Charles Chaplin in Limelight

This is the Introduction to Limelight – a monograph published by the Cineteca Bologna in 2002. It is published here with permission.

This is a book about the making of Limelight (1952), based on the documents and handwriting of Charles Chaplin, then aged 62, at the point of his 79th opus. Limelight was to be his last American film, commenced half a decade after the end of WW2 and ready for première in the fifth year of the Cold War, made by one of its victims, a “peacemonger” and a rebel who instead of taking the guise of the tramp is now an old clown.

It is a film made by an immigrant of 40 years. London is for the one and only time here a center of his film, an emotional sum of the elements that abound in his oeuvre, and that Thomas Burke saw as the fascination of London in the early films: “…in every one of his films there is something, a street, a park, a shop, which he immediately recognized as belonging to Lambeth or Walworth.” As Raoul Sobel and David Francis state, Chaplin “needed London as an actor needs his script”. But the reflexive nature of Limelight makes it equally a film about America (it is as much about America / England than anything Henry James wrote): the story the old age of a famous clown, and the sunset of an era (with the beginning of WW1 as the subtle background). The story was told at the time of another sunset in the annals of entertainment, the years of the Paramount Decision that spelled the death of Hollywood as it was known – the culture that had given Chaplin celebrity and fame, and which could now perhaps admit that Chaplin was a good filmmaker (although even that was denied in the case of Monsieur Verdoux), although “he is not one of us” (as Zanuck said about Jean Renoir). (1)

Interestingly, nowhere in the whole history of film is there a richer concentration of brilliant films on show, theatre, and film as in the temporal surroundings of Limelight: The Pirate (1948), The Red Shoes (1948), The Tales of Hoffmann (1951), Sunset Boulevard (1950), The Love of Actress Sumako (1947), Summer Interlude (1950), Luci del varietà (1950), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), The Band Wagon (1953), Carosse d’or, the definitive version of The Star is Born (1954). (2)

Charles Chaplin in Limelight

What then, in this brilliant company, sets Chaplin’s masterpiece apart? Obviously he was the only one who could concentrate the whole history on his face. It is not only the questions set (who am I? where are the authentic emotions?) but the person who asks them. Chaplin, as Thomas Burke wrote already in 1932, “lives only in a role, and is lost without it”, and is thus “compelled to merge himself, or be merged, in an imagined and superimposed life.” Chaplin’s autobiography is memorably frank about this. He is in the middle of a crowd in Times Square as the electric sign flashes: “Chaplin signs with Mutual at 670 000 dollars a year.” His reaction: “I stood and read it objectively as though it were about someone else. So much had happend to me, my emotions were spent.”

The period of Limelight would – and this is important regarding the richly documented atmosphere in our book – also be the first step concerning the accusations and perhaps also the guilt complex surrounding Chaplin’s public persona. Here was, so went the argument, a man who lived through the war basically without a risk while his fellow Englishmen died at the front. He was offering perhaps one percent of his income, or some of his leisure time to the charities – a position which made the artist a citizen but also a shadow. (3)

While this now reminds us of the derogatory accusations that followed Chaplin, we are also entering into the sense of alienation that he expresses mercilessly and – regardless of what is often written – without self-pity.

Limelight, the most emotional of films, is all about the death of emotions – as such a major theme developed with pathetic consistency in Hollywood films, whether screwball or noir or whatever. When we think of Chaplin’s art of combining the abstract and concrete, real and surreal, hard fact and dream, the present with the past and the imagined, and again the effortless mixing of the pantomime, ballet, burlesque, dialogue and monologue into an indivisible whole, simple as a moment in nature, we can well sense how far Limelight is from the ordinary Hollywood fare; it should sooner be placed among films like Citizen Kane, Ivan Groznyi and Alf Sjöberg’s Miss Julie. The differences between life and art, the personal and the historical and so on loose their point.

