How Much Chaplin Appears in Chaplin? A Look at Attenborough's Screen Biography

By Maland, Charles | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 1997 | Go to article overview

How Much Chaplin Appears in Chaplin? A Look at Attenborough's Screen Biography


Maland, Charles, Literature/Film Quarterly


George Bernard Shaw once said Charlie Chaplin was "the only genius in motion pictures." Starting in movies as a comic performer at Mack Sennett's Keystone Studios in 1913, the lithe and graceful performer whose Harvard was the English music hall soon usurped other roles in movie production. By 1919, besides his status as perhaps the world's most famous movie star, he had claimed the roles of writer, director, producer, studio owner, and cofounder of United Artists. For good measure, when sound films were introduced in the late 1920s, he also added composer to his list. The eighty-one movies he made between 1914 and 1967, when his last film, A Countess from Hong Kong, appeared, constitute one of the most remarkable bodies of work in American film history.

Chaplin's private life was nearly as dramatic as his movies. His early childhood was Dickensian. An alcoholic father who died young and a mentally unstable mother contributed to his childhood insecurity: young Charles spent time in workhouses and struggled to survive London street life. After getting established in Hollywood, he married and divorced three times-twice to teenagers-before marrying the eighteen-year-old Oona O'Neill, daughter of American playwright Eugene O'Neill, when he was fifty-four. Around the same time he was slapped with a paternity suit; even though blood tests proved he could not have been the father, the ensuing trial led to a court order that Chaplin provide child-support payments to the child until she turned twenty-one. Although he sought to demonstrate his civic-mindedness by touring in the United States to raise money for war bonds during World War I, and by giving several speeches calling for the opening of a second Front during World War II, he was branded a leftist by more conservative Americans and treated with hostility and worse during the early years of the Cold War. Banished from the U.S. in 1952, he eventually chose to settle in Switzerland the following year. Despite the animosity he had generated in the United States, in 1972 he was awarded an honorary Oscar from the motion-picture Academy. Two years before his death on Christmas Day, 1977, he had been knighted by Queen Elizabeth of England, becoming Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin.

This full movie career and tumultuous personal life easily provide enough material for a mini-series. How could one possibly hope to make a cinematic biography, a "bio-pic," within the confines of three hours or less? And who would possibly dare to make a film about such a brilliant comic performer as Chaplin, knowing full well that a mistake in casting could easily sink the project? The answer, of course, is Sir Richard Attenborough, whose 1982 Gandhi and 1987 Cry Freedom (on South African apartheid foe Steve Biko) helped establish his credentials as a maker of biographical films. His 1992 film, Chaplin, was the culmination of his work in the genre. An examination of the film as a bio-pic enables us to appreciate the film's achievements while acknowledging its limitations.1

What is a bio-pic? One way of approaching the question is to refer to biographer Paul Murray Kendall's classification of literary biographies which ranges from the most fictional to the most factual: 1) novel as biography, 2) fictionalized biography, 3) interpretive biography, 4) super biography, 5) scholarly biography, 6) life and times biography, 7) research biography, and 8) compilation of source materials (ix). Although certain kinds of films could be found for any of these categories-from Farrest Gump in the first to a compilation documentary film on Martin Luther King in the last-most bio-pics, Carolyn Anderson has shown, are probably either fictionalized or interpretive biographies (331).

Anderson's study of two hundred American bio-pics from the early 1930s to the present shows the persistence of this generic form. Perhaps stimulated both by the success of early 1930s British bio-pics like George Arliss's Disraeli and by the pressures to make responsible pictures, Warner Brothers embarked in the mid- 1930s on its path of making idealistic biographical films about figures like Louis Pasteur, Emile Zola, and Benito Juarez. …

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