If one buys the theory — and I do — that you’re either a Beatles person or a Stones person, it may be no stretch to claim that you’re a Charlie Chaplin person or a Buster Keaton person as well. It says a lot for Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin, an affectionate and richly illuminating critical documentary written and directed by Richard Schickel, that one could easily imagine the movie converting a few Keaton cultists to the other side.
Schickel, the veteran Time magazine critic, doesn’t buy into the standard rap on Chaplin: that he was a physical genius but a limited filmmaker, a sap in baggy pants. From its revelatory opening clip, in which we see the Little Tramp in his first screen appearance, shot on the day Chaplin reportedly made up the character (costume and all) on the spot, ”Charlie” connects you to what a radical entertainer he was — an alchemist of enchantment. It captures how Chaplin, in his casual ability to turn shoelaces into spaghetti, to shuffle and teeter and pull himself back from the edge of gravity, used the sublime mimicry of his movements as a mirror held up to the world, which he then transformed, through his interaction with it, into a place of everyday magic. The miracle of Chaplin is the way he made you see, if not taste, the spaghetti in those shoelaces too.
Chaplin was the most famous celebrity of the first half of the century, and Schickel provides a tasty overview of scandals and tidbits: the parade of angel-faced girls whom the comic seduced, married, and abandoned; his mad perfectionism on the set, which led him to extend at least one shoot to a full year. The nature of silent comedy was to elevate its heroes into myths, but after ”Charlie” I can’t wait to see Chaplin’s movies again, this time to glimpse the man on the other side of the icon.