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DVD SAVANT

Limelight


Limelight
Mk2 / Warner
1952 / b&w / 1:37 flat full frame / 132, 141, 143, 147 min. / Street Date July 1, 2003 / 29.95
Starring Charles Chaplin, Claire Bloom, Nigel Bruce, Buster Keaton, Sydney Chaplin, Norman Lloyd, Marjorie Bennett
Cinematography Karl Struss
Art Direction Eugène Lourié
Film Editor Joe Inge
Original Music, Written, Produced and Directed by Charles Chaplin

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Charlie Chaplin's last good movie is for those already converted to his personal artistic universe. Feeling the slings and arrows of public opinion during America's most intolerant years, he made his last Hollywood film an apolitical, unashamedly sentimental story about the London Music Hall scene of 1914, an era he knew well.

The progressive Chaplin of the 30s and 40s is gone. In his place is an aging genius who skips the messages and instead concocts a character in his own emotional image. The century's greatest entertainer re-casts himself as a has-been baggy-pants clown who has outlived a colossal career, and is seeking an honorable exit from life. Naturally, this being a Chaplin movie, there's a beautiful girl 1/3 his age to adore him. It's far too long, and soaked in a narcissism that only a genius of Chaplin's stature would dare put across. But it's also beautifully directed.

Synopsis:

1914. Once-famous music hall performer Calvero (Charles Chaplin) is now an alcoholic. He rescues a suicidal ballerina, Thereza (Claire Bloom) and cares for her in his room while she recovers, trying to help her find a will to live. The experience gives them both the courage to seek the stage again. But Thereza ignores a young composer she loves to instead stay with Calvero. As she finds new success dancing, Calvero's attempt to reclaim the stage is a terrible failure.

There are a lot of speeches in Limelight. Calvero the Clown has wordy opinions on most every subject, including his own problems, and Chaplin the director gives him ample opportunity to express them all.

Early on, Calvero opines that he no longer trusts 'the masses', which he says are like a monster with no head -- vicious and unpredictable. This is clearly the director alluding to his own plight as a victim of America's Witch-Hunt years. Chaplin wrongly thought that calling himself an Internationalist would soothe the bloodhounds, and paid for it with political exile. Anyone who scoffs at Right-Wing politics in the early 50s should think hard on Chaplin's experience. He was expelled from the United States and basically refused an entry visa for the rest of his life. And that was when America still had its full list of civil liberties.

Limelight will enchant Chaplin diehards and grate on his detractors. It is sentimental in the extreme. Claire Bloom's Thereza character is a suicidal, undernourished failure, but after a few of Calvero's pep talks, bounces back to become the world's top dancer overnight. Some critics think that Thereza is really humoring Calvero with her promise of marriage and devotion, and that he is humoring her back. I don't see that kind of complication at work. Chaplin puts a lot of emotional depth into the role of the old master who knows he has to relinquish the stage to a new generation of talent, but this is still a very unambiguous story. Calvero's much-too-lengthy onstage performances are interesting because they're most likely authentic. They're definitely not funny, and we have to take Chaplin at faith to see Calvero as a name so big that London still reveres his memory years after he's disappeared from the stage.

Chaplin's honesty is Limelight's strongest virtue. Calvero fears losing his audience as if it were the only thing separating him from the jaws of Hell. When called a top professional he humorlessly replies that everyone's an amateur, because nobody lives long enough to be a pro. It's a succinct way of acknowledging that even after 40 years at the top of his craft, he feels he's just getting started.

If Charlie thought there was much of a parallel between himself and Calvero's simple clown he was fooling himself. One of the richest entertainers alive, Chaplin was able to keep his Hollywood studio open for years when he wasn't filming anything, and his exile back to Europe was anything but financially desperate. More importantly, Chaplin was never just a simple celebrity. He took personal responsibility for his fame and used it well for the social good (WW1 fund-raising). He practically pioneered the idea of leveraging celebrity to deliver social messages.

