Monday, June 26, 2006

Chaplin (1992)

I pulled out my old video of this and watched it again last night. Unfortunately, it seems like every time I watch it, I like it less and less.

What I can't understand is, what went wrong? The talent, both in front of and behind the camera, was top notch. For the subject of the film, they had one of the most interesting lives of the 20th century, based on two books, including the autobiography, as well as perhaps the definitive biography of the man.Yet for some reason, the film overall is rather dull, excrutiatingly so at times. A major part of this was the decision to portray Chaplin in such a consistently morose and brooding mood throughout the entire film. What about the Chaplin we see in the home movies, clowning around at Pickfair, pulling faces for the camera, doing impromptu bits of business? We see none of this side of Chaplin in the film. In fact, aside from the Karno sketch and the debut film at Keystone, we actually see Chaplin do very little comic business at all. In fact, the film only seems to bring up his films when there is some sort of social commentary connected with it.

Robert Downey Jr.'s portrayal of Chaplin is nothing less than brilliant. His ability to mimic Chaplin's mannerisms without seeming like a mere impersonator are quite good. The rest of the cast is equally good, but the problems seem to lie more in how certain characters were written. J. Edgar Hoover, for instance, as played by Kevin Dunn, seems at times to have come right out of the Ford Sterling school for over-the-top villainy.There also seems to be an inordinate amount of time spent on Chaplin's love life. While this undoubtedly deserves considerable attention in telling his life story, I felt there were just a few too many long scenes that went nowhere.Given how much of Chaplin's amazing life story they decided to ignore completely, its surprising how the film moves just too quickly much of the time in order to establish any depth. Too many of the characters come across as one-dimensional, due to the script.The film starts off quite promisingly, with a good re-creation of the English music halls and the South London that Chaplin grew up in. However, even in these early scenes, there is an example of a technique used in this film that bothered me to no end: the decision to portray some very serious moments in Chaplin's life in the manner of a silent comedy.The first scene I notice this in is during young Charlie's attempted escape from the London workhouse. As two lines of officials come charging down two seperate hallways that converge, Charlie ducks behind a wall, causing the two groups to collide like the Keystone Cops. The workhouse scenes could have been very effective ways of conveying the immense difficulties that shaped Chaplin for the rest of his life; instead, we get this scene that is reminiscent of his later work in slapstick. This technique comes up again later in the film.

Chaplin's first love, Hetty Kelly, is portrayed well, but again, more depth should have been given to it, as this was a crucial moment in Chaplin's life that in many ways seemed to influence his relationships, some of which got him in to a great deal of trouble.The Karno scenes are good; Downey does an admirable job recreating the "Mumming Birds"-type sketch. From these scenes, the film shifts to America, with some breathtaking vistas of the American West.

We catch up with Chaplin in Butte, Montana. Now, here is a part of the film which has always bothered me. It makes it look as though this is the first time Chaplin has seen a motion picture. Surely, he would have encountered them sooner than 1913, especially since movies became a fairly regular part of music hall (and vaudeville) bills in the early years of the century. In fact, it's quite likely that Chaplin encountered the work of Max Linder some time earlier than 1913, certainly. At any rate, this scene is given an extra dose of absurdity by having none other than Stan Laurel just happen to come at that moment with a telegram inviting Charlie to Hollywood to make movies. This scene is straight out of the corniest 1940s biopics. This scene also contains my biggest pet peeve of screen biographies, when a character (in this case, Stan Laurel) is introduced who is well known to the audience but not to the other characters in the film (the recent version of THE ALAMO was filled with this).

The Keystone scenes are my favorite of the film. There is some reasonably good re-creations of what Keystone must have been like. The silent-comedy technique presents itself again in the scene where Chaplin puts together his costume for the first time. There is also a bit of special effects in which the old Chaplin character romanticizes a bit about the tramp character "calling" to him. This silly bit is really unnecessary, and contains some rather outdated special effects (the "glowing" derby, for instance) that serve no purpose other than to be cute.Now, the Keystone segment also presents the biggest outrage in the film: the presentation of Mabel Normand as a loud mouth bimbo who "actually thinks she can direct". This scene is plain insulting to this brilliant comedienne, and a real disservice to her memory. Let's not forget that she was a talented performer and director, and far from being out to get Chaplin, she actually was one of his biggest supporters at the studio. The whole presentation of the character is just so wrong it defies description. I'm sure she and Chaplin clashed creatively, but then again, two unique and brilliant talents working together often do. The line given to Mack Sennett, "She actually thinks she can direct", is an insult. There is also an annoying little error-the cameraman at Keystone is referred to as "Rollie" (as in Totheroh). Surely they could have at least bothered to bring Chaplin's most prolific and valuable collaborator in to the story in at least the right time period (more should have been made of Totheroh's collaboration throughout Chaplin's career in general, really).

From here, I lose all interest in the film. Some major points I have issue with are the virtual dismissal of the Lita Grey divorce trial, which visibly aged Chaplin and was perhaps one of the first major public episodes that changed peoples' opinion of him. In the presentation of the Mildred Harris affair, the "Salt Lake City" episode, which was perhaps one of the worst experiences of Chaplin's creative and personal life, is presented as a silly, sped-up silent comedy replete with slapping and comic policeman, straight out of "Fractured Flickers" or the old Pete Smith "Goofy Movies".Chaplin's increasingly morose attitude just becomes depressing. For a guy who remained brilliantly funny through many trying times and public scandals, he is portrayed as increasingly gloomy and bitter. There should have also been mention made of Chaplin's wonderful family, who obviously kept him very young in spirit into old age. The pictures of the old Chaplin, in his 80s, cavorting with his children and wife on the lawn of their mansion in Switzerland, are some of the most serene moments I have ever seen. The film totally glosses over this.

It would have been nice to portray the fact that Chaplin's life wasn't all scandal and public outcry all the time. Even his brother Syd, one of his most loyal and trustworthy supporters, is presented as someone mean spirited towards Charlie, exploding on him during planning THE GREAT DICTATOR. In fact, Syd was a huge supporter, and it seems that, at least regarding THE GREAT DICTATOR, Chaplin was surrounded by a loyal crew who knew they were making something controversial.There were a lot of other triumphs in Chaplin's life that the film manages to ignore as well. At least the film ends with his return to the Academy Awards.Overall, the film has a lot of faults mainly as a result of the script. It feels rushed, one dimensional, incomplete, and often aimless. Perhaps one day Chaplin's life will receive a screen biography treatment that does his remarkable life story better service.