A story of a ballerina, and a clown…
Set in London in 1914, “Limelight” (1952) is a film about an over the hill, often-drunk comedian, Calvero (Charlie Chaplin), who stumbles home one day to discover that the young woman living two floors below him has attempted suicide. He retrieves a doctor and they move her upstairs to Calvero’s room. He learns that the girl’s name is Terry (Claire Bloom) and she was once a ballerina. She now believes that she is sickly and paralyzed, and can no longer dance (thus the suicide attempt). Calvero, however, nurses her back to health, both mentally and physically. Over time, Terry is restored to her former glory, but in an unexpected twist she has fallen in love with Calvero. He knows that it could never work, but Terry refuses to listen to reason. If this isn’t enough of a problem, Calvero is also learning to accept that his former glory days have passed him by, as nobody seems to appreciate a good comedian anymore.
Filmmaker is a term that gets thrown around loosely these days. Anyone who can be credited with “creating” a motion picture has become a filmmaker. In 1952, however, Charles Chaplin was a filmmaker in every sense of the word. “Limelight” is written, produced, directed and stars Charles Chaplin, with a musical score written, of course, by Chaplin. Every possible aspect of the production was supervised by him. making everything his responsibility. Of course it wasn’t just with this film that he accomplished all of these feats, but rather eight of his last nine films, including “The Gold Rush” (1925), “City Lights” (1931), “Modern Times” (1936), “The Great Dictator” (1940) and “Monsieur Verdoux” (1947). He nearly single-handedly made some of the most acclaimed and memorable films of all time.
The later years of Chaplin’s career are often overlooked for one reason or another. Perhaps because of his exile and political problems, or possibly because of their limited availability or the sparseness with which they were released. “Limelight,” although released in 1952, never played for American audiences, due to his exile. In 1972, after it finally played in U.S. theaters, the film was nominated (and won) an Academy Award for its score. This was the only competitive Oscar that Charlie Chaplin would ever win.
What separates “Limelight” from Chaplin’s other films is a maturity. Laughs aren’t enough, now he has something to say, even if he doesn’t want to admit it. Chaplin said that “Limelight” is partially based on stage actor Frank Tierney. It has also been noted that the character is reminiscent of Chaplin’s own father. Similarly, he strikes a glaring resemblance to Charlie, who in 1952, after many successful years, had begun to lose his audience.
“As a man gets on in years he wants to live deeply, a feeling of sad dignity comes upon him, and that’s fatal for a comic.”
If the years were catching up with Chaplin, it certainly didn’t show in his directorial abilities. “Limelight” is as masterfully crafted as they come. Throughout the film, Calvero performs, in both flashback and modern-day, different comedy sketches. The final of these is, of course, the most famous, as Calvero performs with a partner (Buster Keaton). It is the only time that these two great performers appear together on film, and what a sight to see. This scene alone makes the whole film worth watching, but is not the sole reason for watching the film. The entire picture seems to fall under the heading of “less is more.” Nothing flashy or shocking happens, as the entire picture unfolds slowly- methodically, allowing every carefully written line of dialogue to be heard and understood as more than just lines in a movie, but words from the heart of its writer.
This is not a comedy. It is as serious a film as you will find, carefully disguised as a Chaplin comedy. Any time a long-standing entertainer makes a film about the life of a performer, there is something important to be said and heard. Chaplin believes in this story very deeply, and his motherly nurturing of the film is easily seen by its audience- no matter how long the audience had to wait.
“What a sad business… being funny.”