The film was adapted by William Boyd, Bryan Forbes and William Goldman from the books My Autobiography by Chaplin and Chaplin: His Life and Art by film critic David Robinson. Associate producer Diana Hawkins got a story credit. The original music score was composed by John Barry.
The film is structured around lengthy flashbacks as the elderly Charlie Chaplin (now living in Switzerland) recollects moments from his life during a conversation with fictional character George Hayden, the editor of his autobiography.
Chaplin's recollections begin with his childhood of extreme poverty from which he escapes by immersing himself in the world of the London music halls. After his mother Hannah Chaplin has an attack of nerves on stage during a performance, the four year old Chaplin takes his mother's place on the stage. Hannah retires from performing and is eventually committed to an asylum after developing psychosis. In the years that follow, Chaplin and his brother Sydney gain work with variety show producer Fred Karno, where Chaplin becomes a hit with his comedy drunk act. He begins a relationship with his first love Hetty Kelly; the night before he is due to leave for America he proposes to her but she declines, reasoning she is too young. Chaplin promises to return to England for her when he is a success.
Chaplin is sent to America by Karno and is given a job by Mack Sennett, the most famous comedy producer in Hollywood. While there, he creates his iconic Tramp persona and due to the terrible directorial capabilities of Sennett's wife Mabel, Chaplin is allowed to direct his own movies. Before the year is over, Chaplin directs over 20 movies. After Sydney joins him in America to become his manager, Chaplin decides to break away from Sennett to have complete creative control over his films with the goal of one day owning his own studio. In 1917, Chaplin completes work on The Immigrant which causes some concern over the film's political subject matter and starts a brief romance with actress Edna Purviance.
Years later at an industry party thrown by Douglas Fairbanks, Chaplin meets and begins dating child actress Mildred Harris. Chaplin eventually becomes wealthy and profitable enough to set up his own studio and becomes "the most famous man in the world" all before his thirtieth birthday. Chaplin reveals to Fairbanks that he is to marry Harris as she is pregnant, but later at a party thrown by William Randolph Hearst, the pregnancy is revealed to be a hoax. At the same party, Chaplin has an uncomfortable confrontation with J Edgar Hoover about actor / directors and their responsibilities with regards to audiences, this confrontation sparks a forty year long vendetta and Hoover attempts to ruin Chaplin's reputation.
Chaplin and Mildred separate after the premature death of their only child and Chaplin's utter devotion to his films. During the divorce proceedings, Harris's lawyers attempt to steal Chaplin's movie The Kid reasoning that it is an asset, however Chaplin and Sydney finish editing the film in a remote hotel in Salt Lake City, Utah, and smuggle it successfully back to Los Angeles.
The brothers eventually arrange for their mother to join them in America. Chaplin is initially happy to see her but has been away from her for so long that he is unable to cope with her worsening mental illness. In 1921, seeking a break from film-making and his private life, Chaplin returns to England to attend the UK premiere of The Kid. He reunites with Karno and hopes to locate Hetty, but Karno sadly informs him that she died in a flu epidemic shorty after the war. Chaplin also discovers that although most are happy to see him, his success has meant that the poverty stricken working class British no longer consider him to be one of their own and resent him for not fighting in the war as they did.
Back in America, Hoover is beginning to investigate Chaplin's private life, suspecting that he may be a member of the Communist Party, and Chaplin is forced to consider the implications the introduction of "talkies" may have on his film-making career. Despite the arrival of sound pictures drawing nearer, Chaplin vows never to make a talkie featuring the Tramp.
In 1923, Chaplin makes The Gold Rush and marries his leading lady Lita Grey, with whom he goes on to have two children, however Chaplin later confides to George that he always thought of her as a "total bitch" and dedicates no more than five lines to her in the finished autobiography. Years pass and although Chaplin finds a new wife in Paulette Goddard he feels a sense of guilt and sympathy to the millions of Americans who have recently been made unemployed due to the Wall Street Crash (Chaplin avoided losing all of his money in The Great Depression by selling most of his shares the year before). Chaplin decides to address the issue in his next movie Modern Times (The final movie to feature The Tramp) but his complete dedication to getting the movie finished puts excessive strain on his home life and eventually results in the breakup of his marriage.
At an industry party Chaplin causes a minor scandal when he refuses to shake hands with a visiting member of the Nazi party. Fairbanks (with his health in great decline) comments that Chaplin looks a lot like Adolf Hitler, providing Chaplin with inspiration for his next movie in their final encounter before Fairbanks' death in 1939. Chaplin's film satirizing the Nazis The Great Dictator is a huge hit throughout the world but Hoover tries to portray the film as a work of anti-American propaganda.
Chaplin settles down with and marries Oona O'Neil, an actress who looks identical to his first love Hetty Kelly and the woman he will spend the remainder of his life with. However Chaplin is hit with another scandal when it is alleged that he is father to the child of his former lover Joan Barry and despite a blood test proving that the child is not his, Chaplin is ordered to provide financial support for the child. His reputation severely damaged, Chaplin stays out of the public eye for over seven years until re-emerging to produce a new film Limelight.
In 1952 during the height of the Joe McCarthy scandal, Chaplin leaves America with Oona on a trip back to Britain, but subsequently finds out that the U.S. Attorney General has revoked Chaplin's permit to re-enter the United States.
In 1972, 10 years after Chaplin and George complete his autobiography, Chaplin is invited back to America in order to receive a special Lifetime Achievement award at the 1972 Academy Award ceremony. Though initially still resentful at being exiled from the country and fearful that no-one will remember him, the audience happily rejoices upon seeing his classic film clips. Chaplin stands on the stage and is moved to tears when the audience provide him with a standing ovation.
Although Richard Attenborough wanted Robert Downey Jr. for the part of Chaplin, studio executives wanted Robin Williams or Billy Crystal for the role. Jim Carrey was also considered for the role.
The film received mixed to positive reviews. Although the film was criticized for taking dramatic licence with some aspects of Chaplin's life, Downey's performance as Chaplin won universal acclaim. Attenborough was sufficiently confident in Downey's performance to include historical footage of Chaplin himself at the end of the film.
The film was lauded for its high production values, but many critics dismissed it as an overly glossy biopic. One critic wrote that the screenplay "endeavors to cover too much ground. The life of Charlie Chaplin was so vast and varied that a film is far too restrictive a format to give it justice." Chaplin currently holds a 57% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 47 reviews. The website's critical consensus reads, "Chaplin boasts a terrific performance from Robert Downey, Jr. in the title role, but it isn't enough to overcome a formulaic biopic that pales in comparison to its subject's classic films."
The film was released on VHS in 1993 and later on DVD in 1997. A fifteenth-anniversary edition was released by Lions Gate Entertainment (who obtained the distribution rights to the film in the interim under license from the copyright holder, StudioCanal) in 2008. The anniversary edition contained extensive interviews with the producers, and included several minutes of home-movie footage shot on Chaplin's yacht. The box for this DVD mistakenly lists the film's running time as 135 minutes, although it retains the 143-minute length of the original theater release.
The 15th Anniversary Edition was later released on Blu-ray in February 15, 2011.
The soundtrack to Chaplin was released on December 15, 1992.Track listing