Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Last Films of Charlie Chaplin

One thing I haven't gotten into in these articles is the controversy in Charlie Chaplin's life. I didn't talk about this for many reasons. It's not my aim to write a biography about Charlie. These articles are more about his work and technique than his life story. Another reason is, just like how it was in real life, Charlie's controversies distracted his fans from his actual work.

I bet that you're probably surprised and at the same time, not surprised that Charlie had a lot of controversies in his life. Almost every major Hollywood superstar has faced the same trouble. it's practically a requirement for them. And seeing as Charlie was the first superstar, it's only natural that he fit the same model. Just like the best of them, he's had demons and skeletons that has plagued him his entire professional career. I don't want to get into every little detail but let's just say that Charlie was a very complicated and complex man. He was criticized for his many messy marriages and divorces with very young women. Most of his wives were only 15-16 when he first met them, even when the 52-year-old married his last wife. But before you start screaming "dirty old man!" and "pedophile!" at your computer screen, remember that these were different times. It was not uncommon at all for women at that age to get married and have children. And if you remember that the average lifespan was at least thirty years shorter at that time, it totally makes sense.

But perhaps Charlie's most controversial...controversy was his accusations of communism and anti-American activity. Unfortunately, Charlie was one of the tragic victims of McCarthyism. I won't pretend to be an expert on the subject, but basically, McCarthyism was when accusations of communism were just all over the place. Everybody were erratically accusing everybody a communist mostly out of panic and paranoia. Many of Charlie's actions and scenes in his films would also be unreasonably used against him. Mainly, because the then director of the F.B.I., J. Edgar Hoover, had some weird fixation on Charlie (probably had a crush on him or something) and was inexplicably determined to take him down. He took every opportunity and exaggerated every little thing in Charlie's films. For example, in The Immigrant, The Tramp kicks an immigration officer in the backside, which Hoover and his critics cited as an example of his "anti-American activity." The satire of Modern Times against labor and economic policies was also used as evidence of Charlie's communist views. Also, in the film, Charlie (hysterically) gets mistaken for a communist leader. His critics weren't too happy about that. But of course, it was The Great Dictator that was the camel that broke the straw's back. Wait. What? Anyway, to Hoover's eyes, the film was entitled "I'm a Dirty Filthy Communist, Please Exile Me From America!" And that's what Hoover did. He just needed an opportunity. It was when Charlie left America for the London premiere of his film Limelight, that Hoover leaped at the chance. When Charlie tried to return to the States, he was not allowed back in.

Charlie was devastated. The U.S.A. had become his home. He never did file for citizenship, but he loved the country and it's people as his own. But he was not deterred. He still wanted to make movies, but was forced to do so in England. His last two films would be produced in his homeland. But Charlie was still angry. And he vented his frustrations by making a statement the only way he knew how: he made a movie about it.

A King In New York (1957)

Producer/Writer/Director/Composer: Charlie Chaplin
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Dawn Addams, Maxine Audley, Jerry Desmonde
RATING: 70/100

Charlie plays the king that's in New York, King Shahdov, who is the king of a fictional country, that goes to America to discuss his plans regarding atomic power. But when he loses all his money, and suddenly becomes a nation-wide celebrity, the King is appalled when he finds himself doing commercials and TV work to get some cash. Things don't work out that well, when he begins to get mixed up in political quarrels and gets accused of communism.

A King In New York is largely disappointing due to the caliber and magnitude of his previous back-to-back masterpieces. It's not a bad film, but it's fairly bland for the first two-thirds of the film with there being barely any good jokes or gags. The story is fairly interesting and clever in how it parallels Charlie's own life, but it doesn't really go anywhere.

Many of us have our ways to take out our frustrations on certain things. Charlie took out his frustrations in his films. And you can't help but respect the man for it. When Charlie was exiled from America because of accusations of communism, Charlie thought it would only be fitting to make a film that satirized and parodied American culture and political and economic policies. It was very risky, but it was also very clever. But it could also be the reason why A King in New York isn't very inspired. Perhaps Charlie was so devastated (he actually was) that it affected his work. It must difficult to get your groove back when it's been utterly shaken.

Charlie's first film from exile unfortunately isn't very funny. There are barely any moments of hysterical brilliance as you might expect from him and there aren't that many jokes at all. There are some pretty funny moments here and there, and there are lots of great satirical humor, but most of it isn't laugh-out-loud funny. It's fairly clever, enough for you to appreciate, but that's pretty much it. If the overall plot was more interesting, that also would've been helpful. The overall story is pretty great on paper, but it's not executed very well, because the film drags a bit.

But as I said, it's not a bad film. The entire experience is pretty enjoyable. The story is intriguing, and Charlie's performance is wondrous as always. Oh, and one little gem in the movie is seeing Charlie's young son, Michael Chaplin, in his role. It's obvious that talent runs in the family! It may not be a laugh riot, or a brilliant story but it's a decent experience and is worth a watch for any Chaplin fan. Just don't come in expecting another hilarious touching Chaplin masterpiece and you'll be fine. This is actually the reason why I consider Limelight to be Charlie's real last film.

A Countess from Hong Kong (1967)

Producer/Writer/Director/Composer: Charlie Chaplin
Cast: Marlon Brando, Sophia Loren, Sydney Earle Chaplin, Tippi Hedren
RATING: 55/100

 It had been over fifty years since Charlie Chaplin had released his first film, but the aging superstar wasn't done yet. His final film, as well as his first color film, was A Countess from Hong Kong. Starring Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren, it would also be the second film that Charlie would direct but not star in. Brando plays Ogden Meyers, an ambassador for Saudi Arabia who meets a Russian countess in Hong Kong who is played by Loren. When Ogden sails back to America, he finds the countess stowed away in his cabin, trying to escape some trafficking issues. Reluctant to help her, but also fearful for any bad press, Ogden agrees to let her stay.

It pains me to say so, but A Countess from Hong Kong is not a good film. It's boring, unfunny, bland, and predictable. It doesn't feel like a Chaplin film at all, not in the least bit. But, as is the case with almost any film, it could just be that this film isn't my cup of tea. Even though it was critically lauded and did poorly at the box office, there are many critics who deem this film as one of Charlie's best. Even Charlie himself had said that it was the greatest film of his entire life. I don't understand that at all.

There's just almost no redeeming qualities about the film. Well, there's one. Charlie actually has a small cameo in the film as the ship's steward, and it's a magnificent delight to see the black and white silent film star in color. It's also Charlie's very last screen appearance. One other thing that may interest some is that Charlie's son, Sydney Earle Chaplin, plays one of the lead roles and three of his daughters have small cameo roles as well. Other than that, there's really no other way to redeem this film. It's not a technically bad film persay, it's just very mediocre. Like I mentioned before, there may be some people who will be able to appreciate the film better, but I simply couldn't. But, it's worth a shot, if you haven't seen it. With me, It's almost depressing because I wished that Charlie went out with a bang. But as I've said time and time again, Limelight will always be Charlie's last film in my mind. So, in my mind, he did go out with a bang.

Not much is known about Charlie's life, but even less is known about the less years of his life. A very intriguing documntary, Charlie Chaplin: The Forgotten Years, is worth a look. There are also many other documentaries detailing his life, that you can check out on Amazon.

Despite Charlie's last films being greatly underwhelming considering the relentless masterpieces he released before them, it's not difficult to look back at Charlie's career, and know that he truly was a master, a genius, and a great although complex and troubled man.






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