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Limelight: The Chaplin Collection

MK2 / Warner Home Video

Starring Charles Chaplin, Claire Bloom, Sydney Chaplin,
Nigel Bruce, Norman Lloyd, Buster Keaton

Written and directed by Charles Chaplin

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Review by Mark Bourne                    

Limelight is a conundrum for fans of Charles Spencer Chaplin.

Premiering in 1952 when Chaplin was 63 years old, this melancholy reverie is a heartfelt expression of nostalgia for the Edwardian London music-halls of his youth, rich with deeply personal sentiment and warmly realized autobiographical fantasy. Watching the gray-haired genius play the has-been old stage clown, Calvero, is a fascinating exercise for Chaplin enthusiasts. Long gone is the silent Little Tramp of the classic shorts made over thirty years before, and of the great features such as The Gold Rush and Modern Times. And like Chaplin, Calvero is a storied yet faded comedian whose glory years are in the past and who desires to be embraced again by the mass audience that he has lost.

Entering stone drunk a 1914 London that's stylized with the gauzy, gas-lamp aura of a Dickens novel, Calvero overcomes the ravages of alcohol and the harsh fickleness of the audiences that have abandoned him. By the end of Limelight, he returns triumphant to the stage, awash in the applause of a crowd that has come to watch him recreate the vaudevillian routines that made him famous many years before. Calvero's catalyst and Muse is Terry, an aspiring ballet dancer (20-year-old Claire Bloom's screen debut), who the clown saves from attempted suicide and nurses back to health. Together they pull themselves back to the footlights where they belong, bolstered by the power of dedication, mutual love, and the-show-must-go-on pluck, plus Calvero's abundant epigrammatic platitudes on matters of life, love, death, the cosmos, and the transcendent value of Art.

On the other hand, Limelight is also a pulpy melodrama, an unembarrassed three-hanky potboiler that was antique decades before writer-director-composer-star Chaplin made it. It is overlong, schmaltzy, awfully proud of being "bittersweet," and smudges the line between self-referential and self-reverential. Critic Harold Clurman, in his review of Chaplin's previous film, 1947's ill-received black comedy Monsieur Verdoux, said something that applies equally to Limelight: "It has been objected that Chaplin is not a good writer, that his technique, mechanically speaking, is old-fashioned, that there are lapses of style in the picture, that some spots are dull and others pretentiously verbose."

Clurman then proceeded to laud the inherent greatness that existed beyond the sum of Monsieur Verdoux's individual elements. Likewise, Limelight's strengths and faults both arrive in plenty, and both are so genuinely expressive of Chaplin the man — rather than of a studio's standard-issue production committee — that it's a film only Chaplin in all his on-the-sleeve sensitivities could have made.

The cast includes familiar faces such as Nigel Bruce and Norman Lloyd. The photography isn't flashy by any stretch, though the film's "old-fashioned" black-and-white technique serves the story well. Where there is pathos, it's often pathos perfectly choreographed and shot by a craftsman in full control of his movie-making machinery. Counterbalancing the flat scenes are some lovely moments, such as when Calvero teaches Terry his "laughter therapy," or the film's final sweeping pullback, with the pirouetting radiance of youth (Terry) eclipsing the exhausted, final twilight of age (Calvero).

If you're not already a Chaplin devotee, Limelight will be difficult to sit still through. But if you're willing to surrender to the excesses of its sometimes cloying plot and dialogue, and absorb it as patriarchal Charles Chaplin projecting a sincere emotional daydream onto celluloid, this elegy will satisfy amiably.

Too bad we can't place this movie into some mental centrifuge to separate it from Chaplin's ample hagiography, which is bound to color and contort any objective evaluation of Limelight strictly as a movie. We can sense that rose-colored lensing at work in Gavin Lambert's contemporary review in Sight and Sound:

"At 63 Chaplin has executed an imaginative portrait of the artist as an old man and shown his creative powers to be at their height. The cinema is apt to exhaust its great talents early, but Limelight has all the vitality and sureness of Chaplin's best work, and it touches some new moments of experience."

Limelight has been garnering mixed reactions ever since. In 1952, it made The New York Times' annual "Ten Best" list. The following year, the Foreign Language Press Film Critics poll selected Limelight as its best film.

*          *          *

Age sure doesn't seem to have slowed down Chaplin at all. During Calvero's bedtime dreams of his halcyon days as a "tramp comedian" on the London stage, Chaplin sings and cavorts, gyres and gambols with the agility of a pro half his age. But Chaplin had always been more driven by youth — or holding on to its trappings — than by meekly accepting his inevitable aging. Yes, he was in his sixties during production, but he still insisted that Miss Bloom arrive from London with a chaperone. His encounters with young girls had gotten him into enough hot water for several lifetimes. It's reported that he got along well with Bloom's mother.

His vaudevillian prowess continues through Limelight's most famous scene, the climactic comeback performance at the Empire Theatre. There Calvero is joined on stage in a duo musical routine by his old partner. That partner is played by the other Olympian silent screen comic master, Buster Keaton. The scene records the only time the two giants worked together. Keaton is a delight to watch (and hear speak, finally). Although, truth be told, his gifts are scarcely evident and his moments together with Chaplin don't materialize into the cinematic gem of a scene that we can imagine. Although there's no evidence supporting the old rumors that Chaplin eviscerated Keaton's screen-time out of fear that his former rival would upstage him, Keaton's appearance amounts to little more than a cameo and any outtake footage is lost. (In just five more years, Keaton's life would get its own cinematic mangling in a dreadful 1957 biopic starring Donald O'Connor.)

Limelight's nostalgic resonances include odes to Chaplin's family. He directed Bloom with fanatical meticulousness (the way he did everything). He coached her gesture by gesture. In her autobiography, Limelight and After, she noted that "Chaplin was the most exacting director, not because he expected you to produce wonders on your own, but because he expected you to follow unquestioningly his every instruction..... I, obedient and captivated acolyte, would obey and copy everything he did." Through her he recreated, after a fashion, his own mother, right down to the clothes he remembered her wearing. His grown son Sydney appears in Limelight as Neville, the composer who is Terry's true love. Street urchins in the opening scene are played by three of Chaplin's eight children by his fourth and happiest marriage, to Oona O'Neill, who was six weeks younger than Sydney. Among them is six-year-old Geraldine in her first speaking role, forty years before she played her own demented grandmother in Richard Attenborough's 1992 biopic, Chaplin. You can briefly see Sydney's full brother Charles Jr. as a clown in the "Death of Columbine" ballet number. Chaplin's half-brother Wheeler Dryden plays the kindly doctor who treats Terry.

*          *          *

Compared to the earlier films in which Chaplin expressed pointed social views, Limelight was as non-political and inoffensive as a Harlequin Romance novel. Nonetheless, just as you can't separate the motion picture from the man, Limelight is permanently fused to the political climate surrounding it. Because of some historically illuminating political hysteria, large numbers of American audiences were prevented from seeing Limelight at all. Its one Academy Award, for Best Musical Score, came in 1972, twenty years after its New York and London premieres. You see, Limelight had been barred from its Los Angeles theatrical run and didn't receive one until '72, so was only then eligible for Academy recognition.

Limelight was released the year of High Noon and Singin' in the Rain. That was also a year when the national neurosis of McCarthyism sent the country into a grand mal seizure. Chaplin's personal life, especially his support of left-wing causes and his history with young girls, triggered an obsessive FBI smear campaign. J. Edgar Hoover's file on him ultimately totaled more than 1,900 pages. In April 1947 Chaplin was the victim of a witch-hunting press conference frothing with anti-Communist paranoia. For the next few years allegations and insinuations bordering on the libelous targeted him for supposedly Communist political leanings, and the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee set their sights on him.

Granted, he did make it easy for reactionary conservative America during the Cold War to go gunning for him. He'd worked in the U.S. since 1913 but hadn't applied for citizenship. He was an outspoken liberal at a time when that was enough to get you pinned as "treasonous." Chaplin was a brilliant movie-maker, but he was still largely uneducated and sometimes surprisingly naive. An ambiguously utopian idealist, he referred to himself as a "peacemonger" and an "internationalist," avoiding any strict political allegiances or catechisms. Today he'd probably be labeled a social libertarian, then he'd tear off the label, stick it on the end of a fork, and make a really funny gag out of it. He seemed to never grasp that nationalism is often confused with patriotism, and therefore a professed lack of nationalist fealty can be mistaken for unpatriotic disloyalty. This naiveté was red meat for the tribal cannibalism of Us/Them nationalism, so Chaplin was tarred as "un-American" and a "Communist."

In Limelight, Calvero remarks that he loves and admires the public "as individuals; there's greatness in everyone." Then he follows that with a bitter condemnation: "But as a crowd they're like a monster without a head, that never knows which way it's going to turn. It can be prodded in any direction." We can be excused for reading more than a little personal grousing into the line.

Years of blue-nosed moral outrage girdered by innuendo and trumped-up guilt-by-association charges boiled over when Limelight opened. When Chaplin and his and family traveled to England to attend Limelight's October 1952 royal gala premiere, he was refused re-entry into the U.S. due to vague accusations of "making statements that would indicate a leering, sneering attitude toward a country whose hospitality has enriched him." The film's January '53 Los Angeles run was canceled under political pressure placed on the dominant theater chains by the American Legion.

Chaplin didn't wish to return to "that unhappy land" and was to never again live in the U.S. He issued a bitter statement saying that he had been the object of "lies and vicious propaganda by powerful reactionary groups, who by their influence and the aid of America's yellow press have created an unhealthy atmosphere in which liberal-minded individuals can be singled out and persecuted." He told The Guardian: "I am not a political man and I have no political convictions. I am an individual and a believer in liberty. That is all the politics I have. On the other hand I am not a super-patriot. Super-patriotism leads to Hitlerism — and we've had our lesson there. I don't want to create a revolution — I just want to create a few more films."

He made only two more films, both in Europe: A King in New York (1957) and A Countess from Hong Kong (1967). Both were critical and commercial failures. Limelight is remembered as Charlie Chaplin's swan song.

Some U.S. officials expressed misgivings about Chaplin's persecution, which had been headed by Attorney General James McGranery, a McCarthyite who was forced to admit that he had operated without consulting other government departments. Newspaper editorials and worldwide public opinion were voicing the notion that the government had gone too far. One prominent U.S. senator, a member of HUAC, wrote to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper on May 29, 1952, four months prior to Chaplin's banishment: "I agree with you that the Chaplin case has been a disgrace for years.... You can be sure, however, that I will keep an eye on the case and possibly after January will be able to work with an Administration that will apply the same rules to Chaplin as they do to ordinary citizens."

The senator signed himself informally, "Dick Nixon."

Chaplin returned to the U.S. only once. On April 10, 1972, his 83rd birthday, he was awarded a special honorary Oscar "for the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century." The standing ovation he received remains one of the most thunderous in Oscar history.

The MK2/Warner Home Video Chaplin Collection DVDs

In 2001, the rights to many of Chaplin's films became available. Several companies vied to license them. The Chaplin estate chose the Parisian company MK2, which holds the rights to the films for 12 years.

With distribution through Warner Home Video, in 2003 MK2 began releasing The Chaplin Collection, two boxed sets containing definitive, authorized editions of Chaplin's feature-length films. Each film receives an exhaustive, features-rich DVD presentation. All have been digitally restored and remastered from Chaplin estate vault elements. Volume 1 of The Chaplin Collection includes Limelight, The Gold Rush, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator. Volume 2 brings us The Kid, The Circus, City Lights, A King in New York / A Woman of Paris, Monsieur Verdoux, and The Chaplin Revue. Plus, exclusive to the Volume 2 boxed set is Richard Schickel's acclaimed documentary tribute, Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin, a highlight of 2003's Cannes Film Festival.

These discs feature, among their many extras, never-before-seen footage, behind-the-scenes glimpses, exclusive family home movie footage, and specially made documentaries in which Chaplin biographer David Robinson as well as world-famous film-makers discuss the films and their personal, professional, or cultural impact.

Starting in the 1940s, Chaplin went back to several of his earlier films and tinkered with them, snipping bits here, changing footage there, and adding his own musical scores for reissue prints. Under the authority of the Chaplin estate, MK2's The Chaplin Collection delivers the films in their final state, "as Chaplin intended."

How's the picture and sound quality?

Limelight looks terrific. Throughout the spotless print, the grayscale and definition are excellent (although occasionally the inky blacks make us wonder if the contrast wasn't boosted one notch too far).

The audio comes in three options remastered in Dolby Digital — English DD 2.0 monaural, English DD 5.1, and French DD 2.0 monaural. All are strong and clear and free of hiss or wear. The 5.1 remix spreads out the musical score and a few ambient sound effects. Very nice all around.

Subtitles are in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Thai, and Korean.

Disc Two: Special features

Introduction (5:42) — Chaplin biographer David Robinson dips us into a little of Limelight's background — its autobiographical connections and Chaplin's original treatment of the story as an unpublished novel — and its context within the most difficult time of Chaplin's career.

Chaplin Today - Limelight (26:35) — Bernardo Bertolucci gets the spotlight to discuss "the sublime exorcism that is Limelight." Through a translator, the revered director says, "Watching the end of Limelight, I feel like crying, and that doesn't happen often to me." Also here is a summary of Chaplin's Hollywood career from the Keystone days to the years when he was "studied" by the FBI — we see pages from Chaplin's FBI file ripped up and tossed away — while the American Legion published letters against him. It's all supported by generous newsreel footage of the New York and London premieres as well as Chaplin's warm reception back in Europe, which included shaking hands with Winston Churchill. Plus we get new interviews with Chaplin's son Sydney and Claire Bloom. Finally, the cameras turn to Bologna, Italy in 2002, when Bloom introduced a 50th anniversary screening of this DVD's restored print of Limelight for an audience of 4,000 in the city's Piazza Grande.

Deleted scene (4:29) — Chaplin trimmed this scene out of the movie months after Limelight's theatrical run had begun. It depicts Calvero, destitute yet dignified, encountering an armless former colleague.

Original score (58:09) — Here's an audio selection that lets you play the entire musical score, including Calvero's stage acts (all DD 2.0 monaural). It's divided into 36 numbered tracks that you can click to as if on a CD, each track illustrated by a still from the appropriate scene.

Footlights (2:24) — An old recording of Chaplin reading two short extracts from his unpublished purple-prose novel, Footlights, that was a full working-through of the story that became Limelight. Illustrated by stills.

The Professor (1919) (6:24) — This is footage from an unfinished short comedy in which Chaplin played "Professor Bosco," the paunchy old proprietor of a flea circus. Thirty-three years later he found a home for the gag in Limelight. The footage is well restored and silent.

Home movies — Two selections of color, silent footage. "USA 1950" (9:51) features Oona O'Neill and their children Geraldine, Michael, and Josephine playing dress-up in the yard, showing off their dolls and pets, and other shots of domesticity. Then in "London 1959" (6:22), Chaplin returns to the streets and buildings of his childhood. Unfortunately the footage isn't annotated in any way, so it's more frustrating than revealing.

Trailers (4:25) — Two Limelight trailers, one in American-accented English, the other in Italian.

Photo gallery (4:25) — This collection of over 250 production and behind-the-scenes stills and production materials is divided into eight click-to video compilations. Irritatingly, once a compilation begins you can't (at least I can't) rewind it to see again a photo that has passed. In a few cases, the parade of stills is (also irritatingly) interrupted by snippets with audio from the movie:

Film posters — A click-through collection of 18 posters for Limelight from various countries and decades.

Scenes from films in The Chaplin Collection — Finally, this "coming attractions" ensemble presents scenes from ten titles slated for the series (The Chaplin Revue is absent):

—Mark Bourne

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