Charles Chaplin’s Limelight and “the elegant melancholy of twilight”

Gavin Lambert, writing in 1953, paid tribute to Chaplin’s tragicomic Limelight, which had just been named film of the year by Sight and Sound.

Limelight (1952)
This article first appeared in the January-March 1953 issue of Sight and Sound

“The elegant melancholy of twilight.” This repeated phrase, heard first as a lightly nostalgic aside in the old music-hall artist’s daydream of a young lover’s meeting, recapitulated in the final scene with an ineffable sadness, breathes the underlying atmosphere of Limelight. Dawn broke, noon came, many years ago; now the sun has cooled and shadows, everywhere, are lengthening. The film’s enormous pathos seems to have disconcerted some, which is rather difficult to understand.

Perhaps recollection has tended to make a comfortable cliché of Charlie, the man who made us laugh more than anyone else. Yet not long ago the revival of City Lights brought back his deep inherent melancholy, and there have been other and earlier signs. There was, in 1916, the delicate and touching little episode of The Vagabond; there was, in 1918, the unfinished Life, begun as a full-length feature for Essanay and abandoned because of the company’s demand for short comedies; there was the ecstatic pastoral, Sunnyside, in 1919, and of course A Woman of Paris in 1923. The “serious business” of life has in fact occupied Chaplin for a long time, and this was, curiously enough, noticed first of all in France. After The Kid, in 1922, Louis Delluc was moved to write, in his monograph on Chaplin: “I stand amazed at the immense sadness of Chaplin… This man will be lucky if he doesn’t die in a madhouse.” Time may again have something to tell.

The myth of the clown who wants to play Hamlet, as applied to Chaplin, has always been irrelevant. For some people, including Hamlet, have been gifted enough to do both. Thirty years ago Chaplin had encompassed tragicomedy with a purity of form and feeling unique in the cinema, and from a historical point of view the qualities of Limelight are beautifully logical; what is less logical, perhaps, is the intense success with which they have been realised. At 63 Chaplin has executed an imaginative portrait of the artist as an old man and shown his creative powers to be at their height. The cinema is apt to exhaust its great talents early, but Limelight has all the vitality and sureness of Chaplin’s best work, and it touches some new moments of experience. To examine it is rather like taking hold of a miracle; but one must try.

“The evening of life brings with it its lamp.” Chaplin’s lamp is an image of youth, a wistful and radiant vision that he seems to have kept within himself, and that haunts him now as a bright, sad consolation, a symbol of the continuous evanescence and renewal of living. In the time of Charlie this vision was communicated perhaps most perfectly in The Kid and in City Lights, films which Limelight resembles in dramatic construction, and in its account of the relationship – protective on one side, dependent on the other, then suddenly reversed – between two human beings. The “apotheosis” of The Kid and of Limelight, the dream of Heaven and the ballet, is another point of correspondence; and as the story of Charlie and the blind girl in City Lights is an extension of the story of Charlie and the Kid, so the new film takes this personal situation a stage further.

Limelight (1952)

One can see each of these three films as to some extent a variation on a theme, and Limelight discovers the subtlest and most complex variations of all. In the meeting of Calvero the music-hall comedian on the way down and Terry the dancer on the way up, many antitheses are explored: age and youth, experience and innocence, failure and success, patience and desperation, giving and receiving; beyond the particular story is the generality of “life” itself, the great abstractions which Charlie used unwittingly to suggest and which Chaplin, in a grave maturity, has begun to see for himself.

The poetic unity of Limelight is a deep, calm fatal emanation of sadness, the motif of which is constantly reiterated. It begins with a classical directness. After the opening shot of the London street, with its barrel organ and its watching children, we are taken straight into the drama, following the camera into the lodging house, into the room with the girl sprawled on the bed, the poison phial in her hand, the gas stove turned on, then returning to the street along which Calvero, happily drunk, approaches.

His discovery of the girl, his eager desire to help, to revive her, in spite of his drunkenness – half absurd, half touching – shows how he has been affected, more deeply than he guesses, by her act. The early dialogue scenes between them, his passionate affirmations, from the other side of disillusion, of the beauty of living, her gradual revival of trust and love, have a marvellous strength and softness. In the variety of emotions they touch off – Calvero’s exquisite mime of the rose’s desire to grow and the rock’s to stay firm, the girl’s halting confession of her unhappiness, a trio of nocturnal street entertainers outside, the traditional comedy of flirtation with the plump landlady – one is reminded of Taine’s verdict on Dickens: “the master of all hearts.” Sometimes it is like being in the same room with the characters, listening to Calvero as he muses and talks, glancing across at the girl on the bed to note her reactions.

The interpolation of Calvero’s first dream, the superb comedy of the flea-trainer act, and its final pathetic twist, soon takes the story on to another level; the coming together of these two people at this particular moment under these particular circumstances is to be contemplated from every angle. As Calvero’s experience and wisdom attracts Terry, so it will make him later withdraw; as his failure arouses her instinct to protect him, so her success will isolate him; from him she will recapture the joy of her youth, but want to share it with someone as young as herself; and having enjoyed his youth again through her, he will be reminded of how irrevocably it has vanished. Everything that brings them together also draws them apart.

Chaplin and Bloom at a screening of Limelight

The setting matches the deliberate simplicity of the tale, as formal in its way as the backcloths to the ballet. Chaplin frames his film in a London of the 1910’s, post-Victorian and yet not unreminiscent of Dickens. (“To him the streets of southern London,” Somerset Maugham records in A Writer’s Notebook, after a meeting in 1922, “are the scene of frolic, gaiety and extravagant adventure… I suspect the only home he can ever look upon as such is a second floor back in the Kennington Road.”).

The heroine herself, with her frightened beauty and fragile tenderness, is also not unlike one of Dickens’. In passing, the accuracy of the feeling for London – the perfect music-hall idiom, the figure of the manageress at the restaurant where Terry and the composer go to lunch, the lodging-house decor – emphasise how Chaplin’s memories of London, the scene of early poverty and privation for him, have persisted. When he made Limelight, he had not visited it for twenty years.

The directness of sentiment in Limelight has found its detractors, as direct sentiment always does; nothing exposes an artist more. It is easy enough to write about today’s Chaplin as “sententious” (wasn’t Dickens?), as “self-pitying” (wasn’t Hamlet?) or “self-infatuated” (wasn’t Hamlet, again?), but these charges seem to reflect a temperamental dislike of the film’s approach rather than to refute it. They miss the essential thing, the passion which is the motive and the justification of Limelight. Nothing could be truer to itself; the difference is in the identification point.

Charlie the tramp, the anarchist, was everyone’s symbol, and Chaplin since The Great Dictator has ceased to be that. In his last three films he has become articulate, and become a particular person. The fact that The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux did not make the transition completely, that they were manifestly imperfect films, may account for the unwillingness of many to appreciate what Chaplin was trying to do. Because Chaplin tells the story of Limelight, as of most of his other films, in simple and superficially old-fashioned terms, it has been assumed that the emotions which go with it are old-fashioned. The same reproach is levelled at Stroheim and, with some justification, at Griffith.

The Great Dictator (1940)

There is no doubt that Chaplin, Stroheim and Griffith, the three great masters of the American silent film, share a moral attitude to life derived from the 19th century, and as film-makers have used many of the 19th century novelists’ methods. But to condemn this only reflects the naive fallacy that any age is artistically self-contained, and that true “contemporary” art must discard all traditional methods. The revolutionary artist is not the only valid one; what counts on the personal level is the artist’s own imagination and technique, whether stimulated by tradition or repelled by it. While Chaplin’s films often suggest Dickens, and Stroheim’s Balzac, one must admit that Griffith did not always rise above, imaginatively, Ouida or Harrison Ainsworth. Yet the conception of Intolerance remains bold and universally valid, even if the creative power is not always equal to it; the analysis of sexual motives in The Wedding March or in Greed is overwhelmingly individual; the dramatic core of Limelight is, particularly for the cinema, extremely daring, both in the nature of the relationship between Calvero and the young girl, and the detailed penetration of it.

If the core of the film seems to be a reiterated lament for the passing of life and love by someone who feels these things to be profoundly sad, and is engaged in making a difficult peace with himself, its expression is richly varied. Apart from the scenes of direct statement between Calvero and Terry – of which the two most powerfully conceived and burdened with emotion are the girl’s discovery that she can walk and their reunion, after his failure and her success, when Terry can no longer say “I love you” but only “I’ll do anything to make you happy” – the film moves surely on two further levels; the long ballet sequence, itself a poetic analogy of the whole situation, in which Chaplin’s clown, called in to amuse Terry’s dying Colombine, is a supremely touching creation, and the vaudeville comedy, some of which is pure, some (the “Spring” number with Terry) an expression of Calvero’s own immediate feelings.

Within the story itself there is no slapstick, but a certain amount of traditional comedy and, in the dialogue, of irony; the actual world of the clown is separated into the music-hall acts. In this way Limelight has far more unity than Verdoux, which veered from farce to sentiment, satire to caricature, and lost, I think, the singleness of purpose its subject demanded. Limelight shows Chaplin the actor and Chaplin the film-maker equally prominent. He uses dialogue and sound with as much mastery as he brought to silent film-making at the peak of his career in City Lights. As a director, Chaplin’s talent has often been under-rated; his best films have always been carefully constructed, the simplicity of their continuity is disciplined, and his use of the camera for recording physical action no less remarkable in its way than that of Stroheim or Pabst.

City Lights (1931)

Far from lacking “cinematic” interest, some of the early sketches like The Vagabond, The Pawnshop, Easy Street, as well as the longer pictures are unique examples of it. The farewell to the gypsy girl in The Vagabond, the pancake-making in The Kid (which took two weeks to shoot), the dance of the rolls in The Gold Rush, the final scene of City Lights, are executed with an intensity and precision which the brilliance of Chaplin’s acting has perhaps tended to obscure. Their angling, their tempo, their cutting, are of the cinema or nothing. Of the major films, only in Modern Times, The Dictator and Verdoux – which will, I believe, seem in perspective the most transitional of his career, the gradual elimination of Charlie being a rather intellectual process and reflecting, especially in the sometimes shrill bitterness of Verdoux, the lack of emotional shelter which he found in Limelight – is the style considerably less satisfying.

There are passages in Limelight – the revelation of the empty auditorium after the flea-trainer routine, the filming of Terry’s audition, the overhead shot of the scene change during the ballet, the exquisite moment, in the final sequence, when Terry dances into the foreground of the frame, momentarily obscuring Calvero’s body on a stretcher in the wings – that seem even an advance, as descriptive cinema, on anything that Chaplin has done before. “Let’s have no photographic Hollywood chi-chi,” he is reported to have said when starting Verdoux, and leaned over backwards to avoid it; but in Limelight he has recognised the pleasure of expressively composed and toned photography. Many of Karl Struss’s images, particularly in the ballet sequence, have style and charm.

As for the reproach that the dialogue scenes are theatrically handled, Chaplin’s dialogue is not the idiomatic, naturalistic kind that one usually hears in the cinema and that responds to smoothness and rapidity in the handling. It needs leisure, and the narrative has the spread and occasional awkwardness of a 19th century novel. I don’t think it vital to detail the awkwardnesses, since they are obvious and relatively unimportant. It is, though, a pity that Chaplin has cut the beautiful scene, and the passage that leads into it, between Calvero and Claudius, the “armless wonder”; in a long and episodic work one notices gaps much more sharply. Continuity is dislocated, a minor character now simply appears without being established, and the first of the long dialogues between Calvero and Terry starts rather abruptly.

The comedy in Limelight continues the line of sophistication drawn in parts of Verdoux. We are made conscious of two conventions; of the old-fashioned London music-hall, and of Chaplin’s own pantomime style, a deviation from it. The final sequence with Buster Keaton, classically abstracted as ever, is probably the “straightest” comedy turn in the film, with its gags impeccably accumulated both in the action and the use of the camera. Yet even here Chaplin’s demonic fiddler, a sort of Mephisto Waltz parody, suggests a diversion. The difference seems to be that Charlie’s humour was the humour of a figure who had become a universal symbol, and that in Limelight, in keeping with the rest, the comedy is the comedy of character. Calvero is one particular comedian, not Charlie. Of course there are echoes of him, but the make-up alone makes one feel they too are part of a convention, not a deliberate return to the old manner.

Limelight (1952)

It is interesting to compare Chaplin’s gags with a violin in Limelight with Charlie’s in The Vagabond; at least one (“playing” his moustache with the bow) is exactly the same, but the effect – casual, throw-away, in the earlier film, deliberate and emphatic in the later – quite different. Limelight presents the new Chaplin mask. All kinds of comparisons have been found for the original Charlie mask, from Japanese prints to Durer, but, as Delluc wrote, “He is his own painter, his very own.” So, too, in Limelight the comedy mask is Calvero painted as a clown – or, if you like, Charles Chaplin painted as a clown. It is rich in associations, for behind the mask, one cannot help thinking, is not only Calvero-Chaplin but, remotely, the old Charlie; and since the mask is assumed, separated from the rest of the film, painted on and wiped off during the action, there is something extraordinary about it, like a ghost.

Superbly done as the turns are, it is Chaplin’s dramatic performance that is the film’s most impressive acting achievement. He shows a range and mastery of effect that one might, perhaps, have suspected, but are no less breathtaking when one sees them. There are three close-ups as finely expressive as anything ever gained by this device: in the theatre dressing-room when, after attempting his comeback, Calvero wipes off his make-up and, staring into the mirror, meets the image of failure; Calvero as the flea-trainer in his dream, looking at the deserted auditorium, and the matching dissolve to his own tortured face in his bedroom; and the close-up of the dying Calvero with the immobile head, the fixed eyes, and the suddenly, minutely twitching mouth. The character as a whole is realised with beautiful completeness; and Chaplin was fortunate in his choice of Claire Bloom, whose Dickensian heroine is tenderly and delicately played.

It is difficult to avoid coming back to Dickens, not only because of the evident stylistic affinities, but the more private emotional ones: the shared childhood of London poverty that has never been forgotten, the self-identification with outcasts, the fear of talent drying up, the personal memory of an adored young girl (in Chaplin’s case Hetty Kelly, in Dickens’ Mary Hogarth) lost without ever having been really possessed, pursued both in life and in a succession of imaginative portraits, and the increasing seriousness and disenchantment – with society and with self, the “old unhappy loss or want of something.” In many ways Limelight, like Our Mutual Friend, seems like a last word.

Yet Chaplin, we know, does not intend it to be that; and perhaps he has indicated the future best in the scene when Calvero and Terry meet again in the pub, and when he tells her that nothing has gone, it has only changed. She asks him: “Why won’t you come back ?” His answer is sad, proud, also ironic and a little self-deprecating: “I can’t. I must go on. That’s progress.”

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