In the not so distant past, watching Charlie Chaplin's silent comedies could frequently be a test of devotion. Poor quality prints, long since worn out, were the norm. I remember sitting in film classes when I was in college, watching prints so faded that all detail was burnt out.

Thanks to laserdisc, CBS Fox Video brought many of Chaplin's comedies to home video in the early '90s in superb transfers, culled from the best surviving sources. And now, in cooperation with Image Entertainment, CBS Fox Video has released Chaplin's greatest feature films on DVD--everything from The Kid (1921) to A King in New York in (1956). In addition, CBS Fox and Image have released a DVD collection of Chaplin's First National shorts (called A First National Collection).

Together with Kino On Video's previous VHS and DVD release of The Chaplin Mutuals and Chaplin's Essanay Comedies, virtually all of Chaplin's movies are available in digitally re-mastered editions. (Read our reviews of Kino's The Chaplin Mutuals and Chaplin's Essanay Comedies.) Only a comprehensive collection of Chaplin's Keystone comedies is missing.

The DVD format has allowed CBS Fox and Image Entertainment to stuff their discs with extras, including home movies, set sketches, unused film scenes, publicity items, story notes, interviews, story notes, newsreels, and script drafts. Some of this material, such as the daily production reports, is of questionable value to the casual fan; however, for Chaplin scholars, the DVDs contain a treasure trove of information.

The following is a run-down of the ten CBS Fox/Image Entertainment DVDs:
 

DVD Covers



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 A First National Collection and The Kid and A Dog's Life

After Chaplin's contract with Mutual expired in 1917, he signed an agreement with the First National Exhibitors Circuit for $1,000,000. This contract allowed Chaplin to avoid dealing with the major studios. Famous Players-Lasky, in particular, had drawn the ire of exhibitors through their block-booking policy that required theaters to accept large groups of movies--including many routine ones--in order to get the choice releases. Chaplin's desire to work undisturbed by studio interference led him to First National. He built his own studio at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and La Brea Avenue in Hollywood.

While his contract called for a dozen two-reelers within a year, Chaplin never turned out that many comedies. During his entire five-year relationship with First National, he made only eight total films. However, during this time, Chaplin began to experiment with longer formats and more ambitious material. While A Day's Pleasure (1919), The Idle Class (1921), and Pay Day (1922) were indeed two-reelers, Chaplin also created a pair of three-reelers, A Dog's Life (1918) and Sunnyside (1919); two four-reelers, Shoulder Arms (1918) and The Pilgrim (1923); and a six-reeler, The Kid (1921).

Whereas Chaplin's previous films were loosely constructed around their gags, he now began to see an underlying structure. As such, he devised gags and comedy routines that would support the story: "If a gag interfered with the logic of events, no matter how funny it was, I would not use it," he said in My Autobiography. As a result, Chaplin's First National films, in general, are quite different from his previous work.


from The Kid
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His first film for First National, A Dog's Life, announces that difference as it contains an element of social satire that would soon run through all of this movies. In this case, the movie gives us a "thoroughbred" mongrel dog who must fight for survival amongst the larger dogs. The dog, named "Scraps," serves as a teammate for The Tramp, and they must work together in order to succeed. With Shoulder Arms, Chaplin strengthened his approach to social satire. The Tramp becomes a soldier in the battle trenches of France. But all he can think about is being home in New York. While other soldiers get letters from home, all he gets is limburger cheese--which he ends up using as if it were poisonous gas. He dons a gas mask and throws the cheese behind enemy lines. Sunnyside is an uncharacteristic Chaplin comedy, and when the film was released in 1919, audiences were less than enthusiastic. For the first time in his solo filmmaking career, Chaplin was faced with disappointment. He responded by tackling the most ambitious film of his then young career, The Kid.

