Sunday, August 31, 2014

Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin. A Review (Review #661)


Genius At Work...

I think it's been established that Charles Chaplin was a true comedic genius.  His Little Tramp character is beyond iconic.  He is one of the few silent film stars who has transcended cinema and remains part of popular culture.  Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin, delves into his creative and personal life.  A bit dry at times, it is still an interesting look at his creative process and one any film or Chaplin buff would enjoy.

Richard Schickel, film historian and reviewer, wrote and directed the documentary, narrated by Sydney Pollack.  Schickel's love for the subject is there in the film, as it covers with both film clips and interviews ranging from film historians to directors like Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese along with Robert Downey, Jr., (who earned an Oscar nomination for his performance in Chaplin).  The film Limelight seems to be the guide for our journey, as it seems to be the whole of Chaplin's career: his early days on the London stage, his fear of audiences rejecting him for any number of reasons (being too passé, too sentimental, old-fashioned), his melancholy beneath the mirth.

We see his triumphs and his tragedies, along with the problems that both surrounded him and which he caused himself.  His predilection for younger women was a source of great controversy (his last wife, Oona O'Neil, daughter of the playwright Eugene O'Neil, was 18 to Chaplin's 53 when they married, causing an international scandal and a break between father and daughter).  Still, Oona was the last of what the film calls his 'three great loves', the first being a frequent co-star, Edna Purviance, the second being his third wife, Paulette Goddard. 

We do get some interesting insights from the interviewees.  Allen, for example, did not find the famous 'globe dance' in The Great Dictator amusing, and while if memory serves correct he never overtly states it the fact that as a Jew this spoof of Hitler might be too clownish for the horrors Hitler committed. We also get some insight as to how some of the great films, such as The Gold Rush, were made, and how a film praised by critics that he directed but did not star in, A Woman of Paris, failed.  We also get some coverage into another film, Monsieur Verdeux, which was a dark, dark comedy about a man who murders his wives and equates that with the wholesale slaughter of people through war. 

However, as informative as Charlie is, I found it a bit dry at times.  At one point I struggled to stay awake.  I think it has to do with the fact that Schickel is a bit too much of a fan.  Rather than take a more impartial or critical eye at Chaplin, Schickel is satisfied to let others talk about how great Chaplin was.  He certainly was that, for I am one of his fans (though personally, I love Lloyd and am more a Keaton person myself).  However, Schickel kind of skims over the failures of A King in New York and A Countess From Hong Kong, failures due both to his worldview and filmmaking style (which by the time they were made were too far rooted to the past).  The documentary is respectful of A Woman of Paris, but waxes rhapsodic about Chaplin's cameo in the film.

That should give on an idea of how Charlie sees Chaplin. 

Charlie also doesn't give enough time to how the political leanings of Chaplin, which were not in step with the times, affected his career both personally and creatively.  Finally, it is only again, when we go back to Limelight, that we even touch on any kind of rivalry between Chaplin and one of his silent film counterparts, his Limelight co-star Buster Keaton. 

Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin, will be enjoyed by those who love Chaplin and is a great primer for this genius.  A bit dry and a bit tedious at times, it still is worth looking into to get an idea about what makes Charles Chaplin one of the greats. 


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