Who exactly was the most famous man of the last century, and what made his life’s work so political?
This documentary – the first exclusively comprised of archive material – looks back over Charlie Chaplin’s life through his movies, while shining a spotlight on his historical and cinematic heritage.
Broadcast on Wednesday May 18 at 8:30 p.m. (ET) and on Saturday 21 at 3:15 a.m. (ET)
INTERVIEW WITH YVES JEULAND, DIRECTOR AND CO-WRITER
Who was Charlie Chaplin?
Chaplin was the most popular man of the 20th century. He was an actor, an author, a director, a producer, a choreographer, a composer, and more! He was not from my generation or that of my parents, and yet we all know him. Even children today still dress up as him at carnivals. We actually know The Tramp more than we know Charlie, who had a poverty-stricken childhood on the streets of London. He was almost an orphan; his father died, his mother was regularly interned in psychiatric hospitals, and he grew up with his brother Sydney. This kid, who experienced the depths of poverty, soon became the richest artist of his day. Charlie was an actor born, a man whose name was constantly on everyone’s lips. At least 4,000 books have been written about him – more than about Napoleon! He is a fascinating figure, and any account of his life is also an account of history itself and the development of cinema.
How was his most memorable character born?
The Tramp is an aristocratic vagabond. There are many legends surrounding his creation, and Chaplin himself enjoyed telling different stories about it. One thing is for sure: When Chaplin finally identified his character, he had been working on it for years. He may have only been 25, but he already had a 15-year career behind him. As a child, he had replaced his mother on stage one day when she had lost her voice. The Tramp was therefore born of his sense of observation, of his mother, an actress, who would do impressions of people in the street, and of a homeless man in London he mimicked as a child. He played on contradictions, sporting baggy pants, a tight-fitting jacket, a tiny hat, and enormous shoes. His is a nomadic, solitary character who had no family and no passport. He is an outcast, but always elegant, as if carrying the class struggle on his shoulders. He keeps a certain dignity; even when drunk, he is never a drunk. Films were silent at the time, which enabled The Tramp to speak to everyone. He has no accent, no voice, and appeals to all generations. He is universal.
How do you explain Charlie Chaplin’s success?
For Chaplin, talent was not a question of inspiration but rather of “perspiration.” By this, he meant hard work above all, and a sense of how to observe people. He always drew on his own life to create his movies. This is clear in The Kid, his first short film, in which he made an exact replica of the attic room he shared with his mother and his brother on Kennington Road. He also drew on his convictions to make deeply political films. He was driven by the old wounds of his childhood, never forgetting the pain and humiliation. And when he became wealthy, he continued defending the poor while rubbing shoulders with the rich and powerful.
Would you agree that a biography of Charlie Chaplin is also one of cinema?
Charlie Chaplin lived through a large part of the 20th century, arriving in Hollywood at just the right time. And they were expecting him. With his experience in theater and pantomime, he was accustomed to audiences and had mastered the art of making people laugh. He understood everything quickly and became a director in 1914 (at the age of 25), then a producer. He slowly became increasingly independent. He took more time to create his movies, and the better they were, the more successful he was and the more money he earned to make other films. He became a unique figure in the world of cinema, and was able to secure unprecedented funding for his work. However, his independence had another side. Through his character, Chaplin was able to portray and condemn the methods of Fordism in Modern Times, and the rise of fascism and antisemitism during the 1930s and 1940s in The Great Dictator. His films were filled with clairvoyance.
What did you want to say about him and his career?
François Aymé and I have created a political film, as Chaplin was accused of being a communist despite being at the head of a vast capitalist enterprise. He was a left-wing man who fell victim to the witch-hunts carried out in the United States. Many documentaries have been made about him, but Le génie de la liberté is the first movie made with no testimonials. We decided to only use archive footage and scenes from his own films. If ever there was one artist for whom the term “genius” is not a cliché, it would be him. His freedom was political freedom combined with the independence he clung to throughout his life; a freedom he was able to seize thanks to his talent and strength of character.