PRINT March 2002

“Some Notes on Chaplin's Limelight” (1953)

THE STORY GOES THAT PAULINE KAEL’S FIRST review was called “Slimelight”: That was what the late poet Robert Duncan, with whom Kael had gone to see Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight, called the picture when they walked out of the theater. The word is used nowhere in or on Kael’s piece, which—appearing in 1953 in City Lights, a journal that, like the San Francisco bookstore that published it, was named for another Chaplin movie—is still harsh enough to bring the reader up short.

At the end of City Lights (1931), Chaplin’s tramp leaves prison so filthy and destroyed you don’t want to look at him. He walks the streets, picking butts out of the gutter, and then, as James Agee wrote in 1949, “the blind girl who has regained her sight, thanks to the Tramp, sees him for the first time. . . . She recognizes who he must be by his shy, confident, shining joy as he comes silently toward her. And he recognizes himself, for the first time, through the terrible changes in her face. The camera just exchanges a few quiet close-ups of the emotions which shift and intensify in each face. It is enough to shrivel the heart to see, and it is the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies.”

That Chaplin was nowhere in sight in 1953; Kael tracked him to his hiding place in his own movie, in his own ego. Re-creating the context in which the movie was made and in which a certain movie lover paid her money and sat down to wait for the picture to begin—with the sense of time and place, here, not there, now, not then, that over the next decades would draw so many readers into real or imaginary conversations with her—she began in the audience, listening to the talk of the people around her, imagining herself talking to them. She began not with special knowledge, but with a sense of herself as any movie's ideal watcher: no better or worse than anyone else, as she sat in her seat, but maybe better out of it, because while everyone else got up and went about their lives, Kael stayed in the audience, even when she went home. The premise wasn’t that her ideas about a movie would be deeper than those of other people, but that other people were busy—so she would draw on their reactions as well as her own and, as she wrote, put people back in the theater.

She looked at Calvero, the aging comedic saint Chaplin was playing in Limelight, and as the conceit of the character turned into its own bad joke, she came to life as a critic. The cruel wit, the natural reach from one medium to another, the sense of betrayal—the freeswinging, freewheeling yawp of the artistic citizen—it was all there from the start: “Calvero’s gala benefit in which he shows the unbelievers who think him finished that he is still the greatest performer of them all, his death in the wings as the applause fades—this is surely the richest hunk of gratification since Huck and Tom attended their own funeral.”

What nails it? What is it that signals the arrival of a new voice, impatient, in love with her subject and as keen to its betrayals as its promises, speaking American? “Hunk.”

Greil Marcus


A REMARK OVERHEARD: “I don’t care if he is a genius. I don't like that man.”

If the audiences which attend Limelight in San Francisco are an adequate sampling of Chaplin’s American public, he now attracts a somewhat segmented art-film audience. This is not the same audience he used to play to—but the reasons are considerably more complex than the “complicated” ones Calvero indicates to explain why the headless monster turned against him.

The majority audience (if some cleavage is necessary, let us say roughly the people who voted for Eisenhower) resents him partly for political reasons, partly for moral ones, and, more basically, because he appears in the guise of genius. When the mass audience became convinced that the clown who had made them laugh was really an artist, they felt betrayed. This is the same audience which turned Garbo into an object of ridicule when her beauty and distinction raised her to an eminence they could not tolerate. Then she, too, became the adored beauty of the minority.

The minority audience was always fascinated by the stills which revealed the beauty of Chaplin—the depth and expressiveness beneath the tramp makeup; the majority was perfectly satisfied with the mask of comedy. In a chance glimpse we thought we perceived a tragic countenance under the mask. Now Chaplin has given us too long a look—the face has been held in camera range for prolonged admiration—and the egotism of his self-revelation has infected the tragic beauty. The illusion, the mystery are gone—and with them possibly a good section of the minority audience as well. It is difficult not to be interested in what Chaplin will do next, but the bated breath has acquired a faint wheeze.

ODDLY ENOUGH, for all the mind and sophistication attributed to Chaplin, the hero of Limelight is surprisingly like the conceptions of the artist held by the vast American film audience (although this audience suspects, and quite rightly, that there are other elements . . .). Limelight is just as sentimental and high-minded about life and theatre as show people might wish. Possibly theatre people will see it as true and beautiful, just as so many Jews saw The Great Dictator as an awesome achievement. (Just as an analyst friend thought Mourning Becomes Electra the greatest film ever made.)

It is dubious, however, that Chaplin can regain the mass audience with this film: the suspicion that he is not a regular fellow is fairly widespread, and the simplicity of the film is pompous enough to mislead neighborhood audiences into thinking it is that abhorrence—art.

