So, About Buster And Charlie’s “Limelight” Scene…

Even casual classic comedy fans are familiar with the most famous scene from Charlie Chaplin’s bittersweet Limelight (1951), where he’s teamed with Buster Keaton onscreen for the first and only time. Playing old comedy partners reuniting for a comeback performance, they do a bit of charming, music hall-style slapstick that ends with Chaplin’s character Calvero succumbing to a fatal injury.

Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin in Limelight (1952)

And they also gave us this gallery-worthy still.

Ever since they filmed those scenes in the early ’50s, rumors have been flying that the arrogant Charlie Chaplin, witnessing humble genius Buster brilliantly churning out gag after gag far funnier than anything Chaplin ever dreamed of, jealously chopped it all out of the film. No one upstages the world’s most famous comedian, by gum! So what’s left are but hollow glimpses of Buster’s mastery, so cruelly squashed by the man who…well, personally hired him to play a role in his deeply personal film.

Nobly enduring the squashing of his brilliance.

Okay, guys, let’s all be honest here–you’ve haven’t actually watched the entire Limelight, have you? No, you just watched the 8-minute clip of Buster and Charlie on YouTube a few times and called it a day. Okay, fine, four of you have seen Limelight, but the rest of you–come now! At least give Chaplin’s thoughtful film a chance (he wrote a 100,000 word novel about his characters just to prepare for the actual filming. No kidding).

Why am I making this assumption? Because once you’ve seen Limelight, the idea that Buster’s character should’ve taken the spotlight in the “comeback” scene makes no sense. Absolutely no sense at all, my friends. 

Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin in Limelight (1952)

Grim competition (supposedly).

Limelight is, of course, worthy of its own review, being one of the most touchingly autobiographical films Chaplin ever made (it would’ve been a brilliant end to his career, if he had stopped there). He’d been partly inspired by comedian Frank Tinney, whose unfortunate story was much like Calvero’s in Limelight, and he also drew on memories of his father’s alcoholism and his mother’s mental illness.

The theme of Limelight is about an aging performer’s fading career and sense of alienation from theatergoers–as Chaplin put it, “Calvero grew old and introspective and acquired a feeling of dignity and this divorced him from all intimacy with the audience.” Philosophical musings on life in the theater and even on life itself are woven through the film’s running time, culminating with Calvero’s deep desire to reclaim the spotlight for one last time. Chaplin clearly infused his film with his own reflections on his decades of fame–you could almost say he infused it with bits of his own soul.

So obviously the character who appears for ten minutes and is known only as “Calvero’s Partner” is supposed to be the true star of the show. Hold on, does that sound a little “off” to you?

Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin in Limelight (1952)

“And then I exit the scene, and Buster takes over the entire movie. No, there won’t be any warning.” “Can I have your costume, too?”

The function of the scene is simply to show the two performers doing a funny sketch as part of Calvero’s comeback; Calvero is finally regaining that spotlight he longed for with an old friend’s support. Why Buster should suddenly be the focus here, as a few fans think he should be (because they’ve never watched Limelight) is a strange idea indeed.

So how did the rumors about the sketch start? Eleanor Keaton thought it originated with film collector Raymond Rohauer, who began a business partnership with Buster a couple years after Limelight was released. Tearing down Chaplin to somehow elevate Buster was, well, a Rohauer sort of thing to do. Quotes from Limelight art director Eugène Lourié and lead actress Claire Bloom also seemed to imply that Chaplin had been doing some selective editing. Lourié recalled watching the master comedians improvise gags on the set, to the crew’s delight: “Chaplin would grumble. He would say, ‘No, this is my scene.'” And Claire Bloom remembered, “Some of Keaton’s gags may even have been a little too incandescent for Chaplin because, laugh as he did at the rushes in the screening room, Chaplin didn’t see fit to allow them all into the final version of the film.”

Image result for limelight 1952 Keaton

Buster clearly ordering Chaplin around.

