Sunday 3 September 2017

The Truth About LIMELIGHT - Dr Theodore Price revisits Chaplin's autobiographical tragic-comedy about the clown who could no longer make people laugh

Editor's Note: This is the first part of a previously unpublished essay about Charles Chaplin's Limelight (1952). Part two will be published shortly.

From the day it opened in 1952 Charles Chaplin’s film Limelight has consistently received poor reviews.  So far as I know, there’s no film critic today (1987) who’ll defend the film as a masterpiece, straight down the line.  I take up that task.

I am “revisiting” Limelight and will analyze why, in my opinion, it’s one of Chaplin’s true masterpieces, comic and tragic at the same time, and why it’s one of the masterpieces of cinema in general.

That the film received consistently poor reviews should not surprise us.  Many of Chaplin’s films received poor reviews on their openings: Monsieur Verdoux (1947), The Great Dictator (1940), Modern Times (1936), yes, even The Gold Rush (1925)

Each time, various reviewers decided that the “old” Chaplin was “through” and that his new film was not very good.  Indeed, even before The Gold Rush, even before The Kid (1921), reviewers were burying poor Chaplin. 

From one critic, in 1919, we have possibly the champion mis-prognosis in film history: “I contend that in the course of events, the Chaplin vogue in five years will be a thing of remote antiquity.”

On the other hand the best critical comment on Chaplin’s films (the very best) came when my wife and I were showing The Gold Rush with a small admission charge, and a Frenchman with a heavy French accent came up and asked if here was where we were showing Charlot (the French name for Charlie). We said yes; and when he asked what the admission charge was and we answered one dollar, he answered, “A bargain!”

Chaplin as Calvero, Limelight
When Limelight first opened, Walter Kerr wrote of “the hopeless capitulation to words.  Chaplin had “not only gone over to what he considered the enemy; he had gone over with love.”

And about the Love, Love, Love, Love, Love sequence (on which I shall comment below), Kerr said, “Where the 1917 music-hall background obviously opens the door to extensive onstage pantomime, he prefers to stand still and sing a song.”

Limelight, as the opening “title” tells us, is about “the glamour of limelight, from which age must pass as youth enters.” It’s a story of a ballerina and a clown.”

Charles Chaplin, Claire Bloom, Limelight
The ballerina is the young Terry, played by the lovely 21-year-old Claire Bloom; the clown is the gray-haired Calvero, played by the 63-year-old Charles Chaplin. 

The story is of the love of an old clown for a young ballerina, an old clown who suffers the worst of all clown fates: he can no longer make people laugh.

Charles Chaplin & Oona O'Neill
What I contend, however, is that the film is not “really” about the clown in the film, Calvero, but about the real-life old clown, Charles Chaplin, now 63, married to a young girl of 27, the former Oona O’Neill.  Chaplin felt that not only could he no longer make people laugh but that he was not deserving of his young wife’s love.

In the film the old clown becomes engaged to the young girl; but the girl “really” (or supposedly) just feels obligated to the clown and “really” loves the young pianist.

The girl in the film, played by Claire Bloom, bears a remarkable resemblance to Chaplin’s real-life young wife, Oona.  (He’d married her nine years before, when he was 54 and she was 18.)  And in the film the young pianist she’s in love with is played by Chaplin’s real-life son, 26-year-old Sydney.

In the film the old clown dies at the end; and the girl goes on to love and marry the young pianist.  But in real life the young girl, Oona, and the old clown, Chaplin, stay in love with each other, have nearly a dozen kids; and, in fact, live happily ever after.

Limelight, is an examination, an exploration, of Chaplin’s situation at the time, his fear that he could no longer succeed as either an artist or a lover.  With the failure of Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Chaplin, when he made Limelight (1952), thought he could no longer make people laugh.  He made the film as an artistic token to Oona, demonstrating his love for her and to see if he could still make people laugh.

One of the great “love” scenes in the film is that of Calvero/Chaplin singing (in a dream sequence) to Oona look-alike Claire Bloom the wondrously charming “Love, Love, Love, Love, Love” song, that was meant to show us, the film audience, that the Calvero of the film had fallen in love with Terry, and to show Oona how much he, Chaplin, cared for her.  The sequence gives us an inkling, a very good one, of how he must have charmed Oona in real life.

