Charlie Chaplin’s 1952 film Limelight is now available in a high-definition restored version on DVD and Blu-ray. It includes excerpts from the original novel, written and read by Chaplin.
In 1952 at one of the most troubled periods of his career, Charlie Chaplin made Limelight, which he wrote, directed, and in which he starred alongside the young Claire Bloom. Its story concerns a once-famous comedian who has lost the ability to command his audience. Chaplin said that he based the character on real-life stage personalities whom he had seen lose their gifts and their public – the American black-face comedian Frank Tinney (1878-1940) and the Spanish clown Marceline (1873-1927) with whom he had himself worked as a boy.
London, 1914. Calvero (Charles Chaplin), a once-great music hall comedian, weaves drunkenly home to his shabby flat. Inside, he smells gas and follows it to the apartment of a young lady he doesn’t know. He breaks in, opens the window, and summons a doctor. The lady will live, although she will need supervision. The doctor tells 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 becomes a series of dialogues between the two, recounting their biographies and philosophies of life.
During this time, Calvero dreams of his glory days, but with Terry on stage with him as a partner. This provides the audience with 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 in his performances, at which point the two characters undergo a role reversal: it is now Terry trying to give Calvero hope, reminding him of his infinite potential as a human being.
In the second part of the film, Terry begins her climb upward in the ballet world. She is successful as a ballerina, but cannot manage to bring Calvero up with her. He falls further into self-defeat and alcoholism, despite her attempts to reach out to him. Terry has Calvero hired as a clown in a ballet. At the climactic moment, as Terry is once again paralyzed by self-doubt, Calvero forces her on stage, and then, in one of the most touching moments in any Chaplin film, finds a quiet spot, gets on his knees and begs God to help Terry. When a stagehand sees him, Calvero pantomimes looking for a button and, looking embarrassed, exits. Terry is a great success.
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, truly funny, ending with a stage duet between himself and another silent comedian played by Buster Keaton. It was the only time these legendary “greats” appeared in a film together. In Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn’t Lie Down (1979), Tom Dardis writes:
“When the two begin their ‘concert’, Chaplin sings and plays the violin while Buster accompanies him at the piano. Buster pretends to be extremely nearsighted and keeps managing to get his sheet music into a fantastic sort of circular motion that is counterbalanced by the constant spinning of the piano stool he is sitting on. It is a prodigious piece of invention on Buster’s part and confirms that fact that Buster could still be a master of timing and could still, in spite of his fifty-seven years, do uncanny things with his body.”
At the end of Limelight, after his triumph, Calvero suffers a fatal heart attack and dies off stage watching Terry perform – in the limelight.