Thursday 7 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 (Part 2)

Editor’s note: This is the second part of a long essay about Charles Chaplin’s 1952 film Limelight. The first part can be found if you click here.

'The wondrous face of Charlie', City Lights
We are all aware that one of the great scenes in cinema (of all time) comes at the end of City Lights (1931), when the wondrous face of Charlie fills the screen, and The Girl realizes that her princely hero, whom she had known when she was “blind,” is now the bedraggled tramp standing before her, now that she can “see.”

Chaplin, Limelight
But I say unto the critics, compare the scene in Limelight when Calvero returns to his dressing room, looking (in stage make-up) like a youngish, middle-aged man, remove his make-up; and on the screen, staring out at us, there’s the look of failure and death.  In Limelight, scenes like this are, as I contend, of this same artistic order.

In the film there’s the charming harlequinade sequence, where Calvero, playing an old clown, tries to make the dying Columbine laugh.  If only he can make her laugh, she’ll live.  And we know that what the scene represents in fact is a case of Chaplin, in this very film, feeling that he can live only if he can make the real-life audience laugh, and, according to his artistic logic, thereby continue to make Oona love him.

For in Limelight scenes like this are matters of love and death; and we see this portrayed for us on the screen.

Yet in his pre-conscious wish fulfillment Chaplin shatters the design of the storyline.  For in the film Terry is supposed to feel sorry for, or obligated to, Calvero, to say that she’ll remain with him though in fact she loves the young pianist.  But throughout the film she keeps protesting her love for the oldish man, over and over again.

The scenes in Calvero’s room, where he comforts her or she comforts him, where they “play” man and wife, are the genuine love scenes of this film.  “I’m always happy when I’m with you,” she says to him. “I love you”.  She takes her hand, puts it to his face, and says, “It is you I love.”

And, of course, this is as it should be.  For the film is a fairy tale.  And in real life she did not go off with any young-man/son but with the old-man/father.

In nearly all of Chaplin’s films there is, towards the finale of the film, what I like to call the “battle scene.”  This is the scene, usually a rather long sequence, at least in filmic time, where Chaplin, like all comedians, does battle, not with the elements in the film but with the real-life audience, whom he must make laugh, really laugh, as though his career and life depended on it.

The Gold Rush
In The Gold Rush (1925), the film that Chaplin loved so much, it’s the scene in the cabin as it teeters on the edge of a cliff.  The scene doesn’t function that importantly in the story; but again it’s a battle to see if here, in this tragic-comic feature film, Chaplin could still get the belly laughs he’s once been famous for.

City Lights
In City Lights it’s the fight scene, when Charlie, supposed at first to be battling with a sham prizefighter, must do battle with a real one, out to kill him.

Modern Times
In Modern Times (1935) it’s the scene where Charlie is to be a singing waiter.  Critics have perhaps not pointed out just how important this scene was, not only in the film but, as in Limelight, in Chaplin’s artistic life. 

Think of the excitement of seeing this film for the first time, in the mid-30s, when Charlie the Tramp had never spoken on the screen (the rest of the film is nearly all silent, and Charlie has been mute).  Now we’re not only to hear him for the very first time, ever, but he has to sing!

Charlie, of course, comes off with flying colors.  (Even now some critics don’t realize that the song Charlie “sings” here is the greatest of all circus songs, “Titina”, that Fellini loves so much and uses in his circus sequences.)

The Clowns
In Fellini’s The Clowns (1970), Fellini has an exceptionally beautiful short scene featuring one of Chaplin’s real-life daughters, Victoria.  When asked why he included this (seemingly) extraneous scene in the film of his about clowns, Fellini answered: “In homage to her father.”

Chaplin, Keaton, Limelight
In Limelight the “battle scene” is the nine-minute silent sequence with that other old “failure” of a clown, Buster Keaton.  Here, the drama is even greater.  For it’s a question not only whether Chaplin can make his audience laugh, but, symbolically, whether he can prove to himself that he’s still worthy of his real-life young wife’s love.

In the film the scene is part of a “benefit” for Calvero; and the producer, Nigel Bruce, has set up claques of Calvero’s friends to laugh at all the old sequences that we’ve seen earlier in the film, where the screenplay audiences didn’t laugh. 

Calvero realizes this, about the claques, but maintains this scene, the one with Buster Keaton, that we, the real-life audience have never witnessed in the film, will and must be genuinely funny.  And on an important level, it’s not a case of just making the audience in the film laugh, but the audience in the movie theatre, us, laugh, wherever and whenever Limelight happens to be shown.

Wherever and whenever I’ve seen the film, the real-life audience has always laughed, and, consequently, Charlie has been “saved.”  The “surface” film, of Calvero and Terry, coalesces with the underground film, of Chaplin and Oona.  And, as it should be, every time the film is shown, even now that Chaplin is “gone,” the question will be asked, can the great clown, Calvero/Chaplin, still make people laugh?

That question must continually be re-asked, and re-answered, as the film is shown.      


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  
 Just contact via email for orders and details.

Or if you’d prefer to deal with Amazon, just search via Yahoo or Bing: Superbitch, Hitchcock.  Google search won’t work

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