26 May 2009

Limelight (1952)

d. Charles Chaplin / USA / 137 mins.

This review discusses details of the film's ending.

Although infrequently screened and often derided in contemporary conversations, Limelight is Charles Chaplin's most personal and autobiographical film. He would go on to make two more films after this 1952 comedy-drama, but this is unmistakably his swan song — and what a graceful and touching goodbye it is. In it he plays an aging music hall comedian named Calvero who helps a young and suicidal ballerina (Claire Bloom) appreciate her life and her art. They form a bond, and she falls in love with him; but knowing he is in the twilight of his life, he bows back so she can form a relationship with a younger man. The only thing left is to take a final curtain call.

It says a great deal about Chaplin that he would try something as brazenly self-reflective as Limelight. Perhaps he believed he owed it to himself, or perhaps he believed he deserved it (his large ego could have simply wanted it). Whatever the reason, I'm not sure many other artists could pull this off as well as Chaplin does. The film is set it in England on the eve of World War I — 1914, to be exact, the year Chaplin himself debuted. His aged comedian Calvero (which, like Chaplin, is a C-name with seven letters) is inhabited so wholly by Chaplin that even those unfamiliar with the man can sense an immediate connection between the actor and his character. Limelight was one of the earliest Chaplin films I saw as a teenager, and there is a surprising amount of visibility in the emotional closeness of the two, both of whom have a prime that seems far behind them and whose audiences has abandoned them. Chaplin was often not given the credit he deserved for his acting, and when you consider how laudatory audiences can be when an actor or actress seemingly adopts a character persona similar to their own (Mickey Rourke in last year's The Wrestler, for example), it's a shame more credit hasn't been given to Chaplin for this touching and seasoned role.

Certainly it is no mistake that Calvero is the only Chaplin character to die on screen; other Chaplin incarnations have stepped back and allowed others to experience happiness (the Tramp does in The Circus, for example), and still others go to their deaths (Henri Verdoux, most notably), but as Chaplin was so in control of every aspect of his films, we must give proper consideration to the on-screen death of Calvero. The plot would work without it, but the meditation on life, death, art, and impression would be null.

Chaplin has success as well in what are his final set pieces of slapstick, odes to his early silent days. Like The Great Dictator, Limelight returns to the structure that alternates between the progress of the plot and the timeouts for sideshows. It's a quality to most of Chaplin's sound films that many dislike, but when executed well, the sketches can be timeless — Adenoid Hinkel dancing with the inflatable globe in The Great Dictator, or the most famous sequence of Limelight, the pitch-perfect pantomime routine performed by Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Limelight is the only narrative film both men appeared in, and indeed, the scene alone might singularly justify a screening of the film. Reportedly Chaplin's urged Keaton to join the film when he learned how down on his luck Keaton had become (although it's also been said Chaplin just wanted someone good at pantomime; others contend Keaton appeared after realizing how depressed Chaplin was). Over the years the scene has generated a great deal of rumors and controversy — whether Keaton was better than Chaplin, whether Chaplin selfishly cut Keaton's screen time, etc., all questions that originate in the unsolvable argument of which comedian is better. People familiar with production, as well as Keaton and Chaplin themselves, have practically squashed all the rumors as nonsense. I've always thought it showed maturity on Chaplin's part to share the necessary scene of Calvero's final triumph with Keaton.(But then again, it might be the only bit of maturity Chaplin showed toward Keaton; in Keaton's autobiography he called Chaplin the "greatest silent comedian of all time," and in Chaplin's autobiography he doesn't even mention Keaton.)

Outrage over Chaplin's politics prevented many in America from seeing Limelight for nearly two decades. While traveling in Britain for the premiere of the film, he was infamously denied reentry on the suspicion that he was a Communist. (In his autobiography, he corrected the U.S. government's paranoia: "My prodigious sin was, and still is, being a non-conformist. Although I am not a Communist I refused to fall in line by hating them.") Many theater owners, still angry about Chaplin's critique of capitalism and the Western war machine in Monsieur Verdoux, picked up on this line and did not screen it. It failed to meet the distribution standards for the Academy Awards in 1952, but when it was given a proper screening in Los Angeles during 1972, Chaplin, Ray Rasch, and Larry Russell won the Oscar for Best Score — the only competitive Oscar Chaplin ever won. The score is arguably Chaplin's best, memorably haunting and wonderfully expressive.

But such unfettered emotional displays fuel the typical strikes against Limelight, namely that it's too sentimental. Fair — but tell me this: what Chaplin film isn't too anything? As a filmmaker, Chaplin perfected emotion taken to the extreme; he is among the few who have made me cry from laughter (The Circus and Modern Times) and just flat out cry (The Gold Rush and City Lights). His critique of totalitarianism had him playing a blatant and buffoonish take-off of Adolf Hitler; his critique of Western society had him playing a polygamist Bluebeard who knocks off wealthy women so he can support his invalid wife and child. Chaplin was not a man to take a subtle approach to art, and if Limelight baldly teeters along the razor of sentimentality (and certainly it does), it's the sort of sentimentality and human drama that Chaplin himself thrived on and could make enjoyable in the most unabashed of ways. Stretches of Limelight are no more and no less sentimental than many of his silent films; only here emotion has been set to sound. Granted, if Limelight is guilty of anything (and it isn't perfect), it's the occasional over-reliance on platitudinous dialogue, which feels all the creakier when compared to the sharpened barbs in Monsieur Verdoux. But this is a film of warmth and remembrance, of frailty and finality, and such things are bound to offend the sterner sensibilities of others. As for me, Chaplin had my heart from start to finish.


Sam Juliano,  27 May, 2009  

What an exceedingly beautiful piece of writing, infused with the obvious passion you have for your subject, one that I'm happy to say I share. (Chaplin is my personal "favorite" director of all-time and CITY LIGHTS could be my favorite film of them all) You again present your patented historical an dthematic perspective as well as plot points that lie at teh essence of this bittersweet film, the last of Chaplin's films that could be referred to as "great." Of course there are a few detractors, one of whom David Thomson, irresponsibly stated that "only a great egotist like Chaplin could have made a film as 'unspecific' as Chaplin. Well there's nothing 'unspecific' here as you eloquently posed in your review, especially that whol epassage about the significance of Calvero dying onscreen and as you state succinctly:

"The plot would work without it, but the meditation on life, death, art, and impression would be null."

I was fascinated to read again about the Chaplin-Keaton 'scene' and of their relationship, but had not realized that Chaplin never mentioned Keaton in his autobiography even though Keaton rightly referred to him as "the greatest silent comedian of all-time."

I love your impassioned defense of the film against those who call it 'too sentimental' and was always astonished that the film was held back for two decades (making his ultimate appearance of course a major cultural event).

Alas T.S., you caught it all here magnificently:

"But this is a film of warmth and remembrance, of frailty and finality, and such things are bound to offend the sterner sensibilities of others. As for me, Chaplin had my heart from start to finish."

T.S. 27 May, 2009  

Thank you, Sam. I appreciate the kind words. I've always been surprised by the adverse reaction many have to Limelight, but the more I've thought about it, the less surprised I should be. The way so many brand it with a scarlet-S-for-sentimental (or indeed, some of Chaplin's others films) has rubbed me the wrong way. I can understand a dismissal of sentimentality when a film can't support the weight of the emotion, the same way I can understand a dismissal of excessive violence or ugly emotions when the film, the director, the writing, and the performances can't support it. The thing with Limelight, for me, is that it is tremendously touching as well as being well made, performed greatly and written to be both reflective and introspective as well as expressive and vaudevillian. And if I'm a sap then I'm a Chaplin-loving sap (as are you!) and there's nothing wrong with that.

Dean Treadway 28 May, 2009  

A loving tribute to Chaplin's final sample of genius. If there are those who can't accept or understand it, I dread their ignorance. It's a masterpiece.

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