Limelight (1952) starring Charlie Chaplin, Claire Bloom, Sydney Chaplin, Nigel Bruce, Buster Keaton
Limelight is a truly wonderful film; it swiftly became one of my favorites. In a nutshell, it’s the story of a once-great stage comedian (Calvero, a formerly great tramp clown, played by Charlie Chaplin), who’s been failing in his career, and has become an alcoholic, who saves the life of Terry, a despondent ballerina (played by Claire Bloom) from a suicide attempt. The film is a juxtaposition of these two personalities, one who rallies & goes onward, the other who falls further.
It contains some of Chaplin’s funniest & finest moments, including a nice pantomime of a flea circus, and a duet towards the end of the film with Buster Keaton. Interestingly, neither comic legend played their most famous characters; Chaplin wasn’t the tramp, but rather another tramp comedian, a manic violinist. Keaton wasn’t his well-known stone face, but rather a nearsighted pianist. Some have suggested that Chaplin jealously cut Keaton’s time on screen, but as Jerry Epstein (Chaplin’s assistant on this film, and the only other person besides Chaplin in the editing room, debunks this myth in his book Remembering Charlie: A Pictorial Biography) noted, Chaplin cut far more of his own moments from the scene. When asked why, Chaplin replied to the effect, that no matter how funny something was, if it didn’t move the scene forward, it had to go. Something that modern clown (and filmmakers) would do well to take to heart.
A bittersweet film, that runs perhaps slightly longer than it should, but I frankly think it’s “just right.” I recommend it very highly, either for fellow clowns to learn from or for fellow human beings to enjoy.
Detailed outline of Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight:
The film begins with an inebriated Calvero (played by Charlie Chaplin) making his way into his apartment building. Once inside, he smells gas; he follows it to the apartment of a young lady he doesn’t know. He breaks inside, opens the window, and summons a doctor. The lady will live, although she will need supervision; the doctor also informs Calvero that she is a ballerina, suffering from hysterical paralysis — although nothing is physically wrong, she cannot walk.
Calvero takes her in, and the first third of the film consists primarily of a series of dialogs between the ballerina Terry (played by Claire Bloom), giving the audience their biographies and philosophies of life. Calvero, a formerly great tramp clown, has become an alcoholic, who is unable to perform unless he is drunk. Terry, crippled by guilt over her sister, recounts the one young man in the city who she feels romantic affection for (played by Chaplin’s son, Sydney Chaplin). Calvero has an upcoming performance, which he believes will relaunch his failed career; at the same time, Terry is coming out of her shell, and starting to overcome her paralysis.
During this time, Calvero dreams at night of his glory days, with Terry onstage with him as a partner. (This gives the audience a glimpse of Chaplin playing, not the well-known Little Tramp, but a totally different tramp clown, in some very funny sketches). Calvero fails miserably at his performance, at which point the two characters have a role reversal: it is now Terry trying to give Calvero hope, reminding him of his infinite potential as a human being — as she does so, she walks over to him, overcoming her paralysis, with the famous “Calvero! I’m walking! I’m walking!” scene.
In the second part of the film, Terry begins her climb upward in the ballet world, attempting to take care of Calvero, and to bring him up with her. She is successful as a ballerina, and is even reunited with her love (Sydney Chaplin), but is unsuccessful in bringing Calvero up with her. He falls further into self-defeat and alcoholism, despite her attempts to reach out to him. Even in this condition, Terry does not abandon Calvero. She has him hired as a clown in her ballet.
At the climactic moment, Terry is once again paralyzed by self-doubt. Calvero forces her on stage. And then comes one of the most touching moments in any Chaplin film. Calvero finds a quiet spot, gets on his knees and the humanistic, deist Calvero begs God to help Terry. When a stagehand sees him, Calvero improvises an explanation of looking for a button and, looking embarrassed, exits. Terry is a great success, and Calvero leaves.
In the final part of the film, Terry arranges for a farewell performance for Calvero. On this magic night, he is once again Calvero the Great. Calvero is truly funny, ending with a stage duet with himself and another silent comedian (played by Buster Keaton). After a triumphal night, Calvero suffers a fatal heart attack; from the stage side, he dies watching Terry perform, in the limelight.
Notes on Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight:
- Most people don’t realize that Charlie Chaplin was a composer, as well as actor, director and producer. In fact, Charlie Chaplin, Raymond Rasch, and Larry Russell won the Oscar for Best Original Score for this film, but it was the Oscar for films released in 1972. The film had never played in a Los Angeles area cinema during the intervening 20 years and was not eligible for Oscar consideration until it did.
- When some scenes were re-shot, Claire Bloom was unavailable, so Chaplin’s wife, Oona O’Neill, stood in for her. She can be seen lying in the bed through the doorway after the housemaid has told Chaplin’s character that his “wife” isn’t eating.
- In addition to his wife, some of Charlie Chaplin’s young children had a cameo appearance in the film as well. At the beginning of the film, an inebriated Calvero (Charlie Chaplin) staggers past some young children, trying to unlock the door to his apartment building. They were Chaplin’s own children.
- You can read the lyrics to the theme music, Eternally, composed by Charlie Chaplin (also known as Terry’s Theme)
Funny movie quotes from Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight:
- Calvero (Charlie Chaplin): There’s something about working the streets I like. It’s the tramp in me I suppose.
- Terry (Claire Bloom): Time is the best author. It always writes the perfect ending.
- Terry (Claire Bloom): I thought you hated the theater?
Calvero (Charlie Chaplin): I also hate the sight of blood, but it’s in my veins.
- Terry (Claire Bloom): I’m sorry
Calvero (Charlie Chaplin): You should be. A girl like you want to throw your life away. When you reach my age you want to cling unto it
- Calvero (Charlie Chaplin): There’s greatness in everyone
- Calvero (Charlie Chaplin): Life can be wonderful if you’re not afraid of it
- Calvero (Charlie Chaplin): What a day! The sun’s shining, the kettle’s singing, *and* we’ve paid the rent. There’s going to be an earthquake, I know it, I know it, I know it.
- Calvero (Charlie Chaplin): I’m an old sinner, nothing shocks me.
- Terry (Claire Bloom): Worms can’t smile!
Calvero (Charlie Chaplin): Oh, how would you know, have you ever appealed to their sense of humor?
- Calvero (Charlie Chaplin): The heart and the mind, what an enigma.
- Calvero (Charlie Chaplin): I’m dying, I should know, I’ve done it plenty of times before.
I rate it 4 clowns on a 5-clown scale.
Editorial review of Review of Limelight | Charlie Chaplin | Claire Bloom | Buster Keaton, courtesy of Amazon.com
Certainly, Charlie Chaplin at this point in his career (1952) had earned the right to reflect on his years as an entertainer, and could make his film as overlong and soppy and sentimental as he darn well pleased. But that doesnât mean the rest of us have to abet this kind of melodramatic indulgence. Chaplin stars as Calvero, a fading clown who helps a paralyzed dancer regain the use of her legs and achieve great fame, but of course at grave cost to Calvero.
The film is famous for featuring the only onscreen teaming of Chaplin with the other legendary comic of the silent era, Buster Keaton, and is equally infamous for Chaplin having allegedly cut out most of Keatonâs best bits in their sequence together. How much Chaplin sabotaged his own movie to keep Keaton from shining has been much debated, but consider: In Keaton’s autobiography, he calls Chaplin the greatest screen comic of all time. In Chaplin’s autobiography, he never mentions Keaton. —David Kronke