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The Crack Magazine

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The Real Charlie Chaplin

Directors: Peter Middleton, James Spinney 

While there may not be too much that is new here to fans, this documentary about the comedic polymath, one of the major figures of the first half of the 20th century, is exceptionally-well assembled and features a range of fascinating archive footage. Chaplin’s shockingly impoverished childhood in Lambeth is fleshed out by a revealing interview with cockney neighbour and childhood friend, Effie, in which she reveals young Charlie never considered himself worthy of love. His early music hall career, in which he exhibited a skill for physical comedy, soon saw him topping the bill – while remaining an enigmatic figure to his fellow players. Fascinatingly, he spent his spare time studying ancient Greek and yoga. An American tour brought him to the attention of silent comedy impresario Mack Sennett. Initially, Chaplin considered the movies a fad and his iconic Tramp costume was apparently thrown together on the spur of the moment. Seven years later however, after the release of classic ‘The Kid’ in 1921, Chaplin became the most famous man in the world. A clever montage, featuring Chaplin-inspired merchandise, impersonators and Beatlemania-style receptions in London and Paris, effectively illustrates how he birthed a new age of celebrity. But the after the war Chaplin was accused of having communist sympathies by FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover, who was working in conjunction with notorious gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. When Chaplin went on a promotional tour in 1951, he found he was unable to re-enter the US. He relocated to Switzerland and the accompanying home movie footage boasts a real monarch in exile quality. Pearl Mackie’s intermittent and curiously pedagogic voiceover feels a little surplus to requirements, as do the handful of annoying recreations that are sprinkled throughout. His problematic marriages are only touched on, with the makers focusing instead on Charlie’s admittedly fascinating relationship with his adoptive country, and his relentless obsessive perfectionism. (One sequence in ‘City Lights’ involved literally hundreds of takes and the firing and the rehiring of his female co-star Virginia Cherrill.)