Bright Lights Film Journal

Looking at Charlie — <em>Limelight:</em> An Occasional Series on the Life and Work of Charlie Chaplin

“I have ideas!” If only that were true!

When you’re hot, you’re hot. And when you’re not, you’re not. In the summer of ’47, Charlie Chaplin was not hot. Monsieur Verdoux, the greatest gamble of his career, had been a resounding flop.1 In making Monsieur Verdoux he deprived himself of his derby, moustache, and cane and left himself no defense against the Philistines, whose name is Legion, particularly in Hollywood. There were plenty of people who had always wanted to stick it to Charlie, who thought he was “unAmerican,” and now they had their chance. First of all, he clearly thought he was better than other people, and what could be more unAmerican than that? Secondly, he was against war, which was like being against Our Boys in Uniform!

In addition to suffering from bad box office and bad press, a particularly unattractive chicken was coming home to roost for Charlie in the form of the (entirely merited) lawsuit that his former friend Leopold Bercovici brought against him for stiffing Leo for the money due him for developing the basic idea for The Great Dictator2. Chaplin had been stalling Leo for seven years, but at the trial Leo managed to outlawyer Charlie by hiring famous attorney Louis Nizer. After receiving a public grilling from Nizer, Charlie offered Leo $90,000 to go away — half of what he should have given Leo in the first place. Bercovici, with a family to support and not long to live, took the money. Coming on the heels of the Joan Barry paternity suit decided (unfairly) against him the year before, Charlie’s public image was taking a continued battering.

What would hurt Chaplin the most was the shifting public atmosphere in the U.S. as the nation, and the world, entered the Cold War. In early 1948, the Soviets engineered a coup in Czechoslovakia, the one country in Eastern Europe not dominated by communist parties under Soviet control. In June 1948, the Soviets initiated the Berlin Blockade.

Seeing the future in terms of the past, anti-communist intellectuals like Bertrand Russell and mathematician John Von Neumann were convinced that Stalin was another Hitler, pure and simple, and that these steps were the beginning of World War III. In fact, Stalin was preparing for World War III, but as a defender rather than an invader. He saw the previous world wars as struggles among the rival powers of bourgeois imperialism. He was happy to let the U.S., Britain, and France to fight it out among themselves. But if they wanted to come East, as they probably would, well, the Soviet Union would be ready for them. The killing fields of World War III would be in Germany and Poland, not the Soviet Union itself. The Americans could burn Berlin, and Warsaw, and Prague, but they would never get to Moscow.

Unsurprisingly, such subtleties were lost on the West. The brutal nature of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe, coupled with Stalin’s direct violation of Western treaty rights for access to Berlin, ensured that the Western powers never would or could trust the Soviets.

The shift in the political atmosphere proved disastrous for the thriving Communist community in Hollywood, who were too caught up playing in their own political sandbox to notice what was happening in the outside world. Chaplin always kept his distance from the Party itself,3 so he wasn’t directly affected by the Red Scare — in any event, no one could fire him — but he continued to be active in political causes promoted by the Communists, and press support for him continued to dwindle.

Despite these misfortunes, Chaplin still had a lot going for him. He had his money, he had his young and beautiful wife Oona, and he had a project, a novel that told the story of an old clown, Calvero, and a young ballet dancer.

The novel that Chaplin wrote that served as the basis for Limelight eventually stretched for more than a thousand pages. Undoubtedly, one could learn a lot about Chaplin from reading that book, but I’ve seen the movie, and it was lousy.

In Limelight, Chaplin set out to do directly what he had already done indirectly, to go behind the mask of comedy and depict the forces that drive it — the frenzied hunger for acceptance4 and the nightmarish fear of rejection. In my review of The Circus, I described Chaplin’s detailed descriptions of the great comedians he had known who, when they “lost it,” either committed suicide or dragged out lives of ignominious and anonymous despair. The Circus, in fact, is a film about “a clown and a ballet dancer” (a bare-back rider, actually, played by Myrna Kennedy. but she’s dressed like a ballerina), and it’s about the loneliness and despair of show business, and it’s a much, much better film than Limelight.

Chaplin, working with the now legendary James Agee5 to turn a thousand-page novel into a usable script, borrowed heavily from several other of his earlier films as well. “Terry” the ballet dancer (Claire Bloom), suffers from the ludicrously heavy-handed affliction of being unable to walk (it’s all in her head, of course), and naturally Calvero “cures” her, even as the Tramp cured the blind flower girl in City Lights.6 The philosophical discussions that Terry and Calvero have while she is bed-ridden are reminiscent of his discussions with “the Girl” (Marilyn Nash) in Monsieur Verdoux.