But perhaps we’re spinning these recollections into something more damning than they were. After all, both comedians spent a lot of time working on their scenes and improvising various scenarios; not all the footage could be included. Jerry Epstein, Chaplin’s assistant on the film, was very vocal that the rumors weren’t true:

People have written over the years that Charlie cut out the best stuff of Buster Keaton. That’s completely untrue, and I should know as I was with Charlie every day in the editing of the picture. He shot enough for ten films from just that sequence. He cut out some of Keaton’s stuff but he also cut some of his own best gags. Narrative meant more than anything else, no matter how good any one gag was. He would never sacrifice anyone’s performance. He looked for the best of everyone…It was Charlie, in the editing, that kept cutting back to Keaton with the music sheets falling off the piano.

Image result for limelight 1952 Keaton

Sydney Chaplin, Charlie’s son who played a role in Limelight, also maintained that his father didn’t butcher Buster’s scenes–and injected some common sense: “For Buster Keaton to suddenly be funny was not in the story. The story is that Calvero makes a comeback. It would have been inconsistent if Keaton or another actor had overpowered him.”

If you ask me, there’s also the question of what more really needed to be added to the sketch. It can basically be divided into three parts: first the comedians’ attempts to play music are self-impeded (Calvero has his wonky leg and his partner fumbles with the sheet music), then the two are impeded by their instruments, and lastly, they finally get to furiously play music to the point of getting carried away. It’s a perfectly cohesive piece, with both performers getting in good gags while Calvero still seems like the star. I’ll add that fan insistence that Buster’s way better in the scene than Chaplin seems…well, overly analytical (look, the sketch is delightful, but is it the most laugh-out-loud thing Buster’s ever done? Methinks not).

Image result for chaplin keaton limelight

This line is awesome, though.

So who else didn’t believe the rumors? Buster himself, that’s who. In the book Buster Keaton Remembered, Eleanor recalled:

Buster worked on the film for three weeks from just before Christmas 1951 through the second week of January 1952. There was an outline prepared by Chaplin, but the comedy was mostly improvised on the set…Raymond Rohauer, Buster’s business partner, began the rumor that Chaplin cut out Buster’s best scenes in the film…Buster did not think [the rumor] was true. He greatly enjoyed working with Chaplin on Limelight, which is considered historic in its teaming of the two great comic geniuses of film.

Working on…gags or something (harmoniously!).

Ah yes, I see you back there, waving your hand around. “But what about the Martha Raye sketch?!” you shout, eyes shining with triumph. Now hold on, my friend–before you pour that congratulatory glass of champagne, let’s go over some context for everyone else.

In 1956, a few years after Limelight was released, Buster appeared on The Martha Raye Show to do a comedy sketch with the comedienne. They decided to recreate the famous bit from Limelight, which they performed more or less the same way, but with a few added gags by Buster that put him more in the spotlight. Some fans feel that this must be the “original” version of Charlie and Buster’s scene, or at least it gave him a chance to use some of the gags Chaplin supposedly chopped out (with great viciousness).

Image result for chaplin keaton limelight

Just look at all the viciousness (image from Little Bits of Classics).

Since there’s no outtakes that survive from Limelight, this is all speculative. The added gags could be from Limelight rehearsals. Or, you know, maybe Buster improvised a few new gags for The Martha Raye Show, since he was a guest star and wanted to “bring it” on the set. Is that not equally possible? So I don’t think we can say that Martha Raye sketch proves anything one way or another–except for proving Buster’s talents, of course (to be fair, all of his appearances do that).

So perhaps it’s time to put these rumors to rest, get acquainted with Occam’s razor, and simply relish the scene for what it is: one of the most historic moments in cinema and a priceless gift to comedy fans (courtesy of Chaplin, might I add). And you know, guys, I really do think it’s time that you get comfy on your couch and actually watch Limelight!

