Blu-ray Review: LIMELIGHT - Chaplin's Final American Film Replaces Comedy With Too Much Nostalgia

By 1952 Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp character was behind him, his most satirical work (The Great Dictator, 1940) had dazzled audiences and the actor/director had well and truly passed his peak. In a cruel case of art imitating life, Limelight was a nostalgic look at declining fame and popularity €“ something that Chaplin was facing in reality. Fully intending it to be his last film Chaplin sank deep into the ocean of nostalgia and made a film that slaps audiences in the face with poignancy and the saccharine sweet taste of sentimentality. Many have argued that the film is in fact a masterpiece €“ even Chaplin's finest work €“ but it failed to impress contemporary audiences and its overly self-indulgent sentimentality actually negatively impacts on the power of the narrative. With the new Blu-ray transfer released today, after having another chance to re-evaluate the film it still remains one of the least effective Chaplin productions. Read on to see why... When fading vaudeville star Calvero (Charlie Chaplin), a desperate alcoholic, comes home to his apartment block and discovers a neighbour €“ a young ballet dancer €“ attempting to gas herself to death he makes it his sole purpose to restore her faith in life and kick-start her career once more. Calvero finds he has more to contend with than he realised when it becomes apparent that Terry, the ballerina, is in fact unable to walk... Calvero persistently tries to convince Terry that life is worth living and they become each other's support system as they both attempt to re-enter the world of performance. The pretension surrounding Limelight was probably intended to add an element of the high-art concept by Chaplin, but it instead makes the film appear less relevant and more 'preachy'. Whilst Chaplin tackles the subject of the narrative with conviction, Limelight comes across more as a love letter to himself than to the story he is attempting to tell. He stars in virtually every scene and this is particularly irritating in the climactic performance scene €“ a duet between Chaplin and contemporary comedian Buster Keaton €“ when it is certainly obvious that the former does not wish to be upstaged by the latter. The scene remains one of the very few highlights within the 137 minute running time and both Keaton and Chaplin perform with the excellent comic timing that both are famous for. Claire Bloom is convincing as the despondent ballerina, Terry, and one of the only genuinely touching scenes is when she regains her ability to walk. The ballet scene is beautifully choreographed and danced extremely well by professional New York City Ballet dancer Melissa Hayden - who filled in for Bloom, who was not a professional €“ but it is over-long, which ultimately ruins the effect somewhat. Chaplin spent two years working on the screenplay, originally writing a novel entitled Footlights on which he would base the film. Footlights was never intended to be published and simply was a way for the auteur to make what he considered would be his finest work. Containing many autobiographical elements, Limelight is steeped in sentimentality and nostalgia in a way that makes it virtually inaccessible to audiences. Chaplin spends his entire screen time narrating the plot rather than allowing actions to speak for him. The distinct charm of his silent comedy films is replaced here with an over-dependence on dialogue and Calvero's constant musing. The physical elements of Chaplin's usual performances is sorely missed here. Had he combined both the physical action performance audiences are used to seeing him provide, with fewer dialogue laden scenes, Limelight would be a more successful film in my eyes. Instead, the film becomes too self-indulgent and lacks the finesse Chaplin was known to produce in film. The overly nostalgic image of the past may somewhat relate to Chaplin's personal life at the time. With America battling the psychological (as well as physical) realities of the Cold War, paranoia was at an all time high in the States in 1952. Chaplin, a foreigner who had strong liberal leanings, found himself the victim of the US Senate's anti-Communist witch-hunts. Perhaps yearning for a past that lacked the overly cautious nature of the 50s, may explain why Chaplin wanted to create a narrative that was so naively obsessed with the past and the recapturing of this in the future. When Chaplin travelled to England to attend the premiere of Limelight he found that his re-entry permit had been revoked by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and he was unable to return to the States, despite being a naturalised citizen. Making Europe his home, Chaplin continued to make three more films, A Countess from Hong Kong (1967) being his last. Limelight was to be his final American production however, but it wasn't released in that country until 1972. Despite the good intentions of its narrative, Limelight failed to impress at the box office twenty years later. It did, however, go on to win an Oscar for Chaplin's exceptional soundtrack: the silver-lining in what is unfortunately an unsuccessful attempt to chronicle the harsh realities of declining fame. Limelight is released on Dual Format Blu-ray & DVD today.
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Stuart Cummins hasn't written a bio just yet, but if they had... it would appear here.