Charlie Chaplin Month – Limelight



Limelight (1952)
Starring Charlie Chaplin, Claire Bloom, Nigel Bruce, Buster Keaton, Norman Lloyd, Sydney Earle Chaplin

During Chaplin’s trip to Europe to promote this film, he had his re-entry to the Unites States revoked (he always legally remained a British citizen). It was the height of Red Panic at the time in the US and Chaplin had never been shy about voicing his personal opinions on the treatment of the working class. Chaplin’s long standing tensions with J. Edgar Hoover led to his re-entry papers being revoked and he decided to set up his home in Switzerland. This would be where he would live for the rest of his days and this film (while not his last) would stand as his symbolic goodbye to cinema.

It’s 1914,  and Calvero (Chaplin) is a former performer on the East End stages. He now comes home drunk out of his mind in the middle of the day, slowly weathering away in his flat. One afternoon he returns and finds his downstairs neighbor, Teri (Bloom) unconscious holding a bottle of pills and letting gas from her stove fill her apartment. He saves her life and afterwards learns she became suicidal when her dreams of performing ballet were slowly crushed. Calvero nurses her back to health as she suffers from psychosomatic paralysis. Eventually, she regains her confidence and becomes the prima ballerina of a great company. Teri meets and falls in love with composer Neville (played by Chaplin’s own son, Sydney Earle). She goes onto secure a part for Calvero in the show as a clown and he eventually gets his own showcase which is to be his final, great performance.

1914 is an incredibly significant year in the life of Chaplin. It was in that year he made a small appearance in the Keystone short Kid Auto Races at Venice. The character he played was called The Little Tramp. The birth of one of the most iconic film characters means the death of the stage variety that brought Chaplin up. As Calvero he recognizes both the twilight of his own career and how his rise to fame was responsible for the end of many East End performers’ careers. It’s made even more significant that Buster Keaton plays Calvero’s old partner who joins him in the final stage performance. Here we have the two men who birthed cinematic comedy taking one last bow in an era that no longer had room for their style.

Despite the symbolic significance of much of the film it is still a very self-indulgent picture. Chaplin made his film’s independently meaning he got to make final cut. Limelight clocks in at 2 hours, 11 minutes and it is a real stretch. Much like The Great Dictator, another over 2 hour picture, the middle sections sag painfully. The bits Chaplin performs are never all that funny either. The two man piece he does with Keaton at the end of the film is pretty decent but never lives up to his old films.

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Charlie Chaplin Month – The Great Dictator



The Great Dictator (1940)
Starring Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Reginald Gardiner

The comparison was all because of the toothbrush mustache. That little flourish is what linked Charlie Chaplin and Adolf Hitler at the time. Chaplin was disgusted by Hitler, and the way the American and British governments tried to keep him happy or ignore what he was doing at the time. It was also noted that Hitler was jealous of Chaplin’s popularity during a Berlin visit the actor made. To further rub it in, Chaplin wrote, directed and produced The Great Dictator, a send up of the Nazi actions in the build up to World War II.

The Little Tramp is now a Jew living in the fictional nation of Tomainia, fighting against the Americans in World War I. He’s clunked on the head and ends up in a military hospital unaware that on the outside dictator Adenoid Hynkel has come to power and is blaming the Jews of his nation for the post-War depression. The Tramp is eventually released from the hospital and is disheartend by the world he discovers on the outside. He eventually falls in love with fellow resident of the ghetto, Hannah and is spared execution by a Tomainian whose life he saved in the War. All along the way the film bounces back and forth with the Hitler parody of Hynkel, leading up to a Prince and the Pauper-esque role reversal.

This was probably the least funny of all Chaplin’s films I have seen, and most definitely the longest, hitting the two hour mark. I can see the challenge Chaplin would have making this picture, because he wants to make a comedy but he also wants to skewer Hitler and convey some sense of the pain being inflicted on the Jewish people. Later Chaplin admitted if he had known the extent of the treatment of the Jews and in particular the Holocaust he would have never made this film. Interestingly, the Jewish community was very welcoming to the film and its portrayal of their people despite Chaplin’s injection of comedy into the proceedings. The jokes in the film never create the sense of hilarity of early works because they typically involve the Little Tramp being brutalized by Tomainan storm troopers.

