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  Real Charlie Chaplin, The White Hot Stardom
Year: 2021
Director: Peter Middleton, James Spinney
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Pearl Mackie, various
Genre: Documentary, BiopicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: A few years into the twentieth century, everyone was asking, who is the real Charlie Chaplin? It seemed you could not go to a cinema without seeing him, but there were also imitators who ripped off his trademark Little Tramp character to cash in, and their two-reelers had spread like a rash across those early days of movies. Then there were the in-person appearances: could Chaplin really be in all those places at once? Moreover, what of the contests where Chaplin was impersonated? There was a popular rumour that he had entered one himself and come twentieth. Would anyone know him?

If you were anticipating this documentary to be clearing up the questions at the heart of the man, you may be disappointed to discover the myth tended to get in the way, but it was testament to directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney and their work on corralling a life that lasted nine decades or so that you were left with an impression of Chaplin with more truth in it than a simple regurgitation of the bare facts. Not that there was not a tendency towards that style as well, but there was a lot more poetic about the approach here than in something, say, Kevin Brownlow would have concocted.

Speaking of whom, he was able to provide an interview with one of Chaplin's childhood friends which gave credence to the old phrase, the child is the father of the man. "I won't forget you", he told Effie as he left with the Fred Karno troupe for America, and funnily enough, no matter what happened over the next better part of a century, he never did. But you could see that in his films: despite their nimble comedy, he had a sentimental streak that played like gangbusters for those nascent audiences, since many of them would recognise the poverty he portrayed, and his devil may care attitude in the face of hardship chimed with them. Not for nothing is the image of him kicking up his heels in the end as if to say, "Ah well, maybe tomorrow will work out" one of the most powerful in all comedy.

Chaplin remains one of the most famous people who ever lived, and even today, well over a hundred years since his birth, he is one of the biggest movie stars of all time, as much thanks to his costuming and makeup. Yet watching him here, it strikes you the Little Tramp and Charles Chaplin did not resemble one another; yes, you can tell they had the same smile which lit up their eyes, but you imagine Chaplin could have walked down the street out of costume and not be acknowledged as the superstar he is. The Tramp was his idealised version of himself, and one thing about idealisations, the reality can be rather different, disappointing, as when we are told the oft-repeated tales of his liking for teenage girls (he married three) and the terrible way he would throw away his many lovers when he lost interest.

His supposed Communism is different, however: though it doesn't say so, the film indicates Chaplin was out of his depth when he started to believe he could change the world further than making them laugh and cry. For many, his greatest film is The Great Dictator, a potshot from Hollywood at the Nazis ending in an impassioned speech to unite away from petty nationalism and make a better world. Later, his good intentions had him exiled from The United States as the FBI hated him, turning his altruism into unpatriotic danger talk, and finally, with the quality of his work going downhill, Chaplin was yesterday's man. From the interviews we hear, he did not take that well, but who after that unimaginable success would have? Giving a voice more to those who knew him than Chaplin himself in many sections, the re-enactments are glossy but artificial; Pearl Mackie's narration is sympathetic, however, and as a fellow Londoner, it's good to hear a documentary told with her appropriate accent, even if Chaplin lost his. Not definitive, but beneficial for those new to the man and his world-changing brilliance.

[THE REAL CHARLIE CHAPLIN will be released in cinemas and available on Altitude.film (Click here) and other digital platforms from the 18th FEBRUARY 2022.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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