Chaplin: 15th Anniversary Edition
Film Length: 135 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 (listed as 1.78:1 on the jacket) (enhanced for 16:9)
Audio: DD 2.0 (stereo, matrix-encoded)
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Package: Keepcase with transparent slipover containing original artwork
Insert: No (may contain an ad for the Meridian Collection)
Theatrical Release Date: December 25, 1992
DVD Release Date: October 14, 2008
Although it’s been almost sixteen years since the theatrical release of Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin, Lionsgate is releasing this “15th Anniversary Edition” now, presumably to capitalize on its star Robert Downey, Jr.’s current visibility as the lead in IronMan. In a career filled with professional ups and personal downs, Downey’s Oscar-nominated performance as Charlie Chaplin remains one of his finest achievements. This DVD, which arrives ten years after the 1998 Live version, finally presents it in a version that does it justice.
The film traces Chaplin’s life from his childhood days in England, accompanying his mother and older brother on the music hall circuit; through the dark days of being sent to a workhouse (due to his mother’s poverty and growing mental instability); his early experiences performing in the English equivalent of vaudeville; the American tour during which Chaplin discovered “flickers” and was spotted by Mack Sennett, the original king of silent film comedy; his rapid rise at the Sennett studios; and his decades as one of the most famous and successful entertainers in the world. The film also covers his difficult personal life, including his four marriages, his taste for women of a tender age (“If only he’d just sleep with them and not marry them!” exclaims a frustrated J. Edgar Hoover at one point), and his tendency to lose himself in work and ignore all around him.
The film concludes with the Oscar ceremony in 1972, when Chaplin accepted an honorary Oscar before an adoring and emotional crowd. It had been twenty years since he had set foot in the United States, having been expelled in 1952 at the height of the anti-communist crusade. This scene is also included in the film, and it is a sad one. Chaplin loved America, and he helped build one of its signature industries. The treatment that he received in return was disgraceful. I remember watching the 1972 Oscar ceremony, only a small portion of which is contained in the film, and wondering whether the extraordinary reception Chaplin received from that audience could even begin to make up for what had been done to him.
Downey plays Chaplin at every stage of his life except in the early childhood and teenage scenes. His physical grace is extraordinary. He has Chaplin’s performances down so perfectly that you barely notice when the film switches to scenes from actual Chaplin films. But Downey’s performance is far more than just mimickry. He brings to every scene a depth of emotion that lets you glimpse, even more than the film’s narrative, the complicated life and individual behind the clown. Like so many clowns, Chaplin had a deep streak of sadness, and Downey finds a way to let that inform even Chaplin’s happiest moments. It is a complex, rich and marvelous performance.
The supporting cast is also exceptional and filled with faces that were either familiar at the time or have since become so. Notable among them are Geraldine Chaplin, Charlie’s daughter, who plays her own grandmother, and is both scary and moving; Paul Rhys as his brother Syd; Dan Aykroyd as Mack Sennett; Kevin Kline as a dashing Douglas Fairbanks, Chaplin’s good friend; Diane Lane as Paulette Goddard, Chaplin’s third wife; Moira Kelly in the dual role of Oona O’Neill, his fourth and last wife, and Hetty, his first love; and a young David Duchovny as Rollie, Charlie’s projectionist, editor and general assistant. Kevin Dunn plays J. Edgar Hoover as an earnest crusader (without any cross-dressing), and James Woods brings his signature scorn to the role of a self-righteous attorney who prosecuted Chaplin on a trumped-up paternity charge.
The previous DVD from Live Video was not enhanced for 16:9, but this new version from Lionsgate, which now owns the Live properties, remedies that injustice. It is a new transfer, as immediately becomes clear in an A/B comparison. Color and detail are both excellent, as are blacks (something that becomes important in the many scenes of Hollywood royalty decked out in tuxedos). I did not detect any artifacting or application of DNR, and there was only an occasional dose of edge enhancement (such as in the scene where Chaplin first enters the giant soundstage at his new studio).