During the 18 months between Sunnyside and The Kid, Chaplin's personal life began to deteriorate. His marriage to Mildred Harris was rocky. After the stillborn birth of a child, the marriage was dissolved. Maybe not just coincidentally, The Kid pairs Chaplin with a child actor (Jackie Coogan). In the vast majority of his previous films, Chaplin had been a loner. He might be smitten with a girl, and he might struggle against a brute, but Chaplin fought his battles on his own (although A Dog's Life did give him a canine partner). With The Kid, Chaplin shared his position in the spotlight with one of the cutest child actors ever. And the emphasis this time turns on the pathos created as The Tramp tries to raise the child--as best he knows how. But regardless of the love between the orphan and The Tramp, society attempts to separate them.

The Idle Class is one of Chaplin's most underrated comedies. Sometimes written off as only moderately successful, The Idle Class contains a dense structure of gags. Chaplin plays a double role as a tramp on holiday (that's right, a tramp on holiday!) and as a rich, absent-minded man whose marriage is troubled. The tramp, mistaken for a pick-pocket, eludes the police by entering a costume ball. The wife thinks he is her husband. This film is filmed with ingenious sight gags and marvelous plot twists.


from Shoulder Arms
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Chaplin finally fulfilled his contract with First National in 1923 when he made The Pilgrim. This time Chaplin plays an escaped convict who steals the clothing of priest. When his train arrives in a small town, he finds himself the focus of a celebration: they think their new minister has arrived. He doesn't reveal who he really is, leading to a priceless scene where the church congregation awaits his sermon.

The DVDs collect Chaplin's First National movies on two DVDs. Shoulder Arms, Sunnyside, A Day's Pleasure, The Idle Class, Pay Day, and The Pilgrim are collected on A First National Collection, while the second disc contains The Kid and A Dog's Life. Among the extras on these discs, you'll find rare home movies shot at Chaplin Studios.
 

 A Woman of Paris

A Woman of Paris (1923) is paired on DVD with A King in New York (1957), but chronologically it comes immediately after the First National films. Chaplin doesn't star in A Woman of Paris. Some sources say he plays the railway porter in one of the movie's early scenes, but he's unrecognizable. A Woman of Paris was widely considered a failure upon its initial release. It's part Victorian melodrama and part sophisticated comedy of manners. The stylish results serve as a precursor to the witty, upper-crust comedies of Ernst Lubitsch.

Chaplin fashioned the movie as a means of launching Edna Purviance's career as a dramatic actress. She had served as the romantic interest in many of his previous films. However, instead of launching Purviance's career, it launched the career of co-star Adolphe Menjou, who soon became the model of a debonair man-about-the-world. He had been appearing in supporting roles for nearly a decade, but A Woman of Paris made him a star.

Edna Purviance stars as the victim of an unhappy home. Her father routinely locks her into her room at night. One night she sneaks out to be with her boyfriend; however, her father discovers the deception and locks her out of the house. "Perhaps he will provide you with a bed for the night!" her father yells. The boy plans to accompany her to Paris, but in one of the movie's many coincidences (happenstance is the movie's Achilles' heal), the boy's father becomes deathly ill, so the boy stays at home to help support the family. Therefore, without a home to call her own and with little means of sustenance, Edna ventures to Paris. She survives by becoming a party girl, who swings with the rich and the elite. Adolphe Menjou plays "a gentleman of leisure, whose whims have made and ruined many a woman's career" (as the title cards tell us). Edna hangs on his arm, hoping that she has a future with Menjou, but apparently no one told her that men rarely take party girls as wives. When she reads about his engagement to a lady from a wealthy family, she swallows her pain: "Well, such is life," she says in front of her friends. But when she's alone, we see that she's devastated. Menjou wants to carry on with Edna as before, but she tells him, "I want a real home, babies, and a man's respects." Soon afterwards, she rips off her pearls (given to her by Menjou) and throws them out a window, but in the very telling aftermath, she can't resist watching what happens to the pearls. When a bum picks them up, she frantically rushes to reclaim them. Eventually the old boyfriend shows up and Edna must make a choice, but we already know she won't easily give up her jewelry and fancy clothes.