The film has a lot of heart and that hurts its comedy in comparison to the earlier films. The chief redeeming moment is one where Chaplin is playing the Tramp and completely drops the persona and it is Chaplin speaking. He conveys his concerns with the direction of humanity and reaffirms his belief that we are capable of so much more. While definitely harmful to the picture as a film, it is a very strong and well thought out political statement.

Charlie Chaplin Month – The Other Films

While I am giving in-depth reviews to the Chaplin films I haven’t seen, I would be wrong in leaving out films of his I have seen previously, especially because they are some of his best work.



The Gold Rush (1925)
Starring Charlie Chaplin, Mack Swain, Georgia Hale

Made after the box office failure that was A Woman of Paris, Rush has Chaplin conjuring up some of his most iconic comedy moments. The dancing rolls bit, which has been referenced continuously in pop culture since. At one point starving miner imagines Chaplin transforming into a human sized turkey. We also have Chaplin boiling and eating a shoe. Chaplin originally intended to shoot the film on location in Alaska but nature had other plans. There is one on location shot in the film and its a gorgeous one. The rest was filmed on Chaplin’s United Artists sound stages. If you are looking to make a list of must see films for historical significance, this is a must for that list.



City Lights (1931)
Starring Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Harry Meyers

This is my personal favorite Chaplin picture and I think its one of the best romantic comedies ever made. The Little Tramp befriends a blind flower girl whom mistakes him for a millionaire. The Tramp promises he will raise enough money for the young woman to have a costly procedure. To do so he signs up for a boxing tournament and the crux of the comedic action revolves around that. The film features one of the best scenes in cinema at its climax when the young woman, now sighted, learns the truth about the Little Tramp. I actually brought a girl to tears in college simply by describing in detail this scene. A beautiful film with a big heart.



Modern Times (1936)
Starring Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard

This is the last major American film to make uses of silent movie title cards (ignoring silent film parodies that would come after). Chaplin billed this as his first “talkie” but plays with audience expectations while making a point. The only voices heard come from the abstract machinery of the factory the Little Tramp works in. It was all part of Chaplin’s ideas about how technology was being used improperly and, instead of empowering mankind, it was being used to take their humanity away. Chaplin also wrote the film’s ending song “Smile”, which has become a standard since (“Smile though your heart is aching Smile even though its breaking”).



Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
Starring Charlie Chaplin, Mady Correll

This was a drastic departure for Chaplin. There was no Little Tramp present here. Instead, he plays recently fired banker Henri Verdoux. Struggling to support his family, he decided to begin marrying rich women, murdering them, and absconding with their money. Chaplin plays the picture as a pitch black comedy and had a lot of difficulty with the Production Code on this one. The point behind the picture came from the idea that if a man murders a few people for money he is a criminal, however if he mass murders as in a war he is a hero. The film proved that Chaplin had little concern for box office returns, and really want to make films that were of interest to him.

Charlie Chaplin Month – The Circus



The Circus (1928, dir. Charlie Chaplin)
Starring Charlie Chaplin, Merna Kennedy, Al Ernest Garcia, Harry Crocker

This was to be the last true silent film made by Chaplin. The era of the Talkie had begun and audiences were no longer content to have their actors speechless. Chaplin’s following films would have elements of silent pictures in them and could easily be categorized that way, but make use of sound. Chaplin leaves the silent era with a bang, though. He pulls out all the stops, referencing the theater acts of his youth and adding the trademark Chaplin twist to them.

The Little Tramp happens upon a circus and become charmed with the ringmaster’s horse-riding daughter. The ringmaster sees potential in the Tramp as a clown in his show so he hires him one. The Tramp observed the ringmaster cruelly beating his daughter and sneaks her food when he can. Eventually, a handsome tightrope walker joins the circus and woos the daughter away. The Tramp begins to lose his edge as the hit of the circus and through a series of zany circumstances ends up having to step in for the tightrope walked in the film’s climactic sequence.

