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Case Number 14730

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Chaplin: 15th Anniversary Edition

Lionsgate // 1992 // 135 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // October 14th, 2008

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All Rise...

Judge Gordon Sullivan is silent, too.

Editor's Note

Our review of Chaplin (Blu-Ray), published February 14th, 2011, is also available.

The Charge

Everyone has a wild side. Even a legend.

Opening Statement

I suspect we owe Chaplin: 15th Anniversary Edition to Robert Downey Jr.'s continued sobriety. The film was a prestige picture back in 1992, but a ten-year anniversary edition would have put it on the shelves during the tail end of Downey's legal and addiction troubles, something which might have tarnished the otherwise excellent Chaplin's reputation. Now that Robert Downey Jr. has won back public approval in films such as Zodiac and Iron Man, it is high time that his masterful portrayal of Chaplin gets the deluxe, high-profile release it deserves.

Facts of the Case

Chaplin is told in flashbacks, as the aging star clarifies details of his autobiography with editor George Hayden (Anthony Hopkins, Silence of the Lambs). We learn of his insane mother, his vaudeville origins, and his conquest of the American comedy market. The film also looks beyond Chaplin's professional triumphs to the more scandalous aspects of his life, including a propensity for marrying young (as in underage) women. The film gets much of its dramatic tension from J. Edgar Hoover's dislike of Chaplin and his egalitarian politics, a fight which ultimately cost Chaplin his ability to live in America. Throughout his entire life, the man who brought us the Tramp shows a willingness to upset conventions to brighten the faces of any audience.

The Evidence

Like most comedic geniuses, Charlie Chaplin was a haunted man. He grew up with a mentally ill mother (who he eventually had committed), with little money. Life was not easy on the vaudeville circuit, and he lost his first true love while traveling in America. However, it was America that gave him his first big break. Once Chaplin embraced the medium of film, he was almost megalomaniacal in his pursuit of control, writing, acting, and directing his own features as soon as he could wangle the funds. These films made him an international superstar on an almost unprecedented scale. This propensity for control led him to create (with Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith, and Douglas Fairbanks) the United Artists studio. It also led him to hold on to the silent film format long after his contemporaries in the cinema world had embraced sound. When he finally took the plunge and created a sound film, it was a strident denunciation of fascism during a time in which America was attempting to remain neutral in the war between Germany and Britain. In sharp contrast to his professional life, Chaplin's personal life was often in a shambles. He loved young women and married quite a number of them, often creating scandals in the wake of his various affairs. Despite this, he ended up staying with his final wife Oona for a number of decades. Far from the simple Tramp he portrayed on the silver screen, Chaplin was a complex and fascinating person who helped shape the art of cinema as we know it today.

Considering his boyish good looks and his wide grin, Robert Downey Jr. doesn't seem the most obvious person to play the tortured characters he's cast as (including his roles in Less Than Zero and Zodiac). And yet, he always manages to pull off the depth and darkness despite his looks. His role as Chaplin is one of those marriages of performer and role that occurs once a decade, if that. Downey gets the obvious, superficial stuff (like accent, walk, "look") down perfectly, but it's the tension and inner turmoil he projects that bring his portrayal into the realm of classic. Although Al Pacino won the Oscar that year (for Scent of a Woman), for my money, Denzel Washington (for Malcolm X) and Robert Downey Jr. should have shared it.

Although this is Robert Downey Jr.'s film, Sir Richard Attenborough assembled an amazing cast to complete his biopic. Anthony Hopkins is at his most understated in the fictional role of editor George Hayden. Moira Kelly is delightful in the dual roles of Hetty Kelly and Oona Chaplin, the great loves of Chaplin's life. Dan Aykroyd is wonderfully outsized as studio guru Mack Sennett, while Kevin Kline makes a dashing Douglas Fairbanks. In one of the braver performances of the film, Geraldine Chaplin plays her own mentally ill grandmother with sympathetic skill.

Several of Attenborough's choices raise the bar in terms of the biopic genre. Several scenes in the film are inspired by the sped-up motion of some of Chaplin's films. These scenes infect the film with a manic energy that carries it deftly through its two hour runtime. Also, Attenborough chooses to stage Chaplin's reciept of a special Academy Award (in 1972) as the film's final scene. Instead of using footage of Downey-as-Chaplin, Attenborough ends with clips of the real Chaplin. This serves to bridge the gap between the biopic and the real Chaplin, which gives the film even more dramatic weight.

While not a super-deluxe special edition, this 15th Anniversary release is a fine way to view the film. The video transfer is strong, with no compression difficulties and little wear and tear on the print. The colors look a little washed out, but I suspect that's a creative decision and not a problem with the DVD specifically. The audio is a stereo mix that does a fine job balancing the score and dialogue.

Extras are not extensive, but include three featurettes that cover Chaplin, his legacy, and the making of the film. There's also a Chaplin home movie for fans of the star, as well as a trailer. These extras are fine, but I could sure use a Robert Downey Jr. commentary track.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

I've never read a biography of Charlie Chaplin, nor have I seen that many of his films. Before watching this film I knew bits and pieces about his life: his love of young women, his refusal to make talkies, his part in United Artists, his mentally ill mother, and his eventual exile. I knew very few details about these aspects of his life, but had more of a general sense of who Chaplin was. To my slight disappointment, Chaplin did little to increase my understanding of the star. Although the film was undeniably enjoyable to watch, the only thing I really learned about the man was that his altercations with the FBI were personal on the part of J. Edgar Hoover. I wish that Robert Downey Jr.'s performance could have been put to a more revelatory use.

For the puritanical, I should note that this film earns its PG-13 rating for nudity and language, using up its one allotted f-word in the middle of the film. Generally, in a PG-13 movie, nudity means a second or two of bare backside. In Chaplin it means almost a dozen pairs of breasts as well as a backside flash. I mention this for two reasons. One, so that those who object to female nudity are warned that the nudity in this film is more copious than any other PG-13 film I've seen (although it doesn't quite trump the PG Walkabout, released before the PG-13 rating was created), and second because I think this film is a prime case of the MPAA playing favorites. If any independent studio had released this film (especially with a director who didn't have a "Sir" in front of his name), the nudity would almost certainly have earned it an R rating. Although I found the film tasteful in its deployment of nudity (as tasteful as a film about a man who likes underage women can be), it strikes me as a little odd that the film earned a PG-13.

Closing Statement

I hope this film benefits from the recent success of Iron Man, as this film deserves a very wide audience. Charlie Chaplin is a complex and difficult character whose historical impact is difficult to overestimate. Robert Downey Jr.'s incredible performance anchors a film that is shot expertly by veteran Sir Richard Attenborough. Chaplin: 15th Anniversary Edition doesn't have the most extensive list of extras, but it offers the film in a fine technical presentation.

The Verdict

Chaplin is guilty of being a masterful biopic of an amazing talent.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 93
Audio: 92
Extras: 80
Acting: 95
Story: 95
Judgment: 93

Perp Profile

Studio: Lionsgate
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English
• Spanish
Running Time: 135 Minutes
Release Year: 1992
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
• Biographical
• Comedy
• Drama

Distinguishing Marks

• "All at Sea" Chaplin Home Movie
• "Strolling into the Sunset"
• "Chaplin the Hero"
• "The Most Famous Man in the World"
• Theatrical Trailer


• IMDb

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