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Audrey Kupferberg: Limelight And The Man With The Movie Camera

New restorations of two classic films are being released this month.  Both are works of masters from cinema’s past.  The first is LIMELIGHT, a mature, philosophical drama written and directed by and starring Charles Chaplin.  The second is Dziga Vertov’s THE MAN WITH THE MOVIE CAMERA, which is one of the outstanding documentary films of all time.

LIMELIGHT is Chaplin’s last American film.  Released in 1952, the highly personal, heartfelt drama centers on Calvero, a former comedy star of British music halls, who now is idle and a drunk.   One day he staggers back to his boarding house and detects an odor of gas coming from another flat.  The attempted suicide is Thereza, a fragile young ballerina, played by twenty-one-year-old Claire Bloom.  From that point onward, LIMELIGHT explores the relationship that grows between Calvero, who is in his early sixties, and the troubled dancer.   

LIMELIGHT is different from Chaplin’s signature comedies featuring the Little Tramp.  It is a full-blown drama with great philosophical insights.  Just as Woody Allen occasionally breaks out of a comedy mode to create a deep drama, so it was with Chaplin before him.  One might place LIMELIGHT in the same category of A WOMAN OF PARIS from 1923, Chaplin’s other sophisticated drama of life and love.

For those who cannot imagine separating Chaplin from comedy, there are a number of classic comedy skits, including one lengthy skit featuring Chaplin and Buster Keaton as a duo of hapless musicians.  My favorite comedy piece is Chaplin’s sketch where he shares the stage with two imaginary fleas.  Chaplin as Calvero twitches and wiggles and is so funny and so credible, that I actually believe there are two trained, but willful, fleas in the skit!

Good quality material on LIMELIGHT has been available to home video markets for some time, but the June release from Criterion is a new 4K digital restoration, and there are newly produced interviews and video essays as extras.

Flicker Alley has released a Blu-ray of the first complete version of the innovative documentary THE MAN WITH THE MOVIE CAMERA, an incredible example of Soviet formalist montage from 1929, as well as other important works by DzigaVertov.  Those who compare running times with previous versions will be stymied. What is so special?  All the versions are the same 68 minutes.  What is different – and this is key – is the shape, the fullness  of the image.  In 1929, when film labs were making prints of this feature, the machinery was set for printing sound tracks alongside the images, so the aperture was narrowed to accommodate the space for the optical track.  But THE MAN WITH THE MOVIE CAMERA did not have a sound track in 1929, so what we have been viewing all these years is an incomplete, cropped image.   Recently, The EYE Film Institute in the Netherlands came up with a full aperture print, and with Lobster Films and other archives, historians, and organizations, a proper restoration was completed. 

In THE MAN WITH THE MOVIE CAMERA, DzigaVertov worked with his wife YelizavetaSvilova and his brother Mikhail Kaufman to create a city symphony, a fast-moving, clever look at contemporary urban life in the Soviet Russia of the late 1920s.  With optical effects that amaze and fleeting shots of many types of city dwellers, an exciting, influential cinematic classic emerged. 

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is the former Director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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