I laughed harder at this than I have most contemporary comedies. It’s not the slapstick, its the way Chaplin’s Tramp adds little flourishes of personality. The most symbolic sequence in the film is when the ringmaster has his troupe of clowns perform classic Vaudeville and dance hall comedic routines. The humor doesn’t come from the routines, but in how the Tramp bungles them up when it is his turn to perform. Chaplin understands that in the moments where another comedian would ham it up the Tramp will get the bigger laugh by playing dumb. What is also wonderful about the film is the feisty personality of the Tramp. He can be very feminine in his behavior, particularly when he attempts to woo the ringmaster’s daughter. Its very interesting that Chaplin takes the traditionally female role when courting, coyly casting his gaze downward, batting his eye lashes, and literally prancing. Juxtapose this against moments when the Tramp has had enough of his poor treatment from the ringmaster and he delivers comical blows.

While The Circus is one of the purest Chaplin comedies I’ve ever seen, it is not without its moments of  typical Chaplin poignancy. The final scene of the film, as the Tramp sits alone in a field that the circus wagons once occupied, standing, then walking into the dusklight is very beautiful. The background of the film is marred with difficulty. Sets were rained out or burnt down. Footage was scratched beyond usage. And Chaplin was dealing with a messy public divorce and an IRS lawsuit. None of this is visible on the screen though, showing Chaplin was the consummate professional.

Charlie Chaplin Month – The Women

Charlie Chaplin had a very tumultuous relationship with the women in his life, and seemed to be frozen in a moment from his youth when it came to them all. The woman considered to be his first love was a dancer named Hetty Kelly, whom he met when he was 19 and she 15. Eventually, he worked up the courage to ask her to marry him and she refused causing Chaplin to become despondent and never see her again. It was reported that in 1921, when he learned she died from the influenza epidemic that devastated the globe, he was  heartbroken. That 15 year old girl seemed to be an image in Chaplin’s mind that guided all his relationships. He would become involved with many a 15 or 16 year old looking to get her break in Hollywood through the actor and more than not these relationships ended in publicly sour notes.

The woman most people assumed he would end up with was Edna Purviance. During his short film work with Essenay and Mutual they starred alongside each other often and appeared to have great affection for each other. Their romance ended three years before he would direct her in A Woman in Paris and that is attributed to his marriage to 16 year old Mildred Harris. Harris was a popular adolescent actress (think a Miley Cyrus type) and she gave birth to their first child at the age of 17. Norman Chaplin only lived three days. The death of child is assumed to have contributed to the crumbling of the marriage with Charlie filing for a separation in 1919. The subsequent divorce with Harris was publicly brutal, with Harris disclosing sexual indiscretions of Chaplin’s before the press. He seemed to harbor no ill will towards her and settled for $100,000.

At one point Chaplin was rumored to be involved with William Randolph Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies but that relationship appeared to be one of many short lived ones. His second marriage was to actress Lita Grey, a co-star in The Kid, who was only 16 at the time. While he prepared for The Gold Rush she became pregnant and they married. She gave him two sons: Charlie, Jr. and Sydney, and the marriage was unmitigated disaster. Chaplin was undergoing a tax evasion investigation at the same time the divorce trial was going on. Grey made it her mission to reveal all of Chaplin’s dirty secrets before the public. He gave in and settled for $825,000, however Grey tried to keep Chaplin from being involved in his sons’ lives as an act of vindictiveness.

It was actress Paulette Goddard, who he became involved with years later, that was able to talk to Grey and convince her to allow the boys to spend time with Chaplin. Chaplin and Goddard were rumored to have been secretly married but neither admitted to the fact, while parting ways amicably in 1942. The saddest of all Chaplin’s relationships was with actress Joan Barry, whom he had considered casting in a film until she began showing signs of severe mental illness, something that triggered painful memories of Chaplin’s mother. Barry broke into Chaplin’s home later, and held him at gunpoint. Charlie, Jr. has recounted being there and watching his father remain completely calm and talk Barry into handing him the gun before she hurt anyone. She eventually gave birth to a child, whom blood tests showed was not the actor’s, but the court ruled that the test was inadmissible and he had to pay support. Chaplin support the child till it was 18 and reportedly never complained, believing he had plenty of money to help a needy child out.

Chaplin’s last relationship was with Oona O’Neill, daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill. It’s disturbing to note that Chaplin was 54 to Oona’s 18. However, it seems to have been a deep and long lasting marriage. They were together for 34 years, decades longer than any relationship he had ever had before. They had eight children, the last born when Chaplin was 73. At this point he had had his Visa revoked because of political beliefs and had settled in Switzerland with his large family.

