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In his last American film before returning to his British homeland, Chaplin stars as Calvero, an aging, out-of-work music hall clown in 1914 London. Wandering drunkenly into his boarding house one day, he discovers that a young neighbor, Thereza (Claire Bloom) has opened the gas jets of her stove in an attempt to kill herself. Calvero rescues the girl and nurses her back to health, trying to instill in her a greater will to live. But just as Terry, an aspiring ballerina who has lost the use of her legs, is regaining her own confidence, Calvero faces professional setbacks of his own and slips into alcoholic self-pity. In spite of their hardships, the two lost souls come to rely upon each other, form a romantic bond, and are ultimately afforded a last opportunity to grasp the theatrical dreams that have so long eluded them.
Five years elapsed between Limelight (1952) and Chaplin's previous film, Monsieur Verdoux (1947). Always a meticulous director who involved himself in every facet of production, Chaplin reportedly spent two and a half years working on the script of Limelight. He even wrote a two-part "novel" which detailed the back-story of the two central characters. Variety quipped upon the film's release, "Limelight is a one-man show since Chaplin does almost everything but grow his own rawstock." As the script neared completion, Chaplin conducted a talent search for the role of Thereza, placing a classified ad in a trade publication which read, "WANTED: Young girl to play leading lady to a comedian generally recognized as world's greatest. Must be between 20-24 years of age. Stage, ballet experience preferable but not necessary. Apply Charles Chaplin Studios, Hollywood." This may have merely been a means of stirring publicity for the film, for the "discovery" of the leading lady was ultimately made by playwright Arthur Laurents, who recommended Bloom to the filmmaker after seeing her on the London stage in Ring Around the Moon in 1951. Chaplin asked Bloom to make a screen test, so during a week's hiatus in the play's run, she raced to New York for a filmed audition. It was four months before Chaplin notified her that she had been selected for the role.
Bloom and her mother often dined with Chaplin after the day's shooting and recalled that, "he spoke endlessly of his early poverty; the atmosphere he was creating for Limelight brought him back night after night to the melancholy of those years at home with his mother and brother." For Chaplin, Limelight was a sentimental revisitation of his early years as a struggling entertainer in the music halls of London. When asked about these aspects of the story, Chaplin told writer Richard Lauterbach, "Everything is autobiographical," then cautiously added, "but don't make too much of that."
Limelight is a melancholy valentine to all the great clowns of history, with homage to opera's tearful Pagliacci; the traditional pantomime of Harlequin, Pierrot and Columbine; and the bouncy risquritish stage comedians of Chaplin's youth. A poster on Calvero's wall, advertising the "Tramp Comedian," is a clear reference to Chaplin's own legendary persona. But Calvero's tramp is a different creation, wearing a straw boater and upturned moustache and, unlike the silent-screen "Little Tramp," this one speaks and sings. Chaplin paid tribute to his fellow veterans of the slapstick cinema by populating Limelight with faces familiar to comedy cinephiles. Buster Keaton appears onstage with Calvero in the film's comic climax, while smaller roles are filled by slapstick comedians Snub Pollard and Loyal Underwood (a supporting player in Chaplin's Mutual and First National comedy shorts), who play street musicians. Chaplin's former leading lady -- Edna Purviance -- is said to appear briefly as an audience member in the ballet sequence.
In addition to his professional family, Chaplin welcomed his own relatives to Limelight. Three of his children -- Geraldine, Michael and Josephine -- are the waifs who watch with amusement as Calvero drunkenly attempts to enter his domicile (a scene that recalls Chaplin's 1916 short One A.M.). Chaplin's eldest son Sydney portrays Neville, the starving musician who is the object of Thereza's affection, and Charles Jr. performs the role of a clown in the "Death of Columbine" ballet number. Half brother Wheeler Dryden appears as the kindly doctor who treats Thereza after her suicide attempt.
But Limelight was primarily a one-man show with Chaplin writing, producing and directing the film. He composed the lyrical score, co-wrote the comedy songs and even choreographed the dance numbers. The "Death of Columbine" ballet number was originally conceived by Chaplin in 1950 for Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin. When filmed for Limelight the roles were performed by Andre Eglevsky and Melissa Hayden (who doubled for Bloom in all Thereza's dance scenes).
Musically gifted but lacking in formal education, Chaplin hired an assistant, Ray Rasch, to help him record his songs on paper. Rasch spent five to seven hours a day for nine months (at a rate of $5 per hour) sitting at the piano trying to capture the streams of memorized and improvised tunes that Chaplin hummed while pacing the room or reclining on a sofa. "I was sure that I had met up with a madman," Rasch said, "I couldn't believe that this was genius at work. He would bellow for hours at a time and all that I could hear was a senseless jumble. But suddenly he would strike a note or sometimes a whole phrase and would scream at me to play it and jot down the notes." Even though Rasch had no experience as an arranger, Chaplin insisted that he orchestrate the score. "When a melody satisfied him, he would go over it and over it. He didn't seem to care that I was just playing on a piano. He would ask for French horns in one spot; then violins and cellos and woodwinds. I just kept pounding away until he was satisfied."
Chaplin's eccentric working methods proved fruitful, as the film won an Academy Award for Best Musical Score. In one of the more unusual twists of Oscar history, Limelight won its award twenty years after the film was completed because it had not received a Los Angeles theatrical run until 1972, and was only then eligible for recognition.
The film had been scheduled to open in Los Angeles in January 1953, but the Fox West Coast Theatres chain canceled the engagements due to political pressure from the American Legion, who announced plans to picket the film. Because of Chaplin's involvement in liberal politics in the 1930s and his refusal to file for American citizenship during his years in the States, he was targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. When Chaplin traveled to England to attend the premiere of Limelight, he was refused re-entry into the U.S., due to vague accusations of "making statements that would indicate a leering, sneering attitude toward a country whose hospitality has enriched him." In an open letter to Rep. J. Parnell Thomas, Chaplin wrote, "While you are preparing your engraved subpoena I will give you a hint on where I stand. I am not a Communist. I am a peacemonger."
Director: Charles Chaplin
Producer: Charles Chaplin
Screenplay: Charles Chaplin
Cinematography: Karl Struss
Production Design: Eugene Lourie
Music: Charles Chaplin
Cast: Charles Chaplin (Calvero), Claire Bloom (Thereza), Nigel Bruce (Postant), Buster Keaton (Calvero's partner), Sydney Chaplin (Neville), Norman Lloyd (Bodalink), Marjorie Bennett (Mrs. Alsop).
BW-132m. Closed captioning.
by Bret Wood