Beginning with Chaplin's appearance in the 1914 short film "Kid Auto Races at Venice," Schickel traces the wunderkind's career by interweaving film excerpts, archival footage and recently found home movies with commentary--including 19 newly recorded interviews--from experts, family and collaborators. Throughout, Schickel's premise is that Chaplin was motivated by his relentless ego, longing for attention and insatiable appetite for stardom.
That's still evident toward the end of his life when, after decades spent in exile, Chaplin is honored by the Oscars with a Lifetime Achievement award. Unable to restrain himself, the octogenarian comic grabs the cane carried by the presenter and launches into a Tramp act, oblivious to the presenter's genuine struggle to stand without the cane's support. The rich repertoire of Chaplin's works is showcased in random (which is more entertaining than chronological) fashion from pure comedy and the surrealist Tramp persona to more serious social themes such as dehumanization and mechanization, the threat of fascism and the evils of capitalism in later works, respectively "Modern Times," "The Great Dictator" and "Mr. Verdoux."
Schickel uses his cachet as one of America's most respected critics to enlist film industry talents to pay homage to Chaplin. Fellow actors illuminate his chameleon talent; Richard Attenborough, director of the 1992 feature biopic "Chaplin," reveals he was first inspired to become an actor by Chaplin's "Gold Rush"; Woody Allen applauds "City Lights" as one of the great cinematic explorations of love; Milos Forman admires Chaplin's political acumen and spiritual catharsis after World War II in "The Great Dictator."
Varying the pace and rhythm, Schickel entertains throughout with a mix of familiar and new material. His documentary manages to act as a riveting entrée for novices to Chaplin's work while providing enough new fare for aficionados. Narrated by Sydney Pollack. Featuring Richard Attenborough, Woody Allen, Johnny Depp, Robert Downey Jr., Milos Forman, Marcel Marceau and Martin Scorsese. Directed, written and produced by Richard Schickel. No distributor set. Documentary. Unrated. Running time: 125 min