Chaplin Diary, Part 18: Limelight

Charlie Chaplin dug into his family’s history in what would be his last American film, Limelight – a drama about a washed-up comedian. I started this Chaplin Diary almost a year ago with films he made in 1914. Now he has made a film set largely in his home town of London in that very year.

I streamed Limelight from the soon-to-be-gone FilmStruck.

Chaplin plays Calvero, a once-famous music hall star who has lost his audience. In the film’s very first scene, he saves a young ballerina (Claire Bloom) from an attempted suicide. Their platonic relationship is the heart of the film.

The ballerina is crippled but, of course, it’s all in her mind. Calvero cures her with sentimental platitudes. “Life can be wonderful if you’re not afraid of it. All it needs is courage, imagination … and a little dough.”

These speeches, filled with cheap philosophizing, drag Limelight down, making it a worse film than it could have been. And when Chaplin isn’t speechifying to Bloom, she’s doing the same to him.

Chaplin set Limelight in not quite the London of his youth, but a few years later. Yet the film’s autobiographical aspects can’t be ignored. And it’s not only because of the British Music Hall setting. Calvero is an alcoholic, and he has been warned that it could kill him; Chaplin’s own father, a music hall performer, drank to death. The ballerina’s older sister worked as a prostitute to feed the family…as Chaplin’s mother likely did. And Calvero, like Chaplin, has lost his audience, and perhaps his talent.

Another similarity: Calvero is cleanshaven, and glues on a mustache to perform. Outside of a few early films where he played drag, Chaplin hadn’t before shown his shaven upper lip to his audience.

What comedy you’ll find in Limelight takes place on theater stages. In dreams and flashbacks, we see Calvero performing a reasonably funny flea circus routine, and even a clever bit of business with the ballerina.

But Limelight climaxes with a brilliant comic sequence of historical importance: Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton – two of the three great masters of silent comedy – do a pantomime routine together. The scene, where they mess up a piano and violin duet, is brilliantly hilarious. I only wish this scene had been longer.

By the time Limelight was ready for release in 1952, Chaplin’s name was toxic in America. The film barely played here. When Chaplin and his family crossed the Atlantic for Limelight‘s London premiere, the State Department rescinded his visa (Chaplin never became an American citizen).

Perhaps his heart was never in his not-quite-adopted country. Chaplin made three talkies in America, and all of them were set in Europe.

Chaplin settled in Switzerland, but would return to England to make two more movies.

Coming next: A King in New York.