“He was a monument of the cinema, of all countries and all times ... the most beautiful gift the cinema made to us.”
– Rene Claire
Charlie Chaplin bid a poetic farewell to his alter ego, the little tramp, in Limelight (1952); the lyrical tale of a fading comedian, Calvero, who befriends a paralytic ballerina on the brink of suicide. He instills in her the will to get better and pursue her dreams; she rekindles a benevolent spark of youthful aspiration in him. Limelight is more than a poignant love story, thematically touching upon the elemental grand tragedy of the careworn ‘star is born’ showbiz ilk. It is Chaplin’s sad adieu to the Vaudevillian paradiso he knew in the late twenties when his career was just beginning and the American cinema had first learned to embrace his genius. Alas, by 1950, Chaplin was persona non grata – and not just in Hollywood; like Calvero, a legend seemingly past his prime. In hindsight, Limelight is the apogee to Chaplin’s sound pictures; a compendium of bittersweet emotions and overt sentimentality (for which Chaplin was justly famous and quite oft’ taken to task by the critics); a picture in which the peerless master, now sufficiently aged to have seen not only something of the glories of life but also its unvarnished ugliness, affects his performance with a very mature outlook, able to regard the tenuous balance between life’s triumphs and tragedies with clear-eyed precision.
Limelight ought to have marked the pinnacle of Chaplin’s success in American talkies, except that the picture was pulled from the more prominent theaters and all but disappeared from public exhibition in America. For Chaplin had enjoyed his autonomy as a creative genius far too long to suit a moral/conservative contingent in the U.S. government; had thumbed his nose by dabbling in political themes with an arguably, naïve and subversive empathy, and, had had the audacity to marry and divorce three times while continuing to procure an enviable family lineage – five of his children appearing in Limelight, along with his half-brother, Wheeler Dryden. To be certain, Limelight is entirely void of any political themes; an almost autobiographical homage, fraught with a curiously monochromatic, yet painterly style and tenderness for a way of life, sadly forgotten. Chaplin had toiled for nearly three years on the story, composing a sumptuous orchestral score to augment this lovingly hand-crafted portrait.
Owing to the growing animosity he had incurred in the United States, Chaplin elected to hold Limelight’s world premiere in his native England. It seems this decision, and Chaplin’s to refuse taking U.S. citizenship during his lengthy tenure in Hollywood, brought about a tragic standoff with Attorney Gen. James P. McGranery, who seized upon the opportunity to revoke Chaplin’s re-entry permit into the U.S., and furthermore, declared that if Chaplin dared return he would be subject to a thorough investigation concerning his political views and moral behavior. Chaplin had, in fact, hinted he would not be returning to the U.S. anyway. But now, McGranery’s public chastisement made it virtually impossible for Chaplin to take his lumps in private. Ensconced in a new home in Switzerland, Chaplin issued his own declaration: “I have been the object of lies and vicious propaganda by powerful reactionary groups who, by their influence and with the aid of America’s yellow press, have created an unhealthy atmosphere in which liberal-minded individuals can be singled out and persecuted. I find it virtually impossible to continue my motion picture work, and I have therefore given up my residence in the United States.”
Publicly, Chaplin remained austere and introspective about the way things had turned out. Only those closest to him knew the extent to which this embargo had wounded his pride. For Chaplin, who had given so much and so freely of himself to this great nation – particularly in its darkest hours during the Great Depression and later, WWII, was now vilified as one its’ worst enemies. He would never again work in the U.S. Indeed, this rift endured, so that when, in 1972, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences elected to bestow upon Chaplin an honorary Oscar for his ‘incalculable effect in making motion pictures the art form of this century’, the U.S. State Department begrudgingly issued a forty-eight hour pass for Chaplin to fly in and collect his award. Those old enough to recall this televised moment, for which Chaplin received nearly twelve minutes of uninterrupted applause and a standing ovation from his peers, regard it as one of the sublime triumphs in the great artist’s career. Limelight, alas, was not to be discovered by American audiences until nearly twenty years after its release; the boycott against Chaplin and the movie relaxing with the more laissez faire changing times.
Limelight is, in many ways, a departure for Chaplin; his broadly delineated slapstick taking the proverbial backseat to a more restrained and intelligent melodrama. Like all of Chaplin’s masterworks, Limelight maintains his impeccable tempo for comic potential; the film’s focus on developing its characters. There are several ‘skits’ interspersed throughout the narrative; Calvero’s act with a fellow thespian (played by ole stone face himself, Buster Keaton) to sweeten the audience’s anticipation for Chaplin in his prime. But now, the tramp’s quirky mannerisms give way to a more serious demeanor and the solemnity of the backstory as Calvero’s ‘friendship’ with Terry grows more paternal and then - even more unlikely - romantic. In Chaplin’s silent classics, his little tramp was frequently the recipient of unwanted humiliation from a very hostile world. Herein, the focus shifts slightly to Terry, gingerly coaxed from her reoccurring bouts of crippling depression by the gentle man, inevitably, no stranger to hard knocks. What is absent from Limelight is Chaplin’s induction of laughter through tears. In fact, almost exclusively he keeps the two emotions separated or exclusive to particular sequences in the movie. The tenderness with which he eases Terry from out of her shell and into the ‘limelight’ is marked by tragedy – a main staple of Chaplin’s modus operandi; Calvero succumbing to a heart attack, knowing he has passed the baton of performance to a new generation, surely to embrace it with all the love and passion he once knew and felt as an artist.
Perhaps in Terry, Chaplin’s aged clown sees something of his former self; sympathetic to the underdog eager to triumph against seemingly insurmountable odds. Limelight’s aegis is, to be sure, Chaplin’s tribute to the greasepaint and gaslight era of his parents. Like all his movies, the narrative is only superficially strung together by a series of dramatized vignettes interpolated with comedic skits; Chaplin’s unobtrusive cinema style never allowing the camera to ‘intrude’ on these moments. Rather, it remains the silent observer with an omnipotent and quiet admiration, expertly communicated to and lingering with the audience long after the footlights have come up. Uncharacteristic of Chaplin, the drama in Limelight satisfactorily outweighs the comedy. Arguably, the picture is far more the byproduct of a ‘mature’ statesman of life and less the exemplar of that spirited creative zeitgeist who gave us The Gold Rush, The Great Dictator and Modern Times.
Even so, Chaplin’s interests in the mise en scene are solely comprised of the camera’s ability to keep him ever-present in the lens. Interestingly too, Chaplin’s usual knack for improvisation seems to be lacking in Limelight; one sensing he is adhering closely to his own script without exploring other avenues along the way. If anything, this leads to a decided lack of spontaneity. But his evocation of the Edwardian music hall era remains secondary to his characterizations, another hallmark of his classic film-making style; his total absorption in the content of the drama at the expense of a more naturalistic visual appeal. Viewed today, Limelight’s artifice appeals even with these unconvincing and obvious cardboard and plywood backdrops. There’s nothing particularly authentic about Chaplin’s London, but something quite genuine about the people who populate its transparent little world where the afterglow of limelight is as transient and perishable as the petals off a blooming flower.
There is little to deny Limelight as Chaplin’s most self-conscious and deeply personal movie; set in the beloved and idealized London of his youth, circa 1914, on the eve of World War I; his aged has been, Calvero (Charles Chaplin), stumbling up the stoop to his rental property after yet another night of drowning his sorrows in booze. The movie’s prolong, delineates limelight as the glamor from which age must pass and youth enters. But in these opening scenes the scenario is slightly reversed as Calvero, smelling a whiff of gas from the hall, bravely breaks down the door leading to the apartment of a young dancer, Thereza ‘Terry’ Ambrose (Claire Bloom) who has attempted suicide. This rescue intervention by Calvero and Terry’s doctor (Wheeler Dryden) is unwelcomed by Terry at first. She inquires, “Why didn’t you let me die?” to which Calvero astutely rebuts, “What’s your hurry? Billions of years it’s taken to evolve human consciousness and you want to wipe it out…wipe out the miracle of human existence – more important than anything in the universe!” These early moments in what will ultimately become a poignant relationship, are tinged with Chaplin’s own modesty, his congenial self-deprecating charm, playing mildly intoxicated, and yet with more than a sincere thread of contempt for Terry’s inability to grasp the life lesson he is trying to impart. Nevertheless, Calvero is gentle and self-sacrificing; giving up his bed and setting up a birth nearby to keep vigilante as she sleeps.
Herein, we cut away to the first of Chaplin’s ‘skits’ – Calvero’s glorious reign as a supreme comedian on the Vaudeville circuit; commanding an invisible flea circus. The audience is reminded of Chaplin in his prime, the inclusion of sound hardly necessary as Chaplin emotes with great sustained brilliance the follies of being ringmaster to these miniscule performers, unseen by anyone but his own perversely serious clown. Back at Calvero’s apartment, the old campaigner decides to get to know his young charge better. She tells him her parental lineage – the product of an earl and a kitchen maid; her only living relative, a sister, Louise, who became a streetwalker in London to pay for Terry’s dance lessons, then departed in shame to South America. Calvero inquires what made Terry attempt suicide and she confesses, in addition to her prolonged illness, it was the utter futility of life; the endless drudge, seemingly without meaning. “What do you want meaning for?” Calvero astutely replies, “Life is a desire, not a meaning.” Later, he further imparts that when all hope escapes one may choose to live without it and simply thrive in the moment. These are not flimsy platitudes. For life has not been easy for Calvero either. But he knows intuitively of what he speaks, referring to the mind as the greatest ‘toy’ ever devised and suggesting from it the root of all imagination and thus – happiness – can be derived.
We slip in and out of more vignettes from Calvero’s glory days; the best, a sublime pas deux between a vagabond and a lady. Calvero confides in Terry that as he grew older he became more introspective and therefore less capable of seeing the absurdity in the follies of life; a lethal maturity for a comedian. He lost contact with his audience and took to drink to console himself. An appointment at the agent, John Redfern’s (Barry Bernard) offices leaves Calvero hopeful. Alas, Redfern quickly explains he had finagled a booking at the Middlesex Theater – a middling venue where Calvero is not even to get star billing. Redfern makes it clear Calvero’s is an anathema to the theater’s management. They have agreed to sign him, but only as a huge favor to Redfern, who has been talking him up for many weeks and, unlike Calvero, has maintained enough of a cache in the business to persuade, despite their reservations. Returning to his apartment, Calvero learns from the doctor that Terry’s paralysis is psychosomatic. Physically, there is nothing wrong with her legs. So, Calvero attempts to break Terry of her imaginary illness; his pop-psychiatry explaining to her it is human nature to despise ourselves.
Herein, Chaplin shifts the focus of the narrative to a flashback told by Terry; her first fleeting glimpse of romance with a shy American composer, Neville (Sydney Chaplin) whom she mildly worshiped from afar; nightly, stalking his flat to listen through the door to his compositions and deliberately favoring his purchases of sheet music at her store with extras or returning to him unnecessary change. Terry’s boss eventually catches on to her infatuation and discharges her for stealing from the till. She briefly returns to her first love – dancing – but succumbs to rheumatic fever. Five months after her recovery, Terry sees her young love again at the Albert Hall. Calvero wisely assesses that although the two have barely met, she is desperately in love with this young man. Calvero paints a rather prosaic picture of how Terry’s romance will end; with a flourish of violins, hearts and flowers – a glorious summer romance over flickering candlelight, with the city dreamily backlit for their enduring affair. Mrs. Alsop (Majorie Bennett) urges Calvero to pay up his rent, also to get rid of Terry from his apartment to avoid rumors, suggesting there is something spurious about the relationship between this ingénue and old man. Calvero responds with a playful romantic overture to Mrs. Alsop. She isn’t fooled for a moment, but is decidedly distracted; her heart somewhat softening, though not by much.
Upstairs, Terry learns Calvero’s contract with the Middlesex has been terminated. With no money coming in to sustain them, Terry gets a job as a chorus girl in Mr. Bodalink’s (Norman Lloyd) Arabian nights’ fantasy musical revue. Her diligence earns her Bodalink’s respect. She finagles an audition for Calvero and Bodalink enthusiastically offers to help the old clown win back a modicum of his self-respect. The show’s backer, Mr. Postant (Nigel Bruce) is unimpressed, but the show is a great success. Better still, Terry is reunited with Neville who has been hired to compose the music for their new show. The two rekindle their platonic love. Terry, however, is torn in her allegiances. Calvero is wounded too, but only at the thought of losing the girl who has come to mean a great deal to him. However, he understands too well nature must pull in the inevitable direction of true love. Besides, it’s no good. Terry is young. She ought to be with her young man. Calvero tells her so after she suggests the two give up the theater and retire somewhere to a cottage or little farm in the country. Terry and Calvero come to a parting of the ways and Terry embarks on her own career.
The war intrudes and Neville enlists. Calvero takes up a job as a minstrel in a seedy little pub where he is reunited with Neville, who is on leave from the army. Shocked to find Calvero has sunken to this level, Mr. Postant suggests Calvero see him about a part in his new show. Calvero is, instead, cordially glib, refusing to even entertain the notion. But a short while later Terry inadvertently sees Calvero on his way back to work. She rushes to his side and encourages him to audition for Postant’s revue. Calvero is reunited with his old partner (Buster Keaton); the two preparing to revive one of their time-honored comedy routines. Terry confides in Postant she intends to marry Calvero, to make him happy and return to him the great favor and gift for living that he has bestowed upon her. Alas, this is not to be. For Calvero, having completed his act and brought down the house no less, suffers a fatal heart attack. He is carried to the wings of the theater as Terry takes to the stage. As she pirouettes magnificently about the proscenium, the doctor is summoned to Calvero’s side; pronouncing him dead with Neville, Postant and Bodalink mourning the loss, but Terry – as yet – unaware her beloved mentor and friend has gone.
In retrospect, Limelight is undoubtedly Chaplin’s last great work; perhaps not his greatest, yet undeniably his most personal and heartfelt: an extraordinary achievement for the old master, and at an age when most artists are winding down their careers. Chaplin had labored on the script for decades, going through rewrites and re-conceptualizations until he tweaked the particulars to his complete satisfaction. The picture was shot in just fifty-five days, a record for Chaplin who, in his prime, had been known to toil for months, improvising his performance as he went along, discarding scenes already shot, reshooting others, and still, working brand new ideas and routines into the project; all in his ceaseless effort to achieve the perfection in his mind’s eye. Alas, by 1950, such embellishments were impossible, even under the freedoms of his own studio; the skyrocketing cost of making movies putting a period to this sort of experimentation. Nevertheless, what Chaplin lacked in shooting schedule he made up for in his prep time; Limelight evolving in the back of his mind while he pursued and created other projects.
The picture is entirely shot in Hollywood, mostly at the Chaplin Studios, with exceptions made for the exterior street scenes, redressed sets already built at Paramount Studios, and the music hall sequences, filmed at RKO. To add authenticity to the exercise, Chaplin also used existing footage of actual London locations rear-projected. At the time, many critics assumed Calvero was Chaplin’s alter ego for his father who, like Chaplin’s fictional creation, had suffered a similar fate and turned to alcohol for solace. Interesting too, are the parallels between Chaplin himself and Calvero; both men’s professional careers in their twilight rather than their prime. However, a pair of biographies written by Chaplin suggests the character was loosely based on the life of stage actor, Frank Tierney.
Limelight is, of course, historic for its pairing of Chaplin and Buster Keaton. During the silent era, these two had been the titans of comedy. In the interim, Keaton’s path had taken a different turn; the introduction of sound leading to his inevitable eclipse from the movies; infrequently resurfacing in bit parts – a very sad adieu to his reign as the comedic genius and silent star of the first magnitude. Chaplin had, at first, resisted casting Keaton, believing the role too small. However, upon learning Keaton had suffered financial hardships due to his disastrous divorce Chaplin adamantly insisted he be cast in Limelight. Furthermore, it appears the enduring rumors about Chaplin jealously hacking into Keaton’s performance to diminish its impact are little more than simply that: rumors begun by Keaton’s business partner, Raymond Rohauer. As for Keaton, according to his widow, Eleanor, he was simply thrilled to be working with Chaplin, finding his contemporary congenial to a fault. Chaplin allowed Keaton to explore his performance at his leisure and experiment on the set. Chaplin, in fact, trimmed portions of his own performance to allow Keaton his moment in the spotlight.
