Limelight (Charlie Chaplin, 1952)


The lights come on, the curtain comes up, and out comes the goofy-looking buffoon of a stage comedian Calvero.  Wearing crappy clothes and sporting something like a whip, he sings and performs his little act involving a flea circus.  The act is silly, but wholly unremarkable and really nothing special (although this does take place at the turn of the 20th century, so who am I to say what was considered quality comedy back then? 😕 ), and he finishes his act to impressive applause…that suddenly goes silent.  The camera cuts to the seats before Calvero to reveal that the place is empty, totally devoid of audience, and as Calvero looks at this with a forlorn, long face, an astonishing match cut replaces that face with the face of an older Calvero, wrinkled and with snow-white hair, looking just as despondent as he sits up in bed in his dark bedroom.  It’s a sobering look at a former star who’s haunted by his fall from fame and glory, but the most sobering part of all is that that’s Charlie Chaplin performing the so-so comedy routine, and that despondent little old man is the same Charlie Chaplin.  The great physical comedian of silent cinema, the great artist of the 20th century, now a nondescript old man.  If “Limelight” is the story of Calvero coming to terms with being a has-been in a world that no longer appreciates his art, then surely it’s art imitating Chaplin’s life, as cinema had long moved past the silent era that Chaplin had once dominated.  If “Limelight” as a movie is nothing to run home about, at least it was a placeholder, a chance for Chaplin to give his swansong, one of his last chances to show audiences that he had something left in the tank, not just as a physical artist, but as a bonafide (or at least still-competent) actor, director, and screenwriter.

On its own merits, “Limelight” is a competent but rather unexceptional comedy/drama.  It follows the formula that Chaplin made use of in so many films before in which his character befriends a physically or emotionally weak character who becomes his dependent, and the two come to depend on each other to conquer the challenges around them.  It’s the same formula we saw as the Tramp looked after the Kid in “The Kid,” the blind girl in “City Lights,” and the gamin in “Modern Times.”  Here, the dependent is a suicidal ballerina prone to stress attacks and psychosomatic paralysis.  He nurses her back to health with his sense of optimism while at the same time trying to affect his own comeback, only to once again become a despondent drunk when Terry the dancer makes her recovery, and only together can they find each of their own happiness and acceptance in the world.  We’ve seen plots very similar to this out of Chaplin before.  The only difference is that Chaplin in his prime used facial expression and physical comedy with his co-stars to garner sheer emotion from the audience, whereas this film uses words.  As a writer here, much of Chaplin’s screenplay is flowery, run-of-the-mill, and frankly a little too wordy, though some of Calvero and Terry’s conversations about life, love, their pasts, and success are absolutely lovely.  I wanted to hear more dialogue like that, but alas, there just wasn’t quite enough.  And Claire Bloom, who play’s Terry, is pretty damn irritating, so that hurts too 😕 .  A while back I said I was uncomfortable with “The Great Dictator,” Chaplin’s first film that was primarily a talkie, because his Tramp character just seemed out of place in the world of sound, and the awkward use of dialogue just didn’t gel with his as-always wonderful physical comedy.  The dialogue of “Limelight” might not be perfect (far from it, actually), but at least Chaplin had much more time this time ’round to get used to making a full-sound film, and it actually feels like a “normal” (if unexceptional) film rather than an awkward clash of sound and silent cinema.  Give it credit for that, at least.

The twists and turns the plot takes involving the return of Terry’s past love interest and both Calvero’s and Terry’s rollercoaster-esque ups and downs of success and failure, aren’t exactly unexpected or anything that would wow you, but the structure’s still kind of nice.  A long ballet number in the middle of the film akin to the famous passage from Powell’s “The Red Shoes” is lovely, and the exclamation point of both Calvaro and Terry’s journey to achieve past success.  Terry’s story arc turns out to be everything you’d expect, but still rather poetic, especially in the final shot of the film which is great, and completely appropriate.  But still, in all likelihood you didn’t come to see how Terry turns out (though it’s important), because this is Calvaro’s story – and Charlie Chaplin’s.  Is there still room for the likes of Charlie Chaplin in 1952?  Considering that Chaplin was a rather old man at this point and that he’d only make two more films after this before hanging it up, the answer to that question seems rather bleak, doesn’t it?  Look, clearly a world that moves into colorized, sound-driven cinema is destined to leave the likes of the silent icon like the Tramp behind, but it seems Chaplin didn’t get that message.  Sure, “Limelight” won’t be regarded as a Chaplin classic, or a classic of any kind, but just think of what a remarkable achievement it is for Chaplin, an accomplished actor, director, screenwriter, producer, and even score composer (all of that already being a remarkable achievement that’ll probably never be duplicated), to completely change up his style to reflect the changing status of cinema to make a film that’s still competent and relevant years, decades, after his prime.  

Does most of Calvero’s physical comedy get as many laughs as the Tramp’s?  No, of course not, but that’s not the point.  The Tramp’s just…the Tramp, getting laughs effortlessly.  Calvero is a man with vices and faults, all of which we see clearly thanks to Chaplin’s outstanding performance with his soothing voice and subtle body language (something you’d never expect out of vintage Chaplin) that’s reassuring one moment and heartbreakingly vulnerable the next.  You show Calvero the broken-down man in conjunction with Calvero the stage performer, and his act isn’t exactly laugh-inducing, but almost sad to consider what that entertainer must once have been…like Chaplin.  But then, you look at Calvero’s big comeback.  All he needs is a way-too-big tuxedo, a violin, and a gimpy leg (and Buster Keaton playing the piano!  Talk about a silent film fan’s wet dream, this was the one and only time Chaplin and Keaton appeared on-screen together, and if you have no other interest in seeing “Limelight,” at least do yourself a favor and Youtube this one scene), and, well, he’s back.  After two hours of watching a washed up Calvero lamenting his status as a has-been and pathetically trying to revive his career, at last he has his return to glory.  Here’s a scene, so many years after the Tramp enchanted audiences regularly and with ease, where Chaplin is remarkably at the top of his form once again, making physical comedy a precise, remarkable art form, even at this late stage in his life (and the joining of his style with Keaton’s, as both men fumble around with piano wire and music sheets, is nothing short of an artistic masterpiece that no description can do justice to.  WATCH THIS SCENE, PEOPLE 😛 ).  I laughed at and loved Chaplin here as if he were still a young man sporting that signature suit, hat and cane.  That old man with the sad face, wrinkles, and white hair’s still got it.



4 comments so far

  1. Allison on

    Keaton & Chaplin together forever, yay.

    I read an article that said the appropriate length for reviews are 500 words though. Stop the wordiness my friend. Stop!! I never read your articles all the way through. Except when I had to edit them. Ha.

  2. Simon M. on

    take back what you said about WALL-E or Frost/Nixon, or at least acknowledge Towelhead as the tasteless piece of garbage that it is, and I’ll consider it 😛

  3. Comedian Training on

    An interesting post on Comedian Calvero.

    Thanks for posting.

  4. Steve on

    For a new biography of Chaplin and in-depth discussion of LIMELIGHT go to:

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