Calvero, a “tramp” comedian whose star has long-faded on the stages of Edwardian London, completes an elaborate yet simple act that finds him elegantly pantomiming acrobatic insects jumping from one hand to the other. The off-screen laughter and applause of the audience quickly dies away, and we’re treated to the scene’s first reverse shot, which reveals an entertainer’s worst nightmare: a cavernous theater whose seats are entirely empty. This dream sequence from Charlie Chaplin’s 1952 film Limelight (available from The Criterion Collection) could not have more strikingly depicted the strained relationship that the filmmaker-performer endured with a public that had all but abandoned him by the Eisenhower America.
Although Limelight takes place in 1914 in Soho’s theater scene (not too far from Chaplin’s childhood home in impoverished central London) and features Chaplin as an aging comedic performer whose central act unambiguously echoes his star-making Little Tramp, the year of the film’s setting was a fruitful one in the biography of this film’s maker and lead performer: 1914 marked the year that Chaplin made the switch from New York’s vaudeville scene to starring in one-reelers in Los Angeles.
By the end of that year, Chaplin would make his directorial debut, Caught in the Rain, and by the end of the decade, would establish the film company United Artists with fellow filmmakers Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith — the first motion picture company established by and organized for creative artists of the medium. The following decade and a half would witness Chaplin becoming one of the most famous, most successful, and most respected practitioners of narrative cinema, even continuing to make renowned and popular silent works during Hollywood’s early sound era.
By the coming of America’s Great Depression, Chaplin — who in his filmmaking and in his life advocated for the rights and visibility of society’s downtrodden, never forgetting his austere origins — turned his filmmaking to more explicitly political territory. His 1936 Modern Times was an almost Kafkaesque screed against the dehumanization of industrial society, famously turning The Tramp into a literal cog in the machine. 1940’s The Great Dictator used The Tramp’s uncanny resemblance to Adolf Hitler in order to stage a passionate call for intervention in a war at a time in which America remained neutral. But where these two features became popular and respected works of politically conscious comedy, each staging critiques that proved palatable to mass audiences starving for both change and catharsis, Chaplin’s 1947 Monsieur Verdoux was received as a bridge too far.
Shedding any remnant of his Tramp character for arguably the first time since achieving international fame, Verdoux saw Chaplin portraying a silver-tongued bigamist-murderer who plunders the savings of vulnerable widows in order to lavish middle-class riches upon his “real” family after being laid off a banking job. For his darkest of comedies, Chaplin updated the notorious life of French serial killer Henri Landru to France’s interwar period in order to examine the hypocrisy of states that condemn individual criminals while involving themselves in much more wide-reaching crimes. As Chaplin’s Verdoux pleads in a climactic monologue that works as a searing inverse of The Great Dictator’s summary call for peace, “As for being a serial killer, does the world not encourage it?”
An America that now rested comfortably upon the moral satisfaction of becoming the great victors in a just war was less than receptive to a film that satirizes the modern state for holding violence as a less-than-hidden virtue. Chaplin reportedly opened at least one press conference in promotion of Monsieur Verdoux with, “Proceed with the butchering.”
It wasn’t simply that Monsieur Verdoux was a domestic disappointment for a Hollywood film. Chaplin’s star had fallen significantly in the years between the start and end of America’s involvement in the war due to a heavily publicized court case around an affair with an aspiring actress, for which J. Edgar Hoover attempted to have him prosecuted in violation of the Mann Act, and Chaplin’s escalating political involvement since The Great Dictator.
As detailed in Charles J. Maland’s excellent biography, numerous factors contributed to the blacklisting of Chaplin as a public enemy. His associations with groups that promoted an allied friendship between the Soviet Union and the United States during the war, his friendships with other prominent American leftists in the entertainment industry, and his vocal criticism of the House of Un-American Activities Committee all coalesced in Chaplin’s reputation as a political operative dangerous to a paranoid, reactionary, and aggressively conformist era. Calls for boycott surrounded the release of Monsieur Verdoux, and congressman John E. Rankin advocated for Chaplin’s deportation in hopes that “his loathsome pictures can be kept from before the eyes of the American youth,” describing the co-founder of United Artists as “detrimental to the moral fabric of America.”
Perhaps hoping to reconnect with audiences of the country in which he became one of the silver screen’s eternal faces, Chaplin’s subsequent project was markedly apolitical. Depicting an aging alcoholic former stage clown’s (Chaplin) unlikely friendship with a suicidal ballerina (Claire Bloom), Limelight is a bittersweet rumination on triumphs and tragedies of the life of art and show business, frankly depicting the volatile relationship between stars and audiences. When Bloom’s Thereza protests Calvero’s desire to “forget the public,” he responds that while he admires the public as individuals, “as a crowd, they’re like a monster without a head that never knows which way it’s going to turn. It can be prodded in any direction.”
Despite clear echoes such as these to the difficult relationship Chaplin currently endured with his public, Limelight is without the essayistic grandstanding that made the polemics of his prior two features such lightning rods. Limelight focuses in-depth on a complex human relationship between a falling star and a rising one within a less-than-nostalgic venture into the historical milieu of Chaplin’s youth. As if to fully demonstrate the sad futility of fighting over entertainers who possess the unique power of bringing people together, Chaplin here even shares the screen — for the first and only time in cinema history — with silent-era rival Buster Keaton.
But American audiences had barely an opportunity to witness Chaplin’s lyrical olive branch. While Chaplin was promoting the Hollywood-shot Limelight in London, his re-entry permit to the US was revoked. To borrow Maland’s words, Attorney General James McGranery announced that the filmmaker would have to answer questions about his “political views and moral behavior before he would be allowed to re-enter the country.”
Worn down by the vast condemnation he had received for years in his adopted nation, Chaplin chose to remain in Europe where his more recent films had been better received. Limelight saw a limited release in only a few East Coast cities and was almost immediately forgotten despite its happenstance generic resonance with contemporaneous showbiz films like Billy Wilder’s gothic noir Sunset Boulevard, Vincente Minnelli’s expressionist melodrama The Bad and the Beautiful, Stanley Donen, and Gene Kelly’s colorful condemnation of cinematic artifice Singin’ in the Rain, and Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place, which cast Humphrey Bogart as a sociopath who promised even more danger than Chaplin’s Verdoux. It would seem that, by the early 1950s, Chaplin’s delicate vision of life inside the spotlight would find a natural home in Hollywood. But alas, not even a less overtly political Chaplin revisiting his role as the Tramp was welcome.
Twenty years later, in an America and a Hollywood in which political dissent had grown to become something of a style of being, Limelight finally saw its first full theatrical re-release alongside a repertory programming of Chaplin’s other films. Chaplin’s oeuvre was now appreciated for the first time in the US as a cumulative body of work, a decades-long plea for humanism and peace with more than a bit of elegant physical humor peppered in. In this context, Limelight was now fully in view as something of an introspective career summary.
In 1972, two decades after his exile, Chaplin returned to Hollywood and gave audiences one final moving performance:
Limelight is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.