Release Date: 16 October 1952
Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin
Duration: 137 minutes
With: Claire Bloom, Sydney Chaplin, Nigel Bruce, Buster Keaton, Norman Lloyd, Wheeler Dryden
Story: A past-his-prime comic saves a young dancer from suicide, and in forming an unlikely relationship the pair find ways to encourage each other in life.
Production: For Charles Chaplin, 1952’s Limelight—the penultimate film in which he’d play a leading role—was a comforting look back at where his career as an entertainer began, on the stages of the UK’s music hall circuit. It came at a difficult time in his life, when his politics finally caught up with him and he found himself forced into involuntary exile from the United States. This look back at the simpler days of vaudeville was originally intended by Chaplin to be his final film.
Following the controversies surrounding Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin had attracted unwanted attention from various agencies of the US Government. In 1947, after he was ambushed by journalists at the press conference for Verdoux, a New York congressman called for his deportation from the country as his presence was ‘detrimental to the moral fabric of America’. The bad press from the Joan Barry affair—although it had been proven scientifically that he was not the father of her child—still hung over Chaplin, despite the fact he was now happily married to Oona O’Neill.
The House Un-American Activities Committee, that was to prove a thorn in the side of so many in Hollywood, also turned its attention to Chaplin that July. Chaplin referred them to his most recent film, Monsieur Verdoux, if they wanted to know his views. ‘It is against war,’ said Chaplin in a letter to HUAC, ‘and the futile slaughter of our youth. I trust you will not find its humane message distasteful. … I will give you a hint on where I stand—I am not a Communist. I am a peace-monger.’ He was ultimately not called to give testimony before the committee.
The year after, 1948, saw the Immigration and Nationalisation Service (INS) on Chaplin’s case. An investigator visited his house on Summit Drive in the company of an FBI agent and a stenographer to record Chaplin’s responses to their intrusive questioning. Chaplin was intending a visit to London and his application for a re-entry certificate (required as he was not a US citizen) had attracted the attention of the INS, no doubt helped by his notoriety in the wake of the Barry case and Monsieur Verdoux. Once again, he was questioned about his supposed Communist affiliations. His vague, non-committal answers to most of the queries were enough to secure him a re-entry document, this time, if he would add his signature to the stenographer’s record of the meeting. Chaplin’s lawyer advised him not to do so, as if anything were to arise that contradicted his answers he could be charged with perjury. Chaplin did not sign, but neither did he make the planned trip to London, concerned about his ability to re-enter the United States, where his work and family were all based.
Chaplin had been disturbed by all these developments, writing in 1947: ‘Hollywood is dying. I have made up my mind to declare war on Hollywood and all its inhabitants. Before long, I shall perhaps leave the United States.’ His seeming rejection by both the country and the business that had adopted him, as well as his audience, fed into Chaplin’s nostalgia for times that were both simpler and yet harsher. As he aged, he spent more times recalling his beginning in the Victorian London slums.
That train of thought fed into his next movie, the final film he would make in the Unite States. By 1948 he was working on a project entitled ‘Footlights’—although he always intended it to be a film, he’d begun building the narrative in the form of a novella. He dictated his story, breaking occasionally to work on developing tunes with his piano that, as Peter Ackroyd puts it ‘might help to evoke the spirit of London immediately before the First World War’, filtered through the earlier London of his childhood. Although autobiographical in nature, the story as it unfolded was not about Chaplin himself, but a Chaplinesque figure that he would undoubtedly play. Towards the end of 1950, the novella had turned into a screenplay now called Limelight.
The story centred on a Victorian-era stage performer called Calvero, a man whose failure at becoming a dramatic actor led him into a life as a clown in vaudeville. Far from a natural comic, the well-past-his-prime Calvero had come to despise the audiences who laughed so easily at his antics. As much as he was drawing upon his own memories and experiences, Chaplin was also striving to reflect those of his performer parents (although in his book My Autobiography he claimed to have based Calvero on stage actor Frank Tinney). In putting Calvero into a relationship with a young ballet dancer named Terry, Chaplin was reflecting his more recent life with Oona O’Neill. After a seven month search for the right person, he cast then-20-year-old Claire Bloom in the role partly due to her uncanny resemblance to his wife.
Rehearsals for Limelight began in September 1951. Chaplin’s production methods had changed considerably since the early days of 1914 when he and a gang of clowns could simply turn up to a Los Angeles park, camera equipment in hand, and make up a slapstick entertainment on the spot. The rehearsal period was partly mandated by the need for Bloom to train to master her role as a ballerina (she would be doubled in some bed scenes by Oona O’Neill). Filming actually began in November, and while as involved in every detail as before, Chaplin followed his recent, more efficient production process on Limelight.
During his professional decline, Calvero (Chaplin), a former ‘tramp comedian’, takes in Terry Ambrose (Bloom) during a psychosomatic illness that has left her unable to use her legs, and so unable to perform as a ballerina. Together they face the world as their fortunes change. Flashbacks in dreams give us a glimpse of Calvero at his peak, and allowed Chaplin to finally find a home for his long-in-gestation flea circus routine. There are flashes here of Chaplin’s original few years of work as the Tramp at Keystone. Here we see the more physical comedy that Chaplin pioneered on film from 1914, when Limelight is set. Bloom is a little earnest, or even melodramatic, in her role (her first on film), while Chaplin’s son Sydney just about adequately plays her putative love interest, a composer. Chaplin himself is great, making the best use of his mellifluous voice in his philosophical conversations with Terry. At the end, Calvero dies unlike Chaplin, almost on-stage.
Although set in London, all of Limelight was filmed in Los Angeles, largely at Chaplin’s own studio, but also on Paramount’s standing street set (for Calvero’s home) and at RKO Studios (for the music hall sequences). Some sequences used shaky back-projected scenes of London (or, in one scene, a blatant still photo) to give the film a geographical anchor, although Chaplin was as uninterested in such ‘special effects’ as he had been during the making of Monsieur Verdoux. Chaplin shot Limelight across 55 days (longer than the optimistically-planned for 36 days filming), and believing it was likely to be his final film, he put his children in a variety of roles.
Assisting Chaplin on the project was Robert Aldrich, who’d later make his mark as a director in male-driven action films. His 1955 film The Big Knife, starring Jack Palance, was an insider’s look at life and love in Hollywood. Chaplin also hired Russian emigre Eugene Lourie as his production designer, charged with bringing the London of his childhood to cinematic life. Lourie had previously worked with Jean Renoir and would go on to become a director himself (best known for such sea monster movies as The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, 1953, The Giant Behemoth, 1959, and Gorgo, 1961).
While much of Limelight—a film that is overlong by at least half-an-hour—is maudlin and self-regarding, it is well-remembered for the only screen pairing of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. In his early days Chaplin had worked with such figures as Mabel Normand and Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, whom he later came to eclipse in terms of productivity and popularity. Chaplin was a contemporary of both Keaton and Harold Lloyd (and Lloyd had a serious claim to having been the most popular of the three comics with audiences). For the final musical number of Limelight, Chaplin brought in Keaton as his stage partner partly due to the fact that his comic rival had fallen on hard times following a divorce and loss of his fortune.
The unnamed character role was a small one, but in bringing in Keaton, Chaplin elevated the sequence to a piece of classic comedy that has outlived the film that originally contained it. Chaplin’s former publicist Harry Crocker, now working for him again on Limelight, realised that this pairing was a momentous occasion, so he invited a selection of entertainment journalists to attend the filming to watch the two old vaudevillians at work.
For this sequence, Chaplin was reported to have relaxed his rigid control over everything he filmed, giving Keaton the space in which to develop his own comic routines. Conflicting rumours have arisen concerning the filming of this sequence. The first is that Chaplin cut much of Keaton’s work as he feared his display of skill and comic timing might overwhelm that of the star of the film. The second is that Chaplin cut back elements of his own performance in order to enhance that of Keaton. At this far a remove and with conflicting eye-witness accounts, it is hard to tell what might be true. The resulting scene, however it was arrived at, is a comic masterpiece that rises head-and-shoulder above the rest of the rather self-indulgent Limelight.
When Limelight was released in October 1952, Chaplin summed up the critical reaction as ‘lukewarm’, which is at least better than outright hostility. Many critics noted how much this once silent comedian, who had so actively resisted the sound film for so long, now rather liked the sound of his own voice. This reaction was best summed up by Walter Kerr: ‘From the first reel of Limelight, it is perfectly clear that Chaplin now wants to talk, that he loves to talk, that in this film he intends to do little but talk!’ For others, though, Chaplin’s best moments in Limelight came with Calvero’s contemplative silences, where according to critic Robert Warshow Chaplin’s ‘true profundity’ lay.
Some welcomed the chance to see a less political, more personal Chaplin on the screen again. The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther called the film ‘a brilliant weaving of comic and tragic strands, eloquent, tearful, and beguiling with supreme virtuosity’. Variety described Chaplin himself as ‘at times, magnificent’ while criticising how ‘too much talk’ became tedious. The Washington Post dubbed the movie ‘over-long and under-disciplined’ but celebrated its theme of ‘human companionship’, concluding that ‘for all its shortcomings, Limelight is a creative, distinguished film’.
Limelight, however, did not get a wide release across the United States. It was not seen much beyond the East Coast and New York area in 1952, with many cinema chains simply refusing to show the picture in reaction to Chaplin’s unfavourable public profile following the Joan Barry scandal and the fuss over his personal politics. Several Los Angeles theatres dropped planned screenings of the film when threatened by anti-Chaplin pickets on behalf of the American Legion (the organisation attempted to have release of the film entirely banned across the US). This situation, bizarrely, allowed Chaplin to win his first competitive Oscar, even if somewhat belatedly. The film was re-released in 1972, by which time it had picked up a more positive critical reputation, and as this release saw its first screenings in Los Angeles Limelight was eligible for contention in that year’s Academy Awards. As a result, Chaplin (along with collaborators Ray Rasch and Larry Russell) won the Oscar for Best Music, Original Dramatic Score for Limelight.
As if anticipating the problems to come, Charlie Chaplin set about winding up some of his business affairs in the United States in the early-1950s. After completing the shooting of Limelight, the fastidious Chaplin put his financial affairs in order, locking the most important papers in a home safe to which only he and his wife had keys. He reassigned his ownership of stock in United Artists to Oona, and put her name on his bank accounts, also giving her power of attorney should anything happen to him.
United Artists had been largely profitable since the late-1930s, although the business had declined in recent years. Chaplin’s involvement in the company had been minimal. Various management teams had come and gone, as had various ‘output’ deals with independent studios that would see UA distribute their films. By the start of the 1950s, only Mary Pickford and Chaplin remained of the original founders. They had allowed producers Arthur B. Krim and Robert Benjamin to run UA for a period of 10 years, with a view to them becoming co-owners if they were successful. The pair quickly released two successful films, The African Queen (1951) and Moulin Rouge (1952), both directed by John Huston. By 1955, following his departure from the US (see below), Chaplin had sold his 25 per cent of the company directly to Krim and Benjamin for just over $1 million. That left Pickford, who followed suit just a year later, selling up for $3 million. For the first time, United Artists was free to pursue a new destiny without any of its illustrious founders. Krim and Benjamin would take the company public in 1957, and decades of success (backing the James Bond franchise) and trouble (several near bankruptcies and takeovers, including by MGM and Turner) followed.
Chaplin wanted to launch Limelight in London, so he applied for a re-entry permit to allow his return to the United States afterwards. Perhaps to his own surprise, after a slight delay, he was awarded the necessary permit. This allowed Chaplin and family to depart America fairly secure in the knowledge that they could easily return. Two days into his September sailing to the United Kingdom aboard the Queen Elizabeth, Chaplin was informed that his re-entry permit had been revoked. He could not return to the United States, where he had lived and worked for the better part of four decades, without submitting himself to hostile interrogation about his political beliefs and affiliations and even his ‘moral character’. According to the then Attorney General, James McGranery, Chaplin was ‘in my judgement, an unsavoury character’ who was unlikely to be allowed back to the country. Chaplin’s co-owner in United Artists called McGranery’s statement ‘beneath the dignity of the great United States’.
The comedians initial reaction was to declare his unequivocal intention to return once he had launched Limelight in London. He would, he said, be more than happy to face any allegations or accusations that could be made against him—after all, he’d taken on both Joan Barry and HUAC and triumphed. At the back of Chaplin’s mind, however, was the potential loss of all his financial assets (his studio, bank accounts, and various remaining investments) if they were to be seized by the government—this would mean for him a return to the childhood poverty he had been running from all his life. He’d been lucky to avoid the financial crash of 1929, so he wasn’t prepared to lose everything to the American government without a fight.
In November, Chaplin had Oona return to Hollywood via New York, where she spent several days retrieving Chaplin’s financial papers and redirecting his assets, including shifting over $4 million to European banks. She closed up Chapin’s home on Summit Drive, where he had lived the longest, and arranged for the furniture to be shipped to Europe. In her absence, Chaplin was said to be suffering a form of nervous exhaustion, fearing she might die in a plane crash or somehow be detained by FBI agents. It was no fanciful fear, as Oona found that FBI agents had been questioning the staff who remained at Summit Drive, clearly preparing a ‘morals’ case against Chaplin. Many in his circle of friends, work colleagues, and acquaintances were questioned, but little of any value was ultimately uncovered. However, once Oona was back safely in London, it was clear to Chaplin that his days as a non-citizen of the United States had firmly come to an end.
Trivia: Writing of Chaplin’s predicament, Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper said the comedian did not have the right ‘to go against our customs, to abhor everything we stand for, to throw our hospitality back in our faces’, no matter how good his films might have been, how long he’d been resident in the United States, or how widely he’d been acclaimed for his art. ‘Good riddance to bad company,’ she concluded.
Charlie Says: ‘When Limelight was finished, I had fewer qualms about its success than any other picture I had ever made. … We began thinking of leaving for Europe, for Oona was anxious to send the children to school there, away from the influence of Hollywood. … It was a poignant day when we left for New York. While Oona was making final household arrangements, I stood outside on the lawn viewing the house with ambivalent feelings. … I felt wistful about leaving it.’—Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964
‘[PR man Harry Crocker] called me into his cabin and read the cable. It stated that I was to be barred from the United States and that before I should re-enter the country I would have to go before an Immigration Board of Enquiry to answer charges of a political nature and of moral turpitude. … Every nerve in me tensed. Whether I re-entered that unhappy country or not was of little consequence to me. … I was fed up with America’s insults and moral pomposity. The whole subject was damned boring, but everything I possessed was in the States and I was terrified they might find a way of confiscating it…’—Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964
Verdict: An overlong (the ballet sequence is somewhat dull), self-indulgent, and melancholy piece, Limelight nonetheless contains several flashes of Chaplin’s brilliance, not least being the scene near the end that teamed him and Buster Keaton for a slapstick tour-de-force.
—Brian J. Robb
Next: A King in New York (12 September 1957)
CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION
An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the first year of blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.
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