The depiction of psychosis and fear is not only something private but an image of an age; I’m sure a medical specialist could linger admiringly over the exactitude of Chaplin’s view of the border states as well as the hysterical and psychosomatic horrors surrounding these two humans. Strange and threatening things are happening inside a human being, and the seismograph called comedian. A few years later, films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Chaplin’s own often maligned A King in New York added important notions to this. Limelight achieves the greatest density. Behind the timelessness (which, or the enormous beauty of which, I would never deny) there is clearly another dramaturgy. (4)

Limelight is a historical film in the sense Chaplin admired when talking about the “poetic interpretation” of Ivan the Terrible (for him “the acme of all historical pictures”). Its purpose was to achieve “a general effect of the period”, as Chaplin wrote about Eisenstein’s masterpiece. Indeed, I feel a strange fraternity between Eisenstein’s vision of Ivan the Terrible (who in a hidden and explosive way concentrates something from the contradictions and traits of Meyerhold, Stalin, and Eisenstein himself) and the dazzlingly original developments of Limelight (and before it Monsieur Verdoux which André Bazin, the greatest of Chaplin commentators, so admirably placed into the context of the Chaplin / Tramp myth). (5)

It is also another masked fable about father and son, a story that preoccupied Chaplin from The Dog’s Life and The Kid to the bitter confrontations of A King in New York. As with the unrequited love theme, also this was always a figment of the imagination, a displaced fantasy. The first drunken steps of Calvero, caught with an incredible camera virtuosity, lead to this border area where everything is significant and poignant: Calvero’s story could concern Chaplin’s own father – or himself, if he had chosen to remain with Fred Karno and if cinema had not made him world famous in a dreamlike speed.

The key dates, as in any essential historical film, are dual, the time depicted and the time of the making of the film. 1914 marked the outcome of the first World War and also Chaplin’s beginnings at Keystone. It would be his most amazing (and underestimated) creative outburst, an enormous, semi-violent collage – his first biography of himself and the state of the world.

Here is a whole world. Cruel and concrete, so near to his spiritual brothers Stroheim or Buñuel and so far from the costume epics of the BBC. I’m reminded of Jean Renoir’s wonderful contemporary defense of Monsieur Verdoux. The text starts with a description of Renoir’s youth, as he describes the times when a wine could be identified as something coming from a familiar village nearby, and proceeds then to praise Chaplin’s artisan spirit, “the almost peasant-like thriftiness of his sets, in his wariness of technique for technique’s sake, in his respect for the personalities of actors, and in that internal richness which makes us feel that each character just has too much to say.”

His is almost a definition of true cinematographic realism, as a multiplication of myth, dream, and memory. It is wisely based on the artistic inventions of the contemporaries, as Kozintsev and Trauberg did with Novyi Babylon, through the impressionists, the language of Zola etc. Here are the painters, but in this case in the methods, the ways of thinking, the sense of lost time that is perhaps most concretely caught in the small stage episodes, as we inside the feelings of the leaf or the odd story of Phyllis and Henry, the two fleas – are told twice and finally phantasmagorically without a public. Of course all this is such old hat, as Bazin points out, as are the more extensive production numbers of which one is called “The Spring” – naiveté that flows directly from a child’s school play, reminding one of The Kid and its sublimely naive dream sequence, and of Eisenstein’s point of Chaplin’s art based on “the regard of the child”.

Horror and success are again connected in Chaplin’s imagination of the London of his early youth. The war is an understated element that gives its tragic dimension and suspense to the “immemorial” mood of this gentle fusion of loss that is both personal and that of humanity. The depicted months of a somber 1914 were the very time the young Chaplin reached celebrity and riches with a speed that was faster than anything in human history. Like Citizen Kane, Limelight is both about ultimate failure and ultimate success, or about the catastrophe of success, in a culture where there are no second lives and where a human being is worth only his or her latest success.

Claire Bloom and Charles Chaplin in Limelight

Equally concentrated are the seemingly unrelated things, memories. Claire Bloom tells about Chaplin’s obsession with objects and memories, or how his mother had worn ‘a shawl of that color’, or details about the love of his youth, the mythical Hetty Kelly. “I quickly realized, even then, that some composite youg woman, lost to him in the past, was what he wanted me to bring to life”. The “combined woman” is the core of Chaplin’s immense dramaturgical talent, making life and art, personal and historical interchangable. This dreamlike combination reminds with equal intuition of the experiments of both Kuleshov and Vertov, and their experiments of montage and collage, as to the set-up of Vertigo and its view of a fiction replacing the so called reality.

This is also a key for understanding how idiotic are the constant claims about Chaplin as a conservative, old-fashioned filmmaker. This remains a sore point for the establisment. As a criticism about the basic fakery looming behind the skills of Hollywood, Chaplin’s challenge is as burning as ever in the present times of virtual realities and the virtues of digital image. His concrete and physical films are – along with Bresson’s Notes de la cinématogaphie – probably still the best lead to the core of the problem.

Formally, Limelight is not the linear, simplistic work many seem to think it to be, but sooner something near a a cubist collage, an idea cherished in the 1920s by Moholy-Nagy and Leger (who brought his notion of Chaplin into his masterly Ballet mécanique), and is well expressed by J. Hoberman who quotes Chaplin as “the only mass culture figure one could bracket with high modernists Eliot and Joyce – a fitting subject for a Cubist collage.”