CHAPLIN’S RANGE AS AN ACTOR is quite probably as wide as he thinks it is, but his range as a creative intelligence is certainly considerably less. He is almost the only man who is in the position to use the film medium for personal statement. (It is questionable if other creative film-makers would wish to do so; his aim may be as unique as his opportunity). His ideas and personality have pervaded his last three films. Verdoux remains fascinating, impudent enough to make one toss overboard some minor reservations. Mercifully in Verdoux the ideas are not nearly so explicit as in The Great Dictator and Limelight where the failures of taste and creative insight are alternately embarrassing and infuriating.

As Robert Duncan remarked, “It would have taken W.C. Fields spitting into Calvero’s passed hat to restore the comic genius.”

The Chaplin of Limelight is no irreverent little clown; his reverence for his own ideas would be astonishing even if the ideas were worth consideration. They are not-and the context of the film exposes them at every tum. The exhortations in the directions of life, courage, consciousness, and “truth” are set in a story line of the most self-pitying and self-glorifying daydream variety. Calvero’s gala benefit in which he shows the unbelievers who think him finished that he is still the greatest performer of them all, his death in the wings as the applause fades-this is surely the richest hunk of gratification since Huck and Tom attended their own funeral. It was humor in Twain’s day; Chaplin serves it at face value a hundred years later.

Calvero is not a little tramp who happily wins his waif or pitiably loses her. Calvero renounces his waif and renunciation carries a certain amount of prestige. Of course it was all “Platonic” anyway. Terry does however carry conviction when she says she loves him—we suspect she wouldn’t love him if it weren’t Platonic. For this Terry is the embodiment, the incarnation almost, of the recurrent Chaplin heroine—even to the name, Claire Bloom. Surely she has produced herself out of the same wonder and daydream from which Chaplin has drawn his images of the lovely waif. She is a very serious young actress and she moves with authority—she knows she is the real thing.

In early Chaplin films two babes-in-the-wood met. Calvero, though just as pure and innocent in heart, represents the same wisdom and experience of age—and hence renounces Terry. Somehow, whether intentionally or not, we are not made to feel that any great sacrifice is involved. It’s as though genius has removed the necessity for human relations. Chaplin has composed a curious idyll of the sexes, replete with a second pure-in-heart young lover for Terry in the person of his son. The Svengali-Trilby theme is presented not for horror, not for satire, not even for laughs, but just straight; Calvero is ennobled by imparting strength to Trilby and still has it both ways, emerging himself triumphant as an artist.

CHAPLIN WAS A GREAT COMEDIAN, but the demonstrations of Calvero’s stage routines are, despite amusing and hilarious moments, rather mediocre. This is difficult to account for. Robert Hatch, in an otherwise excellent review in The Reporter, suggests that the acts “are deliberately not very good because comedians like Calvero were not very talented and their material was shabby even in 1914.” This is ingenious but it doesn’t fit the idea content of the film, nor can it account for the worse than mediocre ballet, performed presumably during the great days of [the] Diaghilev period. The mediocrity is scarcely intentional; on the contrary, it seems the not uncommon result of aiming at greatness.

Calvero is meant to be great all right. When he awaits Terry in the darkened theatre after her dance and says, “My dear, you are a true artist, a true artist,” this is intended as “the shock of recognition.” The camera emphasis on Chaplin’s eyes, the emotion in his voice are intended to give depth to his words. This ghastly mistake in judgment and taste—this false humility which proclaims his own artistry in the act of asserting another’s—this is not a simple mistake. It is integral to the creative mind which produces a Limelight.

CHAPLIN APPARENTLY is not content with the ideas which can be realized in comedy performance; nor is he content with the subtle riddles posed in Verdoux. He wants a wider range; he wants to state his ideas about life. The Sunday thinker is likely to think he knows some “truths” that people should be told and more than likely he’ll make an ass of himself in the telling. It is several thousand years since Socrates investigated the minds of artists and concluded that “upon the strength of their poetry they believed themselves to be the wisest men in other things in which they were not wise.”

THE SUNDAY COMPOSER who is in the position to have his music written down for him, orchestrated, and even performed, is a rare bird indeed. The layman’s desire to appear as a great composer is no less grandiose than Chaplin’s score. Significantly, his derivations are not from the modems, but from the popular masters of the 19th century, the patron geniuses of Hollywood music. If we compare his music to a typical Hollywood score, it sounds indistinguishable from others. But this is not the comparison he invites–and if we take him on his own terms and compare his score to an interesting film score, to Auric, Honneger, Prokofiev, or Walton, for example, Chaplin disappears from discussion.

One wonders what Chaplin makes of the developments in his own medium in the last half-century. Though a contemporary of Griffith, he is also a contemporary of Dreyer, of Cocteau, of Carne and Renoir, of Buñuel and De Sica, of Carol Reed, Huston, Mankiewicz. The full measure of the dismal failure of Limelight comes when we place it against its contemporaries. We have been told that Chaplin is a man of wide culture, but Limelight might be the work of the fabled young man who was afraid to read a book for fear it would spoil his originality.

Reprinted by permission of the Estate of Pauline Kael.