British music hall star Charlie Chaplin made his movie debut in 1914, leaving the Fred Karno comedy company during a tour of the U.S. vaudeville circuit for filmmaker Mack Sennett in Hollywood. Within a few years of his screen debut, he became the first movie star to make a million dollars in a single year and the most famous person in the world, recognized by audiences around the globe. More than 100 years later, the image of Chaplin as The Little Tramp is still iconic, conjuring up the era of silent movie comedy even for people who have never seen a silent film.
Richard Attenborough, the actor and Oscar-winning director of Gandhi (1982), had been a fan since he saw his first Chaplin film at age 11, and he later became friends with Chaplin and his wife Oona when his family and the Chaplins vacationed near one another in the South of France in the 1970s. But it was his producing partner, Diana Hawkins, who suggested making a film about Chaplin's life. Attenborough secured the blessing of Oona, Chaplin's widow, and the rights to both Chaplin's autobiography and David Robinson's definitive biography, "Chaplin: His Life and Art." With an initial screenplay by Hawkins, Attenborough brought the project to Universal Pictures, where he had made Cry Freedom (1987).
Attenborough's biggest challenge was to find his star, an actor with the agility, skill, youth, and resemblance to Chaplin. Dustin Hoffman, Billy Crystal, and Robin Williams were all considered for the role, but Attenborough felt they were too old. Then Robert Downey Jr. burst into his office proclaimed that he was the actor to play Chaplin. "His ability to capture the Chaplin mannerisms, his walk, the way he spoke and so on was miraculous," recalled the director, but it was more than simply an impersonation. "Robert had the ability to convey that driving, unqualified determination to achieve what he set out to achieve." Downey spent a year preparing for the role, reading everything he could on the Chaplin, watching and rewatching both his films and newsreel footage of the actor out of costume, mastering the accent, and studying with a mime expert to perfect everything from the acrobatic grace of his performances to his posture. He even persuaded the staff at the Museum of the Moving Image in London to let him try on Chaplin's Little Tramp suit and boots, one of the museum's prized exhibits. "They fit perfectly," he recalled. "We have the same feet."
Universal Pictures, who wanted a bigger star in the lead, dropped out of the project a month before filming was scheduled to begin. Mario Kassar, head of the independent production company Carolco, stepped in but production was still delayed for over six months while the financing was raised. Sets had been built and costumes creates, all put into storage in the interim, and Downey turned down roles until principle photography got underway in October 1991 in Los Angeles.
Attenborough's longtime friend and frequent collaborator Bryan Forbes wrote the first draft of the screenplay, with rewrites by William Boyd and Tom Stoppard. When the film went to Carolco, William Goldman (who won Oscars All the President's Men, 1976, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1970) was brought in to rework the structure for the sprawling story, which spans from Chaplin's childhood through fame and exile to his return to America in 1972. He was responsible to creating a fictional character, an editor working with Chaplin on his autobiography, to give the film a kind of narrator and commentator. The final screenplay bears the names of William Boyd, Bryan Forbes, and William Goldman, with Diana Hawkins receiving story credit.
The Mack Sennett Keystone Studios and the Chaplin Studios were built in Fillmore amidst orange groves, just like the original studios in 1910s Los Angeles. Chaplin's mansion had been redesigned by later owner but the company found a San Marino home designed by the same architect, Wallace Neff, as a stand in. The production moved to London in early 1992, where music hall sequences scenes were filmed in Wilton's, then London's oldest surviving music hall, and Hackney Empire, and then to Vevey, Switzerland, where scenes of Chaplin in exile were filmed at his real-life home, Le Manoir de Ban. The montage of Chaplin clips shown at the end of the film is the same one that was presented at the 1972 Oscars ceremony, where Chaplin was awarded an honorary Academy Award "For the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century."
Geraldine Chaplin, the eldest daughter of Charles and Oona and a veteran actress in her own right, brought another personal connection to the Chaplin family when she agreed to play the role of Hannah, Charlie's troubled mother and Geraldine's grandmother. She was astonished at Downey's resemblance to her father and impressed with his performance. "It was as if my father came down from heaven and inhabited and possessed him for the length of the movie."
For the role of Douglas Fairbanks, Hollywood's first action superstar and Chaplin's friend, Attenborough tapped the star of his previous film Cry Freedom. Kevin Kline was a natural for the role, having played a swashbuckling pirate king in The Pirates of Penzance on stage and screen. The supporting cast features Dan Aykroyd as Mack Sennett, Marisa Tomei as Keystone star Mabel Normand, James Woods as the ruthless lawyer Joseph Scott, Diane Lane as Paulette Goddard, Chaplin's third wife and Modern Times costar, and Anthony Hopkins as the fiction editor George Hayden.
Attenborough's contract gave him final cut as long as he kept the film to 135 minutes. "With Bill Goldman we arrived at a very precise construction," Attenborough recalled. "You could not leave anything out or else the whole structure collapsed." Kassar insisted on the scenes in Switzerland and at the 1972 Oscars, so when Attenborough's cut clocked in at 147 minutes, he worked closely with editor Anne V. Coates to trim scenes throughout the film to meet the contracted running time. He was never completely satisfied with the final cut. The added scenes were "outside the essential subject matter of the film I wanted to make," he later commented, and the trims to accommodate them "inevitably damaged the picture significantly." But he never had second thoughts about Downey's performance as Chaplin: "He simply burst out of the screen."
Chaplin premiered on December 4, 1992 at the Los Angeles Theatre, which had opened in 1931 with the premier of Chaplin’s City Lights. Robert Downey Jr. earned rave reviews and his first Academy Awards nomination, one of three Oscars for which the film was nominated, and won the BAFTA for his performance.
The Actor's Director: Richard Attenborough Behind the Camera, Andy Dougan. Mainstream Publishing, 1994.
"Channeling Chaplin: It is the role of Robert Downey Jr.'s career--and he believes the Little Tramp is with him," Hilary De Vries. Los Angeles Times, December 20, 1992.
"Robert Downey Jr. Is Chaplin (on Screen) and a Child (Off)," Jamie Diamond. The New York Times, December 20, 1992.
"Richard Attenborough told Robert Downey Jr that Tom Cruise would have played Charlie Chaplin better than him," Isobel Lewis. The Independent, October 22, 2020.
"Chaplin: Strolling Into the Sunset," featurette produced by Karolyne Oak. Lions Gate Film Home Entertainment, 2008.
AFI Catalog of Feature Films