Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were two of the biggest stars of silent film. They didn’t appear in a film together until 1952, and that film didn’t win an Academy Award until 1973.
Chaplin and Keaton were both unique film comedians. I’m personally more of a Keaton fan – his absolute deadpan and impeccable comic timing get me every time – but Chaplin’s inventiveness and trenchant social commentary are also excellent.
In the 1920s, Keaton made many shorts and the films Sherlock Jr. and The General; Chaplin made The Kid and The Gold Rush at about the same time. They weren’t in actual competition – just two craftspeople at the top of their games.
By the 1950s, all that had changed. Keaton had lost most of his money in a divorce and his career was in the doldrums. He had appeared two years earlier in the classic Sunset Boulevard, as a washed-up drinking buddy of the washed-up actor Norma Desmond. Chaplin had been accused of being a communist sympathizer and his popularity in the United States had plummeted.
Limelight was to be Chaplin’s comeback. It was, self-referentially, about a washed-up comedian’s big comeback. And for the final scene, the big comeback itself, Chaplin invited Keaton to join him. You can watch that scene below.
Rumours at the time suggested that the two film greats were at odds, Keaton upstaging Chaplin and Chaplin editing out Keaton’s best bits, but these were stoked by the fans and associates of the two and don’t appear to have any basis in fact. It didn’t matter anyway – anti-communist sentiment led to an American boycott and the commercial failure of the film. Chaplin had left the States just before Limelight‘s premiere, and was told that he might not be allowed back into the country without being interviewed by the FBI. He did not return for twenty years.
Chaplin returned to the States to receive an honorary Academy Award in 1972. In 1973, he was nominated for an actual Academy Award… for Limelight. A film is eligible for the award after it has first screened in Los Angeles, and because of the boycott Limelight had not actually been shown until 1972. He won – the only time Chaplin won a competitive Academy Award.