Few performers have attained the iconic status of Charlie Chaplin. His Little Tramp character is recognizable worldwide, even to people who have never seen his films. Chaplin wasn’t just a performer — in his five-decade-long career he directed most of his movies, developed the stories and even wrote some of the music. The makers of Chaplin tried to cram all of this, plus his private life, into a feature-length movie. The result is an episodic whirlwind of people and events, held together by Robert Downey Jr.’s stellar performance in the title role. The 15th anniversary DVD is light on extras, but they are all worth a look.
Behind the Laughter
- Interviews with director Attenborough and Chaplin's son
- Home movie of Chaplin from 1933
- Theatrical trailer
Based on a biography by David Robinson and Chaplin’s own autobiography, the movie aims to capture as many key moments in Chaplin’s life as it can. There’s his poverty-stricken childhood in England; a career in vaudeville, where he perfected the role of a drunk; his ascendancy as a movie star. His private life is a parade of silent-era Hollywood royalty and failed romances, many of them with teenage girls. Meanwhile, the FBI was looking for an excuse to kick him out of the country (Chaplin wasn’t a Communist, but his left-of-center views aroused the suspicion of J. Edgar Hoover).
Downey, whose performance was nominated for an Oscar, shines as the onscreen Chaplin. He’s more than a mimic. In one of the DVD extras, Attenborough points out that they didn’t use any old clips of Chaplin, except for those at the very end. Downey is good as the offscreen Chaplin too, though there is so much material to cover that his Chaplin seems more like a character in a movie than an actual person.
In the end, the filmmakers can’t see the forest for the trees. While I got a better idea of who Chaplin was and where he came from, I never quite figured out what made him tick. Maybe only Chaplin himself knew. “If you want to understand me, watch my movies,” Downey-as-Chaplin tells a book editor. It’s advice worth following.
The DVD has three new featurettes which all share the same interviewees. In Strolling into the Sunset, Attenborough, Chaplin’s son Michael, and others are full of praise for Downey’s performance. Attenborough is refreshingly candid in admitting some dissatisfaction with the movie. Chaplin the Hero focuses on Chaplin as a performer. The Most Famous Man in the Worldhas a self-explanatory title. At 5-7 minutes in length, all three are easy to watch and are mostly free of the long-windedness and self-congratulation seen in many DVD featurettes.
All at Sea is a 2 1/2-minute home movie shot by Alastair Cooke in 1933, when he accompanied Chaplin on his yacht off the coast of California. Chaplin clowns for the camera and does celebrity impersonations. The DVD also includes a theatrical trailer for the movie.
Picture and Sound
Chaplin is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 with Dolby Digital sound. Both picture and sound are very good. The disc includes English and Spanish subtitles.
How to Use This DVD
After watching the movie, check out all of the bonus features. You can get through them in about 30 minutes.