Image result for keaton chaplin limelight 1952

Sources:

“Chaplin and Keaton–Two Friends in the Limelight.” https://littlebitsofclassics.wordpress.com/2017/02/19/chaplin-and-keaton-two-friends-in-the-limelight/

Keaton, Eleanor and Vance, Jeffrey. Buster Keaton Remembered. New York: Henry N Abrams, Inc., 2001.

Robinson, David. Chaplin: His Life and Art. McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, 1985.

Vance, Jeffrey. Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema. New York: Henry M. Abrams, Inc., 2003.

 

30 thoughts on “So, About Buster And Charlie’s “Limelight” Scene…

  1. A fascinating view of aspects of a famous film. Cutting gags, of course, is all part of the editing process. Overdo the gags, and you lose any semblance of the story (yes, there is always a sort of story — even in comedy). This lesson Chaplin, essentially a gagster, seems to have learned at Keystone, after ‘Pathe’ Lehrman and ‘Pops’ Nichols ruthlessly trimmed his gags — much to the genius’ annoyance. Keaton may have lost gags, but Chaplin had become a real professional, who cut thousands of feet of his own funny business, in the cause of film integrity. In this case we cannot say Chaplin was seeking revenge for what happened to him, all those years back in 1914.

    • Chaplin wasn’t afraid to cut gags if they didn’t fit into the film just right–and come to think of it, neither was Buster. He famously cut a very expensive underwater sequence out of THE NAVIGATOR because it didn’t get quite the laughs he wanted.

  2. Very good and overdue debunking of a cinematic urban method. I think both men shine in that scene. (And yes, I have seen the entire movie — it’s overlong by about 30 minutes, I’d say, but still quite captivating.)

    • You’re one of the four! 😉 I think I agree that it’s a little long, but it’s still so beautifully done that I don’t really mind. When it comes to Chaplin it’s hard to have too much of a good thing.

  3. Thank you, Lea! Yes, this is spot-on! I am another one of the four who’s seen LIMELIGHT — in fact, more than once. And even before I’d heard that urban myth, it never occurred to me that either of the great comedians were trying to upstage the other, nor that Chaplin, as director, were not letting Keaton shine along with him.

    Incidentally, as I’m sure you know, Chaplin infamously shot way mor footage than he ultimately used for each film. For him, shooting a film was a meticulous and painstaking process. I can’t even imagine the editing process…

    • LIMELIGHT itself gives no indication of any upstaging going on–at all! And as someone else pointed out elsewhere, the two were such pros, they’d know their gags had to serve the story above all else.

      No wonder he was reportedly up for several days straight editing A DOG’S LIFE. (I’ve heard the famous photo of bleary-eyed Charlie might actually be the result of editing THE IMMIGRANT–it’s safe to say he looked like that a LOT after being in the editing room!)

  4. Lea, I’m curious to know your thoughts about what Walter Kerr wrote about it in THE SILENT CLOWNS: “It must have been apparent from the first preview that Keaton had stolen the sequence, topped the master; the sequence, which might have been heavily trimmed in Chaplin’s favor, remained Keaton’s.” That was the earliest critical evaluation I’ve ever seen, so of course the latter-day criticism upon which you’ve focused was surprising when it became the prevalent view.

    • In all honesty, I wonder if Kerr either hadn’t watched the scene recently before writing his book, or was somehow remembering something that wasn’t there. I mean, it’s a nice scene, but there’s no scene-stealing by Buster going on. This is coming from one of the biggest Buster fans in the entire world, mind you. 😉

  5. LIMELIGHT, which I own a copy of and have watched all of, is a terrible movie. Pauline Kael put it very well, calling it, “Self-pitying, self-glorifying,” and “the richest hunk of self-gratification since Tom & Huck attended their own funeral.” LIMELIGHT is Chaplin’s tribute to himself.

