The story of Charlie Chaplin only gets more incredible as the years go by: the man who left behind poverty and the workhouse to become the inventor of cinema, celebrity and modernity. As his movies took off, his globally adored “little tramp” character became mass produced, like the Ford Model T or the populist political movements of interwar history. In his heyday, Chaplin’s wealth and fame fused together to create something beyond anything people had conceived those two things to be. No wonder his triumph created a residue of wariness and resentment among America’s governing classes, which spilled out into outright red-scare rage when Chaplin, the bumptious autodidact and autocrat, opened his mouth about communism.
Film-makers Peter Middleton and James Spinney are well positioned to take advantage of this enduringly potent real-life legend with their own retelling; they also use new archive material of press conferences and interviews, which they transform with “verbatim cinema” reconstruction techniques. Anything like this inevitably stands in the shadow of David Robinson’s mighty 1985 biography, which set the gold-standard for Chaplin studies and inspired Richard Attenborough’s 1992 biopic starring Robert Downey Jr. But interestingly this documentary moves away, just a little, from the unitary single-stranded heroic biography – to the multi-faceted question of Chaplin’s elusive personae, with and without voice, with and without moustache, with and without political opinions. No matter how often I see it, Chaplin’s non-moustached face is thrillingly naked and strange: with upper lip exposed, the quirky little sketch of a face suddenly evolves into something hyper-intelligent, ambitious, sensual. And this film is more concerned to give Chaplin’s wives more of a presence, rather than being simply walk-on players in the tabloid-gossip farce about the great genius’s weakness for sex.
Chaplin’s amazing story is something that would have electrified Charles Dickens, that other poverty survivor who conquered the US. In fact, Chaplin probably became something that Dickens would have dreamed of being in the future century, and what he might have imagined for one of his characters. This film recounts Chaplin’s almost superhuman success, his mythic reach into the hearts and minds of millions of people all over the world – because of silent cinema. Language was no barrier and Charlie/Charlot was universal.
Fascinatingly, tragically, the coming of the talkies is what took Chaplin, briefly, up to the next plane before bringing him down, and the film convincingly argues that his famous closing speech in the great anti-Nazi film The Great Dictator, audaciously playing on his own resemblance to Hitler, planted the seed of his downfall. As the Jewish barber mistaken for a despot, Chaplin’s hero makes a passionate oration pleading for democracy and human understanding, a speech he was invited to reprise at Roosevelt’s presidential inauguration. It undoubtedly irritated many on the right, while giving Chaplin a new taste for political speech-making and bien-pensant prestige, which only infuriated the reactionaries of the FBI and the press still further. Chaplin was to become the most famous victim of the HUAC red scare – more important, surely, than Dalton Trumbo and the “Hollywood Ten”. He was finally forced into exile in Switzerland, although this film spares us the macabre story of what was to happen to his body after burial.
This film may not have all that much new material but it piercingly asks the right questions about Chaplin’s elusive reality.
• The Real Charlie Chaplin is released on 18 February in cinemas.
• This article was amended on 18 February 2022, to correct the suggestion that Charles Dickens survived a workhouse – in fact at age 12 he had to work in a factory making boot-blacking.