Photo Essays
1. Exile’s Return
2. Chaplin’s Parents
3. Hannah Chaplin’s Femmes Fatales
4. Playing Dress-Up  In The Land of Make Believe
5. Teenage Girls and Fear of Aging
6. Chaplin’s Three Teenage Wives
7. Mildred Harris
8. Lita Grey
9. Oona O’Neill
10. Chaplin’s Father
11. A Royal Lion
12. Vesta Tilley as Bertie
13. Ella Shields as Bertie
14. Making A Living
15. The Lion Comique’s Son: Dressed Like A Bum
16. Monsieur Verdoux as a Lion Comique
17. Calvero as a Lion Comique
18. The Lion Comique’s Son in the Limelight
19. Charlie as a Child
20. The Kid’s Lucky Break
21. Syd Chaplin
22. A Family Album of Theatrical Drunks
23. Chaplin’s Family Romance
24. Edna Purviance
25. Purviance’s Influence on Chaplin’s Character
26. Essanay
27. Chaplinitis
28. Chaplin’s Predecessors
29. Eye Contact: Audience-Performer Intimacy
30. Chaplin the Auteur
31. Chaplin’s Two Autobiographies
32. Going It Alone
33. The Circus
34. Autobiographical Starvation Scenes From The Gold Rush
35. Autobiographical Madness Scenes in Modern Times
36. Two British Music Hall Traditions and Topical Comedy
37. The Great Dictator
38. Fatal Attraction: Joan Barry
39. Monsieur Verdoux: Guillotine or Hatchet Job?
40. Limelight
Chaplin: A Life In Film
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 The Circus
Although he did not realize it at the time, Charlie Chaplin would not set foot in America again for twenty years. As part of his plan to premier Limelight in London, and then, to take an extended family holiday, to show his wife and children the country where he was born, Chaplin, before the trip, applied for and received the necessary permit from the Immigration and Naturalization Service to reenter the United States. But behind the scenes, elaborate plans were being made by the FBI, the INS and the Attorney General to rescind that reentry permit and give Chaplin the comeuppance they believed he so richly deserved for his longstanding history of “moral turpitude” and contempt for the American way of life. Out of fairness to the allegedly lecherous malefactor, and in keeping with America’s democratic principles, Chaplin was reassured that he would be given a fair - and undoubtedly well-publicized - hearing, with an opportunity to clear his good name. Just in case he was naïve enough to risk submitting to this “unbiased” enquiry, J.Edgar Hoover’s minions had already begun taking sworn depositions from every woman they could find who had ever been intimate with Chaplin. (Those interviews can be found in Chaplin’s FBI-FOIA files). Whether he would return to the United States was strictly up to him, Chaplin was informed by ship’s radio on his second day at sea. Everything would be done by the letter of the law. Chaplin got the overt - and the covert - messages. What he would also soon discover was that his film Limelight was about to become the target of a politically-motivated boycott.

Limelight was Chaplin's last great film. He would make two additional films during the next twenty years - A King In New York (1957) and A Countess From Hong Kong (1967). But by then he was past his prime.

Limelight sympathetically portrayed the personal and professional dilemmas of an aging comedian who is past his own prime. Calvero is an ex-music hall star who has lost the ability to be funny and fallen from favor with his fans and admirers. Their indifferent reception to his stage act is reminiscent of Chaplin's fans' recent thumbs down verdict on his last film effort, Monsieur Verdoux. Limelight poses the question: does Calvero have the emotional fortitude to overcome rejection and stage a comeback? Chaplin's answer: both he, the former childhood invulnerable, and his alter-ego Calvero are intensely determined to win back the public's affection. Or - in Calvero's case, at least - to die trying.

Calvero suffers from alcoholism and chronic depression. In the film, these illnesses are depicted both as root cause of and emotional reaction to his failing theatrical career. They also happen to have been the two co-morbid medical conditions that destroyed Charlie Chaplin, Sr.'s career. The 38-year-old actor's end-stage alcoholic descent had been a heart-breaking spectacle which his loving and impressionable 12-year-old son, Charlie, witnessed firsthand.

At this late stage in his own film career, Chaplin found himself in his father's shoes once more. Just as his earlier courtroom ordeals in the Joan Barry paternity suit were eerily reminiscent of Charlie Sr.'s legal experiences, so Chaplin's recent feelings of shame, guilt and depression over Monsieur Verdoux's box office flop were reminiscent of his emotionally devastated father's feelings of professional failure. Chaplin poignantly captured those feelings in the scene in which Calvero confronts himself in his dressing room looking-glass after being booed offstage
In as much as Charlie and Charlie Sr. had both experienced professional setbacks and emotional depressions in response to them, Calvero was a father-son amalgam. But the similarities end there. Chaplin was luckier than his comedian father in that his own career did not engender the occupational death-sentence of alcoholism which was the fate of almost every one of the lion comiques of his father's ilk.

