Chaplin: 15th Anniversary Ed. (Blu-ray)
Chaplin’s “15th Anniversary” has lasted a long time. This Blu-ray arrives over eigthteen years after the film’s theatrical release. Its first anamorphic DVD was also dubbed “15th Anniversary”, but it wasn't issued until sixteen years after the film appeared in theaters.
Time has been kinder to Chaplin than the home video industry. Its flaws (mostly in narrative structure) have receded, while its strengths have moved to the fore: the evocative cinematography, the marvelous period design, the exceptional supporting cast, the late John Barry’s yearning score, and above all Robert Downey, Jr.’s seamless embodiment of one of Hollywood’s founding fathers – “seamless” because Downey pulls off the magic trick of sharing the screen with Chaplin himself in some of his most iconic performances and because, despite hundreds of hours devoted to mastering Chaplin’s smallest gesture, Downey’s Chaplin seems to be a living, breathing person, discovering life and art as he goes along.
Note: This review is an expanded version of the DVD review published in Oct. 2008.
Film Length: 135 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: DTS-HD MA 2.0
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Theatrical Release Date: Dec. 25, 1992
Blu-ray Release Date: Feb. 15, 2011
The film traces Chaplin’s life from his childhood days in England, where he accompanied his mother and older half-brother, Syd, on the music hall circuit and fell in love with performing. Chaplin lived a Dickensian childhood marked by poverty, his mother’s mental breakdowns and time spent in the workhouse. These experiences would haunt Chaplin for the rest of his life, but they also inspired much of his comedy. (Chaplin is played by Sky Rumph at age 7 and by Thomas Bradford, with Downey’s voice, at age 14; his mother is played by Geraldine Chaplin, heartbreaking in the role of her own grandmother.)
It was Chaplin’s half-brother Syd (Paul Rhys) who introduced him to the vaudeville impressario Fred Karno (John Thaw), and it was in English vaudeville that Chaplin perfected his craft as a physical comedian. During an American tour arranged by Karno, Chaplin was spotted by Mack Sennett (Dan Ackroyd), the king of the emerging new world of silent film comedy. Even then, movies paid better than the stage, and in any case Chaplin was fascinated by “flickers”. He quickly became Sennett’s biggest star, exciting envy among other regulars in Sennett’s company like Mabel Normand (Marisa Tomei).
The film is particularly strong at chronicling Chaplin’s meteoric rise, his acquisition of his own studio, his legendary work ethic (often assisted by a trusty cameraman, Rollie, played by a then-unknown David Duchovny) and the glitter of Hollywood’s early days, when Chaplin might spend the evening trading barbs with Mary Pickford (Maria Pitillo) at a gala thrown by her lover and Chaplin’s best friend, Douglas Fairbanks (Kevin Kline).
The film is somewhat less successful at covering Chaplin’s messy personal life, possibly because the subject is an epic fit for its own trilogy (at least). Chaplin’s taste for women of a tender age is acknowledged, but it’s explained away too easily as a fixation on a first love named Hetty, a chorus girl he knew only briefly in England. She’s played by Moira Kelly, who then reappears in the role of Oona O’Neill, Chaplin’s fourth and final wife, who married him at age 18 when Chaplin was 54. In between, we meet Mildred Harris (Mila Jovovich), the child bride who seems to have married him for his money; Lita Grey (Deborah Moore), about whom we learn almost nothing; and the intriguing Paulette Goddard (Diane Lane), who begins her relationship with Chaplin by telling him that she’s 21 and therefore too old for him. But there isn’t enough screen time devoted to these relationships to provide any insight into these women or what they meant to Chaplin. And from watching the film Chaplin, one would never know that its namesake was ever romantically involved with Edna Purviance (Penelope Ann Miller), his leading lady in over 30 films.
(At least the divorce from Harris, which occurred while Chaplin was finishing The Kid, provides an occasion for a terrific slapstick sequence shot like a silent comedy, as Charlie, Syd, Syd’s wife and Rollie evade cops trying to seize the negative as “community property”.)
The film is no more illuminating when it comes to Chaplin’s relationship with Joan Barry (Nancy Travis), whose paternity suit (and other charges) helped wreck his career. We get no sense of the attraction or the relationship, only the tawdry aftermath. Barry, whose mental instability is a matter of record, hired attorney Joseph Scott (James Woods) to savage Chaplin’s reputation in the courtroom and the press. Ostensibly, the goal was to obtain child support for her daughter, even though a blood test proved Chaplin wasn’t the father. (Scott managed to have the test ruled inadmissible.) But behind the scenes was the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, who had long suspected Chaplin of being a communist and whose practice of using his targets’ sexual histories is well-documented. Frustrated by his inability to indict Chaplin for statutory rape (“If only he’d just sleep with them and not marry them!”), Hoover seized upon the bad press and ill will from the Barry trial to achieve his goal. When Chaplin left America for a holiday abroad in 1952, his residency was revoked and he was barred from returning.
The film concludes with the 1972 Oscar ceremony, 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. To me, the scene remains 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 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.
