Receiving a limited theatrical run before its premiere on the TCM cable network, Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin is an excellent introduction to one of the towering figures in film. Hardcore cineastes may not find much new material here, but more casual fans could gain some helpful information about one of the most famous personalities of the 20th century.

Time movie critic Richard Schickel has constructed the documentary as a chronological survey of Chaplin's work, starting with his most significant shorts and covering all of his features. Schickel buttresses his narration with testimony from artists familiar with Chaplin's work and family members who offer personal insights into the comedian's life.

The documentary plays down but doesn't ignore the controversies that swirled around Chaplin's private life. But the main focus is on the films. They include some of the best-loved movies of all time, as well as some inexplicable turkeys. Clips from Kid Auto Races at Venice, the 1914 Keystone short in which Chaplin first used his Tramp costume, reveal a startlingly modern technique and sensibility, as if the filmmakers were predicting and mocking reality TV. Subsequent shorts show Chaplin refining his 'Little Tramp' character while absorbing the essentials of filmmaking. By the time he made Easy Street, Chaplin had perfected a combination of knockabout farce and Victorian sentiment that still proves irresistible.

With his brother Syd, Chaplin was also mastering the intricacies of film financing. After leaving Keystone, Chaplin worked for Essanay, Mutual and First National before building his own studio. Later he became a founding member of United Artists. No other filmmaker has ever enjoyed such creative freedom or commercial success.

Chaplin's early features, including The Kid, The Gold Rush and City Lights, were such blockbuster hits that he could essentially ignore the coming of sound for almost a decade. But there is no denying the decline in quality in later films like Monsieur Verdoux and A King in New York. Combined with Chaplin's political exile, they give a somber, downbeat cast to the second half of the documentary.

Schickel repeats at least one debunked Chaplin myth, and throws in some overly purple passages, but his script is generally well-researched and straightforward. Performers like Bill Irwin and Johnny Depp offer astute observations about how Chaplin worked, but some commentators do nothing more than describe what is readily apparent on screen. Charlie doesn't contribute much to the debate about Chaplin's standing among other filmmakers. Rivals like Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton are barely mentioned (Keaton does appear in a brief clip), let alone directors like D.W. Griffith. Nor does the film delve into his methods as deeply as Unknown Chaplin, the masterful 1986 documentary by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill. But the clips alone make Charlie a treat for curious newcomers and devoted fans alike.

-Daniel Eagan