A Woman of Paris doesn't rank among Chaplin's best movies. Critic polls in the '30s placed it among the greatest movies ever made. But that's pure hyperbole. A Woman of Paris is remarkably elegant and sophisticated, but it's also inconsequential. Chaplin was treading in territory that Henry James had mined with far more insightful results in novels such as The Portrait of a Lady and Daisy Miller. Tellingly, Chaplin had to resort to hoary, old plot twists to bring his story to a resolution. A Woman of Paris represented a blind alley for Chaplin. He soon abandoned this avenue altogether and returned to The Tramp character.
 

 The Gold Rush


from The Gold Rush
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One of the few disappointments of the CBS Fox/Image Entertainment DVDs is The Gold Rush. Instead of including the original version of Chaplin's silent classic, this DVD contains the 1942 re-release version, in which Chaplin himself added narration. Unfortunately, however, the narration crushes the movie's silent spaces. For example, when the Little Tramp meets a dance hall girl, Chaplin tells us what we already know and belabors the obvious: "There she stood, her loveliness lighting the room, filling his soul with the music of romance for which he was so ill-suited." Tellingly, Chaplin typically avoids providing narration during the movie's best scenes. When The Tramp and Big Jim (Mack Swain) sit down for a meal of boiled shoe, Chaplin refrains from telling us about the despair. The comedy in this scene is so delicate that any narration would have destroyed the mood. I would have much preferred if the DVD had included the original version of The Gold Rush. Ideally, the DVD would have included both versions of the movie. (It's not simply a matter of supplying two audio tracks because the re-release version omits the intertitle cards.)


from The Gold Rush
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Together with City Lights and Modern Times, The Gold Rush represents Chaplin at his very best. This time around, The Tramp heads to Alaska's Klondike in search of riches. Occasionally, the story becomes very grim, especially as The Tramp and Big Jim struggle with starvation. But Chaplin finds room for comedy even as Big Jim begins to consider cannibalism. Big Jim envisions The Tramp as a huge chicken and chases him around their cabin. But it's the smaller touches that really make this sequence a success--as when The Tramp prepares to eat his shoe: he first polishes the plate with his sleeve before serving the shoe. The Tramp's hallmark fastidiousness has seldom been as endearing as in this scene. He ladles "sauce" (melted snow) onto the shoe and delicately separates the sole from the leather. He swirls the shoelaces on his fork as if they're pasta. He carefully draws each nail through his lips as if they are chicken bones being picked clean. At times, the movie becomes heart-breakingly sad, as when the dance hall girls promise to drop by The Tramp's cabin for dinner on New Year's Eve. He decorates the cabin and prepares party favors. He dreams of entertaining the girls with the dancing of two bread rolls on the ends of two forks. But, of course, the girls don't show. In spite of the melancholy mood, The Gold Rush is actually one of Chaplin's most optimistic comedies. Everything does indeed work out in the end. After everything that The Tramp must endure in The Gold Rush, the happy ending comes as a great relief.

This is a great movie. One of the finest American comedies of all time and arguably the finest film of Chaplin's career. I only wish CBS Fox and Image Entertainment had chosen to give us the original version of the film on this DVD release instead of the re-release version.
 

 The Circus


from The Circus
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Sandwiched between The Gold Rush and City Lights, Chaplin's The Circus is frequently considered minor Chaplin. But it's an amazingly effective movie. It doesn't acquire the same pathos as either of its bookends. It's a simpler movie. It places The Tramp into an environment with many other castoffs from society. At first glance, it might seem like the perfect place for The Tramp. But even here, he doesn't fit in.

He becomes part of a circus purely by accident. When he tries to elude the police officers chasing him, he ends up in a circus ring--causing havoc. The audience thinks he's hilarious. He agrees to try out for the show, but he doesn't know how to be funny. However, the ringmaster keeps him on as a property man: "Keep him busy and don't let him know he's the hit of the show," he says. When the tightrope walker disappears, The Tramp takes his place. "You'll get killed," warns the ringmaster's daughter. "Oh, no. I have a charmed life," says The Tramp as he pulls a rope with his cane--causing a bag of sand to smack him on the head. In the film's climactic scene, he attempts the highwire act; however, monkeys escape from their cage and join him on the wire, pulling down his pants and biting his nose as he desperately tries to keep his balance. Throughout the movie, The Tramp is attracted to the ringmaster's daughter, but she's smitten with tightrope walker. So The Tramp settles for getting the lovers back together again. That's the kind of guy he is. As a result, though, he doesn't continue on when the circus leaves town. He stays behind. The final image of The Tramp sitting where the circus tents once stood is terribly sad. But significantly, the movie doesn't end with sadness. It ends with The Tramp standing up, kicking at a piece of a circus poster, and walking off into the sunset--with a certain spring in his step. He's ready to put this experience behind him and go on to a new adventure. This resilience is one of the key characteristics of The Tramp, and it's one of the main reasons we admire him.

The Circus isn't as witty or funny as The Gold Rush, but it contains several outstanding sequences. In one sequence, The Tramp tries to avoid pursuing policemen by pretending to be a robotic dummy in the circus's fun house. In another sequence, he becomes trapped in a lion's cage. The lion is asleep, but a feisty little dog sees The Tramp and begins to bark furiously.

This DVD also contains a fascinating sequence that was deleted from the movie. Film restorationist David Sheperd provides commentary on an alternate audio track for this footage. He suggests the scene was deleted because it takes us away from the circus and damages the movie's cohesive dramatic structure. This sequence is the only surviving protracted example of Chaplin's work method. It allows us to see several takes of the same sequence as Chaplin refines the characterizations and the reactions.
 

 City Lights


from City Lights
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By 1930, Hollywood's conversion to sound production techniques was complete. However, when Chaplin prepared his next movie, he decided against using sound. The Tramp was so popular that Chaplin banked on audiences shelling out money at the box-office regardless of whether or not the The Tramp ever spoke. In addition, Chaplin had seen several other comedians (such as Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Harry Langdon) struggle making the transition to sound. Instead of giving a voice to a character long embraced by audiences in a silent form, Chaplin allowed The Tramp to remain a silent creation. From the results, it's hard to argue. City Lights is one of the great screen comedies. It ranks alongside The Gold Rush and represents Chaplin at the zenith of his filmmaking career.

In part, Chaplin was reacting against what sound production techniques had done to cinema. As filmmakers emphasized medium close-ups in order to emphasize lips moving in synch to sound, the focus fell upon the face; however, Chaplin believed that silent comedians acted with their entire bodies. This was especially true of Chaplin's Tramp character, who functioned much like a mime. So by making City Lights, Chaplin pulled back the camera and allowed the characters to speak through their body language and mannerisms. For example, during a sequence where The Tramp prevents a drunken man from committing suicide, the camera stays back at medium long-shot distance recording the ballet of clumsiness taking place on a platform beside a river. Instead of becoming static, the simple camera placements impart a quiet elegance to the proceedings. We're not distracted by edits and new camera angles. Chaplin's filmmaking technique places a premium on simplicity and (as The New York Times film reviewer Mordaunt Hall said) "the eloquence of silence."

The movie's story is simple. The Tramp meets a beautiful blind girl (Virginia Cherrill) selling flowers on the street. Through a misunderstanding, she comes to believe he is rich. When he learns that an operation might restore her sight, he endeavors to earn enough money for the operation. This provides the loose structure upon which The Tramp's adventures are then built. He does in fact succeed in his quest to find money for her operation, and he hands off the money to the girl. But soon afterwards, he is arrested and thrown in jail for several months. Upon his release, he discovers the operation was a success. She now runs a flower shop. He watches her from the street, afraid to walk into her shop, but thrilled at being able to watch her and the results of the operation. This leads to one of the most beautiful -- and one of the saddest -- scenes in all of cinema. She soon becomes curious of the tramp. He's clearly fascinated by her presence, but she doesn't know why. Thinking he's simply a love-struck passerby, she offers him a flower, and during their short encounter, she comes to realize who he is. The movie ends with the camera on The Tramp's face--which is filled with joy so great that it overcomes his hesitancy regarding her reaction. Before we discover her reaction, the image fades out and the movie is over. The fade out allows Chaplin to satisfy both the romantics in the audience who want to think The Tramp and the flower girl will be reunited, and it satisfies the realists who understand the impossibility of their union. This is the movie's great irony: by performing a great sacrifice for her, The Tramp also insures that the flower girl will realize who he is--to be followed eventually, inevitably, by her rejection. But Chaplin spares us--and The Tramp--this pain. The Tramp has earned his victory, no matter have brief it might be.

