Saturday, November 1, 2008

"Every one has a wild side. Even a legend."

It started my Sophomore year in college. I stumbled across a class simply entitled 'The History of Film: 1900-1954.' In that class I found an obsession for most silent movies. I love them, to be honest. My favorites? Well if it isn't obvious by now, I suppose I'll have to smack you over the head with it: silent comedies! It's as if we lost something in translation when we introduced talkies. I'm not sure what it is, but now we rely way too much on the spoken word and not enough of the media worth a thousand words (pictures).
My favorite, all-time silent film comedian is of course the late, great Charlie Chaplin (pictured above). I've written several papers analyzing his work. More than that, though, is that whenever I'm down, I can always count on a good Chaplin short to cheer me up.
But let's be honest. The quality of the films is generally not the best. They are all over fifty years old, many more than that, so such a thing is to be expected. So, how do you get the beauty and simplicity of good old fashioned Chaplin, and yet the satisfication of watching something longer and meatier than 5 minutes? You watch a biopic, of course.

Ah, the biopic has jumped back into mainstream movie-making recently, though these new movies have focused more on the life and times of musical stars like Ray Charles (Ray) or Bob Dylan (I'm Not There). The biopic, Chaplin, left, that I recently stumbled upon is from 1992 and stars Robert Downey, Jr. (of Iron Man fame).
It was actually quite hard for me to picture the loud, obnoxious and arrogant Tony Stark in such a quiet role. And yet Downey somehow pulls it off perfectly, capturing both the ethereal hilarity of Chaplin's The Tramp and his off-putting obsession with the next cute, usually much younger, girl.
Boasting the tagline that is also the title of this post, Chaplin begins in black and white. You watch as The Tramp goes from being the doorway-framed sillohuette of the world-famous character (see movie poster below) to a man wiping his stage makeup off. In this opening scene the creators of the film offer you the knowledge that this is not a movie about The Tramp (his most famous character who many thought was the way Chaplin was in real life), but about Chaplin ... the man. What strikes me is how much like The Tramp Downey is in his portrayal throughout the film. It makes for a wonderful beginning to an interesting movie. And later, you see Downey as Chaplin the man, and its obvious why making this movie was so off-putting for his daugher (who starred as Chaplin's mother) at times.

For the rest of the film, told from the viewpoint of an elderly Chaplin working with his editor to nail down the final touches to his biography, the movie recalls Chaplin's life in his own words. With guest appearances from Anthony Hopkins (his editor), Kevin Kline (the comedian Douglas Fairbanks, who was Chaplin's best friend) and Geraldine Chaplin (Chaplin's real-life daughter who plays his mother in the film), the movie is actually a stark representation of how Chaplin became who he was. He, of course, is not without his problems, and yet the movie still holds his art to be the most important topic, as I believe obsessive-compulsive Chaplin would consider it to be.

My favorite scene: Chaplin's description of the birth of The Tramp.
Most poignant scene: His fight with his brother over why Chaplin must make "The Great Dictator."

Bottom line
From the opening scene to the final credits, it's a great movie. Watch it, if you can find it. If not, find some Chaplin movies to watch in the meantime. I recommend "The Gold Rush," "The Kid," "Modern Times," and (if you want to see him talking) "The Great Dictator."

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