Chaplin - 15th Anniversary Edition
Robert Downey, Jr
4 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
Charlie Chaplin is to comedy what The Beatles are to music. Chaplin was Hollywood's first million dollar superstar, and his slapstick comedies revolutionized silent film. Without Chaplin, there might not have been a Marx Brothers, certainly no Three Stooges and maybe no Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, or Dave Chappelle. Instead, we might be talking about Charlie Chase, Harold Lloyd, or Ben Turpin as the founding fathers of comedy. Who? Never heard of those guys? Lloyd actually made more money during his career than Chaplin, yet today, it's the "Little Tramp" that's remembered.
Fifteen years ago, Sir Richard Attenborough (who'd directed "Gandi" and would go on to star in "Jurassic Park"), took on the seemingly impossible task of telling Chaplin's life story. Any number of the highlights (or lowlights) in Chaplin's 88 years of existence could have been a film by itself - living in abject poverty with his step brother, Sydney, and his mentally ill mother; trolling London's impoverished streets; creating the character of "The Little Tramp," a comic, sentimental every man; getting married four times; his endless stream of underage lovers; been dogged out of the country by J. Edgar Hoover; or returning to the U.S. in his 80s to receive the longest standing ovation in history of the Oscars. Compressing Chaplin's faults and accomplishments into two plus hours was one hurdle -- finding someone the public would accept as The Little Tramp was even harder. When Robert Downey, Jr. an American actor, was chosen to play Chaplin, a collective "What the #$!!!" shook the entire movie community. The choice of Downey seemed absurd; not only was he battling a mind-numbing substance abuse problem, he'd never shown a knack for physical comedy, and that not being English thing would be a real slap in the face to Brits if he tripped over Chaplin's accent.
Not only did Downey master Chaplin's aristocratic accent, he xeroxed his brand of acrobatic comedy, reflected the hurt of his early years, and captured his lonely existence at the top. Downey didn't just study Chaplin, he absorbed him, from his duck-footed walk, to his visual tics, and horny as a goat hedonism. Downey's saturation of Chaplin comes to the fore when Chaplin resists the advent of talkies. It's easy to play a flamboyant, larger-than-life personality in his heyday, but Downey's portrayal of Chaplin becomes more multi-dimensional as his career begins to go into eclipse. When J. Edgar Hoover mounts a crusade to deport Chaplin, The Tramp becomes more fastidious, more of a perfectionist, determined to promote a message behind the laughter. While creating "The Great Dictator," Chaplin realizes talking in a film will be the end of The Tramp, "But at least he'll go out saying something I believe in."
Despite being the story of a comedian, "Chaplin" is a serious and emotional bio-drama with as many tears as laughs. Downey's superb performance earned him a well deserved Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor. The rest of the cast boast some serious credentials, including Oscar winners Anthony Hopkins ("Silence of the Lambs"), Marisa Tomei ("My Cousin Vinny") and Kevin Kline ("A Fish Called Wanda"), and nominees Diane Lane ("Unfaithful"), James Woods ("Ghosts of Mississippi") and Dan Ackroyd ("Driving Miss Daisy").
"Chaplin" is also an opulent feast for the eye. Costumes, mansions, even the coal smirched streets of London, were recreated with stunning "you are there" accuracy. When Chaplin wanders onto Mack Sennett's set, you're transplanted back to Hollywood's infancy, when cars were hand cranked, director's shouted instructions through megaphones, and silent film shorts were shown in theaters accompanied by live music. Speaking of music, John Barry's lush score serves as an extra character in the scenes. When Charlie and comedienne Mabel Normand are being chased around the set, Barry's orchestration is as playful and light as the physical frivolity. When Chaplin learns of his first love's demise, the dour score hangs in the air like a death shroud. You'll even hear hints of famous songs Chaplin wrote (didn't know he was a composer, did you?), including "Smile," which was covered by Nat King Cole (and Eric Clapton!), and "This Is My Song," a hit for his neighbor in Switzerland, pop singer Petula Clark.
Attenborough doesn't dodge Chaplin's greatest flaw - his obsession with under aged girls. (Apparently Chaplin either had some hillbilly in his blood or was related to Jerry Lee Lewis.) He suggests The Tramp's propensity for jailbait could be traced back to his unrequited love for actress Hetty Kelly, who was 15 when she met Chaplin, then a wizened 19. For Chaplin it was love at first sight. Not so for Kelly, who declined his marriage proposal. Chaplin would later say one of the darkest days of his life was when he found out in 1921 that Hetty had married someone else and died in 1918 during the influenza epidemic that devastated London.
