Film: Chaplin

If you want to understand me, watch my movies.

Chaplin is a 1992 biopic about the life of Charlie Chaplin, one of the giants of silent-era cinema. Based in part on his 1965 autobiography, it follows him from his impoverished childhood in England, to his early career in vaudeville, which brought him to America, and through his journey to become one of the most pivotal and iconic figures in early Hollywood. It also follows his personal life, through multiple marriages, personal instability and an antagonistic relationship with the FBI, which resulted in him being banned from the US in 1952.

The film was one of Robert Downey, Jr.'s earliest starring roles earning him critical acclaim and his first Academy Award nomination.


Tropes present:

  • Adaptational Villainy: Chaplin's interviewer chides Chaplin for leaving Keystone despite Mack Sennett giving him his start in film, to which Chaplin notes that he left for better money. The film treats the dickering as Chaplin being greedy, but in reality Sennett was notorious for being stingy when paying his stars and many of them left before for better paying competitors, which was why Chaplin was hired in the first place- to replace such a person.
  • Amoral Attorney: James Woods appears in only one scene as a lawyer arguing against Chaplin in a paternity suit. He basically tells the jury to ignore the evidence, and paints Chaplin as a disloyal foreigner, a communist sympathizer and a sexual deviant. This being America in The Fifties, his argument works like a charm.
  • Broken Ace: Douglas Fairbanks is portrayed as nearly every bit as suave as his on screen personas. However the film follows his declining health and physical abilities (and his tragic awaiting of the advent of "talkies" which would ultimately kill his career). His last scene before the explanation of his death has him decide he's too tired for a night on the town with Charlie anymore.
  • Camp Gay: Charlie briefly does this type of accent while mimicking the ballet dancer Nijinsky.
  • Commander Contrarian: Charlie's brother, Sidney, largely exists to constantly be at his brother's throat and argue over nearly every creative decision he makes. How justified he is varies, but it never fazes Charlie's direction.
  • Framing Device: The bulk of the film is told in flashback, as an aged Chaplin reviews his (real-life) autobiography with his (fictional) editor.
  • Friend to All Children
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: The film takes J. Edgar Hoover's real-life antipathy towards Chaplin and turns it up to 11, portraying Hoover as virtually stalking Chaplin from 1918 until he finally succeeds in getting him exiled 35 years later. The film also suggests a petty personal grudge against Chaplin for undermining one of his public political discussions with a reenactment of his iconic Oceana Roll Dance.
  • Insufferable Genius: His obsession with his work and relentless perfectionism take a massive toll on his relationships and his personal life, but he keeps putting out groundbreaking films.
  • The Baby Trap: A pivotal scandal revolves around a paternity suit from one of Chaplin's former girlfriends. Blood tests proved that he wasn't the father, but the courts ruled against him anyway (likely out of sheer moral indignation).
  • The Lost Lenore: Early on, Charlie develops a profound crush on one of the showgirls in his performing company. He goes to America to build his career, and she marries someone else and dies soon after. This is shown to affect him the rest of his life, to the point where he eventually falls in love with a woman who reminds him of her.
  • Parental Abandonment: Charlie's father abandoned the family when he was a baby. His mother was mentally unstable and had to be committed when he was a child, leaving him to largely fend for himself. This is probably a big reason behind his own personal instability.
  • Reality Ensues: Charlie initially gives a hilariously idealized account of how he created his iconic Little Tramp outfit through divine intervention, saying no one would be interested in how it really happened through simple trial and error in a warehouse full of various clothes.
  • Red Scare: Charlie was accused by the FBI of being a communist sympathizer, which is the primary reason he was banned from re-entering the country in the 1950's.
  • Replacement Goldfish: The film strongly implies Chaplin's infatuation with his final wife, Oona O'Neill to exist as such, due to a close resemblance to his initial love, Hetty Kelly, who had married and passed away.
  • Revealing Skill: Chaplin's signature vaudeville character was playing a middle-aged drunk. When he's offered a job in Hollywood, he shows up and the producer doesn't recognize him. He immediately goes into his 'comedy drunk' routine and quickly convinces everyone.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Played with. The film portrays Charlie's relationships with his wives very sympathetically (arguably due to an Unreliable Narrator effect). At one point, he avoids statuatory rape charges by fleeing to Mexico with his underaged, pregnant girlfriend and quickly marrying her. Still, it's pointed out that he was rich enough to arrange a quiet abortion and pay the girl off, but considered marriage to be the more honorable route.
  • Slumming It: At one point Chaplin returns to England to try and relive his old life. He enters a working class pub; most of the people inside are staring in awe at Chaplin, except for one drunk that gets very riled up about the big star coming to "stare at the animals". This was a pivotal sign for Chaplin that this was no longer his home.
  • Vindicated by History In-universe.
    • After Charlie was banned from the US in the 1950s, the final scene shows him returning to Los Angeles in 1972 to receive a special Academy Award, and see the impact that his films have made.
    • The film also makes a big deal of the fact that he was mocking Hitler before mocking Hitler was cool (though it should be pointed out that most Americans objected to mockery of Hitler not because they were secretly Nazi sympathizers, but because they didn't want to provoke war with Germany).
  • You Can't Go Home Again: His real life exile from America. A visit back to England is very bitter, he discovers the death of his first love seconds before stepping out of the train, and is badgered by the public due to being world famous (either from gawping excited fans or offended hecklers who thought he was slumming around them). He explains in his narration he soon saw it was not his home anymore and returned to America shortly after.