Limelight isn't Charlie Chaplin's final film, but Chaplin felt certain that it would be when he was making it. The esteemed writer/director/actor told his children that this would likely be his last cinematic endeavor, and it shows: despite the fact that it was eventually followed by A King in New York, The Chaplin Revue and A Countess From Hong Kong, Limelight has the unmistakable melody of a swan song.
Chaplin plays Calvero, a legendary stage clown who has fallen on hard times. Sure, he was once one of the world's most celebrated performers, but audiences have grown weary of his hokey act. It doesn't help that Calvero has a penchant for easing his misery with alcohol. Now, he has great difficulty booking the grand concert halls he once played.
Calvero's life takes an unexpected turn when he rescues young ballet dancer Thereza Ambrose (Claire Bloom, A Doll's House) after she attempts to commit suicide. The two form a close friendship, and Calvero does his best to help the dancer recover her confidence (and overcome a serious psychological disability). The relationship has a positive effect on Calvero's confidence as well, and soon both the dancer and the clown are preparing to return to the stage.
Though there are a few notable differences between Calvero and Chaplin, the former is clearly intended as a symbolic representation of the latter. Limelight was made at a time when Chaplin's old-fashioned brand of “tramp comedy” was long out of style, and Calvero faces a similar misfortune. While Chaplin was able to roll with the punches and apply his skillset to more modern forms of storytelling, Calvero doesn't quite have that same level of versatility. It must be heartbreaking for a performer to see an audience shrug off material that once had people rolling in the aisles.
Limelight is easily the longest film of Chaplin's career (running a whopping 137 minutes), and the director dispenses with his usual airtight precision to make room for self-indulgent scenes that go on and on and on. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Limelight is a deeply personal movie – perhaps the most personal of Chaplin's career – and the abundance of feeling helps compensate for the lackadaisical pacing. Roughly half of the film's running time is occupied by scenes of Calvero and/or Thereza performing on stage, and it's no surprise that most of Calvero's routines play like stage versions of Chaplin's classic shorts (a bit involving a flea circus is particularly inspired). It's always a pleasure to see Chaplin doing what he does best, but there's a definite air of melancholy beneath these scenes. “Enjoy it,” Chaplin seems to be saying, “Because you'll never get to see me do this stuff again.”
The storytelling bloat becomes a little more frustrating during the more traditional dramatic scenes, as the relationship between Calvero and Thereza leans too heavily on conventional, melodramatic dialogue. There's a romantic subplot of sorts involving a young musician Thereza once knew (played by Sydney Chaplin, Charlie's son), but it mostly serves as a distraction/convenient plot device. The film's ending is flagrantly sentimental even by Chaplin's standards, pushing a little too hard for the smiles and tears it seeks to generate. These are issues worth noting, but the movie has so much soul that it's tempting to forgive everything.
The high point of Limelight comes near the end, when Chaplin is joined by Buster Keaton for a delightful ten minutes or so of inspired slapstick involving a faulty violin and a faultier piano. It's such a treat to see the two old pros riffing with each other. Keaton tends to underplay silly scenes while Chaplin tends to overplay them, and the two styles mesh beautifully here. Seeing the two of them share the screen is delightful and poignant, as a pair of comedy legends indulge in the sort of timelessly wonderful silent brilliance that made them famous.
While many of Chaplin's later films were fueled by his passionate take on a variety of social issues (he concluded both The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux with fervent political speeches), Limelight has no agenda to push or urgent message to deliver. It's a film about the joy of life: how we find it, how we lose it, how we rediscover it and how essential possessing it is. To quote Calvero himself: “What do you want meaning for? Life is a desire, not a meaning! Desire is the theme of all life!” It's also a film about Charlie Chaplin. In its messy, overlong, melodramatic way, it does a rather lovely job of summing up Chaplin's genius, sadness, perseverance and warmth. It's not his best film – not even in the top five, if we're being honest – but if you love the man and his work, it's essential viewing.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 137 minutes
Release Year: 1952