Director: Charles Chaplin
Screenwriters: Charles Chaplin

Institute History

  • 1989 Sundance Film Festival


Nearly at the end of the Chaplin oeuvre, well after the two-reelers and the great silents, is the odd film Limelight. Employing mistresses, children and high sentiments, it’s a strained film, unbearable at times: the camera work, the melodrama, even the comedy take themselves very seriously. Chaplin seems to have lost his sense of self-deprecation, his sense of human motive and, alas, even his comic rhythm. Except for the occasional introspective close-up of sudden, and often angry, body motion (and a good gag about private prayer), the film seems a very sententious pseudohomage to stage performance.

Then comes a final music-hall turn with Buster Keaton as Chaplin’s partner—the only time they ever appeared on screen together—and the film takes on life and historic energy. If you’re in the right frame of mind, this little sketch can get you as weepy as Chaplin intends you to be for his prolonged death scene the next minute. (It can also make you angry at how Keaton is left standing, retainerlike, in shot after shot.) The screen meeting in 1951 of these two heroes of the teens and twenties could have been fuller and more equitable. Still, they do seem to draw good stuff out of each other. They’ve each got a body gag and a fall that radiate a real vaudeville heritage.

Question: Was it Keaton’s presence that gave Chaplin’s fall into the orchestra pit such oomph and grace at age sixty? Or was it just the memory of what a great fall can be? The film is worth seeing (even again and again) for the reflections Chaplin keeps trying to make on life and performance, and for those he offers in spite of his best intentions.

Question: Does the sound camera confound Chaplin’s story telling? Why does this film often seem like a pale, talking imitation of City Lights? Is it that old age and self-consciousness have caught up with the master, or was he actually trying, but not quite managing, something new and ambitious with a complex character who is not entirely sympathetic? (Or is he trying to be entirely sympathetic but no managing that?)

Chaplin only directed two more movies, and he never appeared again on a stage-within-a-screen, where so much of Limelight takes place. He struggles in this film, but it’s moving to see his struggle take place in, around and on the proscenium stage where his art was born.

— Tony Safford

Screening Details

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