In 1952 Charlie Chaplin wrote and directed the film Limelight, in which he starred alongside the young Claire Bloom. It tells of a once-famous comedian in decline. Now, after 60 years, Chaplin’s short novel that inspired the film is being published.
Chaplin said he based the character on real-life stage personalities who had lost their gift to entertain and their public – the American black-face comedian Frank Tinney (1878-1940) and the Spanish clown Marceline (1873-1927) with whom he had worked as a boy. But many critics read into the film references to Chaplin’s own life.
The short novel is called Footlights, and it traces the same story as Limelight: the aging, alcoholic clown Calvero, and the ballerina Terry whom he saves from suicide. Apparently, the novella, which Chaplin wrote in 1948 before the film script, is more detailed and better reflects Chaplin’s own state of mind at the time.
As for the plot, it is London 1914. Calvero (played in the film by 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 calls a doctor. The lady will live, but she will need looking after. The doctor tells Calvero that she is a ballerina who is suffering from hysterical paralysis: although nothing is physically wrong, she cannot walk. Calvero takes her in and the first part of the film becomes a series of dialogues between the two.
During this time, Calvero dreams of recreating his glory days, but with Terry on stage as a partner. It’s a chance for the audience to see Chaplin doing one of his tramp impersonations. In reality Calvero fails miserably in his performances, at which point the two characters exchange psychological roles: it is now Terry who tries to give Calvero hope, reminding him of his greatness as a clown.
In the second part of the film, Terry is successful as a ballerina, but Calvero further falls into despair and alcoholism. Terry has Calvero hired as a clown in a ballet. At the climax, as she is once again paralyzed by self-doubt, Calvero forces her on stage, and then finds a quiet spot to fall on his knees and pray. When a stagehand sees him, Calvero pantomimes looking for a button and, embarrassed, exits. Terry is a great success.
In the last part of the film, Terry arranges for a farewell performance for Calvero. On this magical night, he is once again Calvero the Great, ending his act with a disaster-prone duet featuring himself playing the violin and a cameo performance by the great Buster Keaton “playing” the piano.
Limelight was the only feature film in which these legends of the silent screen appeared together, although they both did a short publicity film in the 1920s titled Seeing Stars. Writing in The New York Times (24 October 1952), the influential film critic Bosley Crowther described Limelight as:
“Neither comedy nor tragedy altogether, it is a brilliant weaving of comic and tragic strands, eloquent, tearful and beguiling with supreme virtuosity… Best of his numbers, however, is a slam-bang burlesque pantomime of a violin-piano concert, with Buster Keaton as the accompanist on the keys… Limelight is a very moving film.”
It remains to be seen if the book has anything like the same impact as the film.