In the wild west of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking, film stars clamber over each other for attention in a modern world that demands the attention of viewers at every hour of every day. Though, this constant competition for the limelight wasn’t always so desperate with cinema at the beginning of the 20th century being dominated by just a small handful of seemingly omnipotent universal figures.
The silent monochrome world of early cinema defied language, providing a universal physical communication that was pioneered by the likes of Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Whilst Keaton, Laurel and Hardy certainly held enduring appeal, it was Chaplin who would excel to dominate the landscape, with his iconic screen identity of ‘the tramp’ becoming an enigmatic figure that represented a ubiquitous identity coherent across the world.
Separating the life of the on-screen tramp and the enigmatic personality of Chaplin himself, the new exploratory documentary from Notes on Blindness filmmakers Peter Middleton and James Spinney works to create a comprehensive document of the icon’s life, showing glimmers of greatness in between its rather rudimentary breakdown. The Real Charlie Chaplin breaks the ice of the tender individual beneath the hardy exterior but fails to dig deeper into what made the legendary performer ‘tick’.
Allowing Chaplin’s extraordinary blossom to life in the opening hour, it is easy for the filmmakers to let the electrifying true story unravel itself without much effort, adding to the tale with flourishes of impressive editing and flashy reconstruction scenes. Rising from the depths of poverty and insufficient support as a child, Chaplin fled to America as a young man with lofty ambitions to be known across the world. Donning his iconic bowler hat, pencil moustache, cane and baggy clothing, Chaplin became ‘The Tramp’ and left his old persona in the past to pursue a new identity on the silver screen.
In the midst of incredible cinematic change as the prevalent silent picture shows were slowly phased out upon the advent of ‘talkies’ in the 1920s, Chaplin’s tramp truly became the lasting embodiment of silent cinema, committing to the medium even as they became quickly outdated. “Talking is an artificial thing,” he tells LIFE magazine in the film, “Whereas movement is as near to nature as a bird flying,” the performer states with sagacious foresight as his silent tramp remained popular up until the 1940s.
Whilst the film draws its most interesting comparisons toward the end of the film, this is too where it becomes the most formulaic, leaning at one point on the dull humdrum of tabloid discussion rather than getting into the details of Chaplin’s inner mind. Studying his performance and iconic speech in the 1940 film The Great Dictator, Middleton and Spinney draw a fascinating comparison to Adolf Hitler, a figuire Chaplin mocks throughout the runtime of his satirical wartime classic. Born just days apart in April 1889, the lives of the Nazi dictator and the influential actor bear many similarities that offer a remarkably unique insight into the minds of two idiosyncratic performers.
The story of The Real Charlie Chaplin is at its best when it’s dirtying its fingernails in the intricate psychology of the titular man himself, though rarely commits itself enough to produce a compelling document, far too often preferring to skim over the surface.