Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Chaplin's "Limelight" – A Critical Appreciation (including the Keaton scenes)

With his Little Tramp long gone, Sir Charles Chaplin – one of the forefathers of modern screen comedy and perhaps the most important single screen presence in the history of early cinema – makes his final film, and some might say, life statement.

The scripted plot of "Limelight" (1952) may be summed up as a May-December love story set in the by-gone world where Chaplin began his career as a child performer, the British Music Hall. The story between the lines, however, is a revealing glimpse into the mind of the artist as an old man – and his final attempt to re-invent himself.

Chaplin creates a complex, if somewhat trite persona in Calvero, an aging stage clown who saves a young ballerina – Claire Bloom – from suicide, and nurses her back from a near career-ending paralysis. Their relationship as mentor-and-mentored becomes strained as he falls in love with her – and she of course never realizes it, until it's past too-late.

If it all sounds familiar, it is. Like the Tramp had done numerous times, and even the lowly barber masquerading as demagogue in "The Great Dictator" (1940), Chaplin's Calvero willingly lays everything on the altar of righteous sacrifice for the sake of an ideal.

It is a window with only an inward view. Chaplin seems to relish his own sage presence. In his sound films he never fails to gift himself with a younger – or at least naive – protégé upon whom to inflict long-winded monologues about the real Chaplin's off-camera worldview. In the silent days, interestingly, it was usually the Tramp who "discovered" these political revelations on his heroically innocent journeys.

In this rightly named finalé to his screen career, Chaplin's performance is visibly calculated. He has nothing left to prove, given his already well ensconced status in film history, and knows it. "Of course I'm brilliant," he exudes in each episodic scene, though this is not to deny the scope or formidable quality of what he offers throughout the picture. That white-haired elder statesman is still "Charlie" somewhere inside, and it shows, despite his obvious struggle to step out of the immense shadow of the Little Tramp.

For those familiar only with the Tramp, his performance here may strike a surreal chord. "Limelight" is arguably his most "talkative" talkie, and Chaplin's character is awash, nay, glowing in self-importance, even when down on his luck. The Tramp would've found this utterly incomprehensible, possibly immoral.

Chaplin was the last great silent era filmmaker to cross over to sound; a maverick holdout against the talkies. They were a blasphemy to him. And only Chaplin could have held out for as long, before finally relenting to the age of the microphone. His "Modern Times" (1936) is in fact, considered the very movie that officially closed the American cinema's silent era. Like his earlier silent masterpiece "City Lights" (1931), it was completed and exhibited well after theaters equipped for sound had become dominant.

The "Limelight" soundtrack boasts surprises on many levels. Chaplin doesn't just speak for novelty's sake, but displays a casual expertise with dialogue, and in a scene or two, a handsomely robust singing voice. The music hall boy still lurked inside him.

The mind reels so slightly for an instant: Chaplin's voice...!

As if he'd never spoken on film before, in each of Chaplin's "soundies," his voice seems to mesmerize. The ear hangs on his every word, seeking to capture it, like a rare bird. Charlie Chaplin's presence on any soundtrack is a somewhat mystical experience. Like witnessing the fleeting passage of a wraith across a dark hallway.

But with some of Chaplin's speaking roles, he'd misjudged its value. In "The Great Dictator," Chaplin's bromide-heavy speech for universal solidarity, in the final reel, is a single flaw in an otherwise peerless black satire of Hitler. On the other hand, in "Monsieur Verdoux" (1947) he definitely released his vocal powers to memorable and even haunting effect. Verdoux, a serial murderer 30 years before that term entered the lexicon, was certainly his greatest, and perhaps most successful, attempt to exorcise the Tramp; the "little fellow's" mirror opposite in every way.

Yes, Charlie Chaplin, playing a serial killer. Intrigued? Rent it!

Instead of waddling off into the sunset, Verdoux marches defiantly to the waiting gallows at dawn, after swallowing a glass of brine, with a hint of dark ecstasy – the Tramp's delicious death rattle: "I always wanted to taste it."

