Chaplin’s Limelight was not quite the
swan-song for the genius filmmaker (he would make two more pictures in his
lifetime); but of these final three movies, Limelight
is the one that feels like the true farewell. It is more of a drama than a
comedy, and it is perhaps Chaplin’s most personal, introspective movie. The
fact that it is flawed and warrants criticism shouldn’t matter—it’s worth
viewing for a number of reasons.
my money, the director/actor/screenwriter/composer made a much funnier film, A King in New York (1957), after Limelight, but King is not as accomplished or well-known. Chaplin’s disastrous
final picture, A Countess from Hong Kong
(1967, starring Sophia Loren and Marlon Brando, with Chaplin appearing only in a
cameo) is best forgotten. Thus, most film historians focus on Limelight as being the conclusive
cinematic statement by the master.
Limelight presents a story
that begins in London in 1914, when the music hall, where Chaplin got his start
in show business, was the equivalent of America’s vaudeville. Chaplin’s own
father had also performed in the music hall circuit, but alcohol eventually
derailed the man’s career. Chaplin taps into this autobiographical history by
creating the character of “Calvero” a once-popular clown, but now an alcoholic
has-been. To be sure, though, there are within Calvero elements of the familiar
silent icon Chaplin once portrayed (at one point Calvero delivers a potent line
of ironic dialogue, “Perhaps it’s the tramp in me!”). Enter Terry, a young
ballerina (played by a nineteen-year-old Claire Bloom in her film debut), whom
Calvero saves from a suicide attempt. The couple forge an awkward friendship
that develops into romance (on her part,
not his—although Calvero’s attraction to her is painfully obvious), but of
course throughout the course of the picture they separate, get back together,
and, at the end, unwittingly and fatefully separate for good. The movie is an apparent
discourse on how the elderly must retreat from the limelight and allow the
young to step forward and carry on.
Calvero, Chaplin is very good, if more than a little melodramatic in the
non-comic scenes (of which there are many). Bloom is fine, if more than a
little melodramatic in nearly every scene (a stand-in ballerina, Melissa
Hayden, performs Terry’s dances). The supporting cast includes old pros like
Nigel Bruce and Norman Lloyd, but also Chaplin’s son, Sydney Earl Chaplin, who
delivers perhaps the most realistic and honest performance in the picture—it’s
a shame that he made only a few more films before deciding that acting was not
for him. Chaplin’s half-brother, Wheeler Dryden, plays a dual role, and, making
the movie a full family affair, six-year-old Geraldine Chaplin has a bit part
along with two of her younger siblings.
Keaton and Chaplin teamed on screen for their first and only time.
highlight, though, and pretty much the biggest reason to take a look at Limelight, is the climactic sketch featuring
Chaplin and Buster Keaton, the only time the comic masters ever appeared on
screen together. Their sequence is classic.
said, Limelight unfortunately comes
off as being overly sentimental. Chaplin palpably tugs too hard at the
audience’s heartstrings. The lush musical score, while beautiful, doesn’t help
tone down the ultimately maudlin proceedings. The film is much too lengthy as
well, clocking in at 137 minutes, making it Chaplin’s longest picture—and it feels interminable. Finally, the romance
between the very young Terry and the very old Calvero is barely believable, but
perhaps in 1914 such a May-December relationship might not have been so icky.
must be noted that at the time the picture was made, Chaplin was practically
Public Enemy Number One in America. He was a victim of the rabid and irrational
Red Scare that was going on in the country; the Hollywood blacklist was a
result of this insane paranoia, and Chaplin—while too powerful to blacklist—was
certainly shunned for his “socialist” political views (hmm, sound familiar?).
Chaplin premiered Limelight in London
in 1952, so the government took that opportunity to deny the artist re-entry
into the U.S. A fine way to treat someone who was arguably the cinema’s
greatest innovator and pioneer! Chaplin, heartbroken and bitter, took up
residence with his family in Switzerland, and didn’t return to America until
1972, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to forgive
and forget and award him with a Lifetime Achievement Oscar. And, since Limelight never got a proper release in
the states in ’52, it was re-released in ’72 and was thus eligible for Oscars. Limelight won for Original Score;
ironically, the only competitive Oscar that Chaplin ever won was for music. At
least the audience at the ceremony made him feel welcome—Chaplin received the
longest standing ovation ever at the Oscars.
new 4K digital restoration looks gorgeous, of course, and Criterion’s treatment
of the title is top-notch. Extras include a few that are ported over from the
2002 MK2 release—Chaplin Today: Limelight
(a documentary on the film); archival recordings of Chaplin reading two
excerpts from his own novella, Footlights;
a deleted scene and two trailers; and the uncompleted short, The Professor (1919). New extras include
Chaplin’s Limelight—Its Evolution and
Intimacy (a new video essay by Chaplin biographer David Robinson); new
enlightening interviews with Claire Bloom and Norman Lloyd (who is
100-years-old and sharp as a tack!); and a restored short, A Night at the Show (1915). The thick booklet contains an essay by
critic Peter von Bagh, excerpts from an on-set piece by journalist Henry Gris,
and lots of photos of ephemera.
all is said and done, despite its shortcomings, this new release of Limelight does have much to offer. And
suffice it to say that if you’re a Chaplin fan, then it’s essential.