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Narrated by Sydney Pollack, film critic Richard Schickel's dazzling two-hour plus documentary to one of the towering figures in film: Charles Chaplin. Hardcore Chaplin fans may not find much new material here, but more unfamiliar admirers will gain some valuable information about one of the most famous personalities of the 20th century. Schickel has constructed the documentary as a chronological survey of Chaplin's work, starting with his most significant shorts and covering all of his features. Schickel supports his narration with testimony from artists familiar with Chaplin's work and family members who offer personal insights into the comedian's life. The documentary plays down but doesn't ignore the controversies that swirled around Chaplin's private life. But the main focus is on the films. They include some of the best-loved movies of all time. Clips from "Kid Auto Races at Venice," the 1914 Keystone short in which Chaplin first used his Tramp costume, reveal a startlingly ... Written by
"It's hard to believe, but once there was a world without Charlie Chaplin." So begins film historian Richard Schickel's documentary on silent comedy's most instantly recognisable icon, easily defined by no more than a silhouette.
Of course, history has not been kind to the lecherous old Tramp: for many contemporary - and especially British viewers and critics - it's equally hard to care one way or another. As Chaplin biographer David Robinson says: "I don't know any race in the world that are more cynical than the English and if you're cynical, you can't like Charlie. He's just unbearably sentimental."
While Schickel has confessed that he didn't have a great deal of admiration for his subject when he initially embarked on the project, conversely the end result doesn't feel much like the rapturous hymn of a Born Again-Chaplinist either, seeming neither to care about redressing the balance, unconcerned with bringing anything particularly new to an already creaking table.
A leaden, flat-footed hagiography, caught in its own airless vacuum, and eschewing any probing insight into a deeply flawed and damaged individual; Schickel's Chaplin is little more than a scratch-proof, amber-encased bowler hat, umbrella and moustache to be wheeled in and wheeled out again. Aside from a jagged run-through of already well-documented facts - four marriages, paternity suits, persecution by the FBI - we never once get an inkling of an inner life, or what made Charlie tick.
On the plus side, we do get a pile of classic clips from the performer-director's vast back catalogue, from City Lights ("his acknowledged masterpiece") to The Great Dictator (the non-Chaplin lover's fave) - along with fawning interviews with everyone from Chaplin actor Robert Downey Jr to (a vocal) Marcel Marceau, and a mini film class from the ever-ebullient Martin Scorsese.
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