In "Limelight" he portrays a man very much dependent upon his voice. Calvero is a song & dance comedian. Up until his sound films, Chaplin spent four decades perfecting the caricature of the Little Tramp, living in a visual universe where voice was not only unnecessary but in some cases irrelevant – where those who spoke could only mime a stammering jaw-wag that visually stood in for the outpouring of words. The want hardly even occurs to imagine the Tramp's voice. Everything the Tramp ever needed was visual. Though Chaplin may have loosely made the Tramp a template when he manufactured Calvero, he drew an outline only, and replaced the center with a stunning departure from his realm of masterful visual storytelling – a character for whom sound and voice are not just crucial elements, but defining ones.

The Tramp's voice had been heard only once before "The Great Dictator." In "Modern Times" he takes a turn as a singing waiter, and when his crib-noted lyrics fly away during his opening dance, he sings a song of faux-French gibberish. The meaningless yet saucy non-word lyrics served to only further illustrate Chaplin's philosophy that visual presentation was the true focal point. The verbal was garnish, nothing more.

In Kevin Brownlow's incomparable book on the silent era, "The Parade's Gone By" (1976, University Of California Press), he declares that the silent and sound cinemas were more than just opposing sets of expository rules, but were in actuality two entirely different art forms. Charlie Chaplin proved Brownlow's hypothesis, although in ways that were sometimes disappointing – he would never dominate the talkies as he had the silents.

"Limelight" has a contrivance-on-rye flavor. The plot lurches and shuffles around the most obvious corners and twists. The dialogue is stiff and intemperately punctuated, though delivered undeservedly well. Chaplin unwinds his yarn like a teacher reading a storybook to a room of kindergartners; overstuffed even by 1950s standards. And as it is later revealed, all a set-up for one of his self-indulgent manifestos.

Calvero's flea circus act is over-simple, and overlong. It is enigmatic only for being a sanded-down reprise of a rare performance filmed nearly thirty-five years earlier.

During his stay at either the silent Mutual Studios, or First National, Chaplin attempted his first departure from the Little Tramp, with a character almost exactly the Tramp's opposite. "The Flea Circus" (1919), also known as "The Professor," is a freakish little presense in Chaplin's canon – a gift from an alternate universe, never officially released, but restored and viewable within some modern Chaplin documentaries. Chaplin plays a cynical, wrangley sideshow gypsy, dour and grimy, down to a moth eaten longcoat and ragged top-hat. Performing his act in a flophouse, chaos erupts when his flea performers mutiny and quickly infest everything, and everyone, in sight. Chaplin had even created a comic, misanthropic walk for this dour persona – a polar opposite of the Tramp's optimistic waddle. The only commonality was in the film's final shot, where Charlie exits into the sunset (or in this case, moonset) offering one last leg-shake to dislodge one of his insect tormentors.

Technically, "Limelight" is at times a groaner. Sound effects scream out their tinny artificiality. The most glaring sins occur in the theater scenes where the audience is clearly present on the soundtrack only, as evidenced by obvious volume manipulations to raise and lower the applause.

The one moment that earns this movie a permanent place on every cinema buff's shelf occurs in the last reel. And what a moment it is. For Calvero's farewell performance, he enlists an old friend to assist him – an old friend portrayed by none other than real-life old friend, Buster Keaton.

Though they are both slowed by age, the scene is nonetheless historic – their only appearance in a feature together, ever – and cosmic for silent comedy aficionados. Rembrandt and Di Vinci share a tea break.

Keaton's first line is so pregnant, it's hard to imagine the two men were unaware of its significance: "Well who'd have thought we'd come to THIS."

Buster's line delivery looks and sounds earnest to a fault – the still-present stage method from Vaudeville, and a main gripe among critics of Keaton's sound film work. Chaplin, meanwhile, remains aloof and catlike; an almost subconscious betrayal of his defenses being triggered by Keaton's close proximity, perhaps? Or was he simply Calvero, as his own script dictated?

Word spread that Chaplin was curt with Buster during filming, but this seems to be mere rumor. Other historical sources have revealed a few basic facts that outweigh the claptrap. Chaplin adamantly barred people he didn't like from his sets, therefore, he and Keaton were obviously on good terms. Some sources claim he personally requested Keaton – which seems most likely; rather than a cartoonish scenario of Buster Keaton answering a blind casting call for a Charlie Chaplin film.