The weakest portions of the film are the scenes involving George Hayden (Anthony Hopkins), a fictional “editor” of Chaplin’s autobiography invented late in the screenwriting process to solve various narrative problems. Some of Hayden’s dialogue is so unnatural that even Hopkins can’t pull it off. (Co-screenwriter William Goldman, whose standards are notoriously high, must have winced when he heard it.) When a biopic has to cover such a long and interesting life, expository shortcuts are inevitable, but this one arose from competing interests, as Attenborough reveals in the supplements. Left to his own devices, he would have omitted the 1972 Oscar ceremony and structured the story around a different conclusion (which he doesn’t specify). Clearly the people holding the purse strings felt otherwise.
Still, the film gets so much right: the period, the mood, the mixture of comedy and sadness, and above all Downey’s remarkable personification of Charlie Chaplin in body and spirit, that the narrative issues become minor details. Downey’s physical grace is extraordinary. He has Chaplin’s appearance and movement down so perfectly that you barely notice when the film switches to scenes from actual Chaplin films. But the performance is more than just mimickry. Downey brings to every scene a depth of emotion that lets you glimpse, even when the film’s narrative omits specific context, the complicated life and individual behind the clown. Like so many clowns, Chaplin had a melancholy streak, and Downey finds a way to let that inform even Chaplin’s happiest moments. And he does it all with such an apparent lack of effort that it seems like life, not acting. You don’t see an impersonation; you see a person.
The Blu-ray appears to be derived from the same transfer used for Lionsgate’s 2008 DVD. The greater resolution afforded by Blu-ray is something of a revelation. In the earlier scenes in England, detail is noticeably improved and color delineation is superior. You can make out individual faces in images such as the music hall and vaudeville audiences, as well as different articles of clothing in medium shots. But overall the picture remains soft and sometimes almost mushy, and one begins to worry that perhaps the transfer was flawed in a way that DVD’s resolution concealed.
Then Chaplin steps off the train at Mack Sennett’s studio, and snap! The entire photographic style changes. Without calling too much attention to themselves (without, in other words, looking like a Tony Scott or Michael Bay film), images become crisp and finely detailed, and the colors become subtly brighter and less faded. Chaplin may not know it yet, but he’s just taken the step that will change his life, and Sven Nykvist’s cinematography registers the transformation. Until now, the film hasn’t been available in a home video format capable of fully presenting this transition (which registers unconsciously, unless you’re looking for it).
Black levels are excellent (check out those tuxedos), and the film’s grain structure appears to be intact and unreduced, thanks to the use of a BD-50. Having been completed in an era before digital intermediates were standard practice, the film has been transferred from an analog source, and close attention reveals the occasional “pulsing” instability caused by gate weave. However, this is minor and will probably not be noticed by most viewers.
When I reviewed the DVD, I was impressed with the improvements caused by matrix-encoding the Dolby Digital 2.0 track. At the time, I didn’t think Chaplin’s soundtrack could be improved short of a discrete remix from original elements. I stand corrected. The DTS lossless 2.0 track on the Blu-ray gives John Barry’s haunting score an increased presence and musicality that adds to the film’s emotional weight. However, I recommend playing the track through front left and right speakers only. Either the matrix encoding was omitted or it couldn’t be retained in the lossless format; as a result, when played through DPL2 or Logic7, the track tends to “bleed” into the surrounds more than I found desirable. As always with such matters, individual tastes and listening spaces will vary.
Dialogue remains clear, as has generally been the case with Chaplin. Surround effects are not a significant factor with this film.
The special features are the same as on the 2008 DVD. As before, the only feature retained from the original 1998 Live DVD, which included interviews with various cast members, is the film’s trailer.
However, there are two differences. One of them is specific and noted below; the other is general. Due to some quirk in mastering, every one of the disc’s special features played in the upper left-hand corner of the screen, occupying about one sixth of the total display area. The features were watchable in this manner, as you might watch something in a window on your computer, but the arrangement isn’t desirable. I’ve watched hundreds of Blu-rays, including over a hundred (many from Lionsgate) on which I’ve looked at every special feature for review purposes, and this is the first time I’ve encountered such a phenomenon. Mastering quirks being what they are, it’s entirely possible that this one won’t show itself on every player, but if you run into it, it’s the disc, not your equipment. (Note, also, that this does not affect the introductory trailers for other Lionsgate titles. They play normally.)
Strolling into the Sunset Featurette (7:30). Contemporary interviews with Attenborough, Chaplin’s son Michael, film critic Richard Schickel and Chaplin biographer David Robinson (whose book supplied raw material for the film) about the film’s genesis 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’s noteworthy 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. Unfortunately, the Blu-ray version omits an introductory text screen from the DVD that explained the origin and context of this footage.
Theatrical Trailer. If you listen to the voiceover, you can hear the marketing department struggling for a hook to sell the film.
Also from Lionsgate. At startup the disc plays trailers for The Doors on Blu-ray, Apocalypse Now on Blu-ray, Buried, Rabbit Hole and Biutiful. These can be skipped with the chapter forward button and are also available from the special features menu.
The more I watch Chaplin, the more I find myself ignoring its shortcomings and absorbed by three things: Downey’s performance, Barry’s score and Chaplin’s incomparable artistry, woven throughout the film in numerous clips. Even if Attenborough (or someone else) made the film again, could those essential elements ever be reassembled in quite the same way?
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
BostonAccoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub