When Charlie Chaplin’s movie "Limelight" was released in 1952, it got very little play in theaters because of what people in high political and security places thought of Chaplin’s “personal issues” and Leftist politics. By the mid-fifties, J. Edgar Hoover and Attorney General James McGranery had grown suspicious of the English silent film actor’s political positions and connections, and so when Chaplin traveled to London to promote his latest film, the Justice Department revoked his re-entry permit and essentially banned him from re-entering the United States.
Since its original boycotting, "Limelight," which I saw recently on the TCM channel and which is available on DVD and from other online companies that offer more movies than my Netflix, has become a classic. Produced, directed by and starring the 63-year-old Chaplin, the film, which draws heavily on autobiographical material, is the story of an aging comedian named Calvero whose act has fallen out of fashion and favor with the public. One afternoon, while drinking heavily, Calvero returns to his boarding house and smells gas, which he traces to nearby apartment from which he rescues his neighbor, Theresa (played by Claire Bloom), who has tried to commit suicide. Over time, the down-and-out comedian nurses his distraught neighbor, a classically-trained ballerina, back to life, and gradually inspires her to start dancing again; meanwhile, Calvero continues to suffer a series of on-stage failures, eventually enjoying one last triumph before his final curtain falls.
Chaplin's left-leaning politics were well-known and they are evident in "Limelight.” Like Chaplin, Calvero is a popular artist, the People's comedian. He’s a Bohemian, he plays seedy bars and cabarets, and his routines have all the elements of Low Comedy. Like the Marx Brothers, Calvero moves easily between Low and High Society, but his comedy is particularly incisive, and relevant, when it is skewering the pretensions of the well-heeled. Calvero can entertain and amaze and jape without saying a word.
The dialogue in “Limelight” also allows Calvero to express his philosophy. A large part of his nursing Theresa back-to-life consists of convincing her that dancing is important to her recovery and important to other people. After seeing her dance for the first time, an enchanted Calvero tells her that she is "the true artist," as he also tells a young musical composer named Ernest Neville (played by Chaplin’s real son, Sidney Chaplin), with whom Theresa becomes half-romantically involved. Calvero, on the other hand, is, by his own admittance, an anachronistic jester whose antics imaginatively poke fun at High Culture and at the pretensions of people who worship it. (The old Smothers Brothers' skits come to mind here). He is the sad clown who fumbles, recovers, parodies, and deflates.
In the movie’s final scene, Calvero is joined by another great aging silent movie star, Buster Keaton ("All these years and it's come to this," a downtrodden Keaton says as they prepare in their dressing room). They then go on stage and pantomime a remarkable musical spoof in which they fumble and stumble and recover in ways that seem to be physically impossible. Chaplin and Keaton's physical comedic antics in the final scene are remarkable and hilarious. But they’re also thought-provoking and sadly foreboding. Like the Smothers Brothers and Marx Brothers, when they finally do play their instruments Keaton and Chaplin prove they’re excellent musicians. But the real thrust (for me) of their performance lies in their spoofing the high seriousness of authority, and of the class distinctions and pretensions that support it. Chaplin and Keaton’s act is Popular Art (vaudeville) at its best, and it provides a spectacular finale to the film and to Calvero’s career as a sad and profoundly democratic clown.
When “Limelight” was re-released in 1972, the Academy of Motion Pictures invited Chaplin to Hollywood for the Awards Ceremony. Chaplin hadn’t been back to the United States since his expulsion twenty years earlier, when he had said, “Whether I ever re-entered that unhappy country or not was of little consequence to me. I would like to have told them that the sooner I was rid of that hate-beleaguered atmosphere the better, that I was fed up with America's insults and moral pomposity.” At the 1972 ceremony, a penitent Academy awarded Chaplin the Best Dramatic Score for his music to “Limelight,” and he was given a twelve minute standing ovation, the longest in Academy history. Chaplin was visibly moved, but afterwards he returned to London and never again lived in the US. The great Peoples’ clown/comedian joined Orson Wells, Paul Robeson, Yip Harburg, Dalton Trumbo, and many others who were victimized in the 1950s fear-mongering, authoritarian, xenophobic atmosphere that unfortunately seems to be setting in over America once again.
Four Stars ****
See if you can find it.