A film reviewer for Time magazine since 1972, Richard Schickel has attained the stature of a dean of movie history and criticism. Rather than merely turn in his weekly copy, collect columns in occasional book form, and appear as a guest in other people’s documentaries, Schickel has quietly built a respectable body of studies on film about eminent directors (and more pointedly, writer-directors), as well as a few actors.


Much of this work has been for TV: segments on Hitchcock, Cukor, Hawks, Vidor, Walsh, and Minnelli for the excellent 1973 “documentary miniseries” called “The Men Who Made the Movies,” and more recent projects on Eastwood, Cagney, and Harryhausen. Studies of Arthur Penn and Elia Kazan enjoyed limited release as features, and now Schickel has done one on Chaplin which also is playing in festivals and mainstream houses.

“Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin” attempts to present the man’s warts and errors, as well as the film and comic genius, in 131 minutes. Although one suspects it would be impossible to do this completely in anything less than six hours, “Charlie” does an excellent and absorbing job.

The film doubles back to some pertinent details from childhood and tacks on clips from home movies shot in Switzerland and on vacation in Africa by a daughter in the 1960s and ’70s (charming but of negligible interest and value). It also notes the honors bestowed at Cannes and the Academy Awards late in his life. But its primary arc goes from 1914, when Chaplin began acting in Mack Sennett comedies as a contract player two years after arriving in the U.S. on the vaudeville circuit, to 1952 with the release of “Limelight” and the family’s permanent exile to Europe.

The central conceit of Schickel’s take is Chaplin’s love-hate (though mostly love) relationship with the public. Hunger for the crowd, and fear of the crowd, drove his life, according to friend and “Limelight” costar Norman Lloyd. Chaplin grew rich playing the poorest of men, and spoke with embarrassing fervency on behalf of the common man in the final speech of “The Great Dictator,” yet also talked of the headless unpredictability of the mob in “Limelight.” Apart from the intermittent messes of his personal life, Chaplin did a creditable job of fighting to keep his artistic integrity and humanity in the face of superstardom and mass adulation, his son Michael argues.

“Charlie” spends time analyzing the quasi-tramp figure’s first appearance in the entirely improvised and nearly plotless “Kid Auto Races at Venice” (1914); offers examples of innovative camerawork, plotting, and gag design in his Essenay and Mutual shorts; and notes the subject’s startling ability to transform one object into something totally different (for example, a plant leaf into a toothbrush, or a fire engine into a cappuccino machine). All that is solid melts into air, Marx declared, but the work of Charlie Chaplin suggests all that is solid melts into something else, Schickel writes. He calls this reality-morphed-by-the-mind trick “central to modernity,” but does not explore or belabor the point.

It is astonishing to be reminded that after only one year in the movies and 35 shorts, Chaplin contracted with Essenay for a salary of $1,250 a week and a $10,000 bonus (just under 90 years ago, mind you). After only two more years, he—or rather, his brother Sydney, haggling while the “artist” stayed above the fray, scratching a violin and standing in a dry bathtub—negotiated a million-dollar annual contract. A millionaire and one of the world’s most famous people at the age of 28! Others (say, Wayne, Eastwood, or Cruise) may have attained a comparable level of fame and fortune subsequently, but not at such meteoric speed, and certainly not with so much more—as a writer, actor, director, editor, and musical composer—still to come.

Schickel has admitted that starting out, he did not admire his subject as much as when he finished, which is a good thing: a work that reflects the process of falling in love is far preferable to a piece of intended hagiography. Chaplin’s family was ready to address him in the round as well: this becomes clear early on when daughter Geraldine looks the camera right in the eye and says, “He loved young girls.”

As “Charlie” is not shy to indicate, Chaplin had difficulties (serious ones) with women, government agencies, and eventually his public. It mentions the child brides, the ghastly Lita Grey divorce that halted shooting on “The Circus” for 9 months and created an underground bestseller of the lurid 42-page complaint detailing Chaplin’s infidelities and irregular sex practices. Joan Barry’s armed break-in and subsequent paternity suit (which a blood test, legally inadmissible at that time, showed was groundless, but Chaplin lost in court anyway and dutifully paid child support for a kid that evidently wasn’t his) also gets a mention.

Being a powerful film critic, historian, and seasoned filmmaker gives Schickel a level of access in the industry that’s not available to many other documentary shooters. Not only does “Charlie” feature on-camera interview footage with the usual critics, biographers and historians (Andrew Sarris, David Thomson, David Robinson, Jeffrey Vance, Jeanine Basinger); and Chaplin’s children Geraldine, Michael, and Sydney; but heavy-hitting stars and fans like Claire Bloom, Richard Attenborough, Johnny Depp, Woody Allen, Robert Downey Jr., Milos Forman, Marcel Marceau, and Martin Scorsese.

