This fulfills my biography genre. I started to get into silent movies in the late eighties. It started with a book on Clara Bow and it mushroomed from there. By 1992 I was ordering silent movies on VHS from New York and bootlegs wherever I could get them. The actors and actresses that got my attention were Clara Bow, Buster Keaton, Douglas Fairbanks Sr, Mary Pickford, and Charles Chaplin.
In 1992 I had just settled into my small Laverne and Shirley basement studio apartment when this movie was released. It was perfect timing because this was the peak of my silent movie interest. I would get USA Today every day to check my Dodgers box scores and I read about this movie coming out. There was an advertisement where you could make a 99-cent phone call (per minute) to listen to some of the movie on the telephone. Yes, I was that desperate (sucker) to do just that… to hear some of the movie…it was a different time.
I had read where Johnny Depp was up for the role and I thought he would have been the perfect person to play Chaplin. I was totally wrong…the perfect actor to play Chaplin was the one who got the role…Robert Downey Jr. He became Chaplin on the screen. He went as far as learning to play tennis left-handed.
Robert Downey Jr. had a terrific cast surrounding him. Chaplin’s own daughter (Geraldine Chaplin) played Chaplin’s mom in the movie. Dan Aykroyd portrayed Mack Sennett, and Kevin Kline plays Douglas Fairbanks Sr. It was also directed by the great Richard Attenborough.
The movie starts with an 8-year-old Chaplin taking the stage to sing after his mentally disturbed mom was booed off. Chaplin’s childhood was straight out of a Dickens novel. With help from his older brother Syd, he got a job with a vaudeville unit ran by Fred Karno. He also met his first love Hetty Kelly who would shape his love interest for the rest of his life. His brother Syd worked as his manager when Chaplin got famous. In the beginning Syd was much more well-known than Charlie…until the little tramp appeared.
The movie moves fast…sometimes a little too fast. All through the movie he is talking to an editor (Anthony Hopkins) about his then new (1964) autobiography and that is how they move the movie along. I wanted to see more about certain movies I’d enjoyed but they did have a lot to cover. They manage to touch on some of his political problems like with J. Edgar Hoover and when he made The Great Dictator.
The movie follows Chaplin through his movies, personal life, and his politically rough waters. As with any movie about a historical figure…things will be missed, wrong, and forgotten but the movie hits the high spots of his life.
If you really want to know about Chaplin read Chaplin: His Life and Art by David Robinson or watch one of the many documentaries on him. Chaplin was a complicated man…too complicated to be summed up in a two-hour motion picture…but it was a great try. After reading so many books, what I wanted would have taken a 6-hour movie…so this is a good introduction to Chaplin.
The movie was very enjoyable, and you do get the highs and lows of Charles Spencer Chaplin. You also get a hell of a good acting job from Robert Downey Jr. The movie also combines shots of the real Chaplin in his movies. Sitting in the theater it was magical…near the end of the movie they show real Chaplin clips as seen on an award show in 1972. The laughter in the theater was the loudest I’ve ever heard before or since… the Tramp still drew laughs in 1992 and he still does in 2021.
After watching this movie, you will probably want to watch some Chaplin movies…that would be the best outcome…if you haven’t watched any…you are missing a true artist who not only starred but wrote, directed, and produced.
- Robert Downey Jr. as Charlie Chaplin
- Hugh Downer as Charlie age 5
- Thomas Bradford as Charlie age 14
- Marisa Tomei as Mabel Normand
- Geraldine Chaplin as Hannah Chaplin
- Paul Rhys as Sydney Chaplin
- Nicholas Gatt as Sydney age 9
- John Thaw as Fred Karno
- Moira Kelly as Hetty Kelly, Charlie’s first love / Oona O’Neill
- Anthony Hopkins as George Hayden
- Dan Aykroyd as Mack Sennett
- Penelope Ann Miller as Edna Purviance
- Kevin Kline as Douglas Fairbanks
- Matthew Cottle as Stan Laurel
- Maria Pitillo as Mary Pickford
- Milla Jovovich as Mildred Harris
- Kevin Dunn as J. Edgar Hoover
- Deborah Moore as Lita Grey
- Diane Lane as Paulette Goddard
- Nancy Travis as Joan Barry