Faded, ageing music hall comedian Calvero (Charlie Chaplin) stumbles home drunk one afternoon only to foil a suicide attempt by the tenant in the flat below, despondent, struggling ballerina Terry Ambrose (Claire Bloom). Nursing the fragile young woman back to health, Calvero tries his utmost to convince her life is precious and no dream is beyond reach if someone puts their heart and soul into pursuing it. In time Terry comes to believe she is in love with the old clown though still carries a torch for Neville (Sydney Chaplin, one of several of Chaplin's children appearing in this film), a handsome young composer with whom she is reunited upon landing the lead in his latest production. Terry persuades the producer (Nigel Bruce, best known as Doctor Watson to Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes) to give Calvero a supporting role as a clown. Sadly, the theatre audience prove less than welcoming as Calvero fears the limelight has passed him by.
Limelight was released in the midst of an especially tumultuous period in the life of comic genius Charlie Chaplin. The early Fifties marked the height of America's anti-Communist hysteria fueled by Senator Joseph McCarthy. While Chaplin was promoting the film overseas suspicions over his alleged communist sympathies resulted in his being barred from re-entering the United States and curtailed Limelight's theatrical release in his adopted country. Neither Chaplin nor Limelight would return to America for twenty years whereupon happily the screen legend was not only welcomed warmly but bestowed with both a Lifetime Achievement Award and a belated Oscar for the film's achingly lovely score. Despite the hostile reception in Fifties America, Limelight proved a huge success throughout Europe, was especially beloved across Asia (rip-offs were common in Japan and Bollywood) and aptly in light of the central theme, launched British actress Claire Bloom on a long and formidable career.
Viewed today Limelight remains enchanting for the most part though flawed by a slightly arch sentimentalism, more pronounced in Chaplin's talkies than his early silent classics, and faint trace of narcissism mixed with self-pity. Five years on from his first box office flop, Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Chaplin crystallizes his own worst fears via a scene where Calvero is heckled off the stage and a dream sequence where he is horrified to find himself performing to an empty theatre. These and other heartbreaking moments where Chaplin acknowledges his advancing years yield no small amount of pathos. At the same time though, rather than acknowledge his own inability to change with the times Chaplin vents a certain passive-aggression upon his audience, portrayed collectively as fickle and heartless, callously turning their back on a 'great artiste.' Certainly a faint bitterness underlines the central conceit (deftly established in the introduction: "the glamour of limelight from which age must pass as youth enters") yet this is what imbues Limelight with its delicately balanced bittersweet appeal.
What keeps Limelight from sinking into self-pity is Chaplin's utmost sincere belief in the quite beautiful notion of an old, worn-out artist sacrificing himself to inspire a young, up-and-coming artist. As screenwriter Chaplin indulges in over-articulate speeches about the power of the universe dwelling inside all of us, as if intending to give father-in-law Eugene O'Neil a run for his money. Yet as an actor the exhilaration of Chaplin's performance, the sheer force of believe he exudes makes us believe everything he says about the power of positive thinking. Chaplin offers another selfless romance that harks back to City Lights (1931) suffused with an affecting, lyrical melancholy and beautifully played by Chaplin and a radiant Claire Bloom. As Terry, Bloom is slightly constrained by Chaplin's conception of an earthbound angel, yet ably tugs our heartstrings and does get to cut loose in a dream sequence with a more vivacious even downright sexy stage persona. If Chaplin's writing, while undeniably intelligent and erudite, is a trifle florid his pantomime skills remain sharp as a tack. Calvero's flea circus performance is especially delightful though the most celebrated sequence was the film's climax where Chaplin and Buster Keaton shared the screen for the first and only time. Through the years certain cynics maintain Chaplin set out to denigrate or humiliate Keaton by casting him as second banana and, supposedly, excising his best scenes. Yet there is no evidence to suggest this was anything but a sincere team-up with his greatest rival. In fact on learning Keaton was going through hard times, Chaplin insisted on casting him as Calvero's partner and what is more, Keaton was very happy to be included. It is a charming scene where the pair bumble amiably through a musical routine as Keaton fumbles with music sheets and Chaplin fails to control his shrinking (!) legs.
One could characterize Limelight as something of a ghost story building to an emotional exorcism for Chaplin. In one of his most nakedly autobiographical films, Chaplin has himself almost literally haunted by the past, by the London Music Hall of his youth, by the faded stardom that drove his father to drink, by lost love (Terry was inspired by Chaplin's first love, Hetty Kelly), lost family and an uncertain future that happily was nowhere as tragic as the outcome here. Chaplin fans will also savour Calvero's delightful line: "There is something about working the streets I like. It's the tramp in me, I suppose."
[The Curzon Blu-ray has a wealth of extras, from a critic's introduction, featurettes, trailers and extra scenes to Chaplin reading extracts from his book, among others.]