One of Charlie Chaplin’s Best Films Wasn’t Silent and Co-Starred Buster Keaton
This Chaplin classic from the 1950s had the actor/director/writer/composter reflecting on the past with another silent film great.
The legacy of Charlie Chaplin shines brighter than just about every star that has emerged in his wake. He was a maverick to the art form of cinema, capturing the hearts and minds of audiences through the 1920s and ’30s. Even when the industry was leaving silent movies in a hurry for the talkies, Chaplin was committed to striving for excellence in silence with timeless classics like City Lights and Modern Times. While he will always be most associated with his Little Tramp character of the silent era, his work in talkies pushed the envelope. The stories he told and the characters he brought to life upended the audience’s expectations of Chaplin. His 1952 film Limelight exhibited the actor, writer, song performer, and director at his most versatile and curious.
‘Limelight’ Comments on Chaplin’s Career and Hollywood
Limelight centers around an aging and fading comedian, Calvero (Chaplin), who strikes up a relationship with a suicidal ballet dancer, Terry (Claire Bloom), and attempts to revitalize their careers amid personal anguish. Limelight is a familiar case of an artist reflecting on their career and the industry at large. With this film, along with Monsieur Verdoux in 1947, Chaplin was committed to showcasing a darker side to his stardom. Chaplin patiently unravels the emotional block of Calvero, and the viewer quickly identifies that the suicidal Terry is not the only individual with trauma. From his initial appearance, there is something slightly off-setting about Calvero by his physical mannerisms and timid way of speaking. Chaplin performs a treacherous tightrope walk of carrying the ethos of his stardom while simultaneously enacting a fresh character archetype. The tired and sobering weight that Calvero shoulders is omnipresent enough to seem implausible that the character was ever a comic. Through an exacting performance alone, Chaplin constructs an engaging backstory of his leading role concerning how far he has fallen off as a beloved entertainer.
For an emotionally vulnerable film with graceful storytelling and crowd-pleasing sensibilities, Limelight comes to bat with a vast amount of critiques of the entertainment industry. Calvero’s status as a sulking, down-on-his-luck comedian can realistically be linked to his self-destruction from alcoholism, but the film presents his downfall as a result of the cruelness of show business. The stage proverbially chewed him up and spit him back out as worthless and past his prime. A once-popular theater performer is now resigned to mobilize his act on the streets as a clown. This criticism originating from the mind of Chaplin only thickens the intrigue. By the dawn of the 1950s, the star’s popularity had rapidly declined, partially due to a string of box office disappointments, but notably due to his ties with communism in Hollywood and his sympathies towards the party. Due to the numerous accusations dug up by the FBI, Chaplin was forced to exile from the United States around the time of the release of Limelight. Along with the industry quickly changing in preference for big-budgeted Technicolor epics, there are many rational explanations behind Chaplin’s feeling of abandonment.
Chaplin and Buster Keaton Share the Screen for the First Time in ‘Limelight’
Limelight will be most remembered in the public consciousness as the sole screen collaboration of Chaplin and his parallel silent comic star, Buster Keaton. The legendary star and director of films such as The General appears as Calvero’s partner in the climactic final performance of his career. Unlike how celebrity reunions and character team-ups are awkwardly forced into the spotlight for audience gratification in contemporary pop culture, the moment in this film is executed with seamless subtlety.
Because the introduction of Keaton’s character in the dressing room is so quiet, the emotional weight of two screen legends on screen for the first time is quite touching. There is an undeniable cinematic bliss to watching them perform a musical slapstick routine on stage, but the mournful implications of the moment also permeate throughout Keaton’s presence. The evolution of these two as competitors to now working together on a film commenting on the fading stardom of Chaplin is poetic. Purposely so, Chaplin and Keaton are not as sharp and electric as comedians, but watching these two icons of the medium bounce off each other must have been dream-like in 1952.
Chaplin’s Emotional Engagement With Art
Chaplin’s filmography in his golden age represented the beauty and magic of cinema. Underneath the jovial warmth that his Little Tramp character brought to the screen was an underlying sadness. The character’s pathos was connected to the struggles of the impoverished working class, but in the end, his films in the ’30s served as escapism for audiences amid the Great Depression. In a more restrained effort, Limelight operates on the fundamentals of melodrama and romance without the showbiz flair. The stage performances in the film are directed with a curtailed thrill, signaling that the best days of Calvero’s comedy are behind him. Chaplin and Bloom, playing fateful lovers, lean into the despair of their status as entertainers.
The film’s engagement with raw emotions without formalism is a diversion from Chaplin’s filmography, but because of its realism, it dissects the star’s psyche thoroughly. Beyond just acting as an avatar for Chaplin’s self-examination about himself and the industry, Calvero is a fully lived-in character. The ordinary quality of the character ironically separates him from Chaplin. Despite how interwoven the character is in the actor’s image, the performance is rich enough to cause viewers to forget that Chaplin is playing him.
A figure with the overwhelming talent and impact of Charlie Chaplin was never required to prove himself, but Limelight is a defining statement of his legacy, now retroactively viewed as his swan song. Miraculously, the film contended at the Academy Awards in 1973, as it finally screened in theaters in the Los Angeles area, granting it eligibility for awards. It won an Oscar for Best Music, Original Dramatic Score, 20 years after its release, and stands as Chaplin’s lone competitive Academy Award. In the year prior, Chaplin received an Honorary Oscar accompanied by a 12-minute standing ovation from the crowd. In case there was ever any doubt, this powerful scene exhibited the unequivocal reverence of Chaplin and his contributions to not just cinema, but to the betterment of humanity. Limelight resonates today because of its awareness of the gravity surrounding Chaplin’s legacy without favoring too far into self-indulgence. The film’s endearing conclusion, that the humbling appreciation of humanity stands as the driving force behind art, is the thematic idea that Chaplin embodies.