Charlie Chaplin biopics -- A review of ''Chaplin,'' ''Chaplin: A Legacy of Laughter,'' and more

By Steve Daly
Updated August 20, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT


  • Movie

Charlie Chaplin biopics

As an actor, Charlie Chaplin had an effortless gift for comedy. As a movie director, he was unsure and obsessively methodical. But as the subject of Richard Atten- borough’s grand biography, Chaplin, he isn’t much more than a waxwork icon.

Not that Robert Downey Jr., in the title role, doesn’t try like hell to fill Chaplin’s oversize shoes. It helps that he does often look uncannily like the real thing, and the rest of the cast dutifully reacts to him as if he’s a force of nature, a completely charming and intuitive performer who never had to calculate or sweat over his routines. Yet as good as Downey is at aping the drunken-theatergoer shtick that helped get Chaplin noticed in vaudeville, or the shoulder tics and bowlegged waddle that established the Little Tramp character, he never seems at ease. His performance is an impersonation, not a portrayal: a self-conscious conceit that’s a spectacle in its own right, but not a believable evocation of a comic whose slapstick grace seemed utterly natural.

When he’s not playing one of Chaplin’s characters, Downey lays on a tortured-artist interpretation that’s way too sullen and tense. From Downey’s furrowed brow and bovine eyes, you’d think Chaplin had no sense of play or seductiveness. And that’s practically fatal in a film that slavishly catalogs Chaplin’s succession of very young wives and mistresses, from his chorus-girl first love Hetty Kelly (Moira Kelly) to fourth wife Oona O’Neill (also played by Kelly). Who among these women would be captivated by the moody crank Downey portrays?

If Downey misses Chaplin the ladies’ man by a yard, the screenplay misses Chaplin the auteur by a mile. In touching on virtually every major Chaplin picture, the 21 4-hour narrative illuminates none of them and at home plays more than ever like a grossly abridged miniseries. As the manicured period decor charts the decades, there is an occasional scene of him at work. But when the movie briskly depicts, say, Chaplin’s leading lady Edna Purviance (Penelope Ann Miller) enduring a 46th take of eating some soup, it never dramatizes what the director was after: It doesn’t show us the difference between the take that makes it and the ones that didn’t.

”If you want to understand me,” Downey’s Chaplin pontificates at one point, ”watch my movies.” Now there’s an idea! And there’s no more revealing way to see them than in an ongoing laserdisc series, Chaplin: A Legacy of Laughter, which to date includes Modern Times, City Lights, The Great Dictator, Monsieur Verdoux, Limelight, and a double feature of The Kid and A Dog’s Life. The images in these editions are stunningly clear and detailed, far superior to the ones in FoxVideo’s own tape series because they’re made from more pristine print sources. The discs also feature still-frame supplemental sections, usually in the form of umpteen script revisions of some particular scene, like the feeding-machine sequence in Modern Times or the impassioned, pacifist closing speech in The Great Dictator. They’re interesting, but they’re more like scraps than a meal. There are some factual bloopers, too. The disc of The Kid, for instance, treats a staged depiction of Chaplin at work as if it were genuine documentary footage.

There are no such problems with the most vivid Chaplin career appreciation in any medium, Unknown Chaplin. Produced for British television by film historians Kevin Brownlow and David Gill and narrated urbanely by James Mason, the shows are exhaustively researched yet unfailingly accessible. A number of Chaplin’s leading ladies appear, all describing the same directorial method that Chaplin never mentions once: Charlie would literally act out each and every part in a scene, right down to the extras’ so that, in the words of Gold Rush star Georgia Hale, ”you just had to give a terrific performance.”

The shows also include a lot of outtakes that somehow escaped Chaplin’s edict that all such material be destroyed, including an amazing sequence that intercuts the sidewalk-elevator routine from City Lights with footage of Chaplin rehearsing it out of costume, clad in elegant shoes and white sweatpants. The transformation is truly magical, yet seeing the nuts and bolts involved makes the magician’s sorcery a thrilling, immediate act of creation — not some remote, divine accident. Next to this, Sir Richard’s salute to Chaplin has about as much spark as a tombstone marker.
Chaplin: C-
Supplements to Chaplin: Legacy of Laughter: B
Unknown Chaplin: A


  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • Richard Attenborough