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Little Tramp's big life

In the documentary 'Charlie,' Richard Schickel sets out to tell the silent film star's story in interviews, home movies and the films themselves.

August 12, 2003|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

Before he began work on the comprehensive new documentary "Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin," filmmaker, critic and author Richard Schickel was given an edict by the Chaplin family: Don't do a whitewash job on the Little Tramp.

"We want him to be seen kind of warts and all," Schickel recalls daughter Josephine Chaplin telling him. "We are no longer interested, if we ever were, in presenting this portrait of a serene and perfect individual who happened to be a genius."

Making the documentary, which opens Friday for a one-week Oscar-qualifying engagement at the Laemmle Monica 4-Plex in Santa Monica, was greatly liberating for Schickel. "We could do whatever we wanted. I think it makes the film more moving. You get a sense of the various mistakes he made with his marriages, his politics."

"Charlie," which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, has played at more than 40 festivals around the world and will be released next year by Warner Home Video on VHS and DVD along with a second wave of restored Chaplin classics such as "City Lights" and "The Kid."

Narrated by Sydney Pollack, the two-hour plus documentary overflows with clips from "The Kid," "A Woman of Paris" (Schickel's favorite), "The Gold Rush," "The Circus," "City Lights," "Modern Times," "The Great Dictator," "Monsieur Verdoux," "Limelight," "A King in New York" and various shorts such as "Soldier Arms," "Easy Street" and "One A.M."

There are also rare home movies and passionate and often moving interviews with Chaplin's children Sydney, Geraldine and Michael; directors Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Milos Forman and Sir Richard Attenborough; and performers Marcel Marceau, Johnny Depp and Bill Irwin.

Schickel, who has been the film critic at Time for 31 years and is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times Book Review, believes that his film is the first good documentary produced on Chaplin. " 'The Gentleman Tramp,' I think is very feeble and lacking in clips," he says, relaxing in the small office he shares with his 13-year-old terrier, Preston. "There was an A&E 'Biography' a few years ago, but that was the same thing. It was thin in clip materials.

"I don't want to toot my own horn, but I don't know of any biography films of a single individual that are more complete or richer in materials than it draws on than this film. It's long. We made it longer than we originally intended by 35 minutes. It was a huge life."

And though he does show Chaplin warts and all, he doesn't really dwell on his personal problems. "It seems to me, as it always does when I am writing a book or making a film, that the only reason we are entitled to be interested in these people is their work. What difference does it make that they have many girlfriends or many vices or are drunks or homosexuals, all of those issues that preoccupy celebrity life these days, especially when you are talking about a figure like Chaplin?"

After all, he says, Chaplin's greatest days were 70 and 80 years ago. "That would be dredging up all kinds of antique gossip about this guy."

Despite Chaplin's penchant for young girls, paternity suits and political woes, Schickel says, "his life came out rather well. He had a wife he simply adored. They had all of these children whom he had some difficulties with, but the same difficulties everyone has -- he wants her to go to college, she wants to go to ballet school, etc. Whatever those difficulties were, as time has gone on, and you talk to the children now, they are extremely affectionate about the old guy. He could be a difficult dad, but he was also an amusing dad."

The rise of celebrity

Chaplin, along with Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, was the first international celebrity. "And he had to deal with all that ad hoc," Schickel says. "If you see the scenes where he was going to London for the first time [since his success] and totally mobbed -- which is also what happened with Fairbanks and Pickford -- he is in actual physical danger in those scenes.

"So he is having to deal with celebrity at a new and more intense level and much more than anybody had to deal with before. There was not yet in place the whole system, which includes security and press agentry and management of celebrity. He went around town without a lot of bodyguards. I think considering what he was dealing with, he did very well and that enlists my sympathy."

The documentary also touches upon the seemingly endless discussion as to who was the superior silent comedian: Chaplin or Buster Keaton. Schickel believes any comparisons between the two are false ones.

"They are two great comedians that were roughly contemporary and roughly guys who made brilliant silent comedies in the 1920s, but that is just a coincidence. I don't know why you have to make a choice between Keaton and Chaplin because in all other respects they are different."

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