The melodrama in Chaplin films like The Kid and City Lights is pretty shameless, but it’s redeemed by Chaplin’s ability to endow these themes — the stolen boy, the blind girl given sight — with real emotion and pathos. In Limelight that doesn’t happen. Scenes of the most grotesque and incoherent melodrama are repeatedly hurled at us, without even the slightest attempt at justification (perhaps because none could be possible), shattering the most dogged Chaplin fan’s suspension of disbelief. We simply don’t believe what we’re seeing. One can only wince at the sight of Claire Bloom, given the most ridiculous lines, which she’s compelled to shout out at the top of her lungs, over and over again.7

In its own way, Chaplin’s performance was even worse. Ninety percent of Monsieur Verdoux was Charlie telling the world what to think, but 10 percent of the time the world talked back to him. In Limelight that doesn’t happen. Charlie’s always right, and the world is always wrong. Even though the “point” of Limelight is that eventually, the limelight must pass from the old to the young, in fact Chaplin doesn’t let that happen. The limelight never wavers; its stays on him to the very end.

Chaplin had reached the point in his career that many “great” stars reach — and Chaplin was a great star without quotation marks, was, in fact, the greatest star ever — when they’re tired of performing.8 What is performing, after all, but begging, begging for applause? Why should a great star beg? Of course, Chaplin still wanted the applause. But he wanted it just for being himself.

Chaplin worked on Limelight for years — it finally arrived on the screen in 1952 — giving him a convenient escape from a constantly darkening political atmosphere. What makes the film so frustrating is “what could have been.” In a nod, surely, to his parents, Chaplin sets the action in the world of the English music hall, in London “in late 1914.”9 As Calvero, he appears onstage a number of times, and it always appears that his act is about to take off, but sadly it never does. One is left with the strong impression that if Chaplin had been willing to do authentic music hall songs, drawing on his own remembrances, it would have been terrific. Instead, he insists on using his own songs. Chaplin was not much of a composer, and as a lyricist he was pretty wretched. Worst of all, he frequently seems uncomfortable onstage, grimacing nervously, going too fast, or trying too hard — which, considering the quality of his material, isn’t surprising. The worse a performer’s material is, the harder he has to work to sell it, and — frequently — the worse the results.

As the film opens we see Chaplin as “Calvero,” a man dressed with old-fashioned formality. As he walks clumsily up the stoop to his boardinghouse and struggles to insert the key in the lock, we finally figure out that he’s supposed to be drunk.10 Chaplin had more or less abandoned slapstick in Monsieur Verdoux and, when he tried to come back to it in Limelight, had clearly forgotten how to do it. He didn’t want to do the hard work of developing and polishing gags, both in terms of concept and execution. The fabulous physical dexterity of his early comedies had entirely deserted him. He was an old, heavy man now, who wanted to do nothing but sit and pontificate, which he could do by the hour.

Calvero enters the rooming house and smells gas. Poor Terry (Claire Bloom), the girl downstairs, has tried to commit suicide. He saves her, naturally, but the cranky landlady Mrs. Alsop (Marjorie Bennett) has already rented her room to someone else, which means that Calvero will have to take care of her in his rooms, to Mrs. Alsop’s immense disgust. The fact that the young, beautiful Terry finds life meaningless provides endless opportunities for neo-Schopenhauerian11 posing and posturing on Calvero’s part, delivered with limitless self-satisfaction on Chaplin’s part: “Life is not a meaning, child! Life is a desire! It’s what makes a rose want to be a rose, and a rock want to be a rock!” His imitations of a rose wanting to be a rose and a rock wanting to be rock don’t thrill me, but Terry naturally finds them enchanting.

When Calvero’s not talking Terry’s ear off, he’s dreaming about his old act. We see him doing a flea circus routine that Chaplin first worked out in the twenties, filming it in an abortive short in which he played a sort of confidence man rather than the Tramp. This footage is available now, but neither version is very funny.12 The Calvero version is worse because of the lame patter song that Chaplin sings, further marred by lame blue humor on Chaplin’s part, which runs through the film — “They don’t eat caviar, they don’t eat cake, but they do enjoy a nice rump steak, from my anatomy.”13

When Calvero’s onstage, he wears awful “Tramp” makeup, making him appear both artificial and pathetic. Chaplin was reaching for something here (I guess), but I have no idea what it was. Midway through his act, Calvero looks at his audience and sees nothing but empty seats! He wakes up in horror. He’s lost it! He isn’t funny anymore!

