Chaplin plays at the library

COURTESY PHOTO | Robert Downey Jr. plays Charlie Chaplin.

Before there was Archie Bunker or even Mickey Mouse, there was the Little Tramp — Charlie Chaplin’s Everyman, the splay-footed, bowler-topped, long-suffering fellow who makes us believe that we too, for the sake of facing down adversity, could make a meal of our own shoe, triumph over the numbing demands of a Depression-era assembly line or find love in buying a single flower from a blind girl.

The Little Tramp remains one of the best known characters in movie history. In the hands of director Sir Richard Attenborough, who won a Best Picture Oscar for “Gandhi” just before he undertook “Chaplin,” this film biography of the Tramp’s creator packs a lot of Chaplin’s life into a memorable, touching and exceptionally well-made movie.

“Chaplin” will be shown at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, January 22 downstairs at the Shelter Island Library.

Though Chaplin’s only goal throughout his vaudeville and film career was to make people laugh, his own life was anything but funny. So impoverished was Chaplin’s childhood that he and his brother were taken away from their mother and placed in a poor house. A few years later, it falls to the sons to remand their mother, driven insane by despair, to a psychiatric clinic.

Despite such soul-sapping circumstances, Chaplin already has the gift of comedic genius. His pratfalls, jumps and tumbles in an English stage show quickly earn him standing as an audience favorite. That success takes him to the U.S., where he knows instantly that Hollywood is where he needs and wants to be.  It is in Hollywood that he invents the character of the Little Tramp — spending hours, even days, meticulously engineering gags that look totally off-hand on screen. The trouble he takes to hone his skills builds a reputation for perfectionism and makes him one of the most famous actors in the world; he piles up fortunes writing, producing, directing and starring in his own films.

He also runs afoul of J. Edgar Hoover, starts a movie studio (United Artists) with his pal Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Mary Pickford, gets into and out of a series of dysfunctional marriages and goes on seeking ever-elusive true love in the arms of inappropriately young women. “I’m 21,” Paulette Goddard says to Chaplin when they meet. “Way too old for you.” Goddard becomes his third wife.

Like Chaplin himself, the movie “Chaplin” makes us laugh and cry by turns.  Robert Downey Jr. gives an uncannily real performance as Chaplin, deftly conveying Chaplin’s gift for physical comedy and a persona that combined social conscience with an astonishing failure to anticipate the public consequences of private choices. Downey earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his portrayal.

He is ably supported by, among others, Dan Ackroyd as Mack Sennett, Kevin Klein as Douglas Fairbanks, Moira Kelly as both Hetty Kelly (Chaplin’s first love) and Oona O’Neill Chaplin (Chaplin’s last wife). Geraldine Chaplin appears as her own grandmother, Chaplin’s mad mother.

Anthony Hopkins appears as the editor of Chaplin’s autobiography, a device that allows his character to poke around in the darker corners of Chaplin’s life, and to urge the aging, exiled-to-Switzerland Chaplin to come out from behind the mask of the Little Tramp and delve into the emotions that drove him and drew him on. But Chaplin is reluctant. His films speak for themselves, he believes, and will live with audiences because of their humanity and wit.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seems to agree. They presented a Lifetime Achievement Award to Chaplin in 1971 “for the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this [20th] century.”
“Chaplin,” which runs 143 minutes, was something of a box office and critical disappointment when it was released in 1992. But it has since become far better appreciated. Indeed the film is funny, visually appealing and insightful.
Please come join us January 22 on the lower level of the library. Bring a pal. You’ll both enjoy it.