Charlie Chaplin was unquestionably one of the true geniuses of cinema. His iconic character ‘The Little Tramp’ has been entertaining audiences for over 100 years, enchanting both children and adults alike with his winning blend of humor and pathos. But by 1952, the 63-year-old Chaplin had been buffeted about by charges of immoral behavior and the taint of Communism during the HUAC years, and filmgoers were turning against him. It is at this juncture in his life and career he choose to make LIMELIGHT, a personal, reflective piece on the fickleness of fame, mortality, despair, and most prominently, hope. It could be considered Chaplin’s valedictory message to the medium he helped establish, even though there would be two more films yet to come.
“The story of a ballerina and a clown…” It’s 1914 London, and the once-great Music Hall clown Calvero arrives home from a drunken bender. Fumbling with the key to unlock the door to his squalid rooming house, Calvero finally enters and, smelling gas, bursts into an apartment, saving the life of suicidal failed ballerina Thereza. Bringing her upstairs to his own humble room, the washed-up clown tries nursing her back to health, despite the protestations of landlady Mrs. Alsop. Calvero is upbeat, enjoying life as it is, even though he’s no longer able to amuse the crowds that used to love him; Thereza, on the other hand, hates life and “the futility of it all”, an invalid no longer able to use her dancer’s legs.
A doctor tells Calvero her symptoms are psychosomatic in nature, so Calvero acts as both nurturer and therapist, getting Thereza to open up about her past life and unrequited love. He’s able to get her back on her feet, both physically and emotionally, though he can’t get himself back in the limelight, dismally bombing out at a low-rent music hall. The roles are now reversed as Terry encourages Calvero to not give up hope, and when she lands the role of prima ballerina in “Harlequinade”, she manages to get Calvero a part as the clown. It is here she meets her lost unrequited love Neville, now a pianist for the company. Thereza confesses her love for Calvero, but the old clown doesn’t wish to stand in the way of what he perceives as her true happiness.
Thereza becomes a huge success, but impresario Mr. Postant doesn’t think the clown is funny. Calvero overhears, and once again goes out and gets sloshed, leaving the production and Thereza behind. While Thereza dances to world-wide acclaim, Calvero becomes a pitiful street performer begging for change. When Postant learns of Calvero’s plight, he arranges a gala benefit in the great clown’s honor, where Calvero returns to the limelight to take his final, fatal last bow…
LIMELIGHT is autobiographical on many levels, as Chaplin mixes both his current situation in America with the lives of his mother and father. Originally a Music Hall performer himself, Chaplin’s Calvero closely resembles his Tramp in spirit, the perpetually downtrodden Everyman who always looks at the sunny side of life. Walking that familiar tightrope between comedy and pathos, Chaplin gives a commanding performance here. Moving between pantomime and eloquence, Chaplin expresses a worldview of acceptance as Calvero, determined to remain true to himself no matter the circumstances, even when he feels he can no longer connect with the audience. His devotion to his craft is amazing, not only as star of the film, but producer, writer, director, music score (for which he won a belated Oscar in 1972, twenty years after the film’s initial release!), and even co-choreographer. LIMELIGHT is also a family affair, with son Sydney Chaplin playing Neville, Charlie Chaplin Jr. as one of the ballet clowns, and younger children Geraldine, Josephine, and Michael as urchins on the steps in the opening scene. Chaplin’s half-brother Wheeler Dryden appears as a doctor, and even wife Oona O’Neill Chaplin has a part as an extra.
The role of Thereza is played by 21-year-old Claire Bloom , whose ethereal poignancy as the ballerina is brilliantly portrayed. We watch in amazement as the despairing Terry, wanting only to die, blossoms into a beautiful artist radiating hope. Marjorie Bennett gets a chance to shine as Mrs. Alsop, probably her best screen role. The always-welcome Nigel Bruce is Postant, Norman Lloyd plays stage director Bodalink, and popping up in small parts are silent veterans Charlie Hall, Charley Rogers, Snub Pollard (as one of Calvero’s street musician cohorts), and Edna Purviance, Chaplin’s costar in many of his early films, making her final screen appearance.
Most notably, LIMELIGHT features the first and only pairing of Chaplin and the great Buster Keaton , who rivaled Chaplin in popularity during the silent era. The duo perform a musical comedy number at Calvero’s benefit show, almost completely done in pantomime, and though their screen time together if brief, it is both funny and memorable. Though an unmistakable air of melancholy pervades the film, Chaplin gets to strut his stuff in some amusing solo numbers, including a flea circus sketch and the comical song “The Life of a Sardine”.
The ballet section, highlighted by the performance of “Harlequinade”, is hauntingly beautiful. Danced by Andre Eglevsky and Melissa Hayden (subbing for Bloom) of the New York City Ballet, the two teamed with Chaplin on the film’s choreography, and create a marvelous and moving piece of work. The entire film is a splendid balance of that same humor and pathos Chaplin had walked successfully for almost forty years, when the “Little Fellow” (as he called his most beloved creation) first arrived on the screen with his baggy pants, beat-up bowler, scrub moustache, and cane. LIMELIGHT is the sum of Chaplin’s entire career as an entertainer, a film of love and loss, hopes and dreams, and one no movie lover should miss.