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Review: ‘The Real Charlie Chaplin’ satisfyingly covers the silent star’s life and times

A man with a toothbrush mustache, from the documentary "The Real Charlie Chaplin."
Charlie Chaplin in his 1916 film “One A.M.” from the documentary “The Real Charlie Chaplin.”
(Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna/Showtime)

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The skillful, vividly assembled documentary “The Real Charlie Chaplin” doesn’t claim to be a definitive or exhaustive look at one of the cinema’s greatest comic geniuses. What it does contend is that by the end of this evocative compilation we may not know much more about Chaplin the man — as opposed to the artist — than we did going in.

That’s no fault of co-directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney — it’s kind of their raison d’etre. The picture’s title is puckish.

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Still, the movie attempts to provide its share of illuminating clues and theories about “the real” Chaplin as it combines an engaging bonanza of familiar and rarer film clips and other archival material with previously unheard audio and deft dramatic reenactments to form a cradle-to-grave account of the legend’s long and winding life.

The film touches upon and often burrows into many of the performer’s highlights — and lowlights. It first outlines Chaplin’s impoverished youth in East London, teenage forays onto the comedy stage and 1910 move to America at age 21. He would soon gain unmatched fame for starring in (plus directing, writing, producing and more) a slew of comedy shorts and later, his first full-length feature (“The Kid”), honing and sustaining his alter ego, the Tramp, in the process. How he cobbled together his beloved character’s iconic costume is handily explained.

His story continues: In 1919, he co-founded United Artists, for which he made a string of hits (“The Gold Rush,” “City Lights” and “Modern Times” all get their closeups). Chaplin’s perfectionist ways, his avoidance of sound in films until his 1940 Hitler satire, “The Great Dictator” (it’s showily noted that he and Der Führer were born four days apart), and his provocative, eventually problematic tilt into political issues are also absorbingly covered.

Chaplin’s notorious downward spiral rounds out the film’s timeline recap on a more somber note. He became persona non grata after a string of romantic and marital scandals; an ugly paternity suit; accusations of Communist leanings; and an unholy, dirt-digging alliance between J. Edgar Hoover and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. Ultimately, the FBI investigation led to Chaplin’s forced departure from the U.S. and he relocated to Switzerland where he would live out his years.

Chaplin’s later films, the Tramp-free “Monsieur Verdoux” and “Limelight,” are briefly mentioned but his last two, “A King in New York” and the starry “A Countess from Hong Kong,” go undiscussed.

More attention is given in the doc’s last section to Chaplin’s fourth and final marriage to Oona O’Neill (his penchant for much — much — younger women continued here: She was 18, he was 54 when they wed), with whom he had eight children. They include actress Geraldine Chaplin, heard here in audio interview bits along with several of her siblings. O’Neill (daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill) was clearly the love of the actor’s life, and, at least as evidenced by intimate home movie footage, they enjoyed a fairly idyllic existence on their 35-acre Swiss estate.

Middleton and Spinney, who also wrote with Oliver Kindeberg (British actress Pearl Mackie expertly narrates), wedge in a wealth of other memorable moments and images from Chaplin’s storied career, including his honorary Oscar win in 1972. Despite its omissions, the film proves a rich and satisfying meal and should be embraced by Chaplin fans and completists.

'The Real Charlie Chaplin'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes

Playing: Starts Nov. 19, Laemmle Monica, Santa Monica; available Dec. 11 on Showtime


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