A new documentary about Charlie Chaplin paints a “rounder portrait” of the silent-film star’s “complicated” life — including his fractious relationships with his teenage wives.
Filmmakers Peter Middleton and James Spinney, given access to unseen archival footage from the Chaplin estate, attempt to get to know the man behind the toothbrush mustache in The Real Charlie Chaplin.
“We were impressed when we started making the film,” Middleton told Sky News. “So many people have this image of the little tramp, the guy with the moustache, the cane and the bowler hat, and it actually kind of flattens our understanding of him.
“He was an extraordinary, complicated character and had an extraordinary outlook on life. So it was very much our intention to flesh that out and try to present a more rounded portrait of the man.”
Chaplin’s rise to unprecedented fame in the early 1900s is the ultimate rags to riches story, he spent his childhood from the age of four in a Victorian workhouse in Lambeth, south London, after his father abandoned the family and his mother was taken into one institutionalized.
After moving to America, his on-screen popularity in silent films was such that they would eventually reach a movie audience of 300 million.
As Spinney explains, “Because the films were silent, they could travel all over the world and people from different backgrounds could somehow enjoy his films, so that they achieved a kind of fame that wasn’t possible before it came to the big screen.”
Chaplin was arguably the world’s first global celebrity. But while his influence on pop culture is undeniable, when it comes to his personal life, there’s an argument that by modern standards, they wouldn’t actually be seen or heard.
The documentary touches on how three of Chaplin’s four wives were teenagers. Lita Gray was 12 when she starred alongside him and they later secretly married in Mexico. He was in his 30s and she was 16 and pregnant – in California they could have been charged with statutory rape.
After her divorce, she was slandered by the press for saying in interviews that her husband would get angry during their marriage, bug her room, point a gun at her, and try to force her to have an abortion down a back street.
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“I think for modern audiences there’s an expectation that’s at least addressed, and we tried really hard to find people who could speak to that time,” says Middleton.
“It was important for us to find those voices that have been overlooked or not sufficiently heard over the years.”
Post #MeToo whether you can separate the art from the artist is a very topical discussion. Sam Holdsworth, director of the Clowns Without Borders charity, argues that it’s important to be open about these things.
“[If we look at] If we cut Charlie Chaplin, we cut these women’s stories, and that’s just as problematic. What the trip actually brings to light are the women’s stories that keep happening to this day. I think that’s important and that’s the journey that needs to happen now.
In silent film, language was no barrier to making Chaplin’s appeal universal. But as the debate over how we judge historical figures intensifies, truly understanding his legacy feels far from black and white now.
The real Charlie Chaplin is in theaters now