Neither can we overlook the photographic evidence: still shots exist of Charlie and Buster working out the choreography of the scene, between takes! These details seem to dismiss any gossip of on-set tension between the two.

It's difficult to imagine Buster being hostile toward anyone on-set – if anything, he may have tried too hard to be helpful, to a point that perhaps annoyed Chaplin.

In the production of his last film, "The Railrodder" (1965), a travelogue shot in Canada, the only thing that apparently got under Buster's skin was his perception of his young director's inability to stage shots properly, in order to be matched up in editing. Keaton could only watch – and occasionally diagram for the youngster how certain on-screen business should fit together – then wander off to shed tears of anguish when his suggestions were overruled.

There exists footage of this, in the behind-the-scenes documentary "Buster Keaton Rides Again" (1965/66). The visage of the Great Stone Face openly weeping is heart-wrenching indeed. Then he sniffs it up... and proceeds to take his mark before the lens and be BUSTER KEATON. A remarkable man, under-appreciated, and used up.

But on the set of "Limelight," there were no such moments of private torment. All was as it should be; Chaplin and Keaton, each the other's only legitimate rival, yet with their private competition settled long ago to a mutual satisfaction. It was a draw. Both were content. Case closed.

They do a comic duet on stage in which Keaton plays the piano while Chaplin takes the violin. Hardly a note is played, as the comedic business involves the attempts of the two "virtuosos" to prepare to play. Chaplin emerges as the dominant performer in the scene, perhaps because he gives himself the majority of the business in the script. Despite the non-balance, this is one – and for some, the only – scene in the whole movie that causes audible laughter.

It is also the scene that displays Chaplin's showman genius in top form – not just in his performance, but his strategic involvement of Keaton, for the "skit" contains a subliminal geography of historical respect and appreciation for his chum.

Chaplin's comedic action is a study in "low" pantomime – consisting of body gags and facial expressions. Keaton's business relies on slapstick and the abuse of props – garnished by Keaton's stone deadpan. Chaplin's half of the scene perspires of the British Music Hall... Keaton's of Vaudeville. It is a testament to Chaplin's cognizance and keen measuring of his fellow silent clown's roots, against his own – and his ability to mesh them together so pleasingly. It might indeed be observed, that from all of Keaton's film roles that he did not self-direct, his best director was possibly Charlie Chaplin!

One bit involves Keaton accidentally stomping on Chaplin's violin, causing the two to briefly share a double-take at the destroyed instrument. No, it isn't the funniest thing ever captured on film, but on the galactic scale of cinematic comedy, Chaplin and Keaton double-taking at the same object has got to rank somewhere just below the Big Bang. Hardcore comedy fans may come away with the moment still looping in their minds, to the point of distraction, perhaps even missing the film's ending because of it.

Did the two men wonder if reality itself would shudder? Probably not. Did they just view it as another job? One wonders.

"Limelight" is an anomaly in Chaplin's cinema catalog for yet another reason. While important for being his last screen appearance, and rare cinematic evidence that he and Keaton shared the same planet, it is also a strange prism of distortion regarding his own theatrical moorings.

At its core "Limelight" is little more than B-movie fodder; an unremarkable work, considering the magnitude of its star. The screen personality whom at his peak was arguably the most famous human being on the globe, takes his final bow with nothing more than a death scene hardly worthy of low-budget melodrama. Calvero suffers a heart attack on stage, and passes away in the wings, watching his young ballerina enjoy the "limelight" of a renewed career.

The film's "fin" is utter cliché. Chaplin ends an incredible forty-year solo with a cough.

A white cloth is draped over his brow. Everyone looks on, including Keaton, probably wondering "oh brother," but playing his role exactly as his old pal requires him to.

Charlie does not amble off toward a horizon of tomorrow's promise, with his lady love, as he had done in "Modern Times." In fact, the final shot of that film may have served as a far more satisfying farewell regarding Chaplin's career.

When the Tramp made his final exit, so too did Charles Chaplin, only he apparently failed to realize it.

Many believed Chaplin lost his edge when he abandoned his derby hatted alter ego, including fellow silent era icon, and longtime Chaplin friend and associate, Mary Pickford. "When Chaplin got rid of the little tramp with the cane, the tramp turned around and killed him," she once said. Over a half-century later, her observation still appears spot-on.