Monday, June 21, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Limelight" (1952)

Charlie Chaplin was 63 years old when he made "Limelight," and most people (including him) expected it would be his last film.

Thematically, it certainly seems designed to serve as the great silent filmmaker's swan song. It's about a once-beloved tramp comedian whose audience has forgotten about him -- not too different from the real Chaplin -- who falls in love with a much younger dancer. Chaplin was infamous for his affairs, and marriages, to women decades younger than himself.

The theme is about the old stepping out of the way to make room for the young -- ceding the limelight because it's time.

Chaplin would, of course, go on to make two more films, 1957's "A King in New York" and "A Countess in Hong Kong" in 1967 -- starring Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren! -- neither of which I've seen, and I hear I'm lucky for it. Like most admirers of Chaplin, I consider "Limelight" to be his "true" last film.

The film is set in 1914, which not coincidentally was the first year Chaplin appeared in a movie after great success on the stage. It was also the outbreak of World War I, considered by many the beginning of the modern era, with all the triumphs and horrors technology has brought to mankind.

It's a story about beginnings and endings, and quite consciously so. Chaplin plays Calvero, once the king of comedy but now a forgotten has-been. One night he comes back to his building staggering drunk, and smells gas coming from the ground floor apartment. Its occupant, Terry, has tried to kill herself after failing to recover from illness to resume her ballet career. Calvero saves her and installs her in his apartment as his charge.

At first Terry is paralyzed from the waist down, but the doctor concludes it's psychosomatic. When Terry tells Calvero about the tragedy of her life -- parents dead, her sister a prostitute, the only love of her life a penniless composer with whom she's barely exchanged a word -- Calvero exhorts her not to throw her life away. Summoning the humanist philosophy that dominated Chaplin's films, Calvero extols the human brain as the greatest creation in the universe.

"What can the planets do? Nothing! Just sit on their axis," he says, still looking for a laugh even in the grim face of death.

Terry does, of course, regain the use of her legs and begins dancing again. By this time she's convinced herself that she loves Calvero. He clearly returns the affection and delights in having a companion for his waning years. But Calvero considers it unfair to burden such a young girl with a misplaced romance with a man who could be her grandfather, and abruptly departs.

Now a star, Terry finds Calvero again months later earning a living playing music on the streets for coins. She's appalled, but he claims to be happier than he's ever been. "It's the tramp in me," he says.

Calvero's outfit and makeup for his clown act are, of course, very similar to the Little Tramp he immortalized in dozens of films. But Chaplin bid adieu to the tramp in 1936's "Modern Times." Interestingly, Chaplin continued making essentially silent films even with the advent of sound, vowing that the world would never hear the tramp speak. (He did in his "Times," but fittingly it was only gibberish.)

Perhaps "Limelight" is our chance to hear what the tramp has to say.

Terry is played by Claire Bloom, who's become something of a celebrity in this space, having been featured in a number of Reeling Backward columns: "Richard III," "The Man Between" and "Clash of the Titans." "Limelight" was her first major film role, and nearing 80 she's still working regularly today. Her ballet scenes were doubled by Melissa Hayden.

The score -- by Chaplin and two associates -- won an Academy Award, but notably not for 1952. Due to his left-leaning political sympathies, Chaplin was denied re-entry into the U.S. in 1952 -- as McCarthyism took a brief, but indelible hold on the nation's psyche -- and as a result the film was banned from nearly all theaters. It finally got a wide release in 1972, and earned an Oscar for musical score after a special dispensation of the rules from the Academy allowed it to compete 20 years after it was made.

Buster Keaton also makes an appearance as Calvero's onstage partner for the big final act, the only time the two great comedians starred in a movie together. Keaton was at rough time in his life, financially and otherwise, and got a hand from his old rival.

"Limelight" seems stuck in time, even for 1952. The un-ironic pathos and sentimental humanism seems almost quaint in the post-Hitler world. But that's Chaplin for you -- a man who lived by, and wrote, his own rules.

3.5 stars out of four

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