Chaplin's Unpublished Inspiration for Limelight
Ron Seifried | On 19, Mar 2014
Like any true artist, the final result of his/her work goes through several variations before public consumption. It is always fascinating to see where the artist’s head is at during the different stages of development. It’s like seeing early pencil sketches of the “Mona Lisa” before Leonardo was satisfied with his work.
Posthumous releases can be tricky to handle for estates and family descendants with varying degrees of profit margin and desire to keep an artist’s name relevant for future generations.
Charlie Chaplin was a complex figure. A British ex-Pat with a mentally disabled mother and alcoholic father, he rose to fame as one of the most recognizable figures of the 20th century; the homeless, hapless tramp of many silent films. His penchant for underage girls and a Communist sympathizer reversed the American public’s attraction to him for decades, eventually forcing him into European exile.
After 1946, Chaplin made fewer films and led a semi-secluded life in Switzerland. One film now considered a masterpiece, is “Limelight.” Made in 1952, the dark story of a washed-up clown, was an autobiographical part of Chaplin’s life he was willing to explore. It is also best known for the only scene of Chaplin with fellow silent film comedian Buster Keaton.
What isn’t known by most was that the inspiration for “Limelight” was an unpublished novella he wrote in 1948. Telling the tale of an alcoholic clown Calvero, the role Chaplin portrayed in the film and his attempt to rescue a ballerina from committing suicide.
Cobbled together from Chaplin’s own handwritten notes and typed pages, “Footlights” is now available thanks to the tedious editing by Chaplin biographer David Robinson. The dark novella only runs 34,000 words, and is Chaplin’s only work of fiction. Darker than the film he would eventually make, it is a deeply personal and emotional revisiting of Chaplin’s darkest moments from his childhood.
The release is just in time to celebrate Chaplin’s Tramp character 100th birthday. The derby wearing, cane holding clown appeared for the first time in Keystone’s “Mabel’s Strange Predicament” on February 9, 1914, an ironic intertwine of two early film franchises: Mabel Normand’s string of successful Keystone comedies and Chaplin’s Tramp “spinoff.”