Based on his own novella, Footlights, Limelight is likely a derivative of Chaplin’s personal reflections on his career. Yet, it is utterly void of any and all showbiz stereotypes and clichés, possessing a unique flavor and infectiously sincere quality. As a symbolic characterization, Calvero is Chaplin under siege; threatened by lawsuits and politicized witch hunts; the American premiere of Limelight picketed by those believing the rumors about Chaplin being a communist. How quickly the mighty had fallen. Only a decade earlier, Chaplin was regarded as one of the supreme entertainers of his time. Mercifully, time has not diminished Chaplin’s reputation. If anything, removed from all the hate-mongering, Chaplin’s resiliency, as well as that of his ‘little tramp’ have come around to be more perfectly ensconced as imperishable symbols of the American motion picture, despite changing times, tastes and virtues.
Limelight remains that wistful portrait painted in light by a genius whose command of his craft, his understanding of humanity and its fatal flaws, and his passion for both the theater and the art of making movies are peerless and impeccable. Clearly, Chaplin has drawn his inspiration from a purposeful life; bottling the essence of an aging artiste, young enough in his mind to recall the comedy of life, but as experienced by its pitfalls and tragedy. The tenuous balancing act Chaplin achieves between these polar opposites remains the film’s coup de grâce: an ingeniously interwoven tapestry. Chaplin’s supreme virtuosity, as a philosophical student of life, ensures Limelight never becomes overly introspective or maudlin. When sentimentality is employed it is with the innate understanding nothing more is required of the moment than a good cry. And yet, the results never seem deliberate or out of place. For perhaps the only time in his career, Chaplin allows the drama of the piece to unfold around both his alter ego and his female star, the movie’s narrative structure creating concentric ripples from a central hub. Calvero’s final request, to have his couch carried into the wings of the theater where he can witness the fruits of his labors brought to full flourish – Terry’s balletic triumph – remain the hallmark of Chaplin’s own artistic creed. If there must be finality to all great endeavors, then let it come with a grace and dignity befitting the glorious wonders of living that life to its fullest.
Criterion’s new 4K Blu-ray is magnificent. Let’s be honest; the old Mk2/Warner release on DVD was an abomination; interlaced and riddled in edge effects that made the movie virtually unwatchable. Overall, the quality herein will not disappoint. The image has been stabilized and texture, grain and contrast all rank as superior over the aforementioned SD. Fine detail in close-ups is startling. Grain is heavy but looking very indigenous to its source. Clarity and depth is exceptional during brightly lit sequences and shadow definition is extremely solid, with nuanced blacks and grays. Criterion’s remastered LPCM mono audio will not stretch the breadth of your surround system, but it is more than competently rendered and supports the movie’s dialogue-driven narrative with renewed clarity. No hiss or pop. Chaplin’s score sounds sublime and is utterly free of distortion.
Criterion’s extras are formidable and most welcome; beginning with David Robinson’s formidable video essay: Chaplin’s Limelight – Its Evolution and Intimacy. Here, at last is a fitting tribute to the movie as well as Chaplin’s penultimate act in showbiz. We also get new interviews with Claire Bloom and Norman Lloyd, each offering astute recollections of what it was like to be a part of this classic and share in Chaplin’s extraordinary gifts. Criterion has also graciously included Mk2’s 2002 featurette, ‘Chaplin Today: Limelight’ – a superficial summarization of the movie and its enduring appeal; plus two of Chaplin’s shorts: A Night in the Show (1915), and, the never completed The Professor (1919). The former has been lovingly restored by Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna and Lobster Films from a polyester fine grain preserved with miraculous results at The Museum of Modern Art and presented herein in full1080p with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. The latter is in very rough shape, exhibiting varying tonality and some horrendous age-related damage, presented herein in 1080i and mono. Finally, we get Chaplin reading excerpts from ‘Footlights’, some brief outtakes from Limelight, and two theatrical trailers. Criterion also includes a spectacular booklet with essays from Peter von Bagh and journalist, Henry Gris. Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)