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Warner Home Video presents
"It will be funny a thousand years from now."
DVD ReviewLet me come clean straight off: I've always been more of a Keaton guy than a Chaplin guy. Buster's deadpan, his physical prowess, and his lack of sentimentality have always had it for me all over Charlie; the Little Tramp can be a little treacly for my taste. But was he a genius, a pioneer? Absolutely, and this thoughtful and well-crafted documentary only burnishes his reputation. Heck, it even made a believer out of me.
The film was directed and produced by Richard Schickel, also a film critic for Time, and it's a pretty thorough going-over of both the life and the work, with a decided (and thankful) emphasis on the latter. Sydney Pollack narrates this story of Cockney music hall performer who found glory in Hollywood with a tattered bowler hat, a rickety old cane, and a bit of greasepaint—Chaplin's Little Tramp may be the most identifiable and imitated screen icon of all time. Chaplin wasn't just funny, though he was certainly that, and he went to school on the Keystone Kops and Mack Sennett, with whom he made his first Hollywood shorts; he was also instrumental in inventing the film grammar that we all take for granted, and for helping to expand the possibilities of this new medium. It's easy to point and shoot, but Chaplin figured out how to expand and compress space, how to use editing for the best possible comic timing, and how to find poetry in little more than two people walking down a street.
A broad range of interviewees and a wisely chosen package of Chaplin clips give a full measure of the man's craft. On hand are his children, and even a few of his collaborators, most notably Norman Lloyd and Claire Bloom; a couple of hugely important film critics, including David Thomson and Andrew Sarris; some of his biggest fans in the industry, including Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese; and a couple of contemporary clowns, Marcel Marceau and Bill Irwin, who, better than anyone, can testify to his impact on comedy and performance. We see the evolution of the Tramp character, and Schickel has found just the right bits of footage of Charlie at work—early on especially, it looked as if Chaplin could do anything, with an almost Dadaist sensibility. He could turn a rock into a pillow, a pile of seaweed into a blanket, and he was a perfectionist and a taskmaster—as Thomson says of him, "He was Kubrick before Kubrick, and Kubrick didn't use his own money."
The mixture of comedy and pathos begins more or less with The Kid, and Scorsese is especially effective in discussing Chaplin's filmmaking technique in A Woman of Paris. The usual tales of location are here—The Gold Rush was technically a particularly brutal shoot, though it was United Artists' first huge hit—and of course there are many of the public and seamier sides of Chaplin's life: his penchant for very young women, his divorces and a nasty, public paternity suit, his exile in Switzerland after the U.S. State Department refused him re-entry to this country because of his alleged Communist sympathies. What's especially noteworthy, back in the realm of art, is how he's idolized both by directors (Allen especially, though he shares my disdain for the sappiness of City Lights) and performers—Johnny Depp speaks with wonder of Chaplin's dance of the dinner rolls, which Depp so aptly mimicked in Benny & Joon.
One of the fundamental questions of Chaplin's career came with The Jazz Singer—what would the great silent comedian do in an age of sound? Watching him wrestle with the dilemma is one of the most interesting elements of the documentary; the other may be the unintended and unforeseen impact Chaplin's work had on many of the filmmakers who followed. Milos Forman, for instance, is very moving discussing the liberating power of The Great Dictator, and Schickel's narration is smart in discussing the ways that Monsieur Verdoux is in many respects a grotesque parody of the Little Tramp.
Chaplin seemed finally to find personal happiness with Oona O'Neill, daughter of Eugene; though his artistic output in his last years was limited and met with little critical acclaim, some of the best stuff here is from that time. Schickel intercuts old Chaplin home movies, the clown as an old man, performing for his children the same bits that slayed them forty years before, and then Schickel shows us the originals. Perhaps most moving of all is a scene from Limelight, in which Chaplin performs with Keaton, finally, after all that time, and the elegiac tone in their duet is equal parts comedy and heartbreak—it's the apotheosis of everything Chaplin strived for.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: Chaplin shot long before the days of anamorphic widescreen, and this documentary follows suit; especially fascinating are some on-screen bits of rehearsal footage, shot in color, from Chaplin's black-and-white films. A clean and unobtrusive transfer.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: A good, clean audio track, and Sydney Pollack has rarely if ever sounded better.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Thai, Korean with remote access
Extras Review: Only chaptering and subtitles, but then this is actually the bonus disc in the Charlie Chaplin 2.
Extras Grade: D
Final CommentsA sensible, loving and spirited reminiscence of one of the earliest and greatest of all filmmakers, and a good place to start if all you know about Chaplin is his getup as the Little Tramp.
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