Rightly dubbed a “supreme auteur” by David Robinson, who provides a video essay on the newly released Criterion Collection Blu-ray of Limelight, Charlie Chaplin wore many hats in making this 1952 film. Aside from writing, directing, and starring in the picture, he was the producer, he arranged the score, and he choreographed the dance sequences, in addition to other supervisory duties behind the scenes. Part of the preparation for the film even included Chaplin penning a novel on which the movie was based, called Footlights, which was then adapted with great ease by the author. Set in 1914 London (about the time Chaplin had left England for America), Limelight is a basically familiar showbiz story, with one performer’s career on the wane as another’s is ripe for revival, but there is far more to this late Chaplin classic. For the great comedian, the film was deeply resonant on a personal level, and this significance comes through for audiences as well.
As opening titles state, Limelight is the story “of a ballerina and a clown.” Chaplin stars as Calvero, an aging music hall entertainer once advertised as the famous “Tramp Comedian” (posters promoting as much hang proudly on his wall). Older now, washed up and unemployed, he drunkenly happens upon Thereza (Claire Bloom), who has just tried to kill herself. He and others assume the girl has a disreputable past, but he remains staunchly nonjudgmental about such insinuations. “I’m an old sinner,” he says. “Nothing shocks me.” Once carried to Calvero’s bed, she remains unable to move and begins to recuperate in his room. Upon hearing that she was (and despite her health, still can be) a dancer, Calvero transfers his own desire to entertain and his own passion for his art to inspire confidence in her. With his resilience and his armchair psychoanalysis, he strives to motivate her back into shape.
Though she is suicidal when we first meet her, and he is an embarrassing drunkard, Thereza and Calvero connect and bond immediately. She assumes it’s a good business to be funny. Yes, he says, but not if the audience doesn’t laugh—and lately, no one has been laughing. Despite the bleak realities of his professional condition, Calvero remains jovial and optimistically philosophical. He is haunted and yet somewhat heartened by nostalgic dreams and memories of his former glory. Not surprisingly, given that he is a lonely old man and she a charming, young beauty, Thereza soon seeps into his dreams as well. But it is Thereza who, against all odds, falls in love with Calvero, the man who quite literally gets her back on her feet and dancing again.
Calvero temporarily sobers up, but after an unsuccessful return to the stage, the pain of silence, of utter disregard, of audiences coolly walking out on him, becomes more than he can bear. He plays it off well enough at first, but inside he is overcome with despair. Seemingly his last chance at professional renewal has ended with bitter failure. Chaplin brilliantly conveys the stinging disappointment of rejection, as well as the unspoken envy as one star rises while another fades. The limelight of fame is precarious, prone to an erratic focus. It’s vibrant one minute, vanishing the next; it can be turned on and off at a moment’s notice, simply on the whims of specific individuals or ceaselessly capricious crowds; and it can easily be moved from one figure to another, as these subjective whims dictate.
Just as Thereza is professing her love for Calvero, Neville, the object of her timid affection from years past, suddenly reemerges. Though she’s clearly taken aback by his appearance, she truly loves Calvero, never wavering in her devotion, even after Neville pleads with her to drop the pitiful infatuation. As time passes, Calvero and Thereza work together on a dance performance, where she is the star and he is downgraded to an unsatisfactory minor role, but he leaves her not long thereafter, realizing that his faltering career isn’t helping hers, and her affections toward him can only hinder what he perceives to be more conventional and lasting love between she and Neville.
When Calvero is later working as a sidewalk musician (“There’s something about working the streets I like,” he states, in a knowing nod to Chaplin’s iconic character. “It’s the tramp in me I suppose.”), chance brings he and Thereza together once more. Circumstances work in his favor, and one final show is planned, a grand send-off salute to the distinguished performer.
Here in the final moments of the film are the famed sequences with Buster Keaton. If nothing else, Limelight is at least known as the lone feature to unite these two legends of silent screen comedy. Though the joint shtick is just a few minutes long, and not especially funny until the very end, it nevertheless leads to the film’s powerful dénouement and is a genuinely magical movie moment. One can only imagine what a similar collaboration could have been like when these two luminaries were in their prime.
Chaplin was 63 at the time of Limelight’s production, yet age never hinders his masterful physicality. From his drunken buoyancy to his animated gestures and his facial expressions both comically quirky and vividly eloquent, he is ever the silent pantomime. Chaplin’s reluctance to turn to talking pictures has been well documented, but as is clear in this film, as much as in any of his other post-1940 work, he had a knack for amusing dialogue. Here this includes the comments about the landlady’s leaky gas pipe, Calvero’s discussion about a star that sits around on its axis, and, when told that worms can’t smile, his countering, “Have you ever appealed to their sense of humor?”
Given the relevant and self-reflective subject matter of Limelight, it’s easy to see just how personal a project it was for Chaplin. Developed over the course of several decades, elements of the film, if not its complete premise, were indeed present in several of his earlier shorts, such as The Professor, the unfinished 1919 film included on the Criterion disc along with the completed two-reeler, A Night in the Show (1915). Adding to the personal nature of the picture, Limelight was something of a family affair for Chaplin, with appearances from his wife, Oona, and children, Josephine, Charles Jr., Michael, and Geraldine. His son, Sydney, makes his debut as Neville, Thereza’s former fancy. Even longtime Chaplin leading lady on screen, Edna Purviance, returns for her final role.
Cinematography on Limelight was by the great Karl Struss, and Robert Aldrich served as assistant director, just two years before directing his own first feature. Atypical camera movement at the start of the film eventually gives way to more traditional compositions from Chaplin, never one for visual flamboyance when the attention should be on the performers.
Counting Robinson’s program mentioned above, along with interviews with Bloom and Norman Lloyd and Chaplin Today: “Limelight,” a 2002 documentary, the sociopolitical backdrop of Limelight is thoroughly covered in the supplemental features of this Criterion release. But while this may have been crucial to Chaplin’s biography, as far as the film itself is concerned, such issues take a backseat to its artistic inspirations. Whatever the controversial baggage that absurdly afflicted Chaplin at the time, Limelight leaves these issues behind and instead focuses on being a loving, though melancholy, ode to music hall entertainment (A King in New York , Chaplin’s next film, takes on the provocative issues far more explicitly).
Still, one can’t ignore the factors that were indeed upsetting Chaplin’s personal and professional life. Fervent Cold War anti-communism coupled with the general dislike of Monsieur Verdoux, his maligned 1947 feature (an unpopular “non-Tramp” production), created circumstances that ultimately left the celebrated star abruptly unwelcome in America—Limelight would be his final film in Hollywood. Ironically though, other than his honorary Oscar in 1972, Limelight would result in Chaplin’s lone Academy Award win, for best score … in 1973. The film was not released in Los Angeles until 1972 and was thus still eligible for consideration, despite being 20 years old.
I’m not sure I would call Limelight the most emotional of Chaplin’s films (as Peter von Bagh does in his essay, “Limelight: Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man”), but there is certainly more than enough emotion to go around. Two scenes in particular are absolutely devastating, the first being Calvero’s face in close-up after the cruel disappointment of his theatrical bomb, the second the concluding scene with Keaton sadly looking on as his friend and fellow comedian succumbs to a heart attack. This finale transcends the simple story of the film. It touchingly reflects the mutual state of these two cinematic geniuses as they act out this heartbreaking analogy for their own once-prosperous careers. Limelight itself—its fictional narrative and its actual history—consequently criticizes the short, fickle memory of moviegoing audiences, where accomplished artists are worshiped and adored one year, ostracized and forgotten the next. Only time, it seems, places them and their work appropriately back in the spotlight.