard Attenborough saw your reservations, and decided to raise you a busy tour throughout the entire life of Charlie Chaplin, ups and downs and all. And if you ask classic film fans about this biopic today, most seem to think it’s the best–why, it has great performances! Moving moments! It’s a fascinating, touching experience! It’s the bee’s knees to most folks, is what I’ve gathered.
As you’re suspecting, I don’t have quite the same enthusiasm towards the 2 1/2 hour film, nor do I exactly understand why so many fans accept it so uncritically. There’s plenty I do like about it, but too much of it is bothersome to be a definitive look at the great comedian’s story–in my humble opinion.
A sidebar: entirely by chance, Chaplin was one of my stepping stones to appreciating silent cinema. One night during my middle school years I flipped on the TV and caught the last few minutes: an elderly Chaplin about to accept a lifetime achievement award as clips from The Kid play on the huge screen behind him. Watching the famous, tearful hug between the Tramp and the Kid instantly reduced me to blubbering like a baby. (Destined to be the first of many The Kid blubberings, I might add.) It wasn’t until years later that I sat down and watched Chaplin in its entirety, and recognized that moving ending. Anyhoo.
If you haven’t seen Chaplin, it has a slightly gimmicky framework where the editor of Chaplin’s autobiography (played by Anthony Hopkins) quizzes the elderly legend on the fuzzier areas of his life story, and we tour Chaplin’s memories in a series of flashbacks. Hopkins’s character serves as a kind of stand-in for fans who think Chaplin held back too much in his book. Much of his dialogue is expository, such as: “So, Charlie, at that time you were married to Lita Grey, your second wife, who bore you two sons, Sydney and Charlie Jr., within 13 months.” I’m surprised they didn’t have him add, “…And you lived together in Los Angeles, situated in Los Angeles county, in the southern portion of the state of California, which achieved statehood in the mid-19th century due to the Compromise of 1850.”
I’ll of course acknowledge the good things in Chaplin. The top of the list is the charismatic Robert Downey Jr., an inspired casting choice–especially considering his daunting task of portraying a legend in his youth and old age. To say that he studied his subject carefully is an understatement–reportedly he went to the Museum of the Moving Image in London and was allowed to try on an actual “Little Tramp” costume. During the too-few scenes where he recreates some of Charlie’s iconic screen moments he gets his movements and grace notes down pat. Chaplin’s daughter Geraldine herself said, “As the Tramp, he’s perfect. I mean, every gesture, every eyelash, he’s absolutely perfect.” What better review could an actor desire?
And speaking of Geraldine, I don’t know who had the idea of casting her as Hannah Chaplin, her own grandmother, but that fellow hopefully got a raise. Her vivid performance stands out in a veritable sea of Chaplin-related characters–not for nothing was she the daughter of a legend. Kevin Kline also makes a pretty convincing Douglas Fairbanks, and Paul Rhys does a fine job as Charlie’s brother Sydney (in some shots I was struck by his resemblance to Robert Harron, but that’s just me).
The care and detail that went into the early 20th century settings is often wonderful, from the grubby streets where Chaplin lived as a youth to the studios where he made his masterpieces. Of course, while I know that not everything in a biopic can be a flawless recreation, it’s mighty amusing seeing the familiar Keystone studio in the middle of a vast plain and watching Charlie hop off a train smack dab in front of it (in reality it was tucked along a hillside in Glendale, and actors got there by streetcar).
Some shots are particularly inspired, such as Chaplin gazing at a billboard for The Kid, or climbing on the “Hollywoodland” sign with Doug, or Oona pushing the elderly Chaplin in a wheelchair through the backstage tumult at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. It’s those moments when I reflect on the potential Chaplin had, and wish it had focused more on those kinds of scenes rather than the umpteenth shot of Charlie gazing somberly, introspectively into space. (One sequence uses sped-up slapstick, which is fun, but it’s also a bit of an anomaly.)
And that brings us to the “iffy” things in Chaplin. It’s overwhelmingly ambitious, trying not only to cover Charlie’s whole life but examine the “cause” of his scandalous relationships and draw a clear, political/ideological line to his eventual banishment from the U.S. For such a long film it somehow seems hurried, much of it marking off a checklist of obligatory personalities and events. Lita Grey marriage? Check! Edna Purviance? Got her beans-eating scene! Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford? Sprinkle ’em in here and there! Ah, we made it to the part where he meets Oona, and–oh shoot, can’t forget the Joan Barry episode! Err, how much running time is there, again?
But that’s less bothersome than the precedence that Chaplin’s personal life is given over his filmmaking (what an ancient tune that’s become in these biopics). The latter is dealt with in precious few scenes, Attenborough apparently being more eager to convince us that Hetty Kelly Obsession + Loss of Hetty = Chaplin’s Attraction to Teens (he even has Moira Kelly, who plays Hetty, portray Oona too). There’s also some oddly unnecessary nudity, such as a scene with an uber-sexualized Mildred Harris (Mila Jovovich) and another where Chaplin’s in a dressing room full of half-naked showgirls (I know performers have always been “free spirits,” but…for Pete’s sake). The film’s first half hour, with the angelic tyke Charlie singing cute songs onstage and being comically chased by cops, give it the veneer of a family film. But then, without warning–topless showgirls! Sorry, parents–this movie about Charlie Chaplin is not for kids.
The film also deals with Chaplin’s politics with slightly less subtlety than a mallet to the head, having him snub J. Edgar Hoover at a dinner party (well no wonder he was persecuted during the McCarthy era!) and inventing a dramatic scene where he, and he alone, has the mettle to rebuke a cocky Nazi. If the film is to be believed, Chaplin was perpetually surrounded by plebeians too shortsighted to realize his genius and foresight. This results in scenes like he and Sydney quarreling over The Great Dictator, where Sydney snarls: “No one wants to see a film about Adolf f***ing Hitler!” “I DO!!!” Chaplin roars, knocking over a chair. Reader, I snort-laughed.
But all this I might forgive, or tacitly accept as dramatic invention, if it weren’t for the unfortunate way the rest of silent Hollywood is portrayed. Oh my readers, whatever did they do to poor Mabel Normand? Why is she turned into a bossy shrew? Why did they choose an actress (Marisa Tomei) who looks absolutely nothing like her? And why oh why did they dismiss her as a scandal-ridden drug addict in the end credits? It kind of hurts my soul.
Mary Pickford is treated slightly better, although the film didn’t work too hard to contradict the elder Chaplin’s dismissal of her as “something of an undersized b***h.” (No matter what he thought of her in private, it’s hard to imagine him saying that about the great Pickford out loud.) Mack Sennett, well, spits tobacco and is a loudmouth (at least Dan Aykroyd seems like he’s having fun). The rest of the Hollywood scene–the many vivid personalities we know and love–is basically non-existent. Parties are full of generic “society” types, and colorful places like the Keystone studio are stocked with generic extras. The focus was on Chaplin, of course, but still. This is a strange, fuzzy idea of old Hollywood that never quite becomes clear.
I’ve seen Chaplin a couple times, and might see it again in the future. It will never be a favorite of mine exactly, but I’ll admit there’s something about that final scene that’ll always move me, as it moved my younger self years ago. And it’s hard to ignore that the reason it’s so moving is those clips from Chaplin’s actual films.