The Real Charlie Chaplin (2021)

The Real Charlie Chaplin directed by Peter Middleton and James Spinney is an immersive documentary that focuses on how Chaplin compulsively reflected his personal life in his films.

Hot Tramp

by Alexa Dalby

The Real Charlie Chaplin

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

In his heyday, Charlie Chaplin had a never-seen-before (or since?) mega-fame that drew huge crowds wherever he went. But behind the Chaplin of the iconic (still much copied) Little Tramp persona (allegedly created by chance) was a very complex character.

This new documentary looks at his life and career, from the early Mack Sennett shorts to Monsieur Verdoux in 1947, concentrating on the effect his personal life had on his art. Chaplin was an obsessive control freak – screenwriting, directing, editing, starring in and writing the theme music for all his films. They were surprisingly personal, as this documentary reveals.

As is well known, Chaplin grew up in great deprivation in a London slum. There’s a fascinating interview by film historian Kevin Brownlow from the 1980s, never heard before, with a (by then elderly) childhood street playmate, Effie Wisdom.

The Real Charlie Chaplin unpicks the details of how Chaplin reflected his poverty-stricken upbringing and offscreen life in his silent movies. With hindsight, we can see how they were compulsively personal. The set of The Kid – his first full-length movie, significantly about an orphaned urchin – closely recreates the (filmed for the documentary) attic room that Chaplin, the child, lived in with his mother and brother.

There are many other parallels between his life and his movies, The documentary is diplomatic about his predilection for young girls, though there is an extended interview with one of his stars and second wife, Lita Grey.

Perhaps the most striking parallel the film makes is that Chaplin and Hitler were born within four days of each other. It was in The Great Dictator in 1940, playing a satirised Hitler figure, that Chaplin finally spoke. His speech for freedom was so moving and so popular that he was invited to deliver it again at Roosevelt’s inauguration.

But once he had started speaking, he couldn’t shut up. This led to his vilification by the FBI as a communist and his ban from return to the US after a European publicity tour for Limelight. The documentary ends with home-movie footage of family life with his young wife Oona in Switzerland and recent interviews with his children, Michael and Geraldine.

The documentary is an immersive mixture of dramatic recreation (actors lip-synching to audio or archive interviews), archive footage, film footage and informative commentary (voiced by Pearl Mackie): it is directed by Peter Middleton and James Spinney.

The Real Charlie Chaplin? Perhaps it’s too late to find out now and he was too many people. Or perhaps the truth was always there in plain sight? The Real Charlie Chaplin is an excellent film biography and its focus on human drama is for everyone, not just for fans or film buffs.

The Real Charlie Chaplin premiered at the BFI London Film Festival and is released on 18 February 2022 in the UK.

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