Thursday, 2 July 2015

LIMELIGHT - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Classic Chaplin Melodrama on Criterion Blu-Ray

Limelight (1952)
Dir. Charles Chaplin
Starring: Charles Chaplin, Claire Bloom,
Nigel Bruce, Sydney Earl Chaplin, Norman Lloyd, Buster Keaton

Review By Greg Klymkiw

It's 1914 and Great Britain will soon enter World War I. The great clown Calvero (Charles Chaplin), once the toast of the entertainment business, is now an unreliable alcoholic whose agent must beg even the most ramshackle music halls to book his client on the bottom-feeding end of the billings and under vague pseudonyms so that no theatre booking agent or the lowliest of audiences will think they're getting an unfunny stumblebum.

One fateful evening, Calvero enters his modest rooming house and though two sheets to the wind, he is still able to make out the overwhelming smell of gas emanating from a first-floor suite, its door locked and the landlady with the pass key nowhere to be found. The pie-eyed codger manages to break the door down in the nick of time to find its beautiful tenant Terry (Claire Bloom) on the verge of death by her own hand, the open gas oven blasting its deadly fumes into the air.

Calvero revives the destitute out-of-work dancer, then discretely summons a doctor from round the corner and moves the addled missy upstairs to his own room to recuperate. When she realizes she's been saved, her sorrow seems even greater. Calvero, however, is full of understanding and seems to know exactly how to gently admonish the young miss and set her straight. When she questions the meaning of life and indeed the very notion that there is any meaning at all, Calvero supplies just the right verbal balm. "What do you want meaning for?" he chides ever-so gently. "Life is a desire, not a meaning. Desire is the theme of all life!"

And so it is.

And so begins one of the greatest movies of all time - written, produced, directed, scored and starring the Little Tramp himself. Deep into the latter stages of middle age and exiled to Switzerland after being refused entry to the United States on spurious grounds by the House of Un-American Activities, Charles Spencer Chaplin (Charlie, to the world) gave us one of his sweetest gifts. Limelight began its life as a novella, however, it read so much like a movie script that it seemed inevitable Chaplin would go ahead and make the picture.

This is also a movie that should have been one of Chaplin's greatest box-office triumphs. Alas, theatre owners in the United States were vigorously lobbied by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover to not exhibit this "propaganda" by the suspected communist. Most acquiesced to the desires of the House of UnAmerican Activities. Though the film played in a mere handful of American theatres, mostly in liberal enclaves, it still managed to gross over a million dollars in the USA. In European territories, Chaplin's film did fine business and grossed in the neighbourhood of eight million dollars.

Its appeal made sense. Chaplin fashioned a work that was as sophisticated and mature as it was simple and sentimental - appealing to both highbrow and general audiences. (That the film was essentially suppressed for two decades in America, the aforementioned numbers in 1952 currency are pretty astounding.)

And it's such a great and compelling story. Chaplin juggles a few threads of plot here, but the main one involves his unconditional support to Terry and how he provides her with the inspiration and drive she needs to make it to the top. As he optimistically tells her, "Think of the power that's in the universe! And that's the same power within you. If you'd only have courage and the will to use it."

Of course, their relationship is more than a trifle complicated. There's deep love that grows between both of them. The father-daughter and teacher-student love makes the most sense given their huge age difference, but Terry (even though she's attracted to a young composer played by Chaplin's real-life son Sydney), feels conflicted about her feelings for Calvero and thinks she loves him the way a potential wife would love her husband. She even proposes marriage to him.

As Calvero keeps plummeting to the bottom, Terry rises to the top - a familiar enough A Star is Born-like trajectory, but Chaplin is wise enough to throw a few wrinkles and surprises in the mix so that we're more often than not, fed a few morsels which twist and turn the narrative handily. One of them involves the great Nigel Bruce (Dr. Watson to Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes) as a theatrical impresario whose respectful acknowledgement and belief in "the old days" allows for a joyous fork in the road to open up for all concerned.

Initially via Calvero's dreams and reminiscences, the film also allows us to see both the character and Chaplin himself, performing a number of classic comedy routines. Seeing this great master go through his creative paces is infused with considerable two-for-the-price-of-one delights. In particular is one major highlight of comedic genius. Chaplin had always been obsessed with nailing an idea he had for a sketch involving trained fleas and he finally delivers the goods here with considerable gusto.

Eventually, the tale allows Calvero/Chaplin the opportunity for a full-blown vaudeville show before a huge, appreciative audience. This sequence is not only hilarious, but induces the kind of happy gooseflesh one can only get when bearing witness to sheer virtuosity. Astonishingly, we're also treated to a classic comedy routine between Chaplin and Buster Keaton (the only time the two of them ever shared screen-time). To say the entire routine is a joy would be an understatement of the most egregious kind.

The film's exquisite humour induces plenty tears of laughter, but it wouldn't be Chaplin if the picture also didn't wrench our hearts with the kind of emotion that forces us to completely lose it emotionally. Luckily, this happens on several occasions.

As the greatest have always proven, there's nothing sadder than a clown.

And there's nothing sadder and greater than Chaplin as a clown in his twilight years, a character still so vibrant, yet also driven by the kind of self-sacrifice, that he inspires the cycle of life and death to come full circle.

At one point Calvero says, "I believe I'm dying, doctor. Then, I don't know. I've died so many times." It's a beautiful moment that fills us with joy. We know Calvero will never really die, just as Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin through the great gift of cinema, lives forever.


Limelight is available on a gorgeous Criterion Collection Blu-Ray which is overflowing with hours worth of materials which provide added insight as well as sheer entertainment value. Amongst the myriad of interviews, all of them worthwhile, I was especially delighted with those involving the wonderful actress Claire Bloom who offers plenty of greats stories and insights which are far too modest with respect to herself, but also give us a unique window upon Chaplin's genius. This is one of the best Criterion efforts of the year (though it seems one can say this with each new release from this visionary company). The new 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray is of the highest quality and in addition to outtakes, trailers, a booklet with a Peter von Bagh essay as well as an actual on-set piece by Henry Gris, there's a lovely video essay by Chaplin biographer David Robinson which places the whole film within Chaplin's personal and artistic process. It's extremely informative and moving. There are new interviews with the aforementioned Claire Bloom as well as Norman Lloyd, a 2002 documentary on Limelight, a delightful audio recording with Chaplin reading excerpts from his novella "Footlights" (wherein the film blossomed out of) and most magnificently, two silent shorts by Chaplin, one of which is an unfinished piece which first introduces the brilliant and funny trained flea act. The case is gorgeously illustrated with a beautiful new cover by Bill Nelson. All in all, a must-own Blu-Ray.