Many people hope to gain some form of fame; to have their names live forever in time. Most do not achieve this lofty goal and a few manage to gain recognition in one field of endeavor. Then there are the very few that are able to rise to the top of several art forms. These are the true renaissance men of their times and their names do live on long past their lives. One such man was Charles Spencer Chaplin, better known to all real film aficionados as Charlie Chaplin. He was a widely regarded screenwriter, director, musical composer and actor. Chaplin was and still is considered to be one of the best clowns and mimes ever to grace the big screen. He brought joy to millions of people over a career that would span some 65 years yet his personal life was marred with many sorrows and tribulations. He would exert an influence on the film industry that is still manifested to this day. Few people of his time, or for that matter any time, would have the power in this industry as he held. Chaplin founded the still popular movie studio United Artist along with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D. W. Griffith. These names might not be immediately familiar to many younger film buffs but do a little research and you will find out they were the best in film back then. In 1992 Sir Richard Attenborough brought the public the definitive film on this man. Although the movie has its technical problems it is important since it chronicles the life and times of one the silver screen’s greats. It also provides a look at some of the origins of this multi-billion dollar industry that we all know and love so well. This film was released to DVD back when the format was still young, back in 1998 by Artisan. The distribution rights have been obtained by Lion’s Gate and they have released a special fifteenth anniversary edition. Okay, it has been sixteen years but considering how they treated this movie we can forgive the math error. This is a fantastic DVD release with features not found on the previous edition.
The story of the film was primarily taken from two novels; ‘My Autobiography’ by Charles Chaplin and ‘Chaplin His Life and Art’ by David Robinson. Handling the screenplay were William Boyd, Bryan Forbes and William Goldman. Boyd had a few scripts prior to this but this was his shining career moment. Forbes worked extensively as an actor, director and producer. This was the last script he prepared and considered his best work. Goldman was the true star of the group. He is a noted playwright and novelist who turned several of his works into highly successful films. Among his scripts are works such as ‘Misery’, ‘The Princess Bride’, ‘A Bridge Too Far’, ‘Marathon Man’ and ‘All the President’s Men’ to name just a small number. The one problem with the script is it endeavors to cover too much ground. The life of Charlie Chaplin was so vast and varied that a film is far too restrictive a format to give it justice. The source material was prone too gloss over some of the darker aspects of Chaplin overly glorifying him. It paints a picture of the prototypical tragic clown. It is not the fault of the many authors. Chaplin was the kind of man who showed his best face in public and was generally beloved by all who met him. This was especially true for the long parade of women who passed through his life. The screenplay is extremely episodic and comes across like a child frantically trying to tell his parents something he feels is important. It is a mélange of events and situations that occurred throughout the life of Chaplin but the overall narrative is lost in the mix. One theme that manages to squeak by is the old favorite; the rags to riches story. Chaplin was born into a poverty stricken family yet rose to be one of the highest paid actors and directors of his day. He always had a special connection with the poor because of this as reflected in his most famous character ‘The Little Tramp’. His affinity to the working class would also get him into trouble here in the States during the infamous McCarthy era. When Chaplin went on a visit to England his return visa was revoked resulting in decades of banishment from this country.
Directing this film was Sir Richard Attenborough. He was best known for his considerable acting abilities but would only win Academy Awards for his direction and production of the film ‘Gandhi’. Here he does a very good job of keeping the movie moving along. This had to be difficult considering the format of the script. He shows Chaplin as a man who worked his way up from nothing to a status unheard of at the time Chaplin was a man who enjoyed life and made every attempt to live it to the fullest. Attenborough gathered some of the most creative people available for this film. The soundtrack by John Barry is incredible in its richness. The cinematography by Sven Nykvist is beautiful. Besides getting a glimpse into the life of a fascinating man Attenborough shows the audience some of the origins of the Hollywood studio system and how United Artist was a reaction by the people directly involved with film making. They wanted to take back control of the industry by those who filled the seats and made the money for the studios.
The shining part of this film is the performances. Robert Downey Jr. does more than just imitate Chaplin; he embodies him. Downey studied countless hours of films of Chaplin in order to capture his unique style. Considering Downey’s well known personal problems this was a role that he could personalize and the results are amazing. It has to be extremely difficult for any actor to portray another actor; especially one so universally known as Chaplin. There is a scene where Chaplin is at the dinner table with some friends and improvises a bit where he makes some rolls into feet and performs a little dance with them. If you watch the real Chaplin perform this same bit in one of his movies it is identical. Downey is Chaplin down to the smallest nuances of facial expression and body language. He puts on this role as easily as you might don an old, comfortable pair of jeans. Chaplin’s real life daughter Geraldine has a role as her own grandmother, Charlie’s mother Hannah. Technically the film may have its problems but one of them is not the performances. They save this film and make it what it is; entertainment.
Lion’s Gate DVD release is excellent. The video is an artifact free anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer. The Dolby audio is extremely crisp and clear. There are also new, previously unseen extras to round things off. They include "All At Sea" Chaplin Home Movie, "Strolling into the Sunset", "Chaplin the Hero" and "The Most Famous Man in the World". Get this one, forget the flaws and just enjoy.