Claire Bloom, Chaplin, Limelight
The film starts with Claire Bloom trying to commit suicide by turning on her gas jets because she has no more money.  She lives in the same shabby rooming house as Charlie, and he takes her limp body to his own room to revive her.

Right at the start, Chaplin lets us know that the Calvero character is the same Charlie Tramp character of his earlier films (but now grown old).  For when Charlie smells gas, he looks at the sole of his shoe because he thinks he may have stepped in some dog leavings.  The girl is revived but remains for a long while a psycho-somatic cripple.  She’s locked out of her room and has to stay in Charlie’s. For appearance’s sake, they pretend that they’re man-and-wife.

So, on the one hand, we’ve a typical Charlie-and-the-Girl situation, parallel to the ones in City Lights (1931) or Modern Times: the Tramp assumes the role of Knight-in-Armor hero, because the young Lady-in-Distress heroine is so much worse off.  On the other hand, we’ve the situation in the film mirroring Chaplin’s situation in real life: where the old Chaplin is living with his young wife, Oona.

Chaplin has been criticized in Limelight along two lines: (1) that he talks too much in the film and the talk isn’t very good; and (2) that the non-verbal elements in the film are so inferior to those of the “old” Chaplin films.  It’s my feeling that the criticism is wrong on both counts.

For it seems to me that Chaplin’s dialogue here holds up to the dialogue, say, of Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937) or, say, of Bergman’s Winter Light (1963).

The young girl says to the old Charlie, “Why didn’t you let me die?”  And he answers, “What’s your hurry?”  He tells her, “You’re alive, and you better make the most of it.”

He thinks at first that she has a venereal disease.  So he says, “Maybe I can help.  I’m an old sinner.  Nothing shocks me.”

She says that her sister’s a prostitute, that’s how the sister makes a living.  He replies, “We’re all grubbing for a living.”

After he goes back to singing in saloons for handouts, he says to Sydney, “All the world’s a stage, and this one’s the most legitimate.”

The girl tells him she doesn’t “want to cry.” He answers, “None of us do.”

She says to him once, “Something is gone, gone forever.”  He replies, “Nothing is gone. It only changes.”

Nigel Bruce tries to assuage the old Calvero by saying that the other acts are “just amateurs.”  Charlie, thinking now not of the show but of life in general, replies, “That’s all we are: just a bunch of amateurs.”

The surface drama of the story, of Calvero and Terry, of an old vaudevillian, of an actor, once a star, who’s no longer wanted in the only job he knows and loves, is fine enough in its own right.  (Only recently did I read in Pat O’Brien’s obituary, this wonderful old Warner Brothers star of the 30s, that in the 1950s he couldn’t get a job in films.)

But the poignancy of the dialogue in Limelight becomes masterly once we realize that the dialogue functions perfectly on a deeper level, relating to Chaplin and Oona. 

After failing at the small-time theatre in the English provinces, when Calvero weeps and says, “I wasn’t funny,” Terry replies, “Are you, Calvero, going to allow a performance to destroy you?”

May we not, should we not, must we not assume this scene to be a replay of one between Chaplin and his young wife, Oona, when he has failed, in the post-World-War II sound era, when he, Chaplin, who was once, literally, the most famous man in the world, is now just another comedian, an old clown, who can’t make a hit film?

Should not the words in fact to be considered, “Are you, Charles Chaplin, going to allow a performance to destroy you?”  Over and over again, the dialogue of the film assumes this richer, deeper, more poignant level.

Charles Chaplin. Limelight
And so far as the non-verbal elements in the film: is this not a case of critics having eyes but being unable to see?  For consider the following: Calvero tells Terry that he “can imitate anything.” And he becomes a Japanese, and then a rock, and then a rose.  And in one sequence, Calvero, once the tamer of lions, is reduced to being a tamer of fleas.

Then consider the look of terror on Calvero/Chaplin’s face as the made-up actor is suddenly changed into a tired old man awaking from a nightmare where his audience has fidgeted, yawned, and then walked out.

(To be concluded in a later post)

Theodore Price
 © 1987

Dr. Ted Price, a retired English and film professor, a disabled combat infantry veteran of World War II, welcomes correspondence from all at

His latest film book, the 2011 revised, expanded paperback edition, Superbitch! Alfred Hitchcock’s 50-Year Obsession with  Jack the Ripper and the Eternal Prostitute, A Psycho-analytic Interpretation ISBN 978-1-936815-49-4, is available at the lowest cost from   

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