From Footlights to Limelight

The last two days there has been a news piece after news piece on Footlights, the only work of fiction Charlie Chaplin ever wrote, is being published – despite Chaplin never having intended it to be. In essence, the novella became one of the simplistically wonderful films Chaplin ever created – Limelight (1952).

Now, I’m not much of a film critic, but I thought Limelight deserved a few kind words, in the wake of the recent news. And despite the numerous bad reviews the film has garnered over the years, for me, an old film buff and a film student, this film was always “The One”. The One that combined the talent of Chaplin in each and every way – his original music, his comedic skills, his sense of reality and his strong conviction on how the talkies, in his opinion, was the end of cinema. Chaplin has admitted himself how “all” in the film is autobiographical – but also requested that fact not to be read into too much. Perhaps Chaplin felt his popularity was waning, his career coming to an end – America was turning against him due to his unpopular vocal opinions, talkies were taking over and the man himself was growing older by the minute, the times of the Tramp were over.

The expressiveness and contrast of Calvero’s day-persona to his clown on stage is remarkable. The sentimentality of it is heart-wrenching at time, uplifting at others. Maudlin yet grand. In a nutshell, in Limelight Chaplin plays a caricatured version himself – a washed out clown, down with the luck due to his alcoholism, not considered funny anymore, as explained in the compelling scene with Calvero and Terry, portrayed by the beautiful Claire Bloom, (and do listen to the dialogue with the beautiful main theme):

00:36:08,560 –> 00:36:11,640
To hear you talk, no one would
ever think you were a comedian.

00:36:11,920 –> 00:36:16,160
I’m beginning to realize that.
It’s the reason I can’t get a job.

00:36:18,200 –> 00:36:19,320
Why?

00:36:21,160 –> 00:36:23,080
Because they have no imagination.

00:36:23,560 –> 00:36:26,440
Or think because I’m getting
on in years I’m old, all washed up.

00:36:28,040 –> 00:36:31,520
Never! After hearing you talk.

00:36:32,640 –> 00:36:34,520
Perhaps I drank too much.

00:36:35,000 –> 00:36:36,640
There’s usually a reason
for drinking.

00:36:38,720 –> 00:36:40,480
Unhappiness, I suppose.

00:36:42,240 –> 00:36:44,120
No, I’m used to that.

00:36:46,160 –> 00:36:48,720
It was more complicated.

00:36:49,800 –> 00:36:53,080
As a man gets on in years
he wants to live deeply.

00:36:54,160 –> 00:36:58,680
A feeling of sad dignity comes upon
him, and that’s fatal for a comic.

00:36:59,160 –> 00:37:00,520
It affected my work.

00:37:00,720 –> 00:37:03,520
I lost contact with the audience,
couldn’t warm up to them.

00:37:04,720 –> 00:37:06,960
And that’s what started me drinking.

00:37:07,160 –> 00:37:08,960
I had to have it before I went on.

00:37:09,160 –> 00:37:12,320
It got so I couldn’t be funny
without it. The more I drank…

00:37:13,160 –> 00:37:15,040
It became a vicious circle.

00:37:15,320 –> 00:37:16,280
What happened?

00:37:16,480 –> 00:37:18,600
A heart attack. I almost died.

00:37:19,320 –> 00:37:21,080
And you’re still drinking?

00:37:21,280 –> 00:37:23,440
Occasionally, if I think of things.

00:37:23,960 –> 00:37:26,760
The wrong things I suppose,
as you do.

00:37:27,640 –> 00:37:29,760
What would you like
for your breakfast?

00:37:30,320 –> 00:37:32,800
What a sad business, being funny.

00:37:33,680 –> 00:37:36,080
Very sad if they won’t laugh.

00:37:36,600 –> 00:37:38,120
But it’s a thrill when they do.

00:37:38,320 –> 00:37:40,920
To look out there
and see them all laughing,

00:37:41,920 –> 00:37:45,200
to hear that roar go up,
waves of laughter coming at you.

00:37:45,520 –> 00:37:47,680
Let’s talk of something
more cheerful.

00:37:48,000 –> 00:37:50,240
Besides I want to forget the public.

00:37:51,200 –> 00:37:52,960
Never. You love them too much.

00:37:53,160 –> 00:37:55,560
Maybe I love them,
but I don’t admire them.

00:37:55,760 –> 00:37:56,880
I think you do.

00:37:57,360 –> 00:38:00,040
As individuals, yes.
There’s greatness in everyone.

00:38:00,720 –> 00:38:03,720
But as a crowd, they’re like
a monster without a head

00:38:03,920 –> 00:38:06,520
that never knows which way
it’s going to turn.

00:38:07,160 –> 00:38:09,240
It can be prodded in any direction.

00:38:10,000 –> 00:38:14,240
I keep forgetting about breakfast.
How about some poached eggs?

Chaplin, ever the perfectionist, entrenched himself in every aspect of the production – the music, the acting, the writing, the choreographing… Every bit has Chaplin all over it. I’m gushing, I admit, but this film is the quintessential Chaplin. The embodiment of his massive body of work, and Calvero is Chaplin. One man’s extraordinary talent shown in every aspect from humour, body art to music and dialogue. Everything in it rightful place, a piece of perfection.

Despite the sadness, the resurrection, the cathartic atmosphere of the film where Chaplin tackles the inevitable irrelevance of an aging performer, there is so much love and beauty in it as well – and nothing embodies the palpable love Chaplin creates in his films like music, in this case the Spring Song:

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