Charlie Chaplin Month – A Woman of Paris



A Woman of Paris (1923, dir. Charlie Chaplin)
Starring Edna Purviance, Carl Miller, Adolphe Menju, Lydia Knott

This is not the sort of film you expect to see in a series on Charlie Chaplin. The main reason being Chaplin only makes an uncredited cameo, face away from the camera as a bellhop. The second reason being this is a very straight drama, with a few moments of humor woven into it. A Woman of Paris was Chaplin’s first production with United Artists, an independent film production company founded by he, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith. Because there was no studio pressuring Chaplin to make a slapstick comedy, he decided to write, direct and produce a film for his longtime romantic interest, Edna Purviance.

The film follows Marie St. Clair, a young French girl living in a rural village, about to leave with Jean, her fiancee and move to Paris. Both youths’ parents disapprove, and Jean’s father drops dead the night he planned to leave with Marie. Marie is left at the train station by herself, believing Jean has become scared, so she leaves on her own. Cut to a couple years later, and Marie is the mistress of Parisian businessman Pierre Revel. Marie is invited to a party in an unfamiliar quarter of the city and ends up knocking on the wrong door. It ends up being Jean’s apartment with his mother. Jean is now a painter and Marie, hoping to rekindle something they once had before commissions him to paint her portrait. Marie becomes caught up in the comfort provided by Pierre and her lost love for Jean.

The interesting part for me was how the two rivals for Marie are meant to be portrayed one way, but come across the exact opposite. Jean is supposed to be the passionate, compelling artist and Pierre the philanderous cad. However, Pierre is always much more fun to see on screen, even though he treats Marie as a passing fancy. Jean is just too brow beaten by his mother to be sympathetic or likable at all.

The film was a commercial disaster for Chaplin and Purviance both. The public had so solidified Chaplin in their mind as the Little Tramp, so when a film advertising it as his next venture was seen, the audience expected a comedy. It’s by no means a masterpiece, but it is a unique piece of cinema in his filmography. Chaplin has anticipated the public reaction and on the night of the premiere, and even in the opening credits, there are notices that he does not appear in the picture.

What A Woman in Paris represents in a larger context is Chaplin’s personal declaration of independence. He has fought against the constraints of studios since he took the screen, and now with his own company and crew he could make any film he wanted. The failure of this picture would cause him to return to more familiar territory for his next few ventures, but he would experiment again with the audience’s expectations.

Charlie Chaplin Month – The Kid

The Kid (1921, dir. Charlie Chaplin)
Starring Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Cooper

The experience of being taken from his mother and placed in a home for destitute children had a profound effect on Charlie Chaplin, and its apparent that those traumatizing childhood experiences had a strong influence on The Kid. Chaplin also seemed to always identify more with the people living at the bottom rung of society’s ladder and that can be seen here as well. At time maudlin and over sentimental, The Kid withstands being simply a mushy film by delivering strong laughs and telling an honest story.

The film opens with a woman newly released from the hospital, having been abandoned by the father. She abandons the child in a parked car and through a series of slapstick circumstances the child ends up in the care of the Little Tramp (Chaplin). The Kid grows up, he and the Tramp embark on a series of neighborhood scams to make ends meet. Eventually, the Kid gets sick and the Tramp must fight to keep his child from being taken from him.

What’s most startling about the film is the abject poverty and dirtiness of the film. These characters truly live in the dankest slums, where violence is a daily and commonplace occurrence. Despite this coldness of the world around them, Chaplin does a wonderful job of conveying the loving nature of the Tramp and the Kid’s household. They are both shown taking care of each other and that’s what makes the scene where the Kid is being taken from the house even more heartbreaking. Some of the plot twists the film takes are ludicrous but they fit with the more earnest tone of that time period.

It’s worth noting that Chaplin had lost a child, who had lived only three days, right before he met little Jackie Cooper and began developing the concept of this film around the young star. It can been seen that Chaplin was working through the issues of his own childhood and his emotions after losing a child of his own. The Kid is not a perfect film, Chaplin made far better, but it does highlight his ability to take short film material and begin to stretch it into longer narratives.