I recently caught the middle 30 minutes or so of Limelight (1952) on TCM and was intrigued enough to track down a copy at the local library.
Limelight is one of those films that I can say I genuinely liked, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it great. It seemed to me that Chaplin tends to become excessively verbose on more than one occasion, and tends to direct his speeches toward a melodramatic flourish, especially in the scenes where he is trying to lift the depondent Terry (Claire Bloom) out of her suicidal rut. Despite this tendency, I thought that a good deal of the dialogue was some of the most beautiful that I have heard in any film.
The mood of Limelight unapologetically melancholic, but that’s the point of the story. Chaplin’s Calvero, the once great comedian of the English stage, has become in life what he was in pantomime: a tramp, and a drunk one at that. I don’t know much about Chaplin’s private life, but it’s my understanding that his career had never recovered since the switch from silent to sound cinema. Indeed, Chaplin refused to incorporate sound into his films until 1936’s Modern Times, and then it was only the machine in the film which had a voice. Calvero echoes this refusal to change with the times in his comedy routines. The charm of his comedy act never leaves the late 1890’s and early 1900’s when it was in its prime, even though the audience has (literally) walked out on that sort of slapstick vaudeville. By 1952, the age of silent film had been dead for some time (but would soon have a “resurrection”), but Chaplin still holds on through his frequent use of broad gestures, pantomime, and choreographed movements.
The highlight of the film comes in the final scene when Calvero teams up with Buster Keaton (who is, however, without a name and relegated to the role of Calvero’s partner). I’m not usually a fan of slapstick comedy, but this scene really works. The contrast between Keaton’s frazzled seriousness and Chaplin’s impish clumsiness plays out marvelously, and one can easily speculate how incredible a collaboration would have been during their heyday in the 1920’s.
Claire Bloom fell a little flat for me. I know Limelight was one of her first major acting roles, but she lacks the charming immaturity of, say, Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. These are two very different roles, of course, but I couldn’t quite see any depth to her artistry. She often struck me as a little whiny. She certainly didn’t come across as a “true artist,” as Calvero claims she is with his dying breath. What I felt for her character was very similar to how I reacted to Katharine Houghton’s Joey in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. For the life of me, I could not see what Sidney Poitier, a brilliant doctor, saw in her vapid girlishness.