Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin
An Interview Richard Schickel
Interview by Dan Lybarger, 28 November 2003

Since 1972, Richard Schickel has been a regular film reviewer for Time and has written influential biographies of filmmakers as diverse as Walt Disney, Clint Eastwood and Marlon Brando. Before that, he had covered films for Life. Schickel can write about film with more authority than most because he's a filmmaker himself. He has also been one of the few journalists who have picked the brains of great directors like Raoul Walsh and Howard Hawks. He's also made Woody Allen: A Life in Film, one of the few lengthy interviews the comic actor-director has given.

Schickel's latest examines another legendary comedian, Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin. Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin chronicles the British-born silent comic's rise to international adoration to his exile from America in the 1950s when U.S. authorities suspected him of being a communist. The film includes comments from Chaplin collaborators like Norman Lloyd and contemporary filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen. It even includes home movie footage of the geriatric comic, who died in 1977 at the age of eighty-eight, reenacting his routines for his children. These scenes seem a bit eerie because he's playing to a smaller, captive audience, but the nearly seventy-to eighty-year-old performer in them darts about the screen with an agility that's awe-inspiring.

The film received a glowing response at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and has even played theatrically in some cities. It will be included with a new DVD box set that Warner Home Video will release this coming spring in association with the French company MK2.

Schickel was presenting the film in Kansas City for the Halfway to Hollywood Film Festival, where I caught up with him to talk about what it has been like to make a film about one of the movies' most important pioneers.

Dan Lybarger: One of the great things about Chaplin is that his films have an almost 100 percent survival rate.

Richard Schickel: This is interesting. I don't know of any significant Chaplin film that's missing. I don't think I know of even any insignificant Chaplin film that's missing. They're all there.

It's a very interesting development. He came into movies not knowing anything about movies. Very few people did them in 1914. If you see the [Chaplin] films all most in those days, you'll see him growing up along with the movies growing up. There's kind of a parallel development between the two of them because the movies at that point were just beginning to aspire to feature length, though the short films were still quite viable.

I think he could see that comedy could be more than just an incident. He could actually plot out a comedy about a relationship with a woman, let's say, based on a gag that would develop outward from a very simple premise. I think the medium and the man in those early days were very well matched.

[Chaplin was] unlike so many people who came to the movies. [D.W.] Griffith was in a way set in his ways. He had done a certain kind of melodrama in the theatre that he actually brought over to the movies. And he was fond of a certain kind of writing.

I don't think Chaplin was very well read, so that there was a kind of sheer "movieness" if you will with Chaplin's relationship with the movies. Whatever he brought to it was from music halls in London, which probably stood in a good stead to a degree because the shtick he did would work in the movies. But he could see that the movies could go anywhere he wanted to push them for himself. I don't think he was a hugely influential director on other people, incidentally.

DL: If I remember, Ernst Lubitsch cited Chaplin's directing as an influence.

RS: Yes, that's one particular movie, A Woman of Paris [the only major film Chaplin directed without playing the lead], which is a great movie, I think one of Chaplin's greatest movies. [Chaplin's] directorial skills were so totally focused on himself, and he was induplicable, so therefore you couldn't say he had a vast influence on other people.  

DL: You usually hear more about performers, more than directors who were influenced by him.

RS: You know it's one of those critical clichés that "well, he's Chaplinesque." You might apply that to a moment or two in a Jim Carrey movie where he has the wistful quality of the Tramp. But basically nobody's ever really successfully imitated Chaplin.

DL: Chaplin's time period really made him possible.

RS: That's true. Just the Tramp figure had a resonance in the culture in those days that it doesn't have now. There were hundreds and thousands of hobos wandering around the country. If you look at a bunch of Griffith's movies, hobos tended to be treated as rather menacing, much less benign than Chaplin. But the Tramp, that figure, the guy with no home wandering along asking for a job for weeding the lawn or something like that, that was a figure I was warned against even when I was a kid. When I walked up the street, I was told, "Don't talk to them."