Kevin Kline makes a dashing impression as the athletic and charming Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Chaplin's best friend and co-founder of United Artists studios. Kline plays Fairbanks as if he was a role model for Errol Flynn, gliding across the screen with a glint in his eye, a martini in one hand, and a tennis racquet in the other. Radiant Maria Pitillo (Tina Calcatera on "Providence") plays Fairbanks' wife Mary Pickford, a superstar in her right who was one of young Hollywood's most powerful leading ladies. That Chaplin loved Fairbanks and loathed Pickford was no secret - she was called "America's Sweetheart," but in private was anything but - even her children called her a self-absorbed alcoholic. (It didn't stop Chaplin from going into business with her and Fairbanks.) Watching Pitillo and Downey exchange frozen niceties is one of the film's understated joys.
Welch TV actor Paul Rhys takes on the difficult task of playing Sydney Chaplin, Charlie's older step brother and business agent. Syd and Charlie were close (ironically Sydney died on Charlie's 76th birthday), and good egg Syd was always there to look out for Charlie's best interests, which makes Rhys portrayal all the more endearing. Character actor Kevin Dunn (Howard on "Samantha Who?") plays J. Edgar Hoover as a butt-clenched, humorless vigilante, obsessed with chucking Chaplin out of the country because of some slight at a dinner party. Dunn isn't as convincing in the role as he needs to be, but that may have to do with his jolly features and omnipresent bit roles in comedies. Geraldine Chaplin - plays her own grandmother, Chaplin's mentally ill mother, Hannah. She's sympathetic and pathetic. The scene when she's hauled off, alternately screaming at young Charlie and begging for him to help her is agonizing, and Geraldine ante's up the angst later in the film when she meets up again with her now famous son.
The rest of the cast whizzes by in cameos, especially the actresses portraying Chaplin's wives and lovers. Marisa Tomei, fresh from flashing her comic genius and New Yawk accent in "My Cousin Vinny," plays silent film comedienne Mabel Normand, who co-starred with Chaplin in his earliest films and directed several others. Tomei's sassy, sharp-tongued, and on target. The film would lead you to believe that Normand and Chaplin were fierce competitors rather than cohorts, because it plays better. Tomei's Normand turns into a jealous stoolie when Chaplin's star ascends. In actuality, Normand's star started to descend in 1922 when she was implicated in the drugs and sex scandal that culminated in director William Desmond Taylor's murder. Normand was rumored to be his lover, and was the last person to see him alive. She was cleared as a suspect, and while the scandal didn't ruin her career, her addiction to drugs and alcohol did.
A young Milla Jovovich plays Chaplin's first wife, 16 year-old Mildred Harris, with nubile charm and an ulterior motive behind her liquid eyes. Milla is a killa. The camera loves Jonovich, who at this point in her career was better known as a rebellious hellion and a model than as an actress. Mildred's attempt to seize Chaplin's latest film as part of their divorce settlement sets in motion an amusing series of chase scenes through Utah that plays out in fast motion like a silent movie.
Chaplin's second wife, Lillita McMurry, known professionally as Lita Grey (striking Deborah Moore), bore Chaplin's first two sons and apparently also incurred his wrath. (It was said that the stress of their divorce turned Chaplin's hair white.) Like Mildred, Lita was 16 when they wed, but the public was still enamored enough of Chaplin to ignore the twenty year difference in their ages. Lita's seen in a cameo and dismissed so quickly, without the benefit of a line of dialogue in her defense, that poor Moore becomes nothing more than a good looking mannequin.
Diane Lane, ("The Cotton Club") plays spunky aspiring actress Pauline Levy, who after meeting Chaplin and changing her name became Paulette Goddard, one of the 40s great femme fatales, and the only one of Chaplin's spouses who wasn't a teenager when she met him. Chaplin becomes an absent husband as he struggles to complete "The Great Dictator," a lampoon of Nazi Germany:
Goddard: Is this how you lost your previous wives?
Chaplin: I don't know. Ask them.
Other young actresses who went on to greater fame play Chaplin's co-stars and lovers. Penelope Ann Miller ("Carlito's Way") plays purebred Edna Purviance. As Chaplin's most enduring leading lady, Purviance co-starred in 34 films, and if you believe Attenborough's script, she was enamored of Chaplin. Actually, it was Chaplin who wanted to marry Purviance, but self-doubt prevented him from proposing. Although they last worked together in 1923, Purviance continued to receive a check from Chaplin until her death in 1958.