One of this documentary’s greatest strengths is the extra attention it gives to the lesser known and more prickly works of Chaplin’s oeuvre: “A Woman of Paris” and “Monsieur Verdoux,” both of which it spends more time on than “The Gold Rush” or “City Lights.” Scorsese is especially generous and useful here. He praises the decadence and eroticism of “Woman,” and says “There’s a calmness about it that’s terrifying. . . . You know it’s all gonna go bad.” He describes a favorite shot or two of “Verdoux,” praises its depiction of “eloquent and elegant and absolutely horrendous behavior,” and almost cackles as he tries to imagine how its initial viewers reacted to it. “No one liked it! It’s a beautiful, but it’s also a very ugly film.” According to Scorsese, its implicit challenge seems to be: “how far can I push you and you’ll still love me?”

Pretty much overlooked save in the credits is that most of the music in his great films, and therefore this documentary, was composed by Chaplin. David Raksin, who did the arrangements for Chaplin’s musical ideas in “Modern Times,” is a singular commentator’s voice: “I admired him very much for the constancy of his point of view,” he says of Chaplin, and adds that he “had a mind like a super attic.”

It probably exists somewhere, but I have yet to see a comprehensive study of Chaplin’s scores. Hardly brilliant music in itself, but I will never forget the lush blind girl’s theme, or the nervous strings and chirping winds that support the hilarious prizefight, in “City Lights.” Chaplin also has countless musical references and jokes in his soundtracks: I think of the four-note reference to “how dry I am” as the tramp and the suicidal millionaire pull themselves out of the river in “City Lights,” and there is a longer quotation under the sequence when the tramp is being followed by a bear on a precarious mountain trail in “The Gold Rush” that made me laugh out loud in recognition during this screening, although I neglected to note it down.

One minor but persistent complaint about the print I saw: some of the classic feature clips were choppy. Both the final scene of “City Lights” and the speech to the jury in “Verdoux” had broken sound and video continuity, which is annoying in a supposedly new film such as this one. Surely clean prints of both these sequences are not hard to obtain?

“Charlie” includes some vaunted unseen and/or unreleased material—rehearsals and outtakes for famous scenes, an Oona O’Neill Chaplin screen test, color footage of the giant World War I cannon and closing rally sequences from “The Great Dictator” shot by a family member, newsreel clips of Chaplin on vacation in Hawaii and Asia with Paulette Goddard, the aforementioned home videos from his golden years, and a party video of Chaplin in a toga, juggling a globe in an anticipation of the “Dictator” globe dance—but none of them is particularly vital or memorable. The film’s true strengths are its writing and analysis, its cast of guest commentators, and the classic clips that inevitably inspire awe.

And though it’s trite to say it (Allen is one of the luminaries who repeats this), the man’s work is timeless. Actor and mime artist Bill Irwin makes the point when he recalls a video store owner in the 1980s who told Irwin that he could screen just about any video in the front window and people would walk past, but if he put Chaplin there, “people will stop.”

With any luck, this solid documentary will send viewers back to the original Chaplin shorts and features they have always loved, or regrettably have not yet seen.

David Loftus


David Loftus probably first saw Chaplin shorts at the age of 7 or 8 under near perfect conditions: in a makeshift storefront moviehouse six blocks from his home where 16mm films were screened on a bedsheet and home-made popcorn sold for 25 cents in plain brown paper bags. In college he was too well-behaved a student to skip lectures when a Harvard prof verbally embalmed Chaucer week after week, but Loftus sat in the hall reading about Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd in Walter Kerr’s superb and lavishly illustrated study, The Silent Clowns, instead of taking notes. Loftus absolutely disagrees with Schickel about the best sight gag in “City Lights,” however: it is not the elephant confounding streetsweeper Charlie, but Charlie in tails leaping out of an expensive car to shove a street bum away from a burning, discarded cigar butt so he can drive off puffing it, to the bum’s utter consternation.


Richard Schickel – Writer and Director
Douglas Freeman, Bryan McKenzie, Richard Schickel – Producers
Thomas Albrecht, Kris Denton, Simon Fanthorpe, Rob Goldie, John Halliday, Ross Keith - Cinematographers
Bryan McKenzie – Editor
Charles Chaplin – Original Music
Sydney Pollack – Narration

2003, 131 minutes

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