Review: Peter Middleton and James Spinney’s ‘The Real Charlie Chaplin’

The Real Charlie Chaplin Review - 2021 Showtime Documentary

With almost surgical precision, filmmakers Peter Middleton and James Spinney dissect the life and work of a legend in The Real Charlie Chaplin, a worthwhile addition to the many studies of one of the most recognizable screen performers in cinema history. The documentary functions partly as critical biography, using Chaplin’s narrative preoccupations as the basis of a psychoanalytical reading of the man’s oeuvre — and vice versa. But the film also moves to scrutinize the auteur’s behind-the-scenes behavior, addressing Chaplin’s sexual predilection for adolescents. Three of the four women he would marry — Mildred Harris, Lita Grey and Oona O’Neill — were teenagers at the time of their respective unions.

Middleton and Spinney access the subject’s incomparable filmography to illustrate their central premise: that Chaplin was so closely identified with the character of the Tramp that we still struggle to separate the creation from the creator. Readers of David Robinson’s essential 1985 volume Chaplin: His Life and Art and viewers of Richard Schickel’s 2003 film Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin have already witnessed, to a significant degree, the reconciliation of Chaplin and the part he played for so long. Middleton and Spinney decide against the conventional talking head approach favored by Schickel, opting instead for a hit-or-miss series of reenactments (not unlike Clio Barnard’s technique in The Arbor) in which actors lip-synch to audio recordings throughout The Real Charlie Chaplin.

The Real Charlie Chaplin Review - 2021 Showtime Documentary

Much more consistently engaging in The Real Charlie Chaplin is the liberal use of archival material, particularly in the spectacular early sections that contemplate not only the origins of the Little Fellow’s iconic costume but also the way in which that outfit anticipates a personality, encompassing in wordless pantomime all the pluck, tenacity, sexual fluidity, mischief, pathos, fearfulness and desire to be treated with dignity that would endear the ultimate underdog to millions of viewers. The filmmakers delight in showing clip after clip of Chaplin impersonators practicing the twirl of the cane, the angle of the bowler and the twitch of the mustache.

Just as the mustache anchors Olly Moss’ design perfection for Criterion’s The Great Dictator, it returns later in The Real Charlie Chaplin when Middleton and Spinney explore the Tramp’s most unexpected doppelganger: Adolf Hitler. The future tyrant was born just four days after Chaplin, and the similarities in their impoverished backgrounds have enough juice to link the two (see also Michael Kloft and Kevin Brownlow’s The Tramp and the Dictator). Chaplin’s political consciousness would later lead to an awful cycle of FBI “leaks” — outright fabrications — to Hedda Hopper, who would then publish columns that Hoover would quote to escalate the bureau’s attacks on Chaplin.

The Real Charlie Chaplin Review - 2021 Showtime Documentary

The latter portions of The Real Charlie Chaplin are illustrated with the oft-excerpted home movie footage of Chaplin with Oona and children at their Manoir de Ban estate in Switzerland, and they touch on the familiar beats of political exile ahead of the moving acceptance of an honorary Academy Award in 1972. At one point, narrator Pearl Mackie (who is terrific from start to finish) says, “When you ask for the real Charlie Chaplin, a thousand voices reply.” No doubt each new generation will reexamine and reassess the offscreen Chaplin even as the monumental achievement expressed through his body of work will continue to seduce freshly-stunned viewers.

This review was originally published by Greg at High Plains Reader on November 28, 2021.

Greg Carlson (@gcarlson1972) is an associate professor of communication studies and the director of the interdisciplinary film studies minor program at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is also the film editor of the High Plains Reader, where his writing has appeared since 1997.