Charles Spencer Chaplin’s impact on the motion-picture industry cannot be overstated. In five decades, he made 81 films, most of which were released before 1930, and almost all of which featured his onscreen persona, the Little Tramp. Between the two of them, Chaplin and the Tramp did much to elevate the nascent industry into an art form, and when at last the Tramp spoke — in The Great Dictator (1940), well after the rest of Hollywood had been swept up by the “talkies” — it was on Chaplin’s terms, when the filmmaker was sure he had something to say worth saying out loud.
Off screen, Chaplin’s life bore the hallmarks of an epic story: a childhood of poverty and an early career in Vaudeville, a journey across the Atlantic that led to his first job in the “flickers,” a meteoric rise that found him heading his own film-production studio before he was 30, a series of tumultuous romantic entanglements, and, finally, intrigue provided by no less a figure than J. Edgar Hoover, who had Chaplin barred from re-entering the United States in 1952.
For the 1992 biopic Chaplin, director Richard Attenborough pulled together a dynamic cast that was led by Robert Downey Jr. in the titular role. Other stars of the silent era were portrayed by the likes of Kevin Kline (Douglas Fairbanks), Dan Aykroyd (Mack Sennett), Maria Pitillo (Mary Pickford) and David Duchovny (Rollie Totheroh, ASC, Chaplin’s longtime cinematographer). The actors and their surroundings — realized to the finest detail by production designer Stuart Craig — were beautifully captured by cinematographer Sven Nykvist, ASC, whose work is faithfully reproduced in this new DVD from Lionsgate.
The film’s previous DVD incarnation, released by Artisan, exhibited an array of problems that have all been remedied in this new transfer; gone are the compression-induced artifacts that plagued the dark tones (and often the mids), gone are the shifts in color and density, and gone is the bizarre blue tint that colored exteriors set outside Chaplin’s home in Vevey, Switzerland.
With all the verve of pioneering filmmakers, Attenborough and editor Anne V. Coates employed split screens, irises, dissolves and a smorgasbord of wipes — including a bold use of the star wipe to introduce Kline as Fairbanks. A slight increase in grain belies these optical effects, but the same could have been said of the film’s release prints, so it is no mark against this transfer. The Dolby Digital 2.0 presentation nicely represents the film’s audio mix and gives due service to John Barry’s Oscar-nominated score.
Eschewing all the lackluster supplements on the previous transfer except for the 1.33:1-formatted theatrical trailer, this DVD includes three new featurettes, all 16x9-enhanced and each featuring Attenborough, Chaplin biographer David Robinson, Time film critic Richard Schickel and Michael Chaplin, Charlie’s son. Although the featurettes do not do much beyond expounding on Chaplin’s fame, Attenborough offers a critical appraisal of what he sees as a somewhat compromised finished film. Rounding out the supplements is a 2.5-minute 16mm “home movie” featuring Chaplin, his Modern Times co-star Paulette Goddard and a young Alistair Cooke aboard Chaplin’s yacht, Panacea, sailing to Catalina Island off the coast of California. The candid portrait offers an interesting — albeit brief — glimpse of the man behind the Tramp.
Chaplin garnered a number of awards and nominations, including a BSC Award nomination for Nykvist. Chaplin himself finally returned to Hollywood in 1972 to receive a Special Academy Award, and the event serves as conclusion to Attenborough’s film. As Chaplin is led to the stage, Daniel Taradash, the Academy’s president at the time, praises the eternal poignancy of the Little Tramp. “Time,” he says, “is Charlie Chaplin’s dearest and eternal friend.”