Warner Bros. // 2003 // 133 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Treadway (Retired) // June 16th, 2004
The definitive look at cinema's first genius.
Not quite. Although a valiant effort, Richard Schickel's documentary Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin is far from definitive. The case proudly proclaims that this film was "a highlight of 2003's Cannes Film Festival." So it was when you consider that the 2003 Cannes Film Festival was proclaimed the worst in the festival's history. Hell, even your father's amateur home movies are miles better than Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny, an official entry. But I'm not being fair to Schickel, a film critic whom I really respect. It's not his fault that the documentary comes up short.
The biggest problem lies in the fact that Chaplin is a complex figure who requires far more than two hours and thirteen minutes to discuss properly. For a film that purports to be about life and art, it is unbalanced: Art definitely dominates the proceedings. Of course, films played a very important part in Chaplin's life. However, read Chaplin's autobiography and you'll discover a rich life brimming with irony, triumph, and tragedy in equal amounts. The film only hints at a few key events, most of which are mentioned in passing. By the end of the film, we don't know much more about Chaplin the man than when it began. I do not want to be totally negative here, however. There is one aspect that Schickel touches on appropriately: The man loved working, and you can see the joy in exclusive behind-the-scenes footage. The great fault of the 1992 biopic was that it made the work seem like a chore. Chaplin often described working on a new project as the happiest times of his life. We feel the happiness here.
Schickel structures his documentary by alternating clips from Chaplin's films with latter-day interviews featuring recollections of Chaplin family members and analysis from top-notch filmmaking talent such as Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Robert Downey, Jr., and Richard Attenborough. (The latter two are the star and director of the aforementioned Chaplin.) To tell the truth, the all-star analysis actually works here. Scorsese is renowned for his immense insights into film, and Schickel gives him plenty of time to talk here. The best scenes revolve around three (of the surviving eleven) Chaplin children. Each one gives us unique insight into what it was like to have Charles Chaplin as a father. These scenes are so good that I hope Schickel makes a follow-up documentary featuring further recollections. My sole complaint with the all-star interviews is that with over twenty interviewees, there is a wanting effect after the ending.
Schickel covers most of Chaplin's work. The acknowledged masterpieces such as City Lights, The Great Dictator, and Modern Times receive much attention. To his credit, he also pays a great deal of attention to several Chaplin films that still do not receive the proper respect today (in particular, Monsieur Verdoux and A Woman of Paris). I was disappointed that Schickel chose to largely ignore A King in New York (1957) and A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), only mentioning them in passing. They are every bit as great as Chaplin's other films and deserve reappraisal.
The case insert for Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin lists the aspect ratio as a "matted" widescreen format. This is not entirely true. While the interview segments are presented in 1.85:1 non-anamorphic, the remainder of the film is in full frame. This is appropriate for the clips of Chaplin's work, which was composed for Academy ratio (roughly the size of your standard television set). Cropping this footage would be a cardinal sin, and I am glad that Warner Bros. chose not to. Now that we have that out of the way, how does it look? The image is excellent. The Chaplin clips look remarkable for their age, clean and crisp; I was blown away. (I hadn't yet screened the restored films.) The new footage, as expected, looks great. The sole flaw is some edge enhancement. However, I do not think this is a major debit as the classic footage is the main attraction.
I am still stymied about the choice to present the Chaplin catalog in Dolby Digital 5.1. While I am usually a champion of stereo sound, mono sound can be just as effective. The reprocessing of the classic Chaplin scores results in a strange hollowness that never sounds natural. Schickel's documentary doesn't use any innovative sound effects or gimmicks, so a mono mix would have been enough.
Unlike the other discs in the Chaplin Collection, this one features no extras. Keep in mind that Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin is intended as a bonus disc in the must-own Volume Two box set. If you're a fan of Chaplin, owning this set is pretty much mandatory. It does carry a steep price, but when you consider how much great entertainment it offers, the price shouldn't matter. Casual fans, however, might best rent the disc or wait until Turner Classic Movies airs the documentary again. Whatever path you choose, be forewarned: If you really want to know more about Charles Chaplin the man and the filmmaker, read a book. As hard as Schickel tries, the subject is too rich and broad to do justice to in two and a quarter hours. Schickel has made a good film, though, and the clips serve as a good sampler of Chaplin's work.
Review content copyright © 2004 Bill Treadway; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame (with letterboxed segments)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 133 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated