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Charlie Chaplin's Limelight at the Academy After 60 Years

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limelight poster

Romantic, musical, emotional, a truly great film, and here is the inside story!

In 1952 I was drafted into the U.S. Army and went off to fight a violent little-known war in a far-off land called Korea, serving there for two years as a war correspondent and newspaper editor. I came home a more experienced, weary and wary young man. And in 1952 the legendary comic genius, Charlie Chaplin, made a hauntingly beautiful masterpiece of a movie called Limelight, and then he was thrown out of the United States by a bigoted, ignorant and sadistic right-wing political element (the 'Tea Party' of the time), suspected of being "a communist," which he never was.

In fact, according to his co-star Norman Lloyd, as reported in the Los Angeles Times, when producer Samuel Goldwyn heard that Chaplin was being called a communist he scoffed and said, "He is the only true capitalist that I know." The L.A. Times noted that Chaplin had incurred the wrath of J. Edgar Hoover, the then head of the F.B.I., because the comic had cancelled his appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

norman lloyd and claire bloom a academy

Norman Lloyd and Claire Bloom at the Academy last night for the Limelight screening.

On Wednesday night, at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS), Oscar's home, of which I am a very long-time member, they screened that Chaplin film to a packed audience, which roared its enthusiastic approval for one of the most moving, romantic movies of all time.

Present for the evening's festivities was the co-star of the movie, English actress Claire Bloom, who played the young ballerina, Thereza, taken under his wing by the Chaplin music hall character. I knew Claire in a past life, which I reminded her of last night, for she married my best friend, Hilly Elkins, after they met at a dinner party in 1968 at my 50 Central Park West apartment in Manhattan. Claire was present with her then-husband, Rod Steiger, who later was to pay W.C. Fields in my film, W.C. Fields & Me (about that comic genius and his mistress, Carlotta Monti, played by Valerie Perrine, whose book I acquired for the filming).

Claire had played a role in the Cinerama film, The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, with which I was deeply involved. (That night, when Hilly first met Claire, my German wife had cooked a delicious goulash with spatzle. Later that evening, he called me and breathlessly said, "I'm in love... with a nice Jewish girl, but I can't tell you who it is yet." And having seen the sparks at the dinner table, I replied, "I know who it is, Claire." He hung up the phone and didn't talk to me for a week... but the fire had been lit. Hilly had a Napoleonic complex and Rod had played Napoleon. Go figure. It was a somewhat short (three years) acrimonious marriage of two fiercely independent people, as Claire also reminded me last night.)

At the Wednesday screening Claire and Norman Lloyd were interviewed by Jeffrey Vance, writer of movie histories and a book about Chaplin, and the Academy's Randy Haberkamp, who produced the splendid evening. Claire described how she got the role: an American playwright, Arthur Laurents, saw her acting as a ballet dancer on the London stage when she was 19 and told Chaplin about her. She sailed to New York while Chaplin trained in from Hollywood, and they tested with three scenes from the movie. Three months later she had the job, at age 20. (She was doubled in her ballet scenes by Melissa Hayden, whom coincidentally I knew when my friend photographer Bert Stern, married Balanchine's prima ballerina, April Kent, and Melissa attended the wedding.)

Roy Export SAS

Claire and Chaplin, Photo courtesy of Roy Export SAS

Roy Export S.A.S.

Buster Keaton plays in one scene with Chaplin. Here they are making up for that sketch. Photo courtesy of Roy Export SAS

Chaplin wrote, directed and starred in Limelight, which was filmed completely in Hollywood. He composed the film's score and also a ballet, and sang and danced in the film. He also financed it, for $950,000 on a 55-day schedule, shot mostly at the Chaplin Studios in Hollywood. It featured an appearance by another comic genius (this article is full of them), Buster Keaton, when they do a hilarious bit about a piano and a violin. (Keaton was at the end of his life and needed the job.) The film's musical score was composed by Chaplin and arranged by Ray Rasch. The song, "Eternally," the main musical theme of the picture, became a huge international hit in 1953. In 1972, when the film was re-released after 20 years in blacklist-limbo, the music for Limelight was honored at the Academy Awards when Chaplin and his musical collaborators, Ray Rasch and Larry Russell, were awarded an Oscar for Best Original Dramatic Score. It was the only competitive Oscar Chaplin ever received, although had been given two honorary Oscars...

It happens that 1972 was the year that my film, Lady Sings the Blues received five nominations (for best actress, Diana Ross, etc.) and I was in the second row of the audience when Chaplin received his Oscar. (None of my nominations panned out, unfortunately, losing to Liza Minelli in Cabaret.) In another nice coincidence, I had met Chaplin previously in 1967 through a friend, Jerry Epstein, who handled business for all of the Chaplin movie treasures. Jerry was in London when I arrived there with my wife, and he invited us out to Pinewood Studios to see scenes being shot for Chaplin's last directorial film, The Countess from Hong Kong, which starred Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren. The film, his only in color, was a disaster critically and business-wise, although Chaplin bravely said it was his favorite movie. He made a cameo appearance in it as a ship's steward, and Tippi Hedron played a small role as Brando's wife. If I remember correctly, Chaplin composed the theme music and Petula Clark had a hit with "This Is My Song."

chaplin. from family

Chaplin in Limelight. From Chaplin family archives.

Limelight was a scandalous film of its time, for it was while in London in October 1952 for the premiere that Chaplin was informed he was being refused entry back to the United States. Still a British citizen, he then was told it was OK for him and his family, Oona (daughter of genius dramatist Eugene O'Neil) and the children to return... but again he was refused entry in mid-voyage and had to return to Europe and self-imposed exile in Vevey, Switzerland.

Limelight had only played a few theatres in the East before being 'banned' all this time (including L.A., which explains why it has never played at the Academy), but in '72 it was re-released to universal acclaim. It was his most autobiographical film, for it dealt with a comic British musical hall actor and his finale as a performer at the eve of World War I. The Academy calls it "a bittersweet time capsule reflecting the mindset of an artist whose world was changing around him even as a new love managed to comfort and surprise him." I found it to be a tender and often humorous love story, which revels in the details of backstage music hall life.

At this 60th anniversary screening with a new print, actor Norman Lloyd, now in his 90s, was also on stage; he had played the choreographer Bodalink. At the screening, Lloyd recalled that Chaplin was in great spirit during the film shoot, his first film since the poorly-received Monsieur Verdoux in 1947. Lloyd told the audience how he had become Chaplin's tennis partner, ending each match with a Scotch old fashioned on the comic's sun deck. He revealed a fact I had not known: that Robert Aldrich, then an assistant director, had worked for Chaplin on the movie. (Later in Aldrich's career, I worked with him when he directed Flight of the Phoenix for my Palomar Pictures in 1965.)

Roy Export SAS

Chaplin in makeup. Photo courtesy of Roy Export SAS.

Lloyd recalls that the film, set in 1914, was about a once famous stage clown, Calvero, now a washed-up drunk, who saves a young dancer from suicide and nurses her back to physical and mental health. The film featured his entire family including son Sydney as the other romantic interest, while his kids make an appearance. Lloyd said that when Chaplin learned he could not return, he said he would never again make a film in America... and he never did. Tragic. But thank God we have this treasure of a film, Limelight, to join such classics as The Gold Rush, The Kid, City Lights and Modern Times. Fortunately, the iconic figure of the "Little Tramp" will forever be with us in mind and memory. I suggest that you find a DVD of it and settle in for a wonderful evening of true romance. As Calvaro says in the film, "Time is the best author. It always writes the perfect ending."

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