This DVD from CBS Fox and Image Entertainment contains a superb extra: two scores recorded on separate audio tracks. You can listen to the original recording of Chaplin's score (musical direction by Alfred Newman), or you can listen to a new digital recording by Carl Davis. I strongly urge you to try Carl Davis' score. He maintains the integrity of the original score while giving it a fuller, cleaner sound. Among the DVD's bonus materials, you'll also find a video interview with Carl Davis, who talks about the process of recording the new digital score.
 

 Modern Times


from Modern Times
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If The Gold Rush and City Lights represent Chaplin at the height of his career as a comedian, Modern Times represents Chaplin at the height of his career as a film director. While visually both The Gold Rush and City Lights are relatively simple, Modern Times represents a major leap forward. The factory scenes are especially impressive, with The Tramp working on an assembly line and feverishly attempting to keep up with the non-stop flow of parts. During the five period between City Lights and Modern Times, Chaplin had likely seen Fritz Lang's Metropolis, for the factory scenes in Modern Times recall Metropolis' emphasis upon overwhelming machinery and the drudgery of factory jobs. While Lang's workers leave the factory physically exhausted from the demanding, repetitive labor, Chaplin suggests that a far greater toll is extracted upon the minds of the workers. The Tramp impulsively continues to twist the wrenches in his hands long after the conveyor belt has stopped. In lieu of bolts to tighten, his hands search for other objects, such as the buttons on a woman's dress. The repetitive labor causes The Tramp to suffer a complete metal breakdown.

The movie's title promises an updating of his methods, but Chaplin's vision of The Tramp as a strictly-silent creation hadn't wavered. While dialog is conveyed by title cards, Chaplin makes an exception near the end of the movie, when The Tramp strides onto the middle of the floor at a nightclub and breaks into a nonsensical song. This is the first and last time that The Tramp's voice would be heard. Chaplin also makes use of several sounds synchronized with the action on screen. For example, when The Tramp has tea on an empty stomach, we hear as it gurgles on the way down. But at its heart, Modern Times remains a silent movie. It's a movie about struggling against technology and the dehumanization that follows in the wake of progress. Significantly, The Tramp's solution evokes how several of his silent films ended: he walks off into the sunset, down a dusty road. But this time there is a difference: he walks off with a woman, "the gamin" (Paulette Goddard). This wasn't the first time that The Tramp was united with his romantic interest in a movie's final image. The Gold Rush, for example, allows him to unite with the bar girl with whom he has a crush--but not before he has struck it rich. However, Modern Times suggests that he could remain The Tramp and still find love. Together they head off away from the city and technology, toward a better future.

This DVD presentation of Modern Times features a video reminiscence with David Raksin, who arranged the original orchestrations. This sequence is accompanied by original photos and manuscripts.
 

 The Great Dictator


from The Great Dictator
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Few people would argue about the merits of The Gold Rush, City Lights, or Modern Times; however, beginning with The Great Dictator, disagreements arise. There are those people who consider The Great Dictator to be one of Chaplin's finest movies, and there are those who consider it wordy and rambling. Not coincidentally, The Great Dictator is Chaplin's first talking movie. Modern Times had contained moments of well-crafted gibberish, but now Chaplin places an emphasis on the spoken word. This approach was initiated by Chaplin's reaction to Adolf Hitler. He wanted people to see AND hear the madness that comes with dictatorships like the one that currently gripped Germany. So he created a Hitler lookalike named Adenoid Hynkel (who, of course, has the same narrow mustache of both The Tramp and Hitler) and he allows us to see this maniacal clown in action.

