LIMELIGHT (Charles Chaplin, 1952)
Rubin Museum of Art
150 West 17th St. at Seventh Ave.
Friday, February 19, $10, 9:30
Series continues Friday nights through February 26
“You will feel closer to Charlie the man, seeing this film, than in any of the other films where he plays a character, magnificently, but this is different. This is him,” Claire Bloom said before a sixtieth anniversary screening of Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight. In what was intended to be his farewell film, Chaplin bids adieu to his Little Tramp character and laments the end of an era in this deeply personal work, which features five of his children, his brother, his half-brother, and silent film comedians Snub Pollard and Buster Keaton. Though made in Hollywood in 1951, Limelight is set in Chaplin’s native London in 1914, the year he began his movie career at Keystone Studios. Chaplin is Calvero, a former vaudeville-style music hall star — modeled on himself as well as comedian Frank Tinney, Spanish clown Marceline, and his father — who is now a down-on-his-luck forgotten drunk. He comes home one day, smells gas, and breaks down the door of a neighbor’s apartment, saving a beautiful young ballerina, Thereza “Terry” Ambrose (Claire Bloom), from suicide. As the kind and gentle Calvero nurses her back to health, determined that she resume her career (in a way, as a surrogate for his current failures), Terry falls in love with him. Calvero tells her that it is not a real, romantic love; the character is partially based on Chaplin’s mother, whom he cared for while she suffered from mental illness, although there are obvious age parallels to his real-life wife, Oona O’Neill, whom he married in 1943 when he was fifty-four and she was eighteen. (Chaplin was sixty-three when Limelight was released, Bloom twenty-one.) But Terry insists her love is genuine and true, and soon they are both restarting their careers, with very different results.
Aptly called “a sublime exorcism” by Bernardo Bertolucci, Limelight is overly long, too melodramatic, frustratingly repetitive, and often absurdly sentimental, but it’s impossible not to become engrossed in its touching magic, especially when considering its autobiographical nature. At the time, Chaplin, whose previously film was 1947’s much-maligned Monsieur Verdoux, was being investigated by the U.S. government for suspected communist ties and questionable morality; when he went overseas for Limelight’s British premiere, he was barred from returning to America, and he would not come back to the States until 1972, when he was awarded an honorary Oscar; even then, he was allowed only a temporary stay. Chaplin, who wrote, directed, produced, and choreographed the film and composed the score, fills Limelight with emotional statements that range from philosophical and psychological to quaint and treacly, though relevant to both the fictional Calvero and the real-life comedian. Cinematographer Karl Struss (The Great Dictator, Some Like It Hot) regularly zeroes in on Calvero’s often pitiable face, eyes occasionally turned directly into the camera and at the viewer; the sadness Chaplin expresses particularly when removing stage makeup is heartbreaking. “I believe I’m dying, Doctor,” he says at one point. “Then, I don’t know. I’ve died so many times.” The melancholic film, which intelligently deals with art and aging in changing times, also stars Nigel Bruce, best known as Watson to Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes, as the ballet company owner, Norman Lloyd as the company manager, Marjorie Bennett as Calvero’s landlady, Canadian ballerina Melissa Hayden as Terry’s dance double, and André Eglevsky as the male ballet dancer. The sketch performed by Chaplin and Keaton, the only time they worked together on film, is, of course, a gem, as painful as it is funny. Perhaps the most telling line is when Terry says to composer and pianist Neville (Sydney Earl Chaplin, Charlie’s brother), “What is more eloquent than silence?” Chaplin would go on to make only two more pictures, 1957’s A King in New York and 1967’s A Countess from Hong Kong, his only film in which he didn’t have a major role. He died on Christmas Day in 1977, at the age of eighty-eight, still married to Oona. Limelight is screening February 19 as part of the Rubin Museum Cabaret Cinema series “Steve McCurry Selects,” held in conjunction with the photo exhibition “Steve McCurry: India,” and will be introduced by Teva Bjerken. The series concludes February 26 with Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil, introduced by journalist Phil Zabriskie.