Thursday, April 5, 2012

Charlie Chaplin's Limelight Movie Review

Buster Keaton (left) makes a brief appearance as Calvero's partner on the stage.
As Charlie Chaplin’s popularity began to fade his work output slowed considerably. He took longer and longer to complete scripts. His script for Limelight took him about four years to finish. In it he explores the effects of an irrelevant career on an aging Vaudeville performer. Chaplin plays Calvero, a once great Music Hall entertainer who now finds himself receding into obscurity as the world moves on around him. The film takes place in 1914, presumably on the eve of the First World War, but the amount of time that seems to pass in the narrative suggests that the war should have begun during its course. Yet there is no mention of war at all. This is a mistake, I think, because the presence of the war could have added a very real dimension to the Calvero’s downfall. As the world teetered on the brink, who had time for music halls and stage entertainment? Chaplin’s own fall from grace similarly coincided with the start of WWII.


Calvero’s career has some obvious parallels to Chaplin’s own film career and a character that could not make the comfortable transition from silent films to talkies. The Tramp was a silent character that couldn’t work in sound films. After Modern Times he was retired, but Chaplin still had stories to tell.

Calvero is a washed up drunk who gets a new shot at fame and redemption after he saves the life of a young and beautiful ballet dancer named Thereza, played by a very young and inexperienced Claire Bloom, whose displays of gross theatricality and drama undercut Chaplin’s own dramatic acting, which is surprisingly convincing. Under doctor’s orders she is made to convalesce in Calvero’s apartment after her suicide attempt and together they dream up a new production together. Calvero occasionally has dreams of the old days when he was revered on stage as a tramp clown who resembles Chaplin’s original Tramp. But at present Calvero can barely get a gig and when he does it turns out disastrous.

There is something a little narcissistic in having written a story in which the young beautiful girl falls in love with the older man. It’s a little bit pre-Woody Allen even down to Calvero discouraging Thereza away from his affection and in the direction of a young musician she was once attracted to when she worked in a stationery store. This young man, Neville (played by Chaplin’s own son Sydney), is a poor struggling composer when Thereza meets him. He turns up later as the piano player for the joint production with Calvero. Although she recognizes him and obviously feels something, she is loyal to Calvero, insisting on marrying him.

Limelight should be a sad tale of an aging performer coming to grips with his own irrelevance while passing the reins on to the next generation, but it does little to generate emotion probably because it is paced so slowly as to make some sections insufferably boring. Chaplin infused his Tramp with more heart and animation in the space of ten seconds of screen time than he mustered for the full 2 hours and 15 minutes of Limelight. Perhaps he was more like Calvero than he wanted to admit.

The only scenes that have any kind of energy are when Calvero dons his makeup and goes on stage, be it in his own dreams or in actuality. His stage tramp is quite funny and the combination of seeing a tramp-like character with musical numbers is something to behold. Chaplin takes the opportunity to demonstrate his ability with wordplay and clever rhymes. Unfortunately he didn’t provide Calvero with a decent whole film that is worth watching for anything other than those few moments of comedic beauty.

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