If History is the raison d’être of Limelight, the dream mode decides its other “poetic interpretation”. The pathways to Calvero’s imagination, accompanied by the melancholy magic of the street musicians, open with unequaled and almost violent cinematographic mastery, and use the key of a dream, first with a nightmare, then a fiction about happiness – an old man and a young girl, Calvero with Terry. There is more sense of true-love story than in any film of Chaplin except City Lights, perhaps curiously so as this does not relate to the two young people nominally in love, and the center of the story is an illusory love between an old clown and the young dancer.

Both parties of this unfulfilled story of love are cripples. For Calvero, the trouble is of getting old, a problem as such and a very special one for a comedian. The professional life of film comedians seems to come to a natural end early, as happens to one other group – the ballet dancers around whom this temporality hangs from the beginning. There is one exception which defies this fate of Langdon, Keaton, Lewis – that being of course Chaplin himself, who gave such a mythical and absolute sense to his borrowed years, with a kind of imaginary biography taken to ghostly dimensions by Limelight. Surely, cinema and memory have never worked more profoundly as “intermédiaire entre l’ombre et réalité” (Edgar Morin).

War, as illness, was an important ingredient in the melodrama of Griffith or Borzage. Paralysis, whether real or simulated or imagined, is here handled by a visionary and with the unsurpassed truth of the melodrama, even if it would sooner be “a false melo” as defined by Bazin. Be that as it may, Limelight, along with Sirk’s films of the 1950s and An Affair to Remember (another memory picture masked into a remake) marks perhaps not the end of comedy but the end of melodrama in the noble sense of the word. Again, what sets Limelight apart is the totality of its range, and the way the themes of ennui, duration, boredom, illness, neurosis, old age, paralysis are worked against the miracle of art.

The emotion of Limelight sets the theme of entertainment in the midst of the strange borderland dramas of après-guerre: Matter of Life and Death, Portrait of Jennie, Orphée. Art and death meet in the final sequence, after Calvero’s great number with a memorable colleague. Buster Keaton, the paragon of grace and movement, is now shabby and near-sighted, a loser in anything he’s trying to do on stage and probably also in life – the performance of sublime monotony is based around Keaton’s notes falling again and again, the strings of Calvero’s violin breaking, and above all the experience, as something directly from Kafka, of his feet starting to get shorter, all this leading to the monstrously effective staging of his own death. It is also his final illumination about the nature of the laughter, or as Francis Bordat writes, “le gag est une petite mort, et la mort est un grand gag.” (“The gag is a little death, and death is a grand gag”) Eric Rohmer says the same with different words in writing that “Burlesque est le geste de l’homme qui a peur, parce que la peur impose au geste un rythme qui sort de la norme.” (“Burlesque is the gesture of a man who is afraid, because fear imposes a gesture, a rhythm which leaves the norm, that is, the standard”).

It would also be Chaplin’s last statement on the subject of violent death that obsessed him both in The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux, and sums up his preoccupation with other themes like old age, and the disappearance of the youthful, infantile mask of the Tramp. We are faced with an important study of the old age, significantly never mentioned as such (perhaps because he is still in “working life”), and yet something deeper than his exact contemporaries Ikiru and Umberto D.

Remembering that Chaplin defined his conception of beauty as “an omnipresence of death and loveliness, a smiling sadness that we discern in nature and things”, I feel compelled to complement this with his words about death:

Death is such a terrible thing. A living creature is such a complicated organism, it shocks me to think it can be destroyed by anything so simple as one shot, which even a child can do. You can feel the bravado and strength of an invidual, with a point of view and a spirit – and then so quickly it’s collapsed into a bag of useless nothing, permanently disintegrated.

Limelight

Limelight is inescapably a personal film for each of us from the moment one sees it for the first time. No matter if this happened under unfavourable stars, as is my own case. I was a zombie programmed into the humor of Abbott and Costello when my father took me to see a new Chaplin film. He praised Chaplin and swore that he was the funniest man on earth. So at the age of ten I was sitting and watching Limelight. It was enough to alienate me from Chaplin for many years – as I didn’t laugh then, why should I give the guy another chance? Unknowingly I had entered in the midst of Calvero’s trouble. From the eternity of the screen he was clearly trying as desperately and vainly as myself to reach the happiness of laughter.

