Charlie Chaplin Says Goodbye

Claire Bloom comforts Charlie Chaplin. Photo: © Roy Export S.A.S.

At the time, Limelight (1952) was intended to be Charlie Chaplin‘s last film.

Although he did make two more films* after relocating to Europe, Limelight was his final Hollywood production. It is a last testament of sorts; a farewell to his Little Tramp character.

Limelight was made during a difficult period in Chaplin’s life. The FBI had been investigating him for years, due to: (A) his relationships with (very) young women; (B) his refusal to become an American citizen; and (C) his left-wing views. (For example, in 1942 he was quoted by The Daily Worker: “They say communism may spread out all over the world. And I say – so what?”¹ This must have raised eyebrows, given the smuggled-out reports of horrific goings-on in the USSR.)

In addition to this, Chaplin’s previous film, Monsieur Verdoux (1947) was pilloried by critics and audiences. It is a smart black comedy, but ill-suited to the post-war environment of North America.

He was blacklisted in 1948 and, when he travelled to England with his family in 1952, his U.S. Reentry Permit was revoked.²

These pressures boil to the surface in Limelight. After Verdoux‘s release, Chaplin spent two years writing and adapting his unpublished 1,000-page novel, Footlights.³ His biographer, David Robinson, says Chaplin felt “America had turned on him, so [in the story] he turned to the time when he first became an entertainer.”4

It’s worth noting Chaplin cast family members in this film, including his son, Sydney, and his three younger children. His wife, Oona O’Neill, also doubled for co-star Claire Bloom.

Knowing this, Limelight‘s scrutiny of a career in decline takes on a sour poignancy.

The Great Calvero, fearless flea tamer. Photo: © Roy Export S.A.S.

Limelight is set in 1914 London. Chaplin plays Calvero, a once-famous comedian who is now broke and drunk. He lives in a rooming house with ephemera (read: ghosts) from his Glory Days. “CALVERO, The Tramp Comedian,” taunts one poster.

When Chaplin-as-Calvero staggers home one day, he discovers a young woman (Bloom) lying unconscious after a suicide attempt. He moves her to his room and resolves to nurse the girl Back To Health.

Bloom’s flimsy cynicism disappears as she becomes attached to her new patron. He grows fond of her and shares his life experiences. “A sad dignity comes upon [a man] and that’s fatal for a comic,” he says. “It affected my work. I lost contact with the audience – I couldn’t warm up to them.”

These reflections are self-serving, but they do offer a fascinating look at the other side of fame.

Bloom: “What sad business, being funny.”
Chaplin: “Very sad if they don’t laugh. But it’s a thrill when they do.”

He’s a man who is uneasy and bitter about his audience. “As a crowd, it’s a monster,” he says. “You never know which way it’s going to turn its head.”

Chaplin blows his big opportunity. Photo: © Roy Export S.A.S.

Limelight proves Chaplin could still Work Magic. His stage acts are genuinely funny; even his puns are amusing. (“What can the stars do? Nothing. Sit on their axis.” Haha.)

And he still makes us weep. When he gets the chance to appear on stage – and ends up alienating his audience – he returns to his dressing room in silence. He removes his wig and wipes away his makeup (read: Legend) with a cloth. Underneath he reveals a used-up man.

The film continually reinforces the end of Chaplin’s life as he knew it, but it’s also unexpectedly optimistic. “Life can be wonderful if you’re not afraid of it,” he says. “All you need is a little courage.”

Limelight was frequently boycotted when first released in the U.S. However, when it was re-released in 1972, Chaplin returned to America to receive an honorary Academy Award – and an eighteen-minute standing ovation.

It’s a moving tribute, considering all that went on before. You can watch a clip HERE.

Notes
  • Thanks to Movie Movie Blog Blog for this: “[I]n 1973, the movie won an Oscar for its score — made possible only because the movie had never played in L.A. [T]he first time was in 1972!”
  • *A King in New York (1957), The Chaplin Revue (1959) and an appearance in A Countess from Hong Kong (1967).
  • ¹Prashad, Vijay. (2017, July 29) The Political Life and Cinema of Comrade Charlie Chaplin
  • ²The Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 72, No. 4 (Nov., 2003).
  • ³Cozarinsky, Edgardo. Chaplin Today – Limelight. France: Association Chaplin, 2003.
  • 4Robinson, David. Introduction, DVD special feature, 2003.
  • This is part of THE CHARLIE CHAPLIN BLOGATHON from Little Bits of Classics & Christina Wehner.
  • All images from Chaplin films made from 1918 onwards, Copyright © Roy Export S.A.S. Charles Chaplin and the Little Tramp are trademarks and/or service marks of Bubbles Inc. S.A. and/or Roy Export.

