“Think of the power that’s in the universe! Turning the Earth. Making the trees grow. Well that’s the same power within you! If you’d only have courage and the will to use it!”
‘Limelight’, written and directed by Charles Chaplin in 1952, is an American comedy drama. Chaplin plays Calvero, an aging stage comedian in 1914 who has fallen on hard times. His style of comedy is unfashionable and he has turned to drink, his bookings are ever-decreasing in quality and quantity. One day he returns home from drinking to find one of his neighbours, Thereza Ambrose, played by Claire Bloom, attempting suicide. Ambrose is a dancer who, like Calvero, has lost the ability to perform. She is suffering from psychosomatic paralysis due to a lack of self-esteem. Rescuing her, Calvero takes her in and nurses her back to health and confidence. She falls for him, but he sacrifices himself when she returns successfully to the stage. On the surface ‘Limelight’ is a basic melodrama similar in form and style to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s ‘The Red Shoes’ of four years earlier. Where ‘Limelight’ really takes flight, however, is in its bittersweet commentary on Chaplin’s own career. Chaplin, by this time, was unpopular in America owing to his left-wing political views. He was also suffering from the arrival and dominance of sound in cinema. ‘Limelight’ addresses all of this in a brave and unflinchingly honest fashion, ironically in a way that demonstrates the comedian’s skills beyond silent cinema and slapstick. The melodrama is a little clichéd, and the dialogue, as in Chaplin’s other talkies, is pretentious, unnatural and overblown, but the sight of the aging cinema legend performing on stage with Buster Keaton makes the film worthwhile.
Would I recommend it? Yes – in many ways my favourite Chaplin movies have been the atypical ones: this and ‘Monsieur Verdoux’. I’d suggest ‘The Red Shoes’ as a good double bill for this.