Limelight Review

Artists are not destined to remain at their peak for an entire career. To do so would be unhealthy. How would they leave their mark on a genre or generation if their whole career was one big stretch of quality? Few men and women will do it, but some outliers will last on for a lifetime. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton are two men that spring to mind when thinking of a definitive era of comedy, yet their later efforts, like Limelight, fell seemingly on deaf ears. It did not catapult them to their once-prominent positions as comedians, but that is an intentional choice for Chaplin’s direction and the story he creates here. One where a ballerina must make her way back to the stage, and the music hall comedian set on helping her back to where she once was. 

An older generation helping the new, it is not the passing of the torch, but the acceptance of changing tastes that Chaplin is so aware of here. Bringing the legendary Keaton into the mixture is the unity of old comedians, fighting back against a tide of changes that they were certainly able to adapt to, but had no interest in chasing. They used the time to try new and conceivably different performances. Limelight is such a piece, ridding the comedy almost entirely in the place of dramatics and romance. Those latter flutters of love were a crutch for the narrative of early Chaplin and Keaton comics, where the charming star gets the girl through his bumbling abilities, but with this early-1950s piece from Chaplin, there is strong brevity and relevance to it.  

But despite this change, Chaplin’s direction is the standout, breathing life into relatively odd and uneventful set pieces. “Are you in pain? That’s all that matters,” is Calvero’s (Chaplin) advice to Terry (Claire Bloom). There is an inherent vagueness to that and much other dialogue within Limelight that tends to falter. Chaplin portrays Calvero well, but the drunken stupor paired with the rambling philosophy is not handled too well. Chaplin’s framing still focuses on the split of characters. Where Calvero stumbles down the stairs, two angered, elderly neighbours walk down the hallway. Because of his legacy, we can be excused for waiting for some form of fumble down the stairs. Some grand, comedic action. There is a maturity in not giving into what the audience expect, but the alternative is dialogue that falls a tad flat and scenes that serve a primitive purpose.  

Even then, Chaplin is a sucker for a sight gag, and there are a handful of scenes that present that inherent talent he had as a comedian. They feel out of place, but there is an acknowledgeable delight in seeing them, because while they may not be fitting for the story, they are nice, inevitable odds to the work that shot him to stardom. He works his way into dialogue-based comedy, and a strong performance from Chaplin gives Limelight the boost it cries out for. Artistically rewarding, but certainly leagues away from what these two great performers were known for. Limelight offers a peel-back of the curtain, to a fictional realm of tired, ageing stars coming to terms with the spotlight slowly swinging to the likes of Jack Lemmon or Audrey Hepburn. They were a new era, and hangers-on like Chaplin and Keaton had little time left around the release of Limelight 

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