(Charles Bramesco’s article appeared in the Guardian, 11/18; via Pam Green; Photo:  Charlie Chaplin was ‘chameleonic in the way he reflected back to people what they wanted’. Photograph: Footage File, LLC/Courtesy of Showtime.)

In a definitive new documentary, a deeper look at the much-loved movie star provides more insight into ‘one of the greatest rags-to-riches stories ever told’

When a normal person ascends to the firmament of fame, their sense of identity is split in two. The self-perception they’ve developed over their life up to that point – the “true” self, allowed to emerge in intimate moments – must contend with an outward-facing image over which they can exert unsettlingly minimal control. The more canny-minded celebrities seize the reins of their own PR by cultivating a persona they can get out in front of, caricaturing themselves before someone else gets the chance.

Charlie Chaplin, perhaps the first A-lister to contend with this existential quandary of exposure, went one step further by inventing a character he could plaster over himself. The Real Charlie Chaplin, a new documentary in cinemas this week, posits his Little Tramp alter ego as a shield and veil. If audiences were looking at the bowler hat, toothbrush moustache, and rubbery cane, they’d never see the man wearing them.

“I remember, even as a child, having an image of Charlie Chaplin in my head,” co-director James Spinney tells the Guardian. “Like most people, the costume was known to me. We saw these films with lots of preconceptions; he’s emblematic of an early, cartoonish style of cinema comedy, slapstick, films played at the wrong speed. As an adult revisiting these, I was struck by how modern they felt, how subversive, how there’s no sense of the antiquated whatsoever. Everyone has an idea about Charlie Chaplin. But people who knew him best felt that he was hard to create a connection with, that they didn’t really know him, that he was always performing.”

The top-to-bottom bio-doc examines Chaplin as a once-in-a-generation funnyman, while recognizing that as only one of the many roles he played in his eventful life: the Dickensian child laborer, the innovative vaudevillian, the big-hearted humanist, the vindictive lover, the Tinseltown captain of industry, the witch-hunted commie, the reclusive Swiss expat. In what Spinney describes as “one of the greatest rags-to-riches stories ever told”, the only connecting thread through the many ups and downs is the tension between Chaplin’s private and public lives. He prized his hordes of fans and loathed interviews, subsisting on the admiration while contending with the anxiety of being known and yet not-known.

For Spinney and co-director Peter Middleton, the prospect of gaining fresh insight into the aspects of himself Chaplin took pains to conceal was too intriguing to pass up. “One thing we knew very early on was that there was no single, solid, stable version of Charlie Chaplin,” Spinney says. “We’re not trying to link them all up, because there are too many of them, and they don’t always add up. He was chameleonic in the way he reflected back to people what they wanted.”

Their producer, Ben Limberg, had negotiated with Chaplin’s estate and the British Film Institute for a master list of materials they’d be permitted to access, the most obscure of which caught the directors’ eyes. In particular, they fixated on an “enigmatic” tape containing raw audio from a three-day profile sit-down for Life Magazine, conducted by Richard Meryman in 1966 at Chaplin’s twilight-years home on Lake Geneva. “We realized that we’d arrived at an opportune moment in history, where an archival source such as that can be restored,” Middleton says. “We started breaking that down and though it feels like there are 700 books written about Chaplin, we thought that could be our way in to something new.”

Secured after one full year of negotiations, the soundbites provide a condensed memoir with a candid running commentary as Chaplin recalled his early days of tribulation and hardship. His parents’ severe debts resulted in him being sent to Lambeth Workhouse at the tender age of seven, a plight he escaped through his natural inclination for the stage. From dance troupes and small plays to a breakout gig under vaudeville mainstay Fred Karno, an undeniable showmanship carried him out of abject poverty and across the Atlantic for a shot in the nascent movie business. It was there that he debuted the Little Tramp, whose penniless misfortunes mirrored his own background at the Central London District school for paupers.

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