That the onset of sound in cinema was going to be a problem for Charlie Chaplin, no one appreciated more than the little tramp himself. For several years he persisted in making essentially silent film or for the best part wordless films – i.e. City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936) – with sound effects and score synchronised. His contempt and perhaps fear of the development can be heard in his comment that putting sound on film was like painting a statue. He had a vested interest, but his analogy was also wrong.
The pristine whiteness of classical statuary is a product of time and erosion. They were originally painted. With The Great Dictator in 1940, Chaplin made his first fully realised talkie and with it a grand gesture. If the tramp were to speak than he was going to have his say and then some; producing Chaplin’s most outspoken political film ever and a hilarious parody of Hitler in the process. Limelight (1952) came as something of a retreat. Chaplin’s politics had caused the first concerted bad press of his career, with many on the right accusing him of communist sympathies, if not being an outright communist. The bad publicity effected the reception of Monsieur Verdoux in 1947 which landed as Chaplin’s first critical and commercial dud. A fearful Hollywood stayed away from a man who was being publicly vilified as a leftist and who refused to keep his views to himself, Chaplin resorted in his isolation to nostalgia and his vaudeville days.
Limelight is really an alternative biography for Chaplin. The old clown Calvero is who Charlie Chaplin might have been without cinema. Set in London on the eve of the First World War, a drunken Calvero comes home one night to find the girl in the room downstairs in the middle of a suicide attempt. He rescues Terry (Claire Bloom) and nurses her back to health. Finally able to unburden himself, Chaplin has a lot to get off his chest, but now the subject is now the nature of his art and his general philosophy of life rather than politics.
Calvero preaches a cheery stoicism in the face of the general awfulness of existence. He is particularly troubled by his loss of popularity, a fear that haunted Chaplin even at the peak of his success. One day it would all go away – a fear incidentally that had also haunted Charles Dickens, a comparable London made comic artist. Make them laugh, by all means, but there will be a human cost. In one truly magic moment, Buster Keaton – who had fallen on hard times and was largely forgotten – joins Calvero for his final gala performance. It is a cinematic meeting to be cherished and makes up for the maudlin and wordy melodrama that precedes it. Limelight was a success in Europe (and a massive hit in Japan), but due to Chaplin’s own indifference failed to do business in the states. This perhaps inspired his next film which was to be a direct and dramatic assault on the USA and the McCarthy witch-hunts of which Chaplin had been an indirect victim. Although subpoenaed, Chaplin was never called on to testify, possibly because the HUAC had got wind of Chaplin’s notion to appear before the committee in his famous tramp costume.
A King in New York sees the King of Estrovia, King Igor Shahdov (Chaplin) flee a revolution to land in New York. Here he is exploited and secretly filmed in order to sell products. Rampant commercialism is a mild annoyance compared to the paranoia that sees the king suspected of communism because of his friendship of Rupert (Michael Chaplin), a young boy whose parents have been accused. The satire is a bit scattergun, with Hollywood itself and loud music also getting sideswipes, and also a bit crotchety. The king is an elderly man unable to deal with the changes in society around him, a far cry from the inventive young man who appeared on those shores half a century ago and took the latest technological innovation and made it his own. There are still glimmers of the old tramp in the new king, but the comic business is self-consciously anachronistic and the sum of the parts is not quite the devastating critique Chaplin intended.
The Charlie Chaplin Revue is a straight forward repackaging of earlier hits. Three shorts A Dog’s Life, Shoulder Arms and The Pilgrim showcase the Tramp’s initial appeal and comic bravura. 1918’s A Dog’s Life sees Chaplin share the screen with his first successful co-star Scraps, a precursor to Jackie Coogan’s turn as The Kid, a mongrel who ends up offering Chaplin companionship in the Bowery. Shoulder Arms shows how Chaplin’s comedy always existed in a hyper real world of genuine hardship. In the realistically realised trenches of what was then The Great War, the Tramp finds himself an infantryman who must suffer the hardships of trench life and the imminent risk of death by poison gas, bullets or shells. The Pilgrim is the weakest of the three, with Chaplin playing an escaped convict who arrives in a small town, where he is mistaken for a visiting clergyman. There is obvious and for the time daring satire on the hypocrisy of religion and some fantastically funny comic set pieces, but the revue as a whole suffers from its apparent randomness and was criticised on its release for elongating sequences to fit the score. On DVD and Blu-ray it makes more sense, offering the uninitiated a solid primer on Chaplin at the height of his powers.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty