Limelight: Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man

On Film / Essays — May 19, 2015
Limelight

This essay originally appeared as the introduction to a monograph on Limelight published by the Cineteca di Bologna in 2002, in English and Italian, and comprising archival documents and writings from the time of the film. Peter von Bagh, who died in the fall of 2014, was the artistic director of the Cineteca’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival as well as the cofounder and director of the Midnight Sun Festival in his native Finland. The text, written in English, has been slightly adapted for this release.

Limelight was to be Charlie Chaplin’s last American film, commenced half a decade after the end of World War II and ready for premiere in the fifth year of the Cold War, made by one of its victims, a “peacemonger” and a rebel who instead of taking the guise of the tramp is now an old clown.

It is a film by an immigrant of forty years. London is for the one and only time the center of his story, an emotional sum of elements that abound in his oeuvre and that Thomas Burke saw as the fascination of the city in his early work: “In every one of his films, there is something, a street, a park, a shop, that he immediately recognized as belonging to Lambeth or Walworth.” As Raoul Sobel and David Francis state, Chaplin “needed London as an actor needs his script.” But the reflexive nature of Limelight (1952) makes it equally a film about America (it is as much about America-England as anything Henry James wrote): the story of the old age of a famous clown and the sunset of an era (with the beginning of World War I as the subtle background). It was told at the time of another sunset in the annals of entertainment, the years of the Paramount decision, which spelled the death of Hollywood as it had been known—the culture that had given Chaplin celebrity and fame and that could now perhaps admit that he was a good filmmaker (although even that was denied in the case of 1947’s Monsieur Verdoux), if perhaps “not one of us” (as Zanuck said about Jean Renoir).

Interestingly, nowhere in the whole history of cinema is there a richer concentration of brilliant films on show, theater, and film than in the temporal surroundings of Limelight: The Pirate (1948), The Red Shoes (1948), The Tales of Hoffmann (1951), Sunset Boulevard (1950), The Love of the Actress Sumako (1947), Summer Interlude (1951), Variety Lights (1950), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), The Band Wagon (1953), The Golden Coach (1953), the definitive version of A Star Is Born (1954).

What, then, in this brilliant company, sets Chaplin’s masterpiece apart? Obviously, he was the only one who could concentrate the whole history on his face. It is not only the questions set (who am I? where are the authentic emotions?) but the person who asks them. Chaplin, as Burke had written already in 1932, “lives only in a role, and is lost without it,” and is thus “compelled to merge himself, or be merged, in an imagined and superimposed life.” Chaplin’s autobiography is memorably frank about this. He is in the middle of a crowd in Times Square as the electric sign flashes: “Chaplin signs with Mutual at $670,000 a year.” His reaction: “I stood and read it objectively, as though it were about someone else. So much had happened to me, my emotions were spent.”

The period of Limelight would also mark the first steps concerning the accusations surrounding Chaplin’s public persona. Here was, went the argument, a man who lived through the war basically without risk, while his fellow Englishmen died at the front. He was offering perhaps 1 percent of his income or some of his leisure time to charities—a position that made the artist a citizen but also a shadow. While this now reminds us of the allegations that followed Chaplin, we are also entering into the sense of alienation that he expresses mercilessly and—regardless of what is often ­written—without self-pity.

Limelight, the most emotional of films, is all about the death of emotions. When we think of Chaplin’s art of combining the abstract and concrete, the real and surreal, hard fact and dream, the present with the past and the imagined, of the effortless mixing of pantomime, ballet, burlesque, dialogue, and monologue into an indivisible whole, as simple as a moment in nature, we can well sense how far Limelight is from the ordinary Hollywood fare; it should sooner be placed among films like Citizen Kane, Ivan the Terrible, and Alf Sjöberg’s Miss Julie. The differences between life and art, the personal and the historical, and so on lose their point.

The film’s depiction of psychosis and fear is not only a private case but an image of an age; I’m sure a medical specialist could linger admiringly over the exactitude of Chaplin’s view of the border states, as well as the hysterical and psychosomatic horrors surrounding these two humans. Strange and threatening things are happening inside a human being, who is also the seismograph called a comedian. A few years later, films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Chaplin’s own often maligned A King in New York (1957) added important notions to this. But Limelight achieves the highest density. Behind its timelessness, there is clearly another dramaturgy.

Limelight is a historical film in the sense Chaplin admired when talking about the “poetic interpretation” of Ivan the Terrible (for him, “the acme of all historical pictures”). Its purpose was to achieve “a general effect of the period,” as Chaplin wrote about Eisenstein’s masterpiece. Indeed, I feel a strange fraternity between Eisenstein’s vision of Ivan the Terrible (who in a hidden and explosive way concentrates something of the contradictions and traits of Meyerhold, Stalin, and Eisenstein himself) and the dazzlingly original developments of Limelight (and, before it, Monsieur Verdoux, which André Bazin, the greatest of Chaplin commentators, so admirably placed in the context of the Chaplin/Tramp myth).

It is also another masked fable about father and son, a kind of story that preoccupied Chaplin from A Dog’s Life (1918) and The Kid (1921) to the bitter confrontations of A King in New York. As with the unrequited love theme, this was also always a figment of the imagination, a displaced fantasy. The first drunken steps of Calvero, caught with an incredible camera virtuosity, lead to this border area where everything is significant and poignant: Calvero’s story could concern Chaplin’s own father—or himself, if he had chosen to remain with Fred Karno and if cinema had not made him world famous at a dreamlike speed.

The key dates, as with any essential historical film, are dual, the time depicted and the time of the making of the film. The year 1914 marked the outset of the First World War and also Chaplin’s beginnings at Keystone. It would be his most amazing (and underestimated) creative outburst, an enormous, semiviolent ­collage—his first biography of himself and the state of the world.

Here is a whole world, cruel and concrete, so near to those of his spiritual brothers von Stroheim and Buñuel, and so far from the costume epics of the BBC. I’m reminded of Jean Renoir’s wonderful contemporary defense of Monsieur Verdoux. The text starts with a description of Renoir’s youth, a time when a wine could be identified as coming from a familiar village nearby, and proceeds to praise Chaplin’s artisanal spirit, “the almost peasantlike thriftiness of his sets . . . his wariness of technique for technique’s sake . . . his respect for the personalities of actors . . . that internal richness that makes us feel that each character just has too much to say.”

His is almost a definition of true cinematographic realism, as a multiplication of myth, dream, and memory. It is wisely based on contemporaneous artistic inventions, as Kozintsev and Trauberg had used the impressionists, the language of Zola, etc., for The New Babylon. Here are the painters, but in this case in the methods, the ways of thinking, the sense of lost time, caught perhaps most concretely in the small-stage episodes, inside Calvero’s apartment, as we get inside the feelings of a leaf, or in the odd story of Phyllis and Henry, the two fleas—told twice, the first time phantasmagorically, without a public. Of course, all this is such old hat, as Bazin points out, as are the more extensive production numbers, one of which is called “Spring Is Here”—naïveté that flows directly from a child’s school play, reminding one of The Kid and its sublimely naive dream sequence, and of Eisenstein’s point about Chaplin’s art being based on “the regard of the child.”

Horror and success are again connected in Chaplin’s imagination of the London of his early youth. The war is an understated element that gives tragic dimension and suspense to the “immemorial” mood of this gentle fusion of loss that is both personal and that of humanity. The depicted months of a somber 1914 were the very time the young Chaplin achieved celebrity and riches with a speed unlike anyone else in human history. Like Citizen Kane, Limelight is about both ultimate failure and ultimate success, or about the catastrophe of success, in a culture where there are no second lives and where a human being is worth only as much as his or her latest success.

Equally concentrated are the seemingly unrelated things, memories. Claire Bloom told about Chaplin’s obsession with objects and memories, how his mother had worn “a shawl of that color,” or details about the love of his youth, the mythical Hetty Kelly. “I quickly realized, even then, that some composite young woman, lost to him in the past, was what he wanted me to bring to life.” The “combined woman” is the core of Chaplin’s immense dramaturgical talent, making life and art, the personal and historical, interchangeable. This dreamlike combination reminds one with equal intuition of the experiments of Kuleshov and Vertov on montage and collage, and the setup of Vertigo and its view of a fiction replacing so-called reality.

This is also a key for understanding how idiotic the constant claims, from the establishment, about Chaplin as a conservative, old-fashioned filmmaker are. As a criticism about the basic fakery looming behind the surface skills of Hollywood, Chaplin’s challenge is as burning as ever in the present time of virtual realities and the virtues of the digital image. His concrete and physical films are—along with Bresson’s Notes sur le cinématographe—probably still the best lead to the core of the problem.

Formally, Limelight is not the linear, simplistic work many seem to think it, but nearer a cubist collage—an idea cherished in the 1920s by Moholy-Nagy and Léger (who brought his notion of Chaplin into his masterly Ballet mécanique)—as is well expressed by J. Hoberman, who calls Chaplin “the only mass culture figure one could bracket with high modernists Eliot and Joyce—a fitting subject for a cubist collage.”

If History is the raison d’être of Limelight, the dream mode defines its other, poetic interpretation. The pathways to Calvero’s imagination, accompanied by the melancholy magic of the street musicians, are opened with unequaled and almost violent cinematographic mastery, using the key of a dream, first a nightmare, then a fiction about happiness—an old man and a young girl, Calvero with Terry. There is more of a sense of a true-love story here than in any other film of Chaplin’s except City Lights (1931), perhaps curiously so, as this one does not relate to two young people nominally in love but centers on an illusory love between an old clown and a young dancer.

Both parties of this unfulfilled story of love are cripples. For Calvero, the trouble is of getting old, a problem as such and a very special one for a comedian. The professional life of film comedians seems to come to a natural end early, as happens to one other group—the ballet dancers around whom this temporality hangs from the beginning. There is one exception who defies this fate of Langdon, Keaton, Lewis—he being, of course, Chaplin himself, who gave such a mythical sense to his borrowed years, with a kind of imaginary biography taken to ghostly dimensions in Limelight. Surely, cinema and memory have never worked together more profoundly as “intermediary between shadow and reality” (Edgar Morin).

War, as illness, was an important ingredient in the melodrama of Griffith and Borzage. Paralysis, whether real or simulated or imagined, is here handled by a visionary and with the unsurpassed truth of melodrama. Limelight marks perhaps not the end of comedy but, along with Sirk’s films of the 1950s and An Affair to Remember (another memory picture), the end of melodrama in the noble sense of the word. Again, what sets Limelight apart is the totality of its range, and the way the themes of ennui, duration, boredom, illness, neurosis, old age, and paralysis are worked against the miracle of art.

Limelight sets the theme of entertainment in the midst of the après-guerre emotional landscape of such other strange borderland dramas as A Matter of Life and Death, Portrait of Jennie, and Orpheus. Art and death meet in the final sequence, after Calvero’s great number with a memorable colleague. Buster Keaton, the paragon of grace and movement, is now shabby and nearsighted, a loser in anything he’s trying to do onstage and probably also in life. Their performance of sublime monotony is based around Keaton’s notes falling again and again, the strings of Calvero’s violin breaking, and above all around the experience, like something directly from Kafka, of his legs starting to get shorter, all this leading to the monstrously effective staging of his own death. It is also Chaplin’s final illumination about the nature of laughter—or, as Francis Bordat writes, “The gag is a little death, and death is a grand gag.” Eric Rohmer says the same with different words in writing that “burlesque is the gesture of a man who is afraid, because fear imposes a gesture, a rhythm that leaves the norm.”

It would also be Chaplin’s last statement on the subject of violent death, which obsessed him both in The Great Dictator (1940) and Monsieur Verdoux, and sums up his preoccupation with other themes, like old age and the disappearance of the youthful, infantile mask of the Tramp. We are faced with an important study of old age, significantly never mentioned as such (perhaps because he was still in working life), and yet something deeper than those in Ikiru and Umberto D., from around the same time.
Remembering that Chaplin defined his conception of beauty as “an omnipresence of death and loveliness, a smiling sadness that we discern in nature and things,” I feel compelled to complement this with his words about death:

Death is such a terrible thing. A living creature is such a complicated organism, it shocks me to think it can be destroyed by anything so simple as one shot, which even a child can do. You can feel the bravado and strength of an individual, with a point of view and a spirit—and then so quickly it’s collapsed into a bag of useless nothing, permanently disintegrated.

Limelight is inescapably a personal film for each of us from the moment we see it for the first time. No matter if this happened under unfavorable stars, as was my own case. I was a zombie programmed into the humor of Abbott and Costello when my father took me to see the new Chaplin film. He praised Chaplin and swore that he was the funniest man on earth. So at the age of ten, I was sitting and watching Limelight. It was enough to alienate me from Chaplin for many years—as I didn’t laugh then, why should I give the guy another chance? Unknowingly, I had entered in the midst of Calvero’s trouble. From the eternity of the screen, he was clearly trying as desperately and vainly as myself to reach the happiness of laughter.

The contradictions of Limelight make it one of the most direct and most intriguing films of all time. It moves me to tears by the mere thought of it. This is the greatest of all memory films, and as always, the images and details we carry inside us for all our lives are not necessarily only the big themes and creations, the unforgettable inner beauty of Claire Bloom, but also details of objects, maybe a certain door, the sad face of Snub Pollard, the landlady Mrs. Alsop, or some ghostly familiar gesture by the director figure, another double for Chaplin himself, created so memorably by Norman Lloyd.