“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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!”
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
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
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.
Links for my previous reviews of Chaplin’s work are given below:
- The Year at Keystone, Part 1
- The Year at Keystone, Part 2
- Keystone and Essanay Days
- The Mutuals
- First National, Shoulder Arms, and The Kid
- The Idle Class, Pay Day, The Pilgrim, and A Woman of Paris
- The Gold Rush
- The Circus
- City Lights
- Modern Times
- The Great Dictator
- Monsieur Verdoux
- Simon Louvish’s Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey (book review)
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
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. [↩]
- Later, Calvero tells Terry to imagine a star, “sitting on its axis.” [↩]
- Does the trio play “The Honeysuckle and the Bee” in Limelight? I don’t know the answer to that one. [↩]
- Actually, neither quotes Dylan Thomas, but that’s the gist of it. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- He doesn’t say that. [↩]
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. [↩]
- Anyone who’s seen it remembers Claire Bloom yelling this three or four times during the picture. [↩]
- Bloom must have remembered Limelight as “that picture where I shouted a lot.” [↩]
- To hog the stage while your rivals and peers seethe helplessly in the wings is, I suspect, every performer’s dream. [↩]
- Kael’s takedown of Limelight is here. My takedown of Kael is here. [↩]