Hynkel spews such vitriol that he can melt microphones. After an especially foul bit of a speech, the interpreter tells us, "His excellency has just referred to the Jewish people." But when he thinks about becoming "Emperor of the World," he becomes giddy. When left alone, he plays with a world globe as if he's a fan dancer, but significantly, despite his gentle, balletic motions, the globe explodes.

Chaplin contrasts the story of Hynkel with the story of a Jewish barber in the ghetto. Also played by Chaplin, this barber is reminiscent of The Tramp. During the opening sequence, he serves as a soldier during WWI. But after a plane wreck, he suffers memory loss and remains in a military hospital for several years. When he finally is cured and returns home, he finds his shop is boarded up

The barber becomes an anachronism, echoing Chaplin's own feeling regarding sound cinema. But divorced of silence, the comedic sequences with the barber are contrived. Paradoxically, as Chaplin's filmmaking techniques improved, The Tramp (or in this case a Tramp-like character) strained for cuteness. In contrast, the scenes with Hynkel are largely effective. Instead of focusing on just parody, as he did in Shoulder Arms, for example, Chaplin strives for the lyrical in the ghetto scenes. The resulting mix is uneven.

The movie's greatest plot device has the barber mistaken for Hynkel. It's a predictable development, but Chaplin finds a thoroughly surprising means of staging how the barber becomes mistaken for the dictator. Unfortunately, this sequence leads to the barely-articulate barber rising as Hynkel and making an impassioned humanist speech. This speech goes on for the movie's final six minutes. While Chaplin's cause is commendable, this speech comes at the expense of obliterating the characterization of the barber.

Years later, Chaplin confessed regret about making The Great Dictator a comedy, for he didn't realize how horrific the situation in Europe would soon become.
 

 Monsieur Verdoux


from Monsieur Verdoux
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Chaplin's choice of subject matter in The Great Dictator was certainly controversial. But his choice of material in Monsieur Verdoux was arguably even more daring. He plays a "bluebeard," a mass murderer, who woos women for their money and then kills them. In the form of braying nouveau riche such as Annabella Bonheur (Martha Raye), it's hard to argue that the world would be any less off without her around. In addition, the movie suggests Verdoux kills in order to support his family. During the movie's opening narration, he tells us he was an honest bank clerk for 30 years--until he lost his job during the Depression. He then finds rich women and lavishes affection upon them. "Only a person of undaunted optimism would embark on such a venture," he tells us, for "the occupation of a bluebeard is by no means profitable."

This premise strains at credulity. It posits mass murder as little more than a career choice--that Verdoux is not solely responsible for his crimes. Like a woman driven to prostitution in order to survive, Verdoux murders in order to provide for his invalid wife and their brood of children. He does not kill without regret. In one remarkable scene, he remarks on the beautiful sunset, wasting time before he goes into the bedroom of his victim. But she calls him to bed and he leaves the window. When we next see him, she is dead. We haven't seen her dead body or heard any struggles, but we see her money chest in Verdoux's hands and we know her fate.

This is Chaplin's darkest comedy. After Verdoux is arrested, Chaplin slings his most vicious barbs: he compares himself to a world that goes to war. "Has it not blown women and children to pieces and done it very scientifically? As a mass killer, I'm an amateur by comparison. One murder makes a villain-- millions a hero. Numbers sanctify." Predictably, Chaplin was attacked for the movie's black tone, but his condemnation of hypocrisy stills caries a strong impact. However, with his personal life being aired in the press due to a paternity suit--and with marriage to a woman a third of his age (he was 54 and she was 18 when he married Oona O'Neil in 1943)--audiences begun to tire of Chaplin. The FBI began their own investigation of his suspected right-wing sympathies. By the time that Monsieur Verdoux has released in 1947, the name Chaplin on a theater marquee had lost much of its luster and drawing power. As a result, Monsieur Verdoux failed to generate much excitement at the boxoffice. It was his first box-office failure since Sunnyside.
 

