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Film / Chaplin

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"If you want to understand me, watch my movies."

Chaplin is a 1992 biopic, directed by Richard Attenborough, 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. Geraldine Chaplin played her own grandmother Hannah, and was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe.

Tropes present:

  • Adaptational Jerkass: 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 '50s, his argument works like a charm.
  • The Baby Trap: Charlie ends up marrying his first wife because he had an affair with her, and she told him she was pregnant. Shortly after the wedding, she told him she'd lost the baby. It's heavily implied that the whole thing was a ploy to trap him into marriage, and he was the last one in town to figure it out.
  • 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 Vaslav Nijinsky to show why the Tramp shouldn't talk with the silent movie era ending.
  • 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.
  • Damning With Faint Praise: A notable example when Charlie announces that he's marrying his underage girlfriend because she's pregnant.
    Charlie: You know, she's really not that bad.
    Douglas: Spoken like a man, madly in love!
  • 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: Played subtly, but every scene with children shows Chaplin being much more friendly and open with them then he is with adults.
    • One example is when a toddler tries to get his attention, and he can't resist smiling and waving at her. Which is significant because it happens during a paternity trial. It's implied that this goes a long way toward convincing the jury that Chaplin is the child's father (despite blood tests to the contrary).
  • Genre Savvy: 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.
  • 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: Chaplin's 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.
  • It Will Never Catch On: This is what Charlie thinks about the Rise of the Talkies.
  • 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. And she's played by the same actress who plays Oona.
  • 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.
  • Real-Person Epilogue: Before the closing credits, we are shown snippets of films with the real Charlie Chaplin.
  • Re-Cut: The original cut was nearly 4 hours long, with over 200 hours of footage shot. Attenborough's director's cut was 147 minutes, 12 minutes longer than the version shown in cinemas. Attenborough has said that the cuts damaged the film.
  • 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 1950s.
  • Replacement Goldfish: The film strongly implies Chaplin's infatuation with his fourth 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 Mack Sennett 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 statutory 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.
  • Shout-Out: In homage to Chaplin's silent comedy films, the scene while secretly hiding his movie The Kid (1921) in a hotel room where Chaplin and his friends are being chased at fast speed with cartoony chase music.
  • 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 England was no longer his home.
  • The End: A title card reading "The End" appears before the end credits as an homage to the silent movie era.
  • Vindicated by History In-universe.
    • After Charlie was banned from the United States in the 1950s, the final scene shows him returning to Los Angeles in 1972 to receive an honorary 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 start a 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.