Limelight: starring Charles Chaplin, Claire Bloom, Nigel Bruce. Written & directed by Charles Chaplin. Celebrated Productions, B&W, 1952, 137 mins.

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42 comments

  1. Lovely summary of a movie that is not Chaplin’s greatest but is still quite compelling. You neglected to mention that in 1973, the movie won an Oscar for its score — made possible only because the movie had never played in L.A. for the first time in 1972!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Love it! If there’s anything we can take away from Chaplin’s personal life during the making of this picture, it’s that he was never a political person, but always a humanist. He believed in the value of the human life above political doctrines. Also, how wonderful must it have been for audiences to finally see Chaplin and Keaton share the screen!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Like you said, it’s a treat to see Chaplin share the screen with Buster Keaton. It’s remarkable that he would think to cast Keaton even though he himself was having such a terrible time. But, on second thought, who could perform that routine half as well as Keaton? Nobody. Thanks for dropping by.

      Like

  3. This is one of the few Chaplin movies I don’t own because I agree it’s not his best (also it’s hard to find!) However, it does hit some very hard truths and definitely shows that while Chaplin may have lost a lot of fans, he never lost his touch. An excellent share about this lesser-known Chaplin movie!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “Time is (and will be) Charlie Chaplin’s dearest and eternal friend” Touching!! I watched the link too. What a tearful tribute. The Blacklist was one of the most cruel ruination of great artistes that happened in the last century.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A well-written, intelligent look at one of Chaplin’s great films. Sadly, his non-silent movies don’t get adequate coverage in the classic movie world. All is films are interesting, but ones like THE GREAT DICTATOR and MONSIEUR VERDOUX are challenging and simply not as beloved as his early works.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I love this film, it’s so unlike any of his previous films and it’s just so poignant. “Smile” is awesome. The team up with Buster Keaton and the Flea Circus gag are great. When someone says name your favorite Chaplin film, it’s usually City Lights or The Great Dictator, I even may mention The Circus. Limelight though is close but just for different reasons. https://thepopculturallists.com/

    Like

  7. Chaplin knew how to make the audience think we knew what he was going to deliver and then give us something we hadn’t even thought of. I can’t imagine anyone else being able to do what he did. I’m fine with that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Me too. He’s a master at giving us the unexpected.

      You’ve probably heard the story about Chaplin, during the silent era, at a dinner party with a young director. The director was lamenting about the ol’ slip-on-a-banana-peel routine. Chaplin said – and I’m paraphrasing – “Here’s what you do. You show the woman walking down the street, then cut to the banana peel on the sidewalk. Cut back to the woman, then back to the banana peel. When she gets to the banana peel, she steps over it, and falls down a manhole.” Brilliant!

      Like

  8. 18 minute ovation – that’s amazing! I have been meaning to see this one, but was not aware of all the drama surrounding the making of the film. It sounds like a film one might need some tissue at hand while viewing.

    Thanks for such a poignant and well-researched review of this film! I’m really going to have to see this one, now.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Great article! If the movie by itself is already beautiful, knowing its meaning and everything that was going through Chaplin’s mind as he made it turns the film into a more emotive experience. I recently have rewatched it and I can say that Limelight only gets better with time.
    Kisses!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thanks for your post on “Limelight”. As a Keaton fan, I always enjoyed the interplay between the two greats. It’s not necessarily my favorite of his films, but knowing what was going on contextually in Chaplin’s life, and understanding his contributions as auteur on so many creative levels, gives me a broader appreciation of what, perhaps, his state of mind was at that time in his life.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Lovely post. This is such a melancholy film and filled with such sadness. A great man looking back on a great time. It makes me a little sad, but it also fills me with admiration for Charlie, who still had stories to tell – all from his great heart.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I’ve always loved this film – it’s sadness becomes all the more real and touching, when it is realised that Chaplin transfers so much of his own life into the characters. As you point out, he was having such a difficult time and he channels this into his art. A fantastic review – thanks so much! Regards, Paul.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Good point he is reflecting on his own life as an ageing comic! I’ve only seen Limelight once and to me was overlong and not as captivating as his silent films. I liked the characters though and wanted to see them lead a happy life. Pretty special to see Buster Keaton and Chaplin together on screen-my favorite scene. Of his later work, I prefer Monsieur Verdoux for the story, even though it isn’t perfect.

    Liked by 1 person

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