Chaplin Robert Downey Jr 1992 - Art by Erik Weems

Chaplin - 1992

Chaplin - Released January 8, 1993 - Directed by Richard Attenborough

Film bio of the great silent film comedian covers his life from 1894 to 1972, ending with Chaplin (Downey Jr) on stage at the 44th Annual Academy Awards, winning a special Oscar for his lifetime work in film, crying quietly as in the background a sequence from his 1921 film The Kid is shown to the audience. (Not shown in Attenborough's film is the 12 minute standing ovation Chaplin received, the longest in that annual events history.)

Chaplin's story (as presented in this film) starts rough, living in poverty with his mother and brother; his mother undergoes a complete mental breakdown which lands the two brothers in an English workhouse. Later, Attenborough's film ends with a nice modicum of comfort and family security for Chaplin as the octogenarian lives in a self-imposed exile in Switzerland (a place, incidentally, where many film people eventually settled: Garbo, Deborah Kerr, others).

But Chaplin is shown as plagued by self-doubt and self-criticism about his work as a film clown as he is continually interviewed by a book editor played by Anthony Hopkins who asks questions and is always prodding for elaboration, which allows the film Chaplin to connect the young Chaplin episodes with the heavily-made-up Robert Downey Jr as the elderly Chaplin, glumly going over the past.

Unfortunately, the film goes from insightful vignettes (the early ones are well-written and staged), to lapses into a slideshow of brief events that blurs the biography and throws the movie's pacing right out the window. Online sources like IMDB state that Attenborough's original cut of Chaplin was either 4 hours long, or 147 minutes long, and was chopped down by the studio to the released 135 minutes. This theatrical version gives short shrift to too many personalities, names, and events that pop in and then disappear. A well-read Chaplin enthusiast might be able to keep up with the whirlwind of filmic footnotes, but it's not the way to make an effective film bio for anyone else.

At first the movie creates a fascinating portrait of Chaplin as an unexpected expert movie clown rising out of vaudeville, a man amazed by the invention of the original kino short films and seeing story-telling possibilities in the primitive techniques of the early movies. Downey is convincing as Chaplin in the early sections which focus on The Little Tramp character and show off Downey's imitation efforts in the best light. We get to see silent-film era studios and their movie sets which relied heavily on sunlight and the hand-cranking cameraman, and the spirit of improvisation that allowed for experimentation.

The movie down-shifts into TV Movie gossipland with Chaplin's personal story populated with scenes with Hollywood pioneers like Mack Sennett (Dan Akroyd) and Douglas Fairbanks (Kevin Kline) and Mary Pickford (Maria Pitillo). Particularly portrayed is Chaplin's friendship with Fairbanks, which progresses through several stages as we get to see the young and athletic Fairbanks, and eventually the aged Fairbanks, face pasty and spotted, dogged by a heart condition.

Also on screen are Chaplin's early run-ins with J. Edgar Hoover, which over the length of the film Attenborough will portray as a man obsessed with Chaplin, convinced the movie clown is a closet communist. We're not supposed to like Hoover and he is meant to be laughable, which he is in this tale, an Inquisitor General persecuting the hero who is not quite a communist (he is, after all, a millionaire movie star) but he's certainly politically somewhere over on the left in his sympathies, though the movie never clearly states any particular creedo for the man. Perhaps he didn't have one?

The movie covers the the communist-hunting activities of the late 40s and 50s, but it is covered in Hollywood-style historiography, which means the Hollywood community is shown victimized by a government bully: history isn't quite as tidy.

Then we have Chaplin going to Europe in 1952 (for the purpose of the premiere of his film Limelight in London) and suddenly he learns he is unable to come back when his re-entry permit is cancelled by the Truman administration's Attorney General James Patrick McGranery. Attenborough puts the Statue of Liberty right in the background when Chaplin gets the news while aboard a cruise ship (which answers an earlier scene when The Little Tramp kicks an immigration officer in an early Chaplin film showing the Statue of Liberty in the background; now we have the USA kicking Chaplin out of the country).

Was Chaplin a tormented genius? Attenborough's film shows us that he was. As much as the mundane lifestyle exploits of the Hollywood movie star are examined (four wives, 11 children, many shorter love affairs, apparently always with very young women) it doesn't explain the frequent shots of a glum Robert Downey Jr looking downward, eyes cast into some other place.

Maybe in Attenborough's movie, Chaplin isn't so much tormented (though he certainly has a grand share of persecution for his political leanings) but rather that Chaplin is haunted. Despite the linear narrative, Chaplin's childhood is never far away in this film, and neither is The Little Tramp, a character Chaplin played for the last time in 1936 for the film Modern Times, when he was 47 years old.

In summing up his career, Attenborough's 82-year-old Chaplin confesses his pain for knowing how close he got to artistic perfection (in his own estimation) and was unable to achieve it, and then he relaxes to say "at least I cheered people up." But in Attenborough's film, it's Chaplin who needs cheering up more than anyone.

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