Charlie Chaplin is one of the most famous movie stars ever and is certainly the most famous movie star with a little toothbrush moustache. He was around when I was growing up as his films were often on television, particularly, if I recall rightly, on Saturday mornings. My sisters and I resented that as we wanted to watch The Partridge Family (or The Brady Bunch) on the other side but my father loved him, and I do remember being struck by his childlike innocence, as well as all the falling over. (Chaplin’s, not my father’s.) I now regret watching this documentary. Not because it’s bad (it isn’t) but because I know things about him that I wish I didn’t. It may even have put me off Chaplin for ever.
The film is by directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney, the same team behind Notes on Blindness. It’s compiled from archive footage, film sequences and stills, audio from an interview Chaplin gave to Life magazine in 1966 and some never-seen-before home footage, particularly covering his later years in Switzerland. (Not especially revealing, but he does still turn it on for the cameras.) Some interviews have been re-enacted with the original audio dubbed over, which seems unnecessary, and it’s quite distracting. But the story is fascinating, the most impressive rags-to-riches story ever, given that he was born into abject poverty and then became, we are told, ‘the highest-paid actor in the world’.
So we begin at the beginning in Victorian London and the slum where he lived with his mother, Hannah, a music-hall performer. His father had abandoned them and Hannah was in and out of mental asylums (syphilis, probably). Charlie, meanwhile, was in and out the workhouse from when he was, gulp, just four years old. But he had the stage in his blood, started with a music-hall act, then joined Fred Karno’s comedy company where he was spotted by Keystone Films while on a tour of America. By 26, as the sometimes breathless voice-over by Pearl Mackie tells us: ‘He was more famous than any king, queen, emperor, philosopher, artist or religious figure.’
The story is well told and hits all the marks you’d expect it to — how he discovered his ‘little tramp’ character, his eventual exile from America — and it details his incredible work ethic. He wrote, directed, produced, starred in and scored his films. He never had a script, just an idea, shooting scenes over and over until something funny came to him. (He might work on the one scene for months.) This is all fascinating. And footage of him returning to London in 1921 show that his popularity was akin to Beatlemania.
But midway through there’s a segment on his private life and this is where it gets tricky as he was plainly a monster. He would get young teenage girls pregnant, marry them to avoid charges of statutory rape, and then be sadistically cruel to them. I shan’t go into detail here, but my God. Here’s a taster: he married his second wife, Lita Grey, whom he’d known since she was 12, when she was 16 and already pregnant. (Under California state law, then as now, he’d be classed a paedophile.) He married her in Mexico to avoid the American press and later she revealed that on their way back, waiting for a train, he said: ‘We could end this whole situation if you’d just jump.’ There’s more, and some of it worse.
This, however, gets the tone just right: not adoring but not condemnatory either. It states the facts for what they are. I suppose that it’s up to you whether you can separate the artist from the work, or whether you’ll be able to watch The Kid, which is actually about childhood vulnerability, in the same way ever again. Or The Great Dictator, with its rousing speech about kindness. I had not known, and now I do. Damn.