Limelight isn't a movie made by a talent in decline. Chaplin's straightforward blocking of scenes seems dated only because the pace is so slow, and his direction of his actors and especially himself is excellent. Claire Bloom is straight-jacketed by his direction but comes out on top by somehow doing well with several impossible-to-play moments ("Calvero! Calvero! Calvero!"). If Chaplin had any physical limitations at this age, he disguises them well -- he's just as light on his feet as ever. He does an impressive roll-and scissors lift during a stage act, and takes a scary tumble into the orchestra pit without a camera cut.  1

Charlie gives his elderly clown a sense of dignity even when he's drunk. It works because Calvero is no helpless victim (another dissimilarity with Chaplin). Calvero talks tough with his agent and doesn't break down when his stage act lays an egg. There's an excellent deleted scene on this disc that shows a gentlemanly encounter between Calvero and an old colleage, an armless entertainer who offers him a handout. The destitute Calvero accepts -- both Chaplin and The Tramp were always realists -- but only after a proper negotiation of honor. Calvero isn't too proud to be found busking in the streets for coins, but he keeps his dignity intact.

The melodramatic finale doesn't quite scream out, 'Me! Me!', as with the collected film works of someone like, say, Barbra Streisand. But it does come fairly close. Taking the prize for the wasted opportunity of the year is the casting of Buster Keaton as Calvero's nameless 'partner' in a musician gag. Buster provides sterling support, follows Chaplin's direction and never draws attention to himself. There's nothing wrong with the arrangement but it's impossible to imagine things reversed, to picture Chaplin playing second fiddle for any mortal being. Doubtless the two geniuses got along just fine, but, what we wouldn't give for a short scene where Calvero and his partner just talk over old times across a cup of coffee.

Unlike his earlier pictures, Limelight was shot on a relatively strict schedule, without extensive re-shoots or shutdowns to re-think the whole endeavor. Chaplin had Hollywood's hottest independent Assistant Director, Robert Aldrich, to help keep costs under budget. How Chaplin, Keaton and Aldrich might have interacted on the set, is difficult to contemplate.


Extra-wise, MK2/Warner's DVD of Limelight is just dandy, but the transfer suffers from (what I'm now willing to conclude) is a distractingly crude conversion from PAL to NTSC. Not only is the show sped up (see running times above), but most motions have that weird staccato shared-frame effect. Chaplin's beautiful Terry's Theme often seems too fast, especially under the titles. Owners of the earlier Image discs are advised to hang on to them.

Here's the goodie rundown: This time out, the Chaplin Today doc is essential viewing, as the details it gives of Charlie's exile are too lengthy to be covered in David Robinson's shorter Introduction. In my coverage of Modern Times I expressed my own shock at reading the diatribe leveled against Chaplin in the 1947 press; here we see documentation of the American Legion (with Ward Bond protesting up front) demanding Chaplin's deportation. We also see Chaplin's temp visa, granted for his brief visit to attend the Oscars in 1972. No wonder so few artists openly criticize the United States.

The deleted scene offers more detail on Thereza's stay in Calvero's rooms, that would have made a nice trade for one of Calvero's redundant performances.

Chaplin's original score is separately featured.

An excerpt from an unreleased 1919 short called The Professor shows Chaplin as the owner of a flea circus.

The photo gallery, trailers and poster art gallery are much like those on the other discs ...

... but the home movies are better than most, showing mostly Chaplin and his young family in Hollywood and in Switzerland. Little Geraldine poses in her ballet get-up complete with Red Shoes. Mrs. Chaplin, Oona, doesn't appear, so it's probably safe to assume she's behind the camera. Chaplin wanders around his childhood haunts in London posing in front of chosen buildings, but we have to guess at their significance.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Limelight rates:
Movie: Excellent, for Chaplin devotees
Video: Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: see above
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 14, 2003


Footnotes:

1. A worthy correction (?) from Richard Doss, 9.08.09:

Hello there. Been an avid reader for years & hate that my first correspondence with you is an attempt to challenge one of your conclusions in a given review as you're one of the few who is knowledgable enough & CARES enough to get historical or technical details right. But I just read your review of Chaplin's Limelight after watching it for the first time (on VHS tape, no less: I'm really paranoid about the PAL conversion speed-up you & others mention) and nearly splurted out my drink when you used the scene of Chaplin doing "an impressive roll-and-scissors-lift" as an example of the 62-year-old disguising his physical limitations.

Mr. Erickson, to my (experienced, if I may say so) eyes, the shot in question is clearly a trick shot, run in reverse, of Chaplin walking backwards onto the stage, going DOWN into a leg scissors, etc. It is, in short, an example of Chaplin's TECHNICAL skills trumping his (still not inconsiderable) physical prowess.

As for the pratfall into the pit, I didn't notice anything fishy on first viewing and I'm not about to double check it. Do you realize you have to fast-forward and rewind these VHS tape thingys to get to a scene? Barbaric!

-- with much affection, Richard Doss, Dallas, Texas
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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