A new documentary about Charlie Chaplin comes seemingly out of nowhere and, upon sampling it, emerges as one of the most moving and mesmerizing viewing experiences of the year.
If this documentary received any publicity before Showtime sent an email about it late last week, then this advance word eluded me. Titled “The Real Charlie Chaplin,” it premieres Saturday night on Showtime.
What a joy it was to watch it yesterday without prior knowledge of it, or the noise of a publicity campaign buzzing in my brain.
The thing that struck me most, out of this documentary’s many fine qualities, was how it brings Chaplin and his world so vividly to life.
Like the best histories -- whether books or documentary films -- “The Real Charlie Chaplin” tells the Chaplin story in the context of his times, without detouring into cultural and social comparisons with the present day, as so many such works do today.
The documentary achieves this the old-fashioned way -- with diligence and hard work. The effort that evidently went into the assembly of this documentary is reflected first and foremost in the way it melds so much visual and aural archive material.
Footage of contemporary life in the 1900s and ’10s is applied perfectly to render these decades real to those watching this documentary more than 100 years later.
The directors of “The Real Charlie Chaplin” -- Peter Middleton and James Spinney -- and their team also unearthed rarely scene footage of Chaplin at work, audio tapes of interviews with those who knew Chaplin, plus an extensive interview on tape that Chaplin himself agreed do to with Life magazine late in his life.
Among other subjects covered in this interview, Chaplin explains why he continued to make pictures in the style of the old silents -- most notably, “City Lights” (1931) and “Modern Times” (1936) -- for years after the rest of the movie industry had converted completely to talking motion pictures.
“Talking is an artificial thing, you see, whereas movement is as near to nature as a bird flying,” he tells his Life interviewer. “The voice is very beautiful, but it’s not as great as the silence of somebody just looking.”
Indeed, the character of the little tramp that made Chaplin an international star was essentially a mime, and one of the finest to ever take up that craft. When talkies arrived, Chaplin knew the survival of his miming alter-ego was threatened.
The creation and eventual fame of the tramp character is fully told and, more importantly, shown in scene after scene of Chaplin’s early short comedies.
Chaplin came to America in 1914 as a penniless, unknown member of an English music-hall troupe.
So powerful was the relatively new medium of movies in those days that within eight years, he became the best-known person on the planet Earth.
The life of Chaplin is an astonishing story very well told in this documentary, warts and all. Watch it if you are at all interested in Chaplin and his story. And if the subject does not interest you, watch it anyway. It is not to be missed.
“The Real Charlie Chaplin” premieres Saturday (December 11) at 8 p.m. Eastern on Showtime.