The contradictions of Limelight make it one of the most direct and most intriguing, positively contradictory films of all time. It is a film that moves me to tears by the mere thought of it. This is the greatest of all memory films, and as always, the images and details we carry inside us for all our life are not necessarily only the big themes or the unforgettable creation and inner beauty of Claire Bloom, but also details of objects, maybe a certain door, the sad face of Snub Pollard, or other minor roles like Mrs Alsop the landlady, or some ghostly familiar gesture by the director figure, another double for Chaplin himself, created so memorably by Norman Lloyd.

A final word on behalf of all of the Bologna team behind the editor Anna Fiaccarini. This is the first book of a series dedicated to each of the Chaplin features, all of which will be restored by Cineteca di Bologna. Besides restoring the cinematographic works of the director, the Chaplin Project team will have access to the extraordinary and largely unexplored collection preserved at the Chaplin Archives in Paris and Montreux including thousands of pages – handwritings, screenplays, records of production, drawings, photographs, promotional material, private correspondence. A heritage of such interest certainly deserves to be treasured: thanks to the precious support of Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio all the documents will be made available to researchers all over the world through an online catalogue. I hope this book reveals the essentials about a film of dashing originality, an important thing to add, as the reputation of Chaplin went downhill with each of his later films, with the wonderful Countess of Hong Kong having to be defended by Eric Rohmer and Claude Beylie on account of its brilliant mise en scène. To the glory they deserve as cinema’s most miraculous testimony of the 20th century.

Bibliography

Bazin, André, Rohmer, Eric, Charlie Chaplin, Préface de Francois Truffaut, Éditions de Cerf, Paris 1972

Burke, Thomas, City of Encounters, 1932

Chaplin, Charles, My Autobiography, The Bodley Head, London 1964

Chaplin, Charles, My Life in Pictures, Introduction by Francis Wyndham, London, Sydney, Toronto, 1974

Meyerhold on Theatre, translated and edited with a critical commentary by Edward Braun, Hill and Wang, New York 1969

Morin, Edgar, Le cinéma, ou l’homme imaginaire, Éditions Gonthier, Paris 1958

Robinson, David, Chaplin. His Life & Art, Collins, London 1985

Sobel, Raoul, Francis, David, Chaplin – Genesis of a Clown, Quartet Books, London 1977

Endnotes

  1. Chaplin’s last early masterpiece was The Immigrant. The dramaturgical and formative stages of the Mutual film have been reported in the finest and most generous document on cinema ever made, Kevin Brownlow’s and David Gill’s The Unknown Chaplin. Interestingly, another masterpiece of the same year, The Quiet Man, built its emotional depth also at the same theme of double emigration. John Ford is of related interest also on account of his Cavalry trilogy (1947-1950). Like Chaplin, during the post-WW2 years he built a profound reflection about the war, mediated in his case through the images of the aftermath of the Civil War.
  2. Directed, in this order, by Vincente Minnelli, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Billy Wilder, Kenji Mizoguchi, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, Vincente Minnelli two times more, Jean Renoir, George Cukor. All these films use layers of art and life as commentaries of each other. There can be no talk of mere “production numbers” in Limelight; its “numbers” get right to the point of Meyerhold’s inspired dual observation about Eisenstein and Chaplin: “Pushkin called laughter, pity and terror the three strings of our imagination which the magic of the drama sets vibrating.”
  3. The names of later Chaplin films should also be mentioned. The alter ego of Chaplin’s next film would be called not Shadow but Shahdow, another remarkable flash in a formidable line of names: Verdoux, Calvero, Shahdow, again dramaturgically admirable combines, as were his smallest characters, based sometimes hundreds of pages of description, and then seen for a few moments only. A few seconds of Limelight, and I’m now thinking e.g. of the old Snub Pollard in the group of street musicians, is a moment of eternity.
  4. Nyrki Tapiovaara, the Finnish director of the 1930s, wrote about Modern Times that ” imagination and reality can merge as one offers wings and the other air below the wings. And they can merge into each other with no one knowing any more where the reality ends and the imagination begins.”
  5. Chaplin’s epic of his times is richer, more comprehensive and humanly more satisfactory than anything any other director has created for us: WW1, the greed years and the Depression, WW2 and the Holocaust, the Cold War. Limelight was his third film (again in another European country, after the fictious Germany and France) on the Europe of fact and imagination. The depth of the texture is very much related to great drama of Chaplin’s life, now more palpably on screen than ever: emigration, or in this case a double emigration.

About The Author

Peter von Bagh is a writer and critic based in Finland.