|prepares for his role as Calvero in Limelight. Photograph: W. Eugene Smith|
The big picture: Chaplin on set
Charlie Chaplin checks his make-up while filming Limelight: The star returned to his music-hall roots in his final Hollywood film before he was exiled in Europe for his 'un-American' liberalism. Photograph by W. Eugene Smith
Sunday 28 February 2010
haplin, whose Little Tramp was an exemplary modern man, soon became a compulsory subject for modern art. Fernand Léger made a cubist Charlie from panels of painted wood, and Erwin Blumenfeld drew him as Christ limply dangling from a crucifix – a dejected saviour, shedding comic grace on an unworthy world. Edward Steichen photographed him as a capering faun, whose walking stick might be a magician's wand; Lee Miller, catching him in middle age, arranged his prematurely grey hair into radiant waves and made the imp – whose sexual escapades often got him into trouble with the law – look handsomely rakish. W Eugene Smith spent weeks on the set of Limelight, watching him mug and preen in front of the camera and issue orders behind it. Chaplin was 63 and soon to be exiled. When he left California for the film's London premiere in 1952, his permit to re-enter the US was revoked to punish him for his "un-American" liberalism.
Limelight took Chaplin back to his early years as a music-hall comedian. In Smith's photograph, the jaunty tramp is replaced by a tragic clown, whose mouth manages to smirk while turning down at the corners. He is ashen, even spectral: mimes paint their faces white because they want to join the company of the dead. His character's name is Calvero, which recalls the martyrdom in Blumenfeld's drawing; he dies onstage, of course.
The portrait at the mirror is also a self-portrait for the unseen photographer. W Eugene Smith was a tragic character, whose images, as Cartier-Bresson said, were "taken beneath the shirt and the skin", in the vulnerable vicinity of the heart. He photographed burials at sea during the Pacific war, spied on a Ku Klux Klan conclave, documented the ravings of psychiatric patients in Haiti, and wrecked his own health recording the misery of Japanese villagers poisoned by pollution.
The complicity between Smith's beatnik depressiveness and Chaplin's stoical despair enables the photographer to look behind the actor's pretence. The clown's persona crumbles when we see the jars that helped the actor assemble it and the tissues that will scrub the artifice off. Photography is about light and its battle with dark, and blackness seems about to engulf that white, bloodless face. Limelight, which illuminates Calvero's routines, gets its lunar glare from quicklime, which is also sprinkled on bodies to speed up their decay; the bulbs beside the mirror offer their own augury – are they not turned on, or have they burned out?
Chaplin here sadly prepares for a frolic that may be his final curtain, and Smith takes courage from his determination to challenge the encroaching night. The connection was momentary, as all photographs are. Ten years later Smith phoned Chaplin's home in Switzerland from his squalid Manhattan loft. The number rang for an age and the operator finally reported that no one was at home. Smith taped this pointless exchange, then filed the reel after labelling it "Last attempt to call Chaplin".