When comparing the new disc to the old one, the most obvious difference is the increased resolution and detail from 16:9 enhancement. On further examination, though, there are other differences. The new Lionsgate disc has a small amount of additional picture information at the left and right edges of the frame, and the top-to-bottom framing is slightly different, with the new edition having slightly more image at the top and slightly less at the bottom. Without any authoritative source as a reference, I cannot say which framing is accurate. However, at no time while watching the new disc did I notice any framing that looked unbalanced or mistaken.
Of much greater significance is the contrast factor. The whites on the new disc are considerably whiter, which leads to a much greater brightness overall. Again, since I have no reference source (and I did not see the film theatrically), I cannot say whether the new disc is more or less accurate. But night scenes still look like night; blacks still look like black, not grey; and California in the first half of the 20th Century looks much sunnier in this version than it ever did on the Live DVD. So, in the absence of other authority, I incline toward the view the Lionsgate disc is more likely the better replication of the film’s carefully designed period look.
Like the previous disc, the new one features an English language track in DD 2.0 stereo. However, unlike the previous track, this one has been matrix-encoded, which brings it closer to the original Dolby Surround audio of the theatrical presentation (Chaplin was released before 5.1 tracks were standard in the theater). During playback through a quasi-5.1 decoder like DPL2 or Logic7, the advantage of the matrix encoding is immediately obvious. Without it, the sound tends to bleed into the surrounds; the effect is more enveloping but it muddies both the dialogue and the wonderful musical score. With the matrix encoding, the mix remains firmly anchored to the front with the dialogue in the center; the bulk of the score in the front left and right, with minor support in the rears. The mix is clearer and more vivid. Short of a discrete remix (which I suspect would be 4.0), this is probably as good as Chaplin is likely to sound.
The original Live disc had a nice assortment of features, including interviews with various cast members. The only feature that’s been carried over to this disc is the film’s trailer. The new special features are quite good, but they add up to less than what the previous disc had. All of the special features except the trailer are enhanced for 16:9.
Strolling into the Sunset Featurette (7:30). Contemporary interviews with Lord Attenborough and others (but none of the actors) about the genesis of the film and the breakthrough that Downey’s casting represented. Attenborough is candid about what he thinks he didn’t get right and says he’d like to make the film all over again.
Chaplin the Hero Featurette (6:06). Reflections on Chaplin and his place in film history by the same interviewees.
The Most Famous Man in the World (5:27). A description of Chaplin’s rise to world-wide stardom at a speed and on a scale that was notable even by contemporary standards. Newsreel footage is included of Chaplin being cheered by crowds in England and America.
All at Sea (2:27). Rare home movie footage from 1933, shot by Alistair Cooke, then a college student, on Chaplin’s boat. It shows Chaplin in private moments, although it also shows how little he could resist the impulse to perform whenever a camera was on. (The original footage is 4:3, but it has been pillarboxed for presentation in a 16:9 frame.)
Theatrical trailer. Presented in 4:3. If you listen to the voiceover, you can hear the marketing department struggling for a hook to sell the film.
Chaplin arrived in theaters with impeccable credentials: directed by Attenborough, who had won an Oscar for his last bio-pic (Gandhi); co-scripted by legendary screenwriter William Goldman; lensed by world-class cinematographer and Bergman collaborator Sven Nykvist; and with a soundtrack by John Barry, who had just won his fifth Oscar for scoring Dances with Wolves. Yet despite this multitude of talent, and Downey’s acclaimed performance, the film received mixed reviews.
The problem, I suspect, was the episodic nature that affects most biopics, particularly when the subject has lived a long and varied life. In the “Strolling into the Sunset” featurette, Attenborough acknowledges the problems and notes that the character of the editor, George Hayden, played by Anthony Hopkins, was invented late in the screenwriting process to solve narrative problems that were otherwise intractable. As you watch the film, you can hear the artificiality of some of Charlie’s conversations with George, but at this point I’m inclined to say: So what? The film gets so much right: the period, the mood, the mixture of comedy and sadness, and above all Downey’s extraordinary personification of Charlie Chaplin in body and spirit, that the narrative issues are minor details. The film has long been poorly represented on DVD, but this version is a pleasure to watch.
Equipment used for this review:
Denon 955 DVD player
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
BostonAccoustics VR-MC center
Velodyne HGS-10 sub