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Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin

Directed by Richard Schickel. Narrated by Sydney Pollack. (2003, NR, 127 min.)

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Dec. 19, 2003

It’s been almost 115 years since Charles Chaplin, the scrawny progeny of a pair of down-at-the-heel British entertainers, was born in London, and nearly 90 since his first onscreen appearance (for Mack Sennett’s Keystone Films) in the obscure short "Making a Living," but it wasn’t until his appearance in The Tramp in 1915 that the character that arguably would become the most famous cinematic construct of all time arrived. It’s a testament to both the enduring power of film and Chaplin’s immediate and seemingly cellular mastery of the medium that his films are currently enjoying a revival of sorts, with a new frame-by-frame remastering of Modern Times currently in theatres and a wealth of other titles given lush restorations on DVD. No other early film star has yet been accorded this fawning treatment (poor Harold Lloyd isn’t on DVD at all), and it is difficult to imagine any current actor, comic or otherwise, maintaining such a remarkable degree of fame ever again. Schickel, Time magazine’s longtime film critic, has crafted what must be the final word on Chaplin’s life and work. Narrated by Sydney Pollack and more than two hours long, it’s both a veritable treasure trove of little-seen footage from both Chaplin’s screen work and his none-too-private life, and it goes a tremendous way toward explaining why the recent re-release of Chaplin’s masterpiece Modern Times (opening in Austin next week at the Dobie) still somehow holds sway over the imagination of audiences like few, if any, modern comedies can. Schickel is clearly a fan of Chaplin (and really, who isn’t?), and like his previous forays into documentary filmmaking (notably his fantastic Men Who Made the Movies series from 1973 and the equally fine Elia Kazan: A Director’s Journey), Charlie feels like the distillation of a lifetime of admiration and study on Schickel’s part. It’s a filmic mash note to both the Little Tramp and the American exile, ultimately one and the same. The film touches on Chaplin’s infamous private life, much of which wouldn’t seem out of place in last week’s National Enquirer: his penchant for May-December romances, a damaging paternity suit, his lengthy skirmishes with the House Un-American Activities Committee (shades of Elia Kazan, although Kazan took another, less palatable route out of his own troubles), and Hoover’s voluminous FBI files on the actor, which eventually resulted in a move to Switzerland in 1952 where he spent most of the remainder of his life with wife Oona O’Neill, the daughter of playwright Eugene. What’s most remarkable about Schickel’s documentary – aside from the near-constant stream of classic, still-emotional supercharged clips from both his early work and the films that made him for a time the most famous man in the world, are the interviews with filmmakers and actors like Martin Scorsese, Milos Forman, and Johnny Depp, the latter of whom parroted Chaplin’s dancing dinner rolls bit from The Gold Rush, as well as Chaplin’s children and Robert Downey Jr., who managed a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his role in Richard Attenborough’s 1992 biopic Chaplin. Previously unseen home-movie footage of an elderly Chaplin in Switzerland, as well as his appearance before an enthusiastic audience while accepting his Lifetime Achievement Oscar at the denouement of his career, make Schickel’s doc a more than fitting (and long overdue) elegy. Jim Carrey should be so lucky.

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Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin, Richard Schickel

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