When he made Limelight, Chaplin was healthy, wealthy and famous. He was not a dead-broke, washed up has-been like his lion comique father.
Limelight reversed Chaplin's declining popularity. He did win back the love and approval of his recently alienated audiences by giving them that never-say-die note of hope they had come to expect from a Charlie Chaplin film, telling them an emotionally uplifting comeback story with a bittersweet ending. It was critically acclaimed in the United States and popularly admired throughout Europe. Limelight's finale was a far cry from the cynical pessimistic ending of Monsieur Verdoux.
In restoring his own reputation, Chaplin simultaneously resurrected and glorified Charlie Chaplin Sr.'s memory. He finally made peace with his father's emotional legacy by refusing defiantly to succumb to the same fate.

Ravaged by drink, Charlie Chaplin Sr. had died an almost forgotten man. Shortly before his ignominious death, he was given an affectionate benefit performance by his fellow actors (a time-honored music hall tradition). Young Charlie performed at that benefit.

The stripling son of the dying actor who had once had the chutzpah to bill himself The Lion Comique had clog-danced for his father on the stage as one of The Eight Lancashire Lads at that benefit. Thus Charlie had observed firsthand his father's last public appearance . Fifty years later, he recorded those painful memories of his father's final "Napoleon-like" exit in My Autobiography.


© Roy Export
But ten years before he wrote that autobiography--in his semi-autobiographical film Limelight - Chaplin used his creative imagination to reprise and revise his father's demise by having Calvero resurrect himself to become the star performer at his own theatrical benefit. Playing the part of a comic "ring-master" with a flea circus act, Calvero brings down the house and stages a comeback. The flea trick was only one of several routines Calvero performs at that benefit in Limelight.

His final one, a duet with Buster Keaton, is the most stunning: Calvero collapses on stage and dies in the wings.. That stage death is played as an affectionate homage to the lion comique tradition (recognizable to anyone steeped in British music hall history).
© Roy Export © Roy Export
Historically reenacting the real-life stage death of The Great Vance at the Sun Music Hall in Knightsbridge on Boxing Day (1888), Calvero finishes his final number by collapsing onstage (from a heart attack), tumbling into a drum in the orchestra pit and being carted off by stagehands to expire in the wings. An appreciative audience, mistakenly assuming that it is all part of the act, applauds wildly as Calvaro breathes his last.

The most graphic visual evidence that Charlie Chaplin associated Calvero with the lion comique tradition is the dapper man-about-town publicity still he shot for this film:
If Chaplin creatively reconstructed painful childhood memories of his alcoholic father in this film, he also recollected his beautiful showgirl mother’s life in the story of his film heroine Terry, who also stages a comeback from psychosomatically crippled dancer to inspired prima ballerina. See Claire Bloom’s (the actress who played Terry) Limelight and After for a behind-the scenes discussion of how Chaplin, the loving son, used Limelight to memorialize his parents’ love story and their disastrously failed show business careers. And also, see Chaplin A Life, Chapter II for an in-depth discussion of Terry’s failed suicide attempt, the secret story of Hannah Chaplin’s medical illness, which Charlie confided to Jerry Epstein while shooting this film, and the Loss-Restitution hypothesis of creativity.

While not a masterpiece, Limelight was a liberating experience for Chaplin, who kept on spilling the beans about his childhood experiences, onscreen and off. Making this film liberated him from his old childhood demons and undoubtedly contributed to the solidification of his marriage and his becoming a devoted family man. His film ends tragically, but his life and marriage ended happily. That may be why he never made another great film--he lacked the personal pain required for a great artist to make another great comedy.

The most sobering historical note about this imperfect but wonderful movie is the story of why Charlie Chaplin was awarded an Academy Award for composing the haunting theme from Limelight twenty years later in 1972. The economic boycott against Chaplin organized in this country by his right-wing political enemies was so successful that his film never played the required two weeks in a Los Angeles theater to be eligible for consideration at the time of its original release in 1952. But while he was banished, his theme song was not. At the nadir of his personal popularity in the United States, it was one of the most popular songs of the year.
Chaplin in comeback scene in Limelight
© Roy Export
Even today, half a century later, people who never knew who Chaplin was still recognize its haunting melody.
© 2008 All Essay Rights Reserved.

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