Limelight (1952)


(director/writer: Charles Chaplin; cinematographer: Karl Struss; editor: Joe Inge; music: Charles Chaplin; cast: Charles Chaplin (Calvero), Claire Bloom (Thereza), Nigel Bruce (Postant, theatrical producer), Buster Keaton (Calvero’s partner), Sydney Chaplin (Neville), Norman Lloyd (Bodalink, stage manager), Marjorie Bennett (Mrs. Alsop), John Redfern (Barry Bernard, agent); Runtime: 135; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Charles Chaplin; United Artists; 1952)
“Chaplin’s least funny film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Charles Chaplin’s (“The Gold Rush”/”Monsieur Verdoux”/”The Kid”) last American film before his European exile is his most personal. It’s a sentimental, overlong, self-pitying and bittersweet one featuring a loquacious star who fell in love with the sound of his voice and couldn’t stop preaching about life’s meaning. This makes it Chaplin’s least funny film, and most questionable. Though not a great film, it still has many decisive Chaplin moments and a certain unstained uniqueness that helps its cause. It’s based on the first novel by Chaplin. The highlight scene is a striking duet between Chaplin and Buster Keaton, it’s a funny burlesque pantomime of a violin-piano concert.

The autobiographical tragicomedy nostalgically recreates the Edwardian London’s East End music-halls of the 63-year-old Chaplin’s youth. Calvero (Charles Chaplin) grew up in poverty and rose to become a great music hall comedian but is now a has-been drunk. Returning while drunk to his flat, he finds his young neighbor Thereza Ambrose (Claire Bloom), a ballerina student, collapsed from an attempt to take her life by opening up the gas-stove. Calvero carries her to his apartment and cares for her despite his landlady, Mrs. Alsop, who warns him not to. The landlady rents out her room and Thereza bewails that she’s destitute and has rheumatic fever, which prevents her from working as a ballerina. Calvero keeps her in his flat and acts as her cheerleader and over the next few days tries to heal her and convince her that life isn’t meaningless. She then discovers she can’t move her legs. After learning what brought about her melancholy, Calvero and a doctor confirm her paralysis is only psychological. Six months later after walking again, she lands a leading role as a ballerina. The new composer happens to be Neville (Sydney Chaplin, Chaplin’s son), the young man she secretly fell in love with when she was a clerk in a music store and the impoverished man came into her store where she slipped him extra music sheets and gave him more change than what was called for. This resulted in her getting fired. The two youngsters will reunite, and Calvero will have one more shining moment on the stage thanks to Thereza and then will keel over from a heart attack.

It won an Oscar for score in 1972. Hollywood didn’t show it until 1972 due to political pressure from the American Legion (reacting to Chaplin being targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee for his liberal voice). Though it has many faults, including being far too indulgent, it nevertheless reaches for a moving portrait of poverty and struggle. When Chaplin was in England and was denied re-entry into the U.S., in an open letter to HUAC chairman Rep. J. Parnell Thomas, Chaplin wrote, “While you are preparing your engraved subpoena I will give you a hint on where I stand. I am not a Communist. I am a peace-monger.”