The last of Chaplin’s films I hadn’t seen (oh, I probably missed a two-reeler here and there), and the last one that wasn’t a disaster. Which isn’t to say it’s very good. He hadn’t made a movie since the brilliant Monsieur Verdoux in 1947, and wouldn’t make another until the disastrously bad A King in New York in 1957. Right after Limelight the US shamefully didn’t allow him to return from Europe because he was a “communist.” If being a man of peace who speaks out against injustice makes one a communist, then where do I sign up? I’m one, too.
Chaplin’s brand of pathos works better in a silent film, it’s as simple as that. City Lights and Modern Times, his last films without dialogue, were masterpieces. The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux are sly, satiric, with a black humor cutting edge to them, and they are marvelous, too. Limelight tries for the heart-tugging Chaplin was so good at in silents, and just doesn’t work. Claire Bloom, who later became a wonderful actress, emotes horribly, presumably at Chaplin’s direction. Buster Keaton is wasted in a short scene where Chaplin gives him little to do. Too bad; it’s the only time the two greatest silent comedians worked together, and I’m thinking Charlie was afraid Buster would steal the scene. Only Chaplin underplays and thus moves us, as he did throughout his career.
But a basic problem is that he’s playing a washed-up music hall baggy-pants comic who isn’t funny anymore, and it’s no fun to watch a man on stage laying an egg at great length. You have to have something else going on, something that you do laugh at while he dies. Chaplin gives us nothing. There are some great moments in this film, all of them basically soliloquies by Calvero, the clown, and they are not enough to save it.