LIMELIGHT

A review of an obscure indie film (courtesy of HuluPlus’ choice selection of films from the Criterion Collection), some film history & Eric Michael Kochmer. Read on to find out why indie filmmakers should care. Every #TBT.

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LIMELIGHT (1952) directed by Charlie Chaplin (137 min) Black & White

He wrote, directed, starred and scored the majority of his films. Innovator isn’t the word. Charlie Chaplin isn’t exactly a low budget filmmaker but I would say he is the ultimate DIY movie maker of all time. He wasn’t mainstream. He created mainstream. You know the quote “Hollywood Ending”? Yeah, that’s him. He’s the man. He didn’t fit into the studios. He created (then a small art house studio) United Artists with Mary Pickford and D. W. Griffith, so that he could do what all independent filmmakers want to do: Make the movie that they want to make.

Sometimes his own vanity got in his way, though. In the mid-forties Orson Wells came to Chaplin with the script for “Monseirour Verdoux,” in hopes of directing the great tramp. Chaplin, almost went with it, but at the last minute bought the script off of Wells and directed the picture himself… ah what a collaboration that could have been. But then again, when he did collaborate with a different modern genius (great Marlon Brando), the two masters of a different time butted heads. Brando once said that “… for me acting for Chaplin was like sitting on top of a train going 90 miles an hour trying to play chess …” He was always the target of authorities on and off screen until eventually he was kicked out of America due to his communist sympathies in the early 1950’s.

limelightThe Criterion Collection that is currently on Hulu Plus, has most of Chaplin’s feature films: “The Kid” (1921), “A Woman of Paris” (1923), The Gold Rush (192 5),  “The Circus ” (1928), “City Lights” (1931), Modern Times (1936), “The Great Dicator” (1940), “Monsieur Verdoux” (1947), “Limelight” (1952) and “A King in New York” (1957). The only feature film that they are leaving out is the aforementioned “A Countess from Hong Kong” (1967). So for the Chaplin virgin, this is a pretty good scope of the masters work.

“Limelight” (1952), was his last film made in Hollywood. The release at the time was limited due to his problems with the FBI, but it was a smash hit in Europe and did receive a re-release in the US in the early 1970’s (and was at that time awarded Chaplin’s only competitive oscar: for best score). The music, which harkens back to the melodramatic scores of the 1930’s, is so strong that it is a character. His shot selection is, as Stanley Kubrick called it, “pedestrian,” at best. Kubrick also went on to say however, that Chaplin was one of his favorite filmmakers, the reason being that Chaplin was a master storyteller.

“Limelight,” is almost like a greatest hits of his film-making. It starts with his most contemporary (of the the 1950’s) style and in flashbacks we see what his character was like as a great stage success. These parts are Chaplin on a stage singing in a Vaudeville house. In the beginning of the third act of the film we get a glimpse of how great of a dancer the girl is (played brilliantly by Claire Bloom in her first film). These scenes are some of the most innovative in the film, as the girl dressed in black dances on a black stage as Chaplin watches her in the dark shadows. The climax of the film culminates with Chaplin performing a clown routine with another old washed up performer (played by Buster Keaton – in their only appearances together). He is the closest to the tramp in these scenes. And these are probably the most lovingly made scenes in the film. So he literally leaves the best for last.

And that’s the thing, “Limelight” is incredibly dated, but only because its written by a man who had his roots in Vaudeville and silent film and has those styles highly represented in not only the minimal shot selection but in the vastness of the melodrama. The story concerns a washed up old clown, played of course by Chaplin, who one day is coming home to his modest apartment in a boarding house and smells a gas leak. He is drunk as well but still manages to locate the leak in an apartment where a young woman is trying to commit suicide. He breaks into her apartment and saves her, (with the help of a nice local doctor). She is a great dancer, but is depressed. Of course, she becomes great again because of his nurturing and guidance. She falls in love with him and he resists at first but then briefly gives in, and then of course tragically passes.

This is your basic melodrama but made by the guy who helped originate film melodrama’s. So, though there are cliches throughout, the film never becomes a burden to watch because of his constant imagination and sight gags and drama.