In the second dream sequence, Calvero imagines performing with Terry, and we get more “bottom” humor, with Terry bending over to adjust her shoe with her fanny facing the audience, delighting little boys and old men but not, I suspect, the rest of the crowd. Calvero is reciting a very tiresome patter song when Terry appears, about worms squirming and whales churning, a sort of music hall version of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It,” except not funny. They engage in some extremely clumsy banter and then exit to great applause.

These scenes are intercut with brief clips showing a trio of street musicians (they later turn out to be buddies of Calvero). In my review of The Circus I quoted Chaplin’s description of a late night encounter with street musicians when he was a boy that he clearly never forgot:

It was approaching midnight and Kennington Cross was deserted but for one or two stragglers. All the lights in the shops began going out except those of the chemist and the public houses. I felt wretched.
Suddenly there was music. Rapturous! It came from the vestibule of the White Hart corner pub, and resounded brilliantly in the empty square. The tune was “The Honeysuckle and the Bee,”14 played with radiant virtuosity on a harmonium and clarinet. I had never been conscious of melody before, but this one was beautiful and lyrical, so blithe and gay, so warm and reassuring. I forgot my despair and crossed the road to where the musicians were. The harmonium-player was blind, with scarred sockets where eyes had been; and a besotted, embittered face played the clarinet.

When he isn’t dreaming, Calvero is waiting on Terry hand and foot and lecturing her on Life with a capital “L”. Think of the universe, bursting with energy! Use that energy! Life is always a struggle! You must fight, fight against it! Your problem is, you’re fighting yourself!

Then out of the blue Calvero gets a telegram from his agent. It’s a job! Chaplin overacts terribly here, acting as if he had received a summons from the Queen, or even God himself. What follows is a long, drawn-out sequence designed to show Calvero enduring every possible humiliation, even though, taken as a whole, the items just don’t add up. Calvero goes to his agent, who lets him sit in his waiting room all day. When Calvero gets inside and starts to talk about terms and billing, the agent informs him that, well, the theater doesn’t really want him at all! It’s the agent’s idea! Nobody cares about Calvero these days. He’ll take what he’s given and be grateful! Anyway, it’s not a done deal yet. Calvero should go home and wait for a telegram.

Calvero returns home and gets some further bad news. Terry can’t walk! It’s all in her mind, of course, but what’s to be done? Don’t even bother to ask. This Freud fellow is nothing compared to Calvero! He analyzes Terry and provides physical therapy as well, dragging her to her feet and starts “dancing” with her. Her feet refuse to cooperate, but who can resist such enthusiasm?

Eventually, Calvero gets the telegram. He’s got two weeks at the Middlesex. Cautiously, he decides he won’t tell Terry, not just yet. We cut to him onstage in his tramp costume, doing a not at all funny song, “O for the Life of a Sardine.” The patter that follows is so bad that the crowd walks out on him before he can even finish the setup. Reeking of flop sweat, he stumbles backstage and starts to remove his makeup, the camera in effect being his mirror. His greasepaint, his shield against the world, has failed him, and he’s removing it now for perhaps the last time. He has no defenses now against the terrors that wait outside, none at all. As Chaplin wipes the paint from his face with a towel, the camera moves in for a closeup. Chaplin holds the towel over his mouth as a way of hiding his despair, even as he hid his mouth with his fingers in the fadeout that concludes City Lights.

Crushed, he comes home and eventually tells Terry the truth. In a painfully, shamelessly melodramatic scene, she gives him the same “green fuse that drives the flower”15 speech that he gave her, rising to her feet in her enthusiasm. Suddenly she realizes, she can walk! “I can walk, Calvero! I can walk!”

Now it’s Terry’s turn to get an audition, and she’s a hit. (Melissa Hayden does the dancing for her.) The managers hustle her off to talk business with their new star, and Calvero sits alone on the wings, forgotten. She doesn’t need him anymore. She’s a star and he’s been left behind. The look of despair on Chaplin’s face echoes the look he showed in The Kid when Jackie Coogan was taken from him, and at the end of The Circus, when he sits alone, watching the circus wagons depart, bearing with them both the bare-back rider and her handsome new husband.

He sits there as the lights go out, holding his handkerchief over his mouth. But then Terry comes back. With tears in his eyes, Calvero tells her, “My dear, you’re a true artist.” Terry one-ups him with a sudden declaration of love. “Calvero, marry me!”

He doesn’t take her seriously and, anyway, rehearsal’s starting. She’s the lead and he’s got a bit part as a clown.16 This leads to scenes with Chaplin wearing traditional whiteface clown makeup, and again makeup seems to have a special meaning for Chaplin that doesn’t come across in the film, at least not to me. I’ve seen several illustrations for the film of Chaplin wearing the makeup that show him as the “tragic clown,” the tawdry greasepaint concealing the heartbreak within, which would make sense if Calvero felt abandoned by Terry, but he doesn’t.

On opening night, Chaplin can’t, or at least doesn’t, resist applying one final, absurd twist of the melodramatic knife. As Terry goes on, she panics. I can’t walk! I can’t walk! Calvero (of course) slaps her in the face. Get out there and dance! You’re going out there a nobody but you’re coming back a star!17

Terry’s a smash, of course, and Calvero’s so happy for her! On her night of triumph he slips away. It’s time for her to forget her girlish fantasizes about him. Neville, that young composer chap who wrote the music for the ballet (Sydney Chaplin18), he’s the man for her. But Terry won’t be dissuaded. She loves Calvero!19

Calvero overhears Terry turning down Neville. She will never leave Calvero, she says. Then Calvero must leave her. She swears she will kill herself if he leaves her. She only cares for Calvero!20

When she puts it like that, Calvero can’t quite leave, but then he gets a little push. It seems the suits don’t think he’s funny! They’re auditioning a replacement! Well, there’s only so much an old clown can put up with, so Calvero slips away, and gets a gig in a bar with his street musician pals, while Terry tours the world. Presumably, months pass. Then, in a rather forced coincidence, both Neville and the ballet company’s manager walk in on Calvero’s act, and they tell Terry. She tracks him down. She’s still in love with him, but, in a seriously maudlin scene, he still denies her. Chaplin just can’t get enough of letting us know how noble he is.

But if Calvero won’t marry Terry, at least he will come back to London for “the greatest event in theatrical history,” a salute to Calvero, starring all the top acts in Europe, plus Calvero himself! If you’re asking yourself how a forgotten actor who’s been a flop the last few times he’s ventured on the stage can merit such a tribute, you’re not alone. Calvero doesn’t want sympathy — he says that several times — but he’s an old trouper. He’ll go on.

What follows is yet another outburst of Chaplinesque egotism. After taking a shot of booze, Calvero does his old, unfunny flea circus act, and the audience — supposedly, the elite of all Europe is there — roars with laughter. He follows that with “O for the Life of a Sardine” and the crowd goes wild.

His laughs are so huge that the show is running twenty minutes behind schedule. The other acts are complaining, but that’s just too bad. Calvero is huge! The crowd is demanding an encore and they’re going to get it. The other acts aren’t important. They’ll have to wait!21

If you thought the picture couldn’t get worse, well, it does. Chaplin decided that he would do his old rival Buster Keaton a big favor and put him in the picture. That is, if Buster were still alive. In fact, Buster was very much alive, with his own West Coast TV show. Buster couldn’t resist appearing with Chaplin, but he should have, because their appearance together is an enormous disappointment. “I’ve got some ideas I’ve been working on,” Calvero tells Terry when she first catches up with him in the bar. “Really very funny.” If only that were true! Chaplin, in a ridiculous outfit, is aggressively unfunny, while Buster has practically no material. The seconds slide by like minutes until the bit is through.

As a topper, Calvero topples into the orchestra pit and is brought out wedged in a bass drum. Funny! But the audience doesn’t know that he’s had a heart attack! He’s dying! Ever the trouper, Calvero refuses to let the audience know he’s in pain. He has the stagehands carry him onstage so he can make one last joke. The guy never quits!

They carry him off so that he can have yet another round of tear-jerking dialogue with Terry. “I’ve got ideas,” he tells her. “We’ll tour the world.” Drawing his last breaths, he watches her dance, but it’s not until Calvero is not only dead but covered with a burial cloth that Chaplin will actually take the camera off himself and let us see Terry/Melissa dance. Even when Chaplin’s dead he hogs the stage.


As lame and self-indulgent as Limelight is, it had a remarkable three-, five-, or even seven-carom billiard shot impact on American culture, because it helped turn a feckless, failed playwright named Pauline Kael into a film critic. Lawrence Van Gelder tells the story in his obituary for Kael in the New York Times: “The turning point in her life came, as in a Hollywood script, when she was discovered in a coffee shop in the Bay Area in 1953. She was arguing about a movie with a friend when the editor of City Lights magazine asked them each to review Chaplin’s Limelight. The friend turned in nothing. Ms. Kael’s review called the film ‘slimelight,’ and a career was born.”22

Links for my previous reviews of Chaplin’s work are given below:

  1. According to the IMDB, Monsieur Verdoux has yet to turn a profit (estimated cost for the film is $2 million, in 1947 dollars), a little surprising considering Chaplin’s immense prestige in Europe, where, one would think, the film’s vague but persistent anti-bourgeois theme would have been an effective selling point. I gave the film a negative review here, but Monsieur Verdoux has plenty of online supporters. []
  2. Bercovici’s six-page treatment outlined the double role for Charlie as barber/dictator and suggested that Hitler/Hynkel be portrayed as a “mad king.” It was also Becovici’s idea to have Hynkel dance with the globe. []
  3. In 1951, Alvah Bessie, one of the “Hollywood Ten” who went to jail for contempt of Congress, met with Chaplin to pitch the idea of a movie based on Don Quixote. Chaplin declined and then rambled on about things of concern to himself but not to Bessie. When Bessie finally got up to leave, Chaplin gave him a hundred-dollar bill, a gesture that Bessie found less than comradely. []
  4. In a letter written in 1945, Thomas Mann describes attending a dinner with Chaplin at a friend’s house: “For three hours I laughed until I cried.” Chaplin had been one of the most famous men in the world for thirty years, but he still wanted, and needed, an audience. []
  5. Agee, making a living as film reviewer for Time magazine, was almost uniquely enthusiastic about Monsieur Verdoux and got to know Chaplin while Charlie was in New York to publicize the film. Agee is now famous for his work on The African Queen and The Night of the Hunter. Working on Limelight, it seems, taught him how not to make a picture. []
  6. All of Chaplin’s features are about “saving” someone. The Tramp saves the Kid from the orphanage (as Charlie was unable to save himself). In The Gold Rush he saves Georgia from a life of aimless sexual dependency. In City Lights he restores the Blind Girl’s sight. In Modern Times he saves “the Gamin” from poverty. In The Great Dictator he saves Hanna from prison and (hopefully) the world from World War II. []
  7. Bloom was 21 when Limelight was released. It was her first starring role and her first real picture. I don’t know if working for Chaplin made her tough or she came out the womb that way, but sixty years later, she’s still working. []
  8. Classic examples of the “why should I beg for it” syndrome include John Lennon, Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Steve Martin, and Jim Carrey. These days, it is “easy” for a performer to become very rich and very famous in a decade, so that there seems no point in going on. Notable troupers include Frank “Money don’t applaud” Sinatra and Mick “Sir Michael Keith” Jagger, who, at age 70, still gives a very good impression of Mick Jagger. []
  9. A London that, it appears, was spared the rigors of World War I. One of the characters gets drafted, but no one seems to mind that every day a thousand young men were getting slaughtered in the trenches of Belgium and France. []
  10. Calvero is drunk several times during the film, and he’s never funny. Charles Chaplin senior, married to Charlie’s mother but probably not his father, was a music hall performer who died of alcoholism, and Chaplin never drank. There’s a random theme in the picture that Calvero (maybe) ruined his career because he stopped drinking before going on. The one time in the picture that he gets laughs onstage, he does drink beforehand. []
  11. As I’ve noted previously, Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, which argues that life is a self-willed illusion, was Chaplin’s bible. []
  12. The only flea circus act that ever made me laugh (and it made me laugh a lot) was Jackie Gleason’s. The basic gag, if you’ve never seen one, is that (of course) there are no fleas. We “see” the fleas only by watching the impresario eyes as they “follow” their movement. Gleason’s act, unlike Chaplin’s, featured miniature acrobatic equipment (see-saws, high chairs, etc.) that would move when the fleas went into their act. One thing Gleason could do better than Chaplin was roll his eyes (Chaplin has to move his whole head). I doubt if Jackie’s act is available, because the suits have decreed that only the “Honeymooners” skits from his original variety show are marketable. []
  13. Later, Calvero tells Terry to imagine a star, “sitting on its axis.” []
  14. Does the trio play “The Honeysuckle and the Bee” in Limelight? I don’t know the answer to that one. []
  15. Actually, neither quotes Dylan Thomas, but that’s the gist of it. []
  16. Calvero’s clown scene in the ballet leads to a fortunately brief bit in which he steals some eggs and hides them in the seat of his pants. Naturally, he gets kicked in the ass and walks uncomfortably about. []
  17. He doesn’t say that. []
  18. As might be imagined, Syd gives a subdued performance. You don’t upstage Dad in his own picture. Sidney Chaplin had limited success in Hollywood but enjoyed a great deal of it on Broadway, winning a Tony for his performance in Bells Are Ringing. []
  19. Anyone who’s seen it remembers Claire Bloom yelling this three or four times during the picture. []
  20. Bloom must have remembered Limelight as “that picture where I shouted a lot.” []
  21. To hog the stage while your rivals and peers seethe helplessly in the wings is, I suspect, every performer’s dream. []
  22. Kael’s takedown of Limelight is here. My takedown of Kael is here. []