17 August 2000 | stryker-5
"I'm Shameless, But I Can't Help It"
An ageing vaudeville comedian is well into his decline when he rescues a young ballerina from death and nurses her back to health. Her combination of vulnerability, gratitude and unconditional adoration give the jaded Calvero a new lease of life.
"Love, Love, Love" is the title of a Calvero stage number, and it would serve as a subtitle for the film, with the young Claire Bloom as the jewish gamine, the Paulette Goddard of the next generation. As usual, Chaplin does it all - acting, writing, directing, composing and choreography. He also packs the film with Chaplins, with no fewer than seven members of the tribe appearing. "Sounds like a novelette," says Calvero when he hears Thereza's story, and the observation applies equally validly to this shallow and slightly tawdry love story.
"What is this urge that makes us go on and on?" asks Calvero. The viewer can be forgiven for wondering the same thing. This is Chaplin at his most self-indulgent (and that's saying something), with long rambling speeches about "the secret of all happiness" and horribly pretentious twaddle such as "Desire is the theme of all life. It's what makes a rose want to be a rose!"
Desire is what makes Chaplin want to seem clever and profound, but these witterings are meaningless ("The heart and the mind! What an enigma!") He cites Freud twice as he 'psychoanalyses' a girl he doesn't know, without any grounding in Freud's methods. And the screenplay is horribly over-written. The strivings towards a self-consciously literary style are embarrassing. We get phrases like "the elegant melancholy of twilight", and at one point Thereza is made to remonstrate with Calvero against his despondency because "You're too great an artist!" She tells him that he is "excruciatingly funny", when in fact he's just excruciating. The overblown histrionic style had gone out of fashion forty years before this. Thereza is given dreadful bits of speechifying to do ("Truth! Truth!") and the newspaper review which gets read aloud is literary pomposity of the most grotesque kind.
"I wasn't funny," admits Calvero. Elsewhere he confesses, "I lost contact with my audience." How very true. Calvero is offered to us as one of the great artists of vaudeville, but the simple truth is that the 'turns' which he performs onscreen are embarrassingly weak. The patter is lacklustre and unfunny, and the wretched flea routine (which would not have survived the script consultation stage, had there been one) gets shown twice. It is an emblem of the film itself - too long-winded and not nearly funny enough. Calvero flirts with Mrs. Alsop, the tough old landlady, in what is meant to be a winning deployment of charm, but it fails because Calvero isn't charming. Worst of all is the seemingly never-ending ballet, Chaplin's most extreme form of self-indulgence in a film mired in directionless ego. As a pianist, Chaplin has dexterity without musicality: as a writer, glibness without eloquence: as a composer, facility without substance. In all of his 'artistic' endeavours, he tootles and tinkers without really ever saying anything. The clown demands to be taken seriously, but has nothing serious to say.
Plot articulations were never a Chaplin strongpoint (vide the train wheels in "Monsieur Verdoux"), and "Limelight" has some clumsy narrative apparatus. The hoary old contrivance of the surprise telegram is lazy plotting, as is the inelegant question-answer dialogue by which Calvero elicits Thereza's life story. Calvero has been on the verge of Skid Row for years, but suddenly high society rewards him for his artistic achievements with a benefit gala - and thus is Claire Bloom's ballet worked into the story. After a long, slow build-up to the ballet, the film ends with puzzling abruptness.
Postant the impresario (Nigel Bruce) and Neville the composer (Sydney Chaplin) occupy a no man's land somewhere between being developed as characters and being irrelevant to the plot. The suspicion has to be that Chaplin introduced Neville in order to render the film palatable to an American audience. The core story, that Youth must break free of Age's tutelage in order to fulfil its own potential, doesn't need Neville.
Chaplin was fond of back-projection (eg, the never-quite-halting train in "The Great Dictator"). Calvero and Thereza go for a stroll against a back-projection of the Thames Embankment, and it just doesn't work. The artifice is simply too distracting.
Can anything positive be said about "Limelight"? Well, the routine with Buster Keaton is delightful (but (1) was it really necessary to repeat the gags so blatantly? and (2) one hears ugly rumours that Chaplin butchered the scene at the editing stage because Keaton was so much funnier than he). There is a reverse-motion segment in the clownage, a device Chaplin had previously used in the 'globe dance' passage of "The Great Dictator"). Oh, and "Eternally" is a nice tune.