So the tramp is a kind of menacing but familiar figure in American life, so Chaplin's tramp had a resonance that you wouldn't have today. Today tramps would be seen as psychopathic homeless people. Being a tramp in those days didn't carry the weight it carries with us.

DL: When I was starting out, I went to a video story that was owned by the fellow who owns this theater, and I just devoured the Keystone and the Essanay films. It was amazing watching him develop from the Keystone films with their knockaround comedy to when he was directing himself in the Essanay films, which were much more sophisticated. You really get to watch him grow.

RS: That's a really substantial change. There are little bits in the Keystone's that are nice. Let's face it; those guys were giant guys who were knocking each other about. He was doing some stuff there being the subtle little guy he was. Even in Kid Auto Races at Venice [Chaplin's first film where he played The Little Tramp], that's not a typical Keystone bit that he's doing there where he's trying to get into the frame and they keep pushing him out. It's really less developed than a typical Keystone comedy where eventually all the [Keystone] Kops and their equipment are running down the street. This is a little more subtle piece of work. I think he was heading in that direction at Keystone.

Keystone wasn't particularly interested in going in that direction I think. But obviously, they knew what was up with him because they wouldn't have starred him in the ghastly Tillie's Punctured Romance if he wasn't a major star by the end of his Keystone years. They knew what they had.

DL: You interviewed Robert Downey, Jr. who played the title character Chaplin in Richard Attenborough's film and Johnny Depp who imitated Chaplin's "dance of the rolls" scene in The Gold Rush. Both of them said that his routines are really difficult to imitate.

RS: That's true. Take the case of Downey who was hired to do the longest Chaplin impersonation ever. He's a very fine actor, and I thought he did a good job in that film. The film went south after a while for reasons that had nothing to do with Robert Downey, Jr. But Johnny's scene was very specific and small and wasn't attempting any physical imitation of Chaplin, just one bit that was appropriated for Benny & Joon.

What I learned from talking to Johnny Depp was that he lived down the street from the silent movie theater on Fairfax in Los Angeles. He used to drift down there and pay a dime or whatever it cost to get in and see Chaplin or Keaton, but especially Chaplin he liked. Also, when he'd come home from school, they'd always put on some film series of shorts that was probably on Public TV at the time, so he'd watch those on television. So [Chaplin] was an influence on Johnny. I don't think he was ever an influence on Robert Downey until he signed on to do the Chaplin film. Johnny was an authentic Chaplin fan long before he did the movie.

DL: You also got some interesting comments from Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen.

RS: It may be that when the long history of the world is written, Marty's greatest contribution to the movies may be making film preservation and film appreciation [a priority]. It's a passion with him, and it's a knowledgeable passion. To take for an example in our film, he had said to me, "I know [Chaplin's] later work better. I'd seen Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight." Marty saw those films at a time when they were fresh in release.

I have this theory that the movies we love best are the ones we see roughly from the age of ten to twenty. That's when the movies are big, and we're so small. They make an impression on you. However much we come to appreciate the other films later, like them, grow passionate about them. In truth, we're more psychologically inclined to those movies at that age range. So those are the movies that Marty saw at that age.

I said, "You know, Marty. I can't find anybody to [talk about A Woman of Paris]. They'll say, 'A Woman of Paris is a great film [delivered in a manner that mocks the quick, glib tones of some film commentators].' but they can't talk about it. He said, "If I get a chance, I'll take a look at it." It came to the interview, and he'd seen the film twice, including the very night before we did the interview. He was all over that film and had a fresh, clean, clear impression. His comments on it were just astounding.

DL: You did get an interesting cross section of contemporary filmmakers and Chaplin collaborators to be commentators in the film.

RS: That was self-consciousness on my part. There's one thing about people who are deeply in to film history. Kevin Brownlow is a wonderful figure and very helpful figure. But Kevin doesn't care if cancer has bitten away somebody's nose if they can remember some old movie figure. But I find this grotesque. I don't want people looking at the screen, and all they're saying is "how old, how feeble, how disturbed, how insane those old people are." I had plenty of old people. Norman Lloyd [from Limelight] is ninety years old. You wouldn't know it. He plays tennis, and he's got all of his buttons and all his memory. So, I ruled out a few people we might have gotten. On the other hand, none of them were very significant, just people who worked around the studio. So I just passed on them because I don't want any of my shows to be traffic accidents or gross distortions of humanity.

DL: Similarly, when you do feature his relatives, you had his children Geraldine, Sydney and Michael, all of whom had actually performed with him.

RS: We have lots of footage of about Michael talking about A King in New York. I'll tell you that film is so long and struck me as so minor. Michael's quite good in it, but we'd have had a 2½ hour movie [of our own]. Then at some point, you know, the structure of your film begins to take over. With the structure I had at that point, I couldn't stop for five minutes of A King in New York. I didn't feel a particular loss about that.

DL: One of the things I noticed when I was first watching Chaplin's movies is that some of the silent movies I had seen up until that time had featured actors who looked like they were waving their arms in epileptic fits. Chaplin and Keaton were a lot more subtle than that.

RS: I still see things that are in Chaplin's films that have nothing to do especially with the character. They have to do with acting. Woody makes that point about what an actor he was. We keep forgetting what an actor he was. We set aside in the mind the character we all remember and adore. There are just some times where he was just brilliant.

DL: You did take a look at the relationship between Chaplin and his audience. It's hard to imagine more ups and downs.

RS: There was one big up and one big down. Basically, he was adored from the beginnings of it some time after 1914 when he established himself. The real outburst began with the Essanay films [1915]. That peaked and never really truly declined even when production slowed. It's interesting, for example, that The Great Dictator is such a mixed bag as a film, but in fact it's his most popular film in terms of box office to date. I've even been told that even Monsieur Verdoux, which was universally condemned, did not lose money. It didn't make the money that The Great Dictator or City Lights had. It hasn't made the kind of money in perpetual re-release afterwards. But he had an audience, and then the audience went away.

It could happen to any actor, but in the case of Chaplin, in view of his political troubles, the Joan Barry paternity suits [where Chaplin was falsely judged to be the father of her child] and all that stuff, they turned the public against him. So he had a huge up and a huge down.

One of the things that's going on with our film is that we're coming across this great artist, but his art has been rested for about twenty to twenty-five years. There's no attention that's been paid to him. With this film and the general rerelease of the first four DVDs in August from Warner Bros., those got an enormous amount of publicity. The world is ready to turn to Charlie Chaplin. That's a great thing. Look, he's a great artist. There's no idle nostalgia here. It's an opportunity for people to discover Charlie Chaplin.

DL: How has making documentaries like this one affected your film criticism?

RS: I don't necessarily hold to the screed of how can you be a critic if you've never made a film, written a novel or painted a picture or all that. There are sensibilities, but for me, it's been great because I've learned an enormous amount about cutting, about shooting, about putting things together, about structuring things. Psychologically, I live much more intensely on this kind of filmmaking than I do writing reviews. I still write reviews in Time, but I'm not truly intensely involved in what's up and what's down in contemporary film. I'll write books. I'll make television shows, and it's OK if they want to pay me a little pittance to write a few reviews.

DL: It is good that you're helping to preserve the legacy of filmmakers like Chaplin.

RS: I think that's my major contribution, probably in life. I've made by now about fifteen documentaries about directors: There are eight of the original The Men Who Made the Movies documentaries, and there are about six more in the second series, and the Woody thing. Those are one-on-one documentaries. It's the director and the films. That footage is unique. Nobody else has footage of that substance with directors of that stature. We're talking Hitchcock, Arthur Penn, Elia Kazan. It's a huge and incredibly valuable body of work. The films I've made of them are terrific, but more importantly is these are the most substantial on-camera interview any of them ever gave. So I've got interviews for archival purposes that I think are invaluable, and the films I've made out of them are good enough.  Copyright © 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.