There is nothing wrong, per se, with Richard Schickel’s documentary “Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin.” But there is nothing special about it, either. Aside from offering a collection of always-hilarious classic comedy sequences, this lumbering film covers very familiar ground.
If you anything about the life of Charles Chaplin, you won’t learn anything new here. The well-worn story of Chaplin’s childhood in London poverty, his meteoric rise to international superstardom via the silent movies, his numerous private romantic and political scandals, and the late-life celebration of his art is covered at great length (though not at great depth). Home movies, newsreels, archival photographs, and interviews with his children Geraldine and Michael plus assorted colleagues and admirers (including, for no good reason, a blissful Johnny Depp and the never-amusing Bill Irwin). Aside from Woody Allen whining that he never found the globe-balloon dance of “The Great Dictator” amusing, there is nothing of note raised here. Sydney Pollack, of all people, narrates the film (and he is terrible — was no one with clear diction available for this job?).
What the film has is plenty of vintage Chaplin genius, from the first appearance of his Little Tramp character in the improvised 1914 short “Kid Auto Races at Venice” through his final starring role in the underappreciated 1957 satire “A King in New York.” Whether Chaplin is creating chaos on roller skates in “The Rink” or is dining on a boiled boot in “The Gold Rush” or personifying British music hall madness with Buster Keaton in “Limelight,” it is impossible not to laugh when he is on screen. Many of the prints from his earlier films are shown in the most pristine prints I’ve ever seen.
Those who are unfamiliar with Chaplin would do better to seek out the infinitely superior three-part documentary “Unknown Chaplin” by Kevin Brownlow or David Gill. Or even better, seek out the original Chaplin films themselves (most are available on video or DVD). If you stumble on this film, however, it is not the worst thing. But are there better ways to appreciate and love Chaplin.