 Limelight


from Limelight
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Limelight is Chaplin's last major movie. It was made during a trying time for Chaplin. His patriotism was questioned by the House Un-American Activities committee. When he was subpoenaed to testify, he wrote back: "I am not a communist; neither have I ever joined any political party or organization in my life. I am what you call a peacemonger." Chaplin's protestations had little effect. He and his wife Oona were mid-Atlantic on their way to the London premiere of Limelight when the U.S. Attorney General instructed immigration authorities to deny Chaplin a re-entry visa on his return. Chaplin vowed to never return to America (and he didn't until 1972 when he returned to accept a special Academy Award).

Limelight finds Chaplin in a reflective mood as he returns to his London music-hall roots. He plays a music-hall comedian named Calvero whose career was destroyed by alcohol. After he saves a beautiful young ballerina (Claire Bloom) who tried to commit suicide, he cares for her and tries to restore her faith in life. As a necessary consequence, his own faith in life is restored and he attempts a return to the stage.

This plot requires that Calvero must talk at great length to Terry (Bloom). She is a captive audience in his apartment, where she attempts half-heartedly to recover from her near-fatal suicide attempt. These scenes are very stagey, allowing Chaplin few opportunities for comedy and instead forcing him to talk and talk. In the process, Chaplin reveals few instincts for dialogue. Instead of making conversation, he tends to preach (at times revealing startling parallels with Chaplin's own life: "I lost contact with the audience," Calvero says, "and that's fatal for a comic"). However, the movie does have its highlights, including an excellent bit of comedy between Chaplin and Buster Keaton (who has a small but important supporting role).

Due to hostile reactions to Chaplin in America, Limelight did not receive widespread distribution. In fact, it took twenty years before it played theatrically in Los Angeles (a requirement for Academy Awards consideration). In 1972, after it finally played in Los Angeles, Limelight received a nomination for Best Original Dramatic Score. It won the award.
 

 A King in New York

Now in exile, Chaplin made a film about America. At the time, it was described as an anti-American movie, but in retrospect, A King in New York is relatively mild and innocuous, a return to some of the same territory mined by Chaplin in The Kid. Chaplin's son Michael takes a supporting role as the son of communists. The government wants him to betray his parents, but he has a strong mind of his own. The scenes with Michael Chaplin are quite bad. He's definitely no Jackie Coogan--although if Coogan had been given the same self-important dialogue in The Kid as the young Chaplin gets here, it's doubtful we'd remember his name today. Dawn Addams plays an advertising executive who attempts to persuade the King to make a television commercial. He's an overthrown monarch who ventures to New York and discovers his prime minister has absconded with his entire bank balance.

Chaplin points out some parallels between how the government attempts to coerce statements out of a child with what happened during the communist hearings of the '40s and '50s. Most effectively he suggests that a country's principals are suspect when it readily hands over huge sums of cash to hucksters (people who endorse products) while simultaneously partaking in political witch-hunts. But much of this movie is difficult to watch. The weakest parts of Limelight (such as the endless dialogue sequences in Calvero's apartment) are magnified here, as if Chaplin learned nothing from his previous experience. The film features only one good scene: the King becomes entangled with a firehose in an elevator. It's the only scene that suggests Chaplin's enormous capacity for physical comedy.

A King in New York is paired on DVD with A Woman of Paris. While most of the attention on the DVD cover goes to A King in New York, it's A Woman of Paris that deserves more attention today. A King in New York is very minor Chaplin. He made only one more movie, A Countess in Hong Kong in 1966, but it received the most savage reviews of his career. Even with stars such as Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren, it tanked at the boxoffice.

Chaplin's career experienced continually diminishing returns after he turned to sound film production. He was at his creative peak for at least 20 years. Beginning with his association with First National in the late teens to his last silent film Modern Times (and arguably even further, with sound-era movies such as The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux), Chaplin provided us with a remarkably rich body of work. Though his later films are flawed, his work as a comedian and mime is virtually without peer.


Charlie Chaplin's entire output from his association with First National through his final starring appearance in A King in New York is now available on DVD from CBS Fox Video (distribution by Image Entertainment). These shorts and feature films are available on ten DVDs. Suggested list price: $29.95 each. For more information, check out the Image Entertainment Web site.


RELATED LINKS:
Review of The Chaplin Mutual Comedies
Review of Chaplin's Essanay Comedies