Charlie, Richard Schickel’s clip-and-chat portrait of Charlie Chaplin, the most celebrated and arguably the most compelling persona on planet earth during the first half of the 20th century, opens by asking the spectator to imagine a world before Chaplin. It’s almost impossible.
There’s a sense in which our current media age begins with the 1914 Keystone short Kid Auto Races at Venice: Making only his second screen appearance, Chaplin—who was instructed only to dress in a funny outfit of his own choosing—went before the camera in baggy pants and a bowler hat, his eyes rimmed with kohl and a smudgy mustache over his lip. The one-reel movie, which supposedly took a mere 45 minutes to shoot, was entirely improvised. Mack Sennett had opportunistically dispatched his crew to Venice, California, to use a soapbox derby as the backdrop for a slapstick comedy.
Emerging from the crowd, Chaplin plays a showboating spectator. He spends the entire movie engaged in a war of wills with a newsreel filmmaker (the movie’s actual director), walking back and forth in front of the camera, preening and mugging. Every joke is a variation on a single premise: No matter how many times he is violently shoved aside, Chaplin implacably returns to center screen. Schickel takes this as allegory—and rightly so. Within a year, the Tramp would install himself in the consciousness of nearly everyone in America, en route to becoming the first celebrity and most popular screen subject in the history of movies.
Beginning Chaplin’s story with the birth of his image, Schickel spends the next two-hours-plus staying close to the work. Expert witnesses, from critic Andrew Sarris to daughter Geraldine Chaplin to filmmaker Martin Scorsese to actor Robert Downey Jr. (who played Chaplin in Richard Attenborough’s biopic), are drafted to annotate Chaplin’s performances or otherwise attest to his artistry, something that almost always speaks for itself. The hyperbole can be predictable and the clichés earnest, but by and large, Charlie is a serious, often illuminating, and unavoidably entertaining account of the creature Downey calls “the most endearing superhero you might ever want to watch.”
As a filmmaker, Schickel relies heavily on his experts to make their points, but he has his own ideas as well. For him, Chaplin’s meteoric rise and stormy career—which includes both morals charges and political persecution—exemplify a popular artist’s love-hate relationship with the mass audience. As the first true mass culture icon, Chaplin was both the subject and the object of mechanical reproduction, the antihero of Modern Times two decades before he made that movie. He may have been born in London, but he symbolized America and successfully Chaplinized the world. The Soviets thought him a “proletarian hero”; the Nazis attacked him as a “Jewish film clown.” (He may have been a clown, but he wasn’t Jewish.) In his greatest PR stunt (if not his best movie), Chaplin went one-on-one with the German dictator who had not only appropriated his look but also challenged his role as the quintessential 20th-century everyman.
Not exactly starstruck but pretty much all celebration all the time, Charlie concentrates mainly on Chaplin the artiste. The documentary comes full circle with some wonderful home-movie performances shot in Switzerland in the 1970s. The mugging octogenarian is not so different from the 25-year-old who forces himself on the audience in Kid Auto Races.