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LIMELIGHT IS A sad, very sad movie. Sad in miniscule degree because it tries to tell an unhappy story, but sad mainly because Chaplin's former greatness winks from behind the bathos just often enough to let us recognize an artist trapped by his own sentiment. The film would be easier to dismiss had a lesser man made it, but Chaplin, twenty years past his prime, keeps reminding us of his earlier films--not of the Little Tramp he used to play but of the range of emotion his skilled movements could bring forth and of the warmth in his eyes.
Chaplin directed Limelight, wrote the script and wrote the music, as he did for all his films. Soon after its release, in 1952, the American Legion and Howard Hughes fought to have Limelight, removed from the theaters: Chaplin, they argued, was un American. Only a few theaters actually cancelled the film, but it has rarely been shown since its initial release.
The awkward nostalgia Limelight elicits stems partly from its semi-autobiographical stance. Chaplin plays Calvero, an old vaudeville comedian who drinks too much and can't find work. He rescues a suicidal young ballerina (Claire Bloom) and infuses her with his life energy and accumulated wisdom. She becomes a great star; she falls in love with him; he dies.
Only occasionally does the film break away from sentimentality. At one point, the old comic gets a booking under an assumed name and tries to make a comeback. During Calvero's act, Chaplin shows us the audience: half are asleep, the rest impatient and mumbling. Yawning spectators start leaving. Soon, everyone has left, but for a single nodding head in the foreground. The rest is chairs. A comeback attempt, if it fails, can be an embarassment even for the audience. Those in the audience Chaplin filmed don't know the performer is the once-great Calvero, so they are spared that embarassment. But we always know that we are watching Chaplin, and though he doesn't need to make a comeback--he had never been a failure--he looks like a man struggling to regain his old finesse.
Chaplin tried to write a tragedy, and even included supposed tragic flaws: Calvero's career collapsed when he started drinking. Chaplin wants the drunkenness to be tragic, but he presents it in such a benign manner that it's never even pathetic. Even as a drunk he, like the rest of the cast, speaks in stilted language with a stilted articulation that is too melodramatic even for a melodrama--a far cry from Charlie Chaplin the appealing tramp, whose title frames said things like "I thought you was a chicken." He even tries to make patter jokes in the style of Groucho Marx, but his delivery isn't punchy and the jokes fall flat.
THE GREATEST disappointment, however, is that the indigent dialogue alone forms the core of the film. Chaplin helped develop motion pictures. He was both champion and master of movement within the frame, yet Limelight is a static film. In 1931, Chaplin wrote, "The sudden arrival of dialogue in motion pictures is causing many of our actors to forget the elementals of the art of acting." He made both City Lights and Modern Times out of mime and motion in the 30's, when everyone else was making talking pictures, and he later made two films where dialogue was carefully integrated with movement. But in Limelight his fluid style dies. The comedian's act is stationary; even at a climax, when Claire Bloom finds she can walk again, she takes a single step and describes her exuberance but she doesn't dance, doesn't even walk; when the two fall in love, she speaks, he speaks, they say nothing, and neither of them moves. There is infinitely more emotion in the Gold Rush scene where moonstruck Charlie dashes up a staircase and the title frame screams GEORGIA!--or even in Chaplin's tears at last year's Academy Awards--than we'll ever find in Limelight's "I love you. I've wanted to say this for a long time. Ever since you thought I was a woman of the street."
Yet some great moments do break through: the audience that walks out; the hilarious surprise duet with Buster Keaton at the piano and Chaplin peering over a tall starched collar and playing the violin. More common, and more painful, though, are the promising fragments and glances that are refused their chance to build up any impact, or are undercut by the dialogue of a film in which Chaplin denies the elementals of his own art.
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