“In the dusk of twilight, as the light of London’s street lamps became bolder against the saffron sky, Thereza Ambrose, a girl of nineteen, was sinking out of life…”
Remembrances of an old world never fell far back for Chaplin. As an artist on the search for inspiration, it was the past he mined for his films, never the present, nor the future unless to pointedly critique it. That Dickensian childhood of his haunted him time and again, and in his old age, would come to define his definition of ‘beauty’. In his later years, Chaplin was known to prowl the streets of South London in anonymity. Once in the ’70s, actor Michael Caine did the very same thing – and he ran into Chaplin, both reminiscing about the places and cobblestones that defined their childhoods. Footlights is the story of that world.
Limelight, Chaplin’s great love letter to the music halls of his youth, began as Footlights, an enriching novella full of the imagery and uninhibited prose you would expect from the most sensitive filmmaker of the day. Even in his seminole films, there’s a profound sense of poetry in Chaplin’s title cards. “A picture with a Smile – and perhaps, a Tear”, “Tomorrow, the birds will sing”, “The Woman – whose only sin is Motherhood”, “Buck up – never say die. We’ll get along.” Clearly, Chaplin scrutinized language to bleed out as much vivid tenderness as possible. Now with the whole literary form at his disposal, his visual imagery becomes the things of themes, descriptions, and feelings.
It’s the story of Terry Embrose, a beautiful, nineteen-year-old dancer whose pain is erased by the arrival of Calvero, once a great stage clown, now a has-been drunk. He nurses her and saves her from her personal demons, only to realize Calvero’s own lack of confidence betrays his whimsy. In its romance of both characters and places, Chaplin places emotions on the sleeve. On one hand, his prose is saved for the thoughts of his characters, unless he wants to remind us of the beauty of Soho London, which he will then describe in perfect, nostalgic detail. His love of place is so much more evident than his love of the story – the West End comes alive in its turn-of-the-century sublimity.
“I believe I’m dying,” he murmured wearily. “But then – I don’t know … I’ve died so many times.”
The phrasing is lyrical, the words almost balletic. They never strain, nor do they stretch, but descriptions jump and bounce along to the next moment and characters react with lighthearted affection that, even in dark moments, never toils away in gritty despair. Footlights may be the most tonally-consistent adaptation of literature to film. It’s the most illusionistic display of the filmmaker’s mind at work, transcribed from lyrical waxing to awe-inspiring mise-en-scène. It’s openly tender, it’s wholly Chaplin.
Although it is out-of-print, you may find Footlights in Charlie Chaplin: Footlights with The World of Limelight, available now on Amazon. I found my copy at Larry Edmunds Bookshop in Hollywood.