Recent college graduate Benjamin Braddock is trapped into an affair with Mrs. Robinson, who happens to be the wife of his father's business partner and then finds himself falling in love with her daughter, Elaine.
Chaplin's final American film tells the story of a fading music hall comedian's effort to help a despondent ballet dancer learn both to walk and feel confident about life again. The highlight of the film is the classic duet with Chaplin's only real artistic film comedy rival, Buster Keaton. Written by
Kenneth Chisholm <firstname.lastname@example.org>
The curious twilight of a comedian long since abdicated.
Even for a fellow well-versed in Chaplin's sound films, 'Limelight' proved an odd viewing experience upon my perusal of it.
Following on from 'The Great Dictator' and 'Monsieur Verdoux', Chaplin eschews his physical comedy for the most part, preferring to address 'big themes' and important issues. 'The Great Dictator', quite obviously tackles fascism and the demagoguery of a dictator: indeed pretty pertinent in 1940. 'Verdoux' is an interesting one-off in its inherent darkness; the material, concerning a mannered serial killer, is treated with more sobriety and a blacker touch than had hence been the case with Chaplin's films. There is a startling effectiveness to the last reels of that film, with Chaplin's theme of society forming the individual's behaviour being emphatically and eerily conveyed by his well-spoken character. 'Limelight' focuses on the gold mine that is Chaplin's career and the decline of his sort of comedy. It should be got out of the way first, that considering the possibilities this stirs in the mind, the result will likely disappoint. But that does not affect my view that this is a very interesting film and broadly a successful entertainment. It could be argued that 'The Great Dictator' is a finer insight into Chaplin's art; the masterful pantomime is more vividly on show, and is Hitler is not especially the evil figure we know him to be, but more the manipulative, balletic Chaplin, commanding our attention.
'Limelight' seems not to succeed in being a summation of Chaplin's career; perhaps as it distinctly lacks the raison d'être of his visual comedy. Okay, perhaps Calvero is a character based partly on other faded stars from the music hall tradition, but we are not convinced that this is quite the same Chaplin. Of course, this is bound to be the case: this is sound cinema, nearly twenty years after the tramp's final sunset-bound trot. But, here Chaplin's character talks incessantly and unrepentantly: quite the conversion for the silent clown. Unlike Laurel and Hardy, the adjustment to sound was never made in his original screen persona, so this truly will seem a different Chaplin to viewers. He pontificates in a somewhat lofty, generally admirable fashion; but it is the speech of a mannered, delicate, sentimental old English gentleman, and not a clown or philosopher. There are times his dialogue wades in some very interesting waters - such as that regarding his views on audiences and the rigors of performance - but often, too little of worth is said with too many words, in an overweening, self-satisfied manner.
Where the film really succeeds is in the way Chaplin does take on a sort of tragic grandeur towards the close - or more rightly a rather sad grace; a man out of time and out of sympathy with most the world has to offer. It seems he was lucky to obtain the services of Claire Bloom to play the ballerina, Tereza, as she invests a crucial part with genuine feeling and warm brittleness - a good contrast with Chaplin's slightly wearing charm and ghostly drifting through the film. His contribution in bringing Bloom to the screen is to be appreciated, as she went on to a most impressive career in many mediums. Indeed, Bloom is rather histrionic at times, but at least it adds some genuine zest to proceedings. That she carries off this role, that from the evidence we see, is so unlikely a young girl completely in the thrall of a curiously cold and verbose old man is a testament to her skill. She really conveys more of Chaplin's appeal than is perhaps warranted by what occurs in the film.
Touches like the visual flashbacks of Neville and Tereza's unspoken romance during her voice-over, narrating the story, really help the film. As do the inclusion of performance sequences early on, which are revealed to be in Calvero's subconscious. The second of those rather amused me, seeming atypically Chaplin in its bantering wordplay and slightly otherworldly air. The performing fleas routine is hardly vintage Chaplin (but pray remember, Calvero is a purely music hall performer, of pre-WW1 days) in its invention, but it is very precisely performed. I loved the little bits implying a wider tapestry: the drunken musical recitations by Calvero and a few friends in his flat, the reminiscing in a bar. It may not be a picture focused on the details of London life in the era, but tantalizing glimpses are given.
It is charming to see faces of old Hollywood, albeit briefly in this picture, that is so dominated by Chaplin's self-regard. Nigel Bruce is a splendid presence as you've guessed it a doddering, hapless old buffer with heart certainly in the desired place and dander constantly up. Buster Keaton adds some much needed comedic timing and experience to the film with his late appearance, performing with Chaplin in a decent final routine. He really outshines Chaplin, and it is a shame more isn't seen of his droll presence, far more tangible and concrete than the curiously elusive Chaplin is here.
Whatever one's thoughts on the film's comedy, it must be recognized that this is more of a winsome, self-absorbed melodrama than it is anything like a comedy. That it works is surely down to the strange historical interest of the film and its undeniable melancholic resonance. This is a Chaplin at the end of his tether, seemingly unwilling or unable to go back to being a comedian. The film is sad, invested with a grand decay and propped up by perhaps a more real' Chaplin than was ever seen in his days of silence. It simply should not work it is a portrait over-egged to some degree - but this is somehow remarkably compelling stuff. The picture all the more mourns what isn't there.
Rating: - *** ½/*****
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