    • I’m curious–if any other director had made LIMELIGHT, and if a different actor (say, an unknown) played Calvero, do you think your opinion would be the same, or different?

      I like LIMELIGHT very much–wouldn’t rank it as highly as THE KID or MODERN TIMES, but find it thought-provoking and sincere nonetheless.

  6. Thank you. I am so tired of revisionist efforts by people who obviously had no direct access to a project. If Keaton and Epstein say something why would ANYONE believe fans generations removed with their determination to feel they can have an impact on a work that is not theirs? Watch a film, analyze a film, but stick to the facts. We are in era that cannot accept “facts” and one in which personal opinion is greatly overrated. If we keep this up, there will be no truths left in this world!

    • Yes, disregarding the words of someone like Epstein in favor of a narrative you happen to like better is pretty ridiculous. It’s also not an honest way of assessing history–nor is it exactly necessary, if you think about it.

      I, too, think there are certain trends of unhealthy or illogical thinking that are growing far too common nowadays. There’s even some people who try to push the idea of a “personal truth”–“her truth,” “his truth,” etc. I shall stay right here and NOT get on board with this, thank you.

  7. I have watched the film many times and do find parts a bit long and tedious in places (it has been awhile since viewing it so perhaps I will again soon) One thing I have long felt about Chaplin and did not get the same feeling about Keaton or for that matter L&H is that Chaplin’s ego was a bit much as he seemed to be perpetually trying to cram down the public’s throat what a genius he was. He was that indeed and so were the others but self praise stinks. With Charlies limited education he may well have been brilliant but just in reading his autobiography I got the impression a theosauris was close at hand using a vocabulary that was certainly not in use by his contemporaries with somewhat similar backgrounds. I just got the feeling he was screaming see how brilliant I am. I find it interesting since I had a very accomplished friend from radio, television, and film became late in life what he had always brilliantly satirized in all the mediums in which he was so successful. I pissed him off once by telling him I know already how good you are and have known it for a long time. When you keep letting me know I think you go from brilliant as an obnoxious asshole. Charlie was brilliant but just seemed so pompous about it. Others somehow skipped that. I do however feel most of what you said about Limelight Keaton scenes is spot on. Oh what I would have given to get my hands on what was left on the cutting room floor. I want to also compliment you on not really going after Rohauer, I am grateful for what he did for Keaton, but he also did him a huge diservice in for so many years making it so difficult to see his work. Met him once and you would have thought he made the films himself.

    • By every account I’ve heard, Rohauer was…a real piece of work. 😀 He could’ve taken up a several articles just by himself, but I wanted the focus to stay on LIMELIGHT!

      Chaplin did seem to have developed a kind of arrogance, which seemed to have increased throughout his life. I wish that weren’t true, however, I personally can’t judge him too harshly for it for a couple reasons. First, he achieved such massive fame at such a young age, and after having such a rough childhood. Second, it was a brand new kind of fame–cinema was as young as Charlie was at the time. And lastly, he was the first slapstick comedian to be hailed as an “artist” and find himself consistently lauded by the intelligensia from that moment forward. This, too, was a very new thing. He also seemed to have a deep insecurity despite all this fame, which he perhaps tried to cover up with arrogance.

      LIMELIGHT isn’t a film for everyone, of course. But I do wonder–as I asked someone in an earlier comment–if Chaplin weren’t the director and star, would we judge LIMELIGHT differently?

  8. I find your questioning of whether or not we would judge LIMELIGHT differently were Chaplin not in charge interesting. I like Chaplin a lot, but post-1930 I’ve already accepted he did a lot of different things with his work, making it more political, more experimental. He definitely wanted to do new things with his work and I respect that. Sometimes it works for me (MONSIEUR VERDOUX is crazy underrated as a dark comedy), but in LIMELIGHT’s case, it just didn’t gel with me.

