Tuesday, November 11, 2014
Charlie Chaplin's Limelight (1952)
This was Chaplin's third sound picture and the last film he made in the United States. I guess everybody has their favorite Chaplin talkie — I assume most would choose The Great Dictator (1940), his savage spoof of Adolf Hitler, while others might go for Monsieur Verdoux (1947), a black comedy about a serial killer whose latest victim simply refuses to die.
Me, I prefer Limelight.
Chief among the film's delights is the casting of Buster Keaton as his stage partner, the only time these two silent comedy legends appeared in a movie together. Both men were past their primes here — Chaplin hadn't had an unalloyed success since Modern Times in 1936 and Keaton's heyday was even more distant, with his peak years running from just 1920 to 1928 — and Keaton's appearance is not much more than a cameo. But boy, what a cameo.
Chaplin always played well off an opposite number — think of Roscoe Arbuckle, Eric Campbell, Mack Swain and Harry Myers — and his and Keaton's contrasting styles, the clown and the stoneface, work especially well. For a few minutes, the two legends defy the passage of time and remind us of what made them so special in the first place.
The novelty of seeing the silent era's two greatest comics together at last would be enough to make the film worth watching, but Chaplin also revisits the Tramp in at least three scenes, albeit with a different moustache and a check vest. Sure, he's not twenty-five anymore, but he can still bring it.
Which is not to suggest that Limelight is a perfect film. Far from it. It suffers from the same flaw as all of Chaplin's sound pictures — he talks too much! In the silent era, Chaplin's Tramp could speak volumes with a single look. In the sound era, he simply speaks volumes. And frankly, as a moral philosopher, Chaplin is a hackneyed windbag.
At least here, Chaplin at last finds the only solution to the dilemma that really works. I'll leave it to you to discover what that is.
My quibble here is that, at least where the ballerina's story is concerned, Chaplin more insists on the sentiment than actually creating it.
Still, the good far outweighs the bad.
There were two types of anti-Communists in the 1940s and '50s: those seeking to best the Soviet Union in the existential struggle of the Cold War (e.g., Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, George Kennan, George Marshall); and those seeking to destroy their political and personal enemies with scurrilous accusations (Joe McCarthy, HUAC). Chaplin was a victim of the latter. He wouldn't return to America for twenty years.
Awards or no, though, Chaplin achieved his immortality — he continues to inspire artists and will for as long as films are shown.