Limelight (1952) Director: Charlie Chaplin
“The glamour of limelight, from which age must pass as youth enters.”
In Limelight, Charlie Chaplin offers a strikingly autobiographical reflection upon his life and career. The film is a portrait of a waning stage entertainer whose time in the sun has come and gone. On the one hand, it is a sorrowful lament on the passing of time by one of cinema’s great auteurs –the cinematography is rife with dreamy hopes and old memories, a requiem for those bygone halcyon days. On the other hand, Limelight represents a filmmaker’s extraordinary effort to combat the creeping sense of fatalism we all encounter from time to time. For Chaplin, the remedy to feeling hopelessness comes in the form of high art, a life-affirming mimesis, because, as he states in the film, “there’s something just as inevitable as death, and that’s life. Life, life, life!”
The story for Limelight was initially written by Chaplin as an unpublished novel entitled Footlights, which has since been released. On a summer’s day in the London of Chaplin’s youth (1914) we are treated to “a story of a ballerina and a clown.” Amidst a street scene of amused children crowding around an entertainer, this peaceful moment is immediately contrasted with a young woman lying lifeless on a bed while her stove gas is turned on. A drunken man stumbles into the townhouse and smells the gas so he summons a doctor in the hopes of rescuing this woman. Despite not knowing her, the drunk is now tasked with caring for her. He takes her in and when she awakens, they get to know one another. She is Thereza “Terry” Embrose (Claire Bloom), a dancer who is secretly infatuated with a struggling composer she once met (the composer is played by the second son of Charlie Chaplin, Sydney Chaplin). However, Terry has fallen into a morbid state of sadness. Thus our protagonist must help this young dancer find hope in her life again, even though he himself regularly feels sad and lonely in his twilight years. Who is this man? His name is Calvero (Charlie Chaplin) a washed-up drunkard who was once a renowned vaudevillian stage clown. In his dreams each night he sees himself entertaining bored and emptying auditoriums with a gag about pet fleas and a collection of silly songs. As time passes, Calvero and Terry form a unique relationship. They bolster one another during their lowest points. Terry soon finds success in a new ballet show, Calvero also performs in a minor role as a clown, but when his performance meets criticism, he gathers his things and runs away. He takes up the life of a poor vagabond musician, working the streets (he cheekily remarks “there’s something about working the streets I like, It’s the tramp in me I suppose”). Some months pass, and he is rediscovered by Terry. She begs him to return for an upcoming benefit show and he relents. He is joined by his piano-playing partner who is none other than the great Buster Keaton –what a treat to see these two great comedians of the silent era united on film! The duo showcases their musical satire before a roaring crowd –the flea gag with “Phyllis and Henry” is a hit. It is so popular, in fact, that the pair are given a final encore in a hilarious bumbling gag consisting of a silent slapstick show that leaves Keaton quietly shuffling and spilling all his musical notations while Chaplin shrinks himself into his baggy clothes, and their instruments –the piano and the violin– are continually plucked out of tune. It is a beautiful nod to the vaudevillian roots of Chaplin and Keaton. Sadly, the performance leaves Calvero in a weakened state, only able muster enough strength to watch Terry’s ballet performance from a nearby couch before he quietly passes on. It is an exit befitting a gentleman –full of grace and wonder.
Limelight was boycotted upon release in the United States over rumors that Chaplin was actually a covert communist. He had become one of the most notorious victims of Joseph McCarthy’s “red scare,” and the film was only screened in a few theaters on the East Coast. Chaplin was abroad promoting the film in Europe when he found out that his visa had been revoked. After a string of scandals and the lukewarm critical reception of his previous film (Monsieur Verdoux), Chaplin officially left the United States. He returned only once when Limelight was re-released in 1972, and Chaplin was invited to receive an Academy Award for the film. Needless to say, for this brief moment Chaplin was welcomed back with open arms and cheering crowds, but he never again returned to live in the United States. While Limelight remains an apropos farewell for the king of the silver screen, he did make two more films abroad: A King in New York (1957) and A Countess from Hong Kong (1967).
“Life can be wonderful if you’re not afraid of it.”