According to a popular but apocryphal story, successful Roman military commanders returning from battle would participate in elaborate parades in which the spoils of war were flaunted before the city; however, a slave would trail the triumphant commander, repeatedly whispering in his ear—depending in the variation—either “Memento te mortalem esse” (“Remember you are mortal”) or, “All glory is fleeting.”
Something along these lines is at the center of Chaplin, a kind of “memory musical” in which Charlie rises to fame, always enjoying his success but with his head turned over his shoulder, looking back to his alcoholic father and his poor mother, a music hall singer who spent over twenty years in a lunatic asylum. Jubilant scenes are occasionally frozen so we can hear echoes of Hannah Chaplin crying out to her boy as she is taken away from him, or of Charles Sr. bumming around London, looking only for his next woman and his next bottle of gin. Charlie, raised by disappointment, senses the instability of the present. The women, the parties, The Gold Rush, The Great Dictator—they, too, may be fleeting.
Which is the main problem with Chaplin—for a musical about The Little Tramp, it is surprisingly joyless. The star, Rob McClure, has all the mannerisms down: the hat tricks, the cane twirling, the duck walk, the twitching moustache and the goofy grin. But he rarely gets to break them out. Apart from one or two delightful numbers, Chaplin tends to bury itself in the wallowing, lonely side of genius. One of the better scenes involves Charlie dancing along with a group of look-alikes, but authors Christopher Curtis and Thomas Meehan fail to give us the satisfaction of the punch-line: Chaplin did actually enter a look-alike contest and failed to even make the finals.
Furthermore, Mr. Curtis and Mr. Meehan fall prey to the type of hero-worshipping that results in shaky biography; their treatment of Chaplin’s wives, for example, is particularly slanderous. Charlie’s predilection for teenage girls is virtually dismissed and here he is simply the unhappy victim of a series of vicious gold diggers. Presented as a chorus line of vengeful shrews, Mildred Harris, Lita Grey, and Paulette Goddard battle him in a boxing ring, each one walking away with a larger bag of money. It never seems relevant to mention that Goddard was a brilliant comedic actress in her own right, whose performance in Modern Times is just as essential to its greatness as is Charlie’s.
In fact, I often found myself thinking about Modern Times throughout Chaplin. At the end of the film, Charlie and Paulette find themselves outlaws with uncertain futures. Chaplin, still insisting on making silent films in the mid-‘thirties, was himself in a place of professional doubt. But both the tramp the director, instead of succumbing to self-pity, remain positive—in the final scene, Paulette moans, “What’s the use of trying?” His response: “Buck up—never say die. We’ll get along!” Then, as they wander down the road, “Smile! C’mon!” It is this tone that is missing from Chaplin; the tramp, faced with an indifferent world that continually knocks him down, will always get up again, brush off his oversized trousers, and reaffix his bowler hat. Perhaps an elderly Chaplin would prefer this treatment, this serious depiction of a serious artist. But even if it is the show he would have wanted, it certainly isn’t the one he deserves.