★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2
The Cold War propaganda that was being pressed heavily in the late 1940s targeted Chaplin because of his liberal and humanist sensibilities. In the midst of this troubling time, Chaplin made Limelight, a film about a vaudevillian clown who has, essentially, lost his audience.
Chaplin plays Calvero, a once great vaudeville clown, who has succumbed to alcoholism and an audience who no longer has interest in his performance. On coming home one night, he smells gas and breaks into a nearby apartment to find a young woman, Thereza, or “Terry” (Claire Bloom), in the midst of a suicide attempt. Calvero quickly calls a doctor and saves her life. The doctor tells Calvero that she is a ballerina who suffers from hysterical paralysis, which is paralysis present though no physical ailment is present. Calvero takes Terry to his apartment to nurse her and the two become quite good friends, offering tales of their lives and philosophies. The two genuinely begin to help each other as Calvero dreams of returning to the stage and his former glory with Terry as his companion. Also around this time, Terry begins to overcome her paralysis. As time passes and Terry’s paralysis is fully recovered, she moves up in the ballet world and reunites with a former love (played by Chaplin’s younger son from his marriage to Lita Grey, Sydney). The connection between the two for the remainder of the film is that of confidants; Terry helps Calvero try to find his former glory, and Calvero helps reinstate Terry’s confidence so her hysterical paralysis won’t attack again. In the final part of the film, Terry arranges a final performance for Calvero where he once agains shines. Assisting him on stage is a former vaudevillian played by Buster Keaton. This is the only appearance of the two masters of comedy on screen together and is magical to watch. Following his final performance and standing ovation, the clown suffers a heart attack and dies while watching Terry dance her final act of the ballet in the limelight.
This was definitely a personal film for Chaplin, as he and both of his parents were vaudevillians in England. Calvero is a mixture of several personalities that Chaplin knew growing up whose audience had abandoned them. Supposedly, before writing the screenplay for this film, Chaplin completed an unreleased novel entitled Footlights that helped him arrange the story and provided background on the characters of Calvero and Terry that weren’t shown in the film.
Limelight was released in 1952, the year that Chaplin left the United States in exile. He had long been a target of the House of Un-American Activities and J. Edgar Hoover kept a close watch on Chaplin beginning in the 1920s. While leaving on a short voyage home to London for the premiere of this film, Hoover negotiated with the Immigration and Naturalization Service for a revocation of Chaplin’s re-entry permit (as he was still a UK citizen, though he had lived in the US at this point for 40 years). Hearing the news, Chaplin was deeply saddened and decided not to return to the United States. He eventually settled in Vevey, Switzerland, where he remained for the rest of his life. His wife, Oona, returned to the US to take care of negotiating sales of his mansion in Beverly Hills, the Studio and take care of other assets.
Limelight has always been generally well-received and is a deeply moving film. In my opinion, this Chaplin’s best performance in regards to his talkie motion pictures. His sentimentality as the dried up clown and the pain in his eyes make many scenes extremely touching. There is nothing worse than watching the pain of a clown. Due to the lackluster reviews of Chaplin’s final two films, many consider Limelight to be Chapin’s true swan song. It is definitely better than his last two efforts, but I still like A King in New York a lot, which will be the next topic for this series.
As an interesting side note, due to the anit-American hype surrounding Chaplin at this time, Limelight was not shown in many theaters throughout the country. A wide release was not in effect until 1972, at which time the score for this film won an Academy Award for Chaplin and his fellow composers because the film wasn’t in contention until the wide release. Because of this win, the Academy later put a statute of limitations on nominations.