    I think parts of the film are lovely and moving, but the pace is so slow and I do think this is one movie where Chaplin’s ego is fully on display in the handling of the Calvero character, how he’s allegedly this scorned genius even though I personally thought most of his comedic bits were underwhelming. I felt the supporting characters were very underdeveloped and the long sermons from Calvero tiresome.

    It’s never bothered me that Keaton isn’t the focus in that one scene. I mean, it’s not his movie, it makes sense. However, this is one movie I just don’t like much, Chaplin aside. Even if it was Stan Laurel or Keaton giving those same speeches, following this same script, I don’t think I’d like it much either.

    However, that’s the fine thing about art: what moves one person will leave another cold. I find LIMELIGHT fascinating in the diverse reactions in prompts from viewers. Thank you for this thoughtful article and your very tactful way of dealing with diverse opinions. Your blog is my favorite silent movie site because of that, as this fandom can get very, eh, intense when people disagree… particularly about silent clowns 😉

    • That’s for sure. I try to keep discussions thoughtful and respectful here, since we silent film fans aren’t exactly numerous and should probably try to stick together! 😉

      It’s interesting to ponder what kind of LIMELIGHT’ we’d have if Chaplin weren’t its lead. (And I do pose the question of how we’d judge it sincerely, there’s no “gotchas” behind it.) It’s not hard to imagine that fewer people would see it (like you point out, it’s long and has a lot of speechifying), but I can see a subset of those viewers thinking of it as an obscure classic, being a contemplative piece about a long-gone era of the theater.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment! I definitely can see why LIMELIGHT isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. In any case, it’s a good discussion starter.

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  10. I am the fifth person to have seen “Limelight” all the way through, in a theater and in 35mm. I remember reading about Keaton in that last shot whispering directions to Chaplin as the camera pulled back. I do not remember where I read it, it seemed that it was some Buster Bio. quoting him. I just saw the YouTube clip of Norman Lloyd talking about being in the shot and hearing Keaton whispering directions to Chaplin. If Chaplin was so set on suppressing Keaton he would have yelled cut and told Keaton to shut up. I am sure that it was just a great inside joke between them, Keaton directing Chaplin. (sorry for the late reply)

    • Always thought that was such a cool anecdote! You have to wonder sometimes if Buster got so interested in the scene that he got carried away, and Chaplin understood how he was directing him and rolled with it.

      Wouldn’t you have loved to see an early ’20s era Buster and Charlie in a short comedy together? In their costumes and all? Sometimes I try and imagine what that would be like…!

      • Sorry about the duplicate post you can delete the second one. Another Keaton lost moments would be his cameo in “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”. Stanley Kramer said Keaton came up with about 30 min. of very funny “business” but he could only use those few seconds of him.

  11. Okay, I HAVEN’T yet seen the whole Limelight film, only half. But ya gotta admit Keaton’s line about defenestrating himself is a crowning bit of awesome. 😜

      • Finished the film. We tried to watch without bias. Were enchanted at first by the cinematography, costuming, and sets, particularly the use of cast shadows, but then noticed a few glaring continuity errors, and the rear-projection looked too cheap for the rest of the production. LOL’d at the Chaplin/Keaton stage scene. Interesting film with some great character actors.

        All of which pales at my discovery of Six Degrees of Busteration (or maybe less!): Keaton > Limelight > Ballet > Andre Eglevsky > Me. 😳

  12. Thank you for bringing this up! “Limelight” is my favorite movie! I love that you mentioned Buster enjoyed working with Chaplin! Buster’s part, I believe was a sweet bit of sentiment from Chaplin to add to his film and a little gem for us today! It was the perfect way to add Buster and keep the heavy flow continual in the rest of the movie, because, who can help but smile when Buster takes the stage.:)

    • If it wasn’t for Chaplin, we’d never have this touching scene–thank you, Charlie! That’s awesome that LIMELIGHT is your favorite film, that’s not a choice you hear very often. 🙂

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