n the silent movie classic City Lights, Virgina Cherrill plays the love interest of Charlie Chaplin’s alter ego, the Tramp. As she later told the press, though there were rumours, she never stood a chance of becoming Chaplin’s real girlfriend: “I was much too old. I was 20!”
Haha! Oh, wait, she’s not joking.
As this engrossing documentary makes clear, the London-born global icon hid his lust in plain sight. In The Kid, one of Chaplin’s sweetest films, The Tramp is “seduced” by a devilishly coquettish pre-pubescent (the 12 year old child lifts her skirt; wild with delight, our hero lunges). By the time she was 15, the actress who played that angel was pregnant with Chaplin’s child.
Viewers who’ve read Kenneth Anger’s gossipy take on tinsel town, Hollywood Babylon, won’t be surprised by the above. Anger detailed Chaplin’s predilections and tracked the fates of his many baby mamas. Hollywood Babylon was first published in 1959. So why doesn’t The Real Charlie Chaplin feel like old news? The beauty of the film is that it presents us with the bigger picture. Directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney capture what was one-of-a-kind about the comic genius, but also the ways in which he was a product of his (rancid) times.
Great care is taken to expose the misogyny of liberal intellectuals, who turned a blind eye to Chaplin’s predatory behaviour and viciously attacked whistleblowers like his second wife, Lita Grey, as well as the hypocrisy of social conservatives, who only took an interest in Chaplin’s victims when it suited them. At times, The Real Charlie Chaplin is as haunting as a gothic ghost story. Two key women in Chaplin’s life get incarcerated in an asylum. Only one of them makes it out alive.
The film’s thesis, in a nutshell: Chaplin was an obsessive, dictatorial, shame-free, self-mythologiser who recycled the highs and low of his life, with great success, and only got himself into trouble when he decided to take on Hitler. In The Great Dictator, which Chaplin wrote, directed and produced, the Tramp spoke for the first time, denouncing anti-Semitism and intolerance in general. Chaplin put his mouth where his money was, and it cost him. The American public loved The Great Dictator. The FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover deemed it anti-American. To use a modern phrase, Hoover found a way to get Charlie cancelled.
There is a question I wish Middleton and Spinney had asked. Chaplin married 18 year-old Oona O’Neill (they met when she was 17, he was 52) in 1943. They stayed married, but was she the last teen he ever pursued? And, to be nerdy for a second, it seems odd to give space to minor director Eddie Sutherland, and yet make no mention of the sublime Louise Brooks, Sutherland’s one-time wife, who had an affair with Chaplin when she was 18. Fans of Brooks’ memoir, Lulu in Hollywood, will feel robbed.
Mostly, though, this portrait covers all the angles. And its images burrow into the brain. The sad, poky Lambeth attic, where Chaplin was born and raised. The sad, grand Swiss mansion, where he lived, in exile, until he died. Audio interviews with his children are illuminating. They say Chaplin was bitter, oppressive, full of self-doubt and, when the home movie cameras were turned on, irresistibly funny.
There’s no denying his timing. The film-makers dig deep into Chaplin’s back catalogue and their enthusiasm is infectious (a clip from The Gold Rush creates an almost painfully itchy desire to watch the whole thing). He was horribly flawed, wonderfully brave and his films haven’t dated. “What’s all the the fuss about Chaplin?” Watch and learn.
114mins, cert 12