“Tragedy is a close-up, comedy is a long shot,” Chaplin once remarked. The rogues gallery portraits of alcoholics he created during the course of his career as a filmmaker illustrates his concept of the spectrum between comedy and tragedy. In One A.M. (1916), he did a broad “far-shot” caricature of a lion comique. In City Lights (1930)—a bittersweet comedy--Chaplin gave us a more tightly focused, “medium-shot” study of his ambivalent relationship with a moody and boozy “millionaire” father figure. In Limelight, he finally gave us a tragic “close-up,” portrait of an aging actor as a washed-up alcoholic comedian who has fallen on hard times. (As an impressionable young child, Charlie probably thought of his own father as a wealthy “millionaire” because he had once been capable of earning as much as 40 pounds per week for a one-week theatrical engagement in his all-too-brief heyday: roughly the 2006 CPI equivalent of $4,500 per week).
Attempting to figure out what went wrong in his parents’ marriage in his unpublished novel Footlights (which he later used as the screenplay treatment for Limelight), Chaplin wrote of his mother’s “tragic promiscuity” and his father’s “febrile hilarity.” He was haunted by the question of who was to blame. Did his father drink too much because his wife was unfaithful to him? Or was his mother unfaithful because his father drank too much?
Chaplin had already approached this unresolvable question about his parents’ marriage much more humorously in an earlier film The Idle Class (see next essay).