Charlie Chaplin‘s success was the 20th century’s quintessential achievement of “the American Dream”. The talented performer escaped poverty in London to become Hollywood’s highest paid actor during the silent era. Early Essanay productions like The Tramp (1915) and The Bank (1915) made him a star, and later United Artists productions like The Gold Rush (1925) and City Lights (1931) made him an icon.
However, Chaplin’s ascension was about more than rags to riches. When he founded United Artists in 1919 with D.W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford, he became one of the first filmmakers to have complete creative control over his films. He took advantage of this unprecedented partnership and made films that brilliantly bridge the gap between art and commerce. He understood cinematic language better than anyone else, but he never forgot that films were meant to entertain. Rather than forgo entertainment for art, or vice versa, he cleverly incorporated his artistic statements into enjoyable slapstick comedies. This approach to cinema set the standard for contemporary filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and studios like Pixar to produce artistically astute films for a mass audience.
To this day, Chaplin’s silent comedies are studied by students and rediscovered by cinephiles of all ages. Contemporary moviegoers consistently rank The Gold Rush and City Lights among the best films ever made, and cite his character the Tramp as one of cinema’s most beloved creations. When it comes to Hollywood history, there’s Chaplin, and then there’s everyone else.
This is why it’s particularly heartbreaking to learn that Chaplin was betrayed by the United States in the ’40s when he started to make more serious sound films. As a result of his political outspokenness and incidents in his private life, the majority of Americans turned their back on him, and in 1952, days before the London premiere of his third sound film Limelight (1952), Attorney General James P. McGranery revoked his re-entry permit to the US on moral and political grounds. Chaplin took McGranery’s decision personally, and chose to spend the rest of his days in Switzerland.
The Criterion Collection’s release of Limelight implies that it’s an important classic, but it wasn’t considered one in 1952. Chaplin’s reputation was all but ruined, and despite a warm reception in Europe, Limelight was boycotted by many movie theaters in the US that didn’t want to associate with Chaplin’s alleged communist sympathies. Like Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and A King in New York (1957), Limelight was rediscovered by American audiences decades after the Red Scare died down when they realized that Chaplin had more to offer than silent comedies, and that the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) did more harm than good. Criterion’s official release should finally give Chaplin the proper recognition he deserves for his sound films.
In Limelight, Chaplin plays Calvero, an aging vaudeville performer who was once beloved by audiences, but now lives alone in a small London flat. He’s an alcoholic, and spends most of his time daydreaming about the stage. When the film opens, he rescues a young ballerina (Claire Bloom) from a suicide attempt. The remaining scenes revolve around their intimate relationship as they grow to respect each other. Eventually, Calvero gives the ballerina a reason to live, and she, in turn, persuades him to perform for an audience again. The final scene famously pairs silent comedy legends Chaplin and Buster Keaton together in their only screen appearance, and they create a hilarious slapstick number involving musical instruments that should appeal to anyone who loves movies.
The most remarkable aspect of Limelight is its profound humanist message. Chaplin the person may have been discouraged by circumstances beyond his control, but Chaplin the filmmaker never succumbed to despair. If, as many moviegoers insist, Limelight is autobiographical, and the character Calvero is a stand-in for the star and filmmaker, then this is the most optimistic artistic statement of his career. With Limelight, Chaplin comes to terms with the decline of a once popular art form, which is symbolically linked to his mortality. Rather than bemoan the changing tide or curse the heavens for his unfair fate, he accepts reality and gracefully steps aside for the next generation of artists.
Although Chaplin made two feature-length sound films after Limelight, Limelight is considered his swan song because it’s the last film he made in Hollywood, and the last time he performed a significant vaudeville act on screen. His next film, A King in New York, has its moments, and it certainly deserves credit for its passionate political stance against the HUAC, but Limelight is undoubtedly the last time that Chaplin achieved cinematic greatness.
Criterion doesn’t disappoint with this pristine 4K digital restoration. The bonus features include an interesting video essay by biographer David Robinson that chronicles the evolution of the film’s production, interviews with actors Claire Bloom and Norman Lloyd about their experiences on set, a documentary about the film’s impact, and an archival audio recording of Chaplin reading excerpts from his novella Footlights, which historians believe to be an early version of the Limelight script. Most exciting of all, Criterion provides fans with two lesser-known early Chaplin shorts, A Night in the Snow (1915) and The Professor (1919).
Knowledge about Chaplin isn’t required to appreciate Limelight, but those that are well-versed will get more out of the film. Like Woody Allen‘s Stardust Memories (1980), Limelight contains many allusions to Chaplin’s life and work, and it helps to be aware of them. Chaplin novices are better off beginning with the silent classics like The Kid (1921) and The Circus (1928), whereas those already familiar with the Tramp’s adventures should proceed to the sound films. Limelight isn’t Chaplin’s most cinematically important film, nor is it his best, but it’s a deeply personal project that was made at a pivotal point in his life, and for the majority of moviegoers, that should suffice.