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Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin:
The Chaplin Collection

MK2 / Warner Home Video

Starring Johnny Depp, Robert Downey Jr., Marcel Marceau,
Bill Irwin, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Milos Forman,
Richard Attenborough, David Raskin, Norman Lloyd,
Claire Bloom, Geraldine Chaplin, Sydney Chaplin,
Michael Chaplin, Andrew Sarris, David Thomson,
Jeannine Basinger, David Robinson, Jeffrey Vance

Written and directed by Richard Schickel

Narrated by Sydney Pollack

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Review by Mark Bourne                    

Time magazine's veteran film critic Richard Schickel has tackled Charlie Chaplin before, in a spirited essay collected in his 1989 book Schickel on Film. There he revealed himself to be that rarest of enthusiasts, an unabashed fan who can celebrate the object of his affection yet won't look away when his subject's hagiography deserves a poking. Schickel is also the writer-director-producer of documentaries on Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, Alfred Hitchcock, and other filmmaking A-listers. In 2003 he crafted this affectionate, thoughtful documentary on Chaplin. And although he has softened his gruff-love a bit, that distinctive Schickel voice still comes through even as it's spoken by narrator Sydney Pollack.

There's only so much of Chaplin's often rocky territory one 132-minute film can cover, but Schickel's erudite script succeeds as a thorough and nuanced overview of Chaplin's career as a filmmaker and performer. This mix of biography and cultural history assembles archival film clips, rare behind-the-scenes footage, and recent interviews to track Chaplin (1889-1977) starting with his harsh childhood in the London slums and his youth as a working-class music-hall performer. We witness the seminal moments of Chaplin's screen career with his improvised mugging in Kid Auto Races at Venice, the 1914 short that records the nascent Little Tramp's first onscreen appearance.

What follows is Chaplin's unprecedented rocket to world-class recognition and wealth. The film spends quality time on his early years with Mack Sennett, the build to his greatest shorts (such as The Immigrant and Easy Street), and the classic features The Kid, The Gold Rush, The Circus, City Lights, and Modern Times. Two of Chaplin's later, and lesser, features, Limelight and Monsieur Verdoux, are placed in good context. Schickel — perhaps to avoid mood-shattering cantankerousness — barely even glosses over the two painful failures that capped the old comedian's career, A King in New York and A Countess from Hong Kong. Home movies give us a warm peek at Chaplin in his twilight years as an exile and doting father in Switzerland. They preserve a telling moment: the white-haired octogenarian, unable to either let go of the past or not perform while a camera rolls, re-enacts bits from his early Tramp films. It's the lens-loving clown from Kid Auto Races at Venice, this time with a young daughter wheeling by on a tricycle.

Threading in and out through the biography, Schickel also surveys Chaplin's ascendancy to worldwide super-celebrity. While the film doesn't dwell on — or even touch, in some cases — the more salacious highlights of Chaplin's life, we get a thumbnail sketch of his controversial personal and political travails, including four marriages to troublingly young women, a few of his love affairs, and a scandalous paternity suit. In his writings, Schickel's personal conservatism colors his evaluations of Chaplin's more socially left-leaning films and reputation as a "fellow traveller." In this documentary, Schickel displays no political animus, but he does short-shrift Chaplin's persecution by J. Edgar Hoover and McCarthy-era red-baiters. Nonetheless, he deftly knits these threads into thoughts on how Chaplin's life directly impacted his artistry, and how a celebrity's psychology can both drive and damage his creativity. Schickel has called Chaplin the first victim of modern celebrity culture, and here he points to an insular artist "driven by his relentless ego, by his helpless need for an audience to dominate, to lead. All the tragedies of his life stemmed from those drives and needs."

An impressive array of talking heads add their own personal insights and reflections. Actors Robert Downey Jr., Johnny Depp, Bill Irwin, and Marcel Marceau illuminate the intricate physical and emotional components of Chaplin's Little Tramp. Joining fellow directors Woody Allen and Richard Attenborough, Martin Scorsese offers a gleeful exegesis of A Woman of Paris, and Milos Forman gives a personal remembrance of The Great Dictator's impact on Europe under the Nazi threat. Also on hand are critics and biographers Andrew Sarris, David Robinson, David Thomson, Jeannine Basinger, and Jeffrey Vance; Chaplin collaborators Norman Lloyd, Claire Bloom, and David Raskin; and his children Geraldine, Sydney, and Michael. All the while, Schickel reminds us that in multiple mediums he is an engaging writer, and Sydney Pollack makes an able narrator whose authority as a gifted director is equaled by his casual delivery.

Well-read Chaplin enthusiasts won't glean much new information from the film, but even they will be satisfied with Schickel's encapsulation of Chaplin's career. For newcomers this is a first-rate course in Chaplin 101 from a professor who knows his stuff. The new generations represented here — Depp, Scorsese, etc. — remind us that Chaplin's best work does not confine his brilliance to bygone years. Or even to the 20th Century. Early on, Woody Allen tells us that Chaplin will still be funny a thousand years from now. Schickel leaves us with no reason to doubt that assessment.

Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin is exclusive to the Volume 2 boxed set of The Chaplin Collection, which also includes definitive, authorized editions of The Kid, The Circus, City Lights, A King in New York / A Woman of Paris, Monsieur Verdoux, and The Chaplin Revue.

How's the picture and sound quality?

This single-disc DVD serves up a clean, no-complaints print that arrives in its original 1.33:1 full-frame aspect ratio. As you'd expect, the new interviews are in color while the well-preserved or restored footage from Chaplin's films and other vintage sources is in black-and-white. We do get to see Chaplin momentarily in color during some behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is likewise just fine. The rear speakers are used in only a perfunctory way, but this new track is clean and able-bodied with no "Wow!" moments. We get an English language track only, plus subtitles in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Thai, and Korean.

The disc comes with no extras, which is as many as it needs.

—Mark Bourne

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