Nancy Travis ("Becker," and currently on display as Susan on "The Bill Engvall Show") plays actress Joan Barry, another regrettable conquest. Barry was as the English say a nutter - crazy, and her irrational behavior had to freak Chaplin out because it reminded him of his mother's decent into self destruction. Barry sued Chaplin for child support in 1943. It was one of the first instances when a blood test was submitted as evidence to prove a plaintiff's innocence in a paternity suit. Chaplin was also charged with violating the Mann Act, having transported Barry across state lines before she was legally considered an adult. Check out James Woods' brief turn as Barry's zealous lawyer, Joseph Scott. His frothing j'accuse turns the Little Tramp into a deer about to be taken out by a howitzer. The charge of violating the Mann act was dismissed, but Chaplin lost the paternity case, despite the scientific proof saying otherwise. The verdict did irreparable damage to his public image, and J. Edgar Hoover, who already viewed Chaplin as a child molesting communist lecher, used the verdict to deport Chaplin from the U.S. If Barry been around today she might have been diagnosed as bi-polar. Talking to his biographer, Chaplin describes Barry haunting his house late at night, howling invectives at his window between blasts from his sprinkler system. The scenes with Barry are swift but attention-grabbing, with Travis reveling in Barry's loopy personality.
It's more than a coincidence that Moira Kelly (Karen Rose on "One Tree Hill") plays Chaplin's first and greatest love Hetty Kelly, as well as his last wife Oona O'Neill. It's a heavy-handed way of telling the audience Chaplin spent the majority of his life looking for another Hetty until he found Oona. Kelly doesn't need the thick brogue or cave girl eyebrows plastered on Hetty to separate the two characters; Hetty is pure Irish innocence, Oona is lady-like, but tough. The two characters are so juxtaposed it took a few close ups for me to realize Kelly had re-entered the flick as Oona.
Dan Akroyd is priceless as coarse, tobacco juice spewing film pioneer Mack Sennett. Watch for a young David Duchovny as Rollie Totheroh, one of the early film editing innovators who worked for Sennett and Chaplin. The late John Thaw ("Inspector Morse" on the BBC for 13 years) plays Chaplin's first boss, vaudeville impresario Fred Carno with bluster and brio.
One of the movie's few drawbacks is Anthony Hopkins character of George Hayden, Chaplin's biographer. And who would ever think that Tony would be a drag, especially after his breakthrough role as Hannibal Lecter the year before? In the extras, Attenborough admits he didn't like inserting a fictional character into the movie. (Chaplin wrote his own biography.) Hayden was added to move the story along and answer personal questions about Chaplin's personal life:
Hayden: Where's the real Chaplin?
Chaplin: I'm vulnerable.
Hayden: Why don't you write about that vulnerability?
Chaplin: If you want to understand me, watch my films.
Another slight annoyance is the tons of make up troweled over Downey's young features to make him look like an octenegarian. Instead he looks like an embalmed victim of too many Botox injections.
The fifteenth anniversary Chaplin DVD extras are a loving tribute to The Tramp, and include four informative featurettes: "Strolling Into the Sunset," "Chaplin the Hero," "The Most Famous Man in the World" and "All at Sea." The featurettes offer hilarious excerpts from Chaplin's films, illuminating info, and previously unseen private footage.
In "Strolling into the Sunset," director Attenborough outlines the history of the movie, citing how hard it was to secure financing, despite the subject matter. Biographer David Robinson and New York Times critic Richard Shickel pick up the story thread. In typical Times fashion, Shickel tends to overstate things, but Chaplin's son, Michael, provides more succinct asides on his father and Downey's performance.
"Chaplin the Hero" looks at the factors that made the Little Tramp a worldwide figure. Shickel credits Chaplin's universal popularity to the child-like quality of his silent films - since there's no dialogue, there's no language barrier, nothing that's distinctly English or American. Attenborough's analysis may come from his admiration of Chaplin, but it's also poetic and honest: "He felt the depravation, difficulties and humiliation of the little man, and he knew how to convey that. He could break your heart silently."
"The Most Famous Man in the World" examines the Little Tramp's meteoric rise and how he dealt (or didn't deal with) the isolating effect of superstardom. Included is footage of Chaplin's triumphant and bittersweet return to England in 1921.
The most enticing footage comes from Alistair Cooke's private collection and has never been released publicly. In 1933, Cooke, (then a young journalist bearing a striking resemblance to actor Ray Bolger, the scarecrow in "The Wizard of Oz"), became friends with Chaplin and Paulette Goddard. The trio took off for a vacation in the Catalinas aboard Chaplin's yacht "The Panacea" with Cooke documenting the voyage on film. There are entertaining moments of Captain Chaplin impersonating the celebrities of the day and engaging in slapstick with Cooke.
Robert Downey may be known as Iron Man these days, but his best performance came portraying a man of flesh and blood with a brilliant talent for inspiring laughter and tears. "Chaplin" is a fitting tribute to a comic genius.