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The working title of this film was Footlight. A written onscreen foreword reads: "The glamour of limelight, from which age must pass as youth enters. A story of a ballerina and a clown...London; a late afternoon in the summer of 1914..." Although copyright records list the film's running time as 102 minutes, all other sources list it as either 138 or 143 minutes.
Charles Chaplin worked for two and a half years on the screenplay of Limelight and then devoted nine months to the score, six months to shooting and one year to post-production work. According to a March 1952 Life article, the original manuscript was 750 pages long. A modern source credits James Agee as helping Chaplin edit the screenplay. In February 1951, Chaplin placed a newspaper advertisement to find an unknown actress to play "Thereza." He stated in an April 1951 New York Times news item that he had seen almost 300 actresses. After casting Claire Bloom, he told Hollywood Citizen-News in November 1951 that he would not allow her to do any pre-publicity, in order to keep her appearance "fresh." She went on to win critical acclaim as Thereza, which was only her second film role. Although the movie's theme song, "Eternally (Terry's Theme)," was written by Chaplin with words by Geoffrey Parsons, only an instrumental version was used in the film. The song went on to gain prominence when recorded by Sarah Vaughan and others.
Upon completing the film, Chaplin sailed to London for the October 16, 1952 world premiere. In his autobiography, Chaplin, who retained his British citizenship throughout his career and never became a U.S. citizen, reported that he asked to leave for Europe and receive a re-entry permit. He was then visited by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, who claimed that he owed $200,000 in back taxes and interrogated him for several hours. Chaplin was then given a six-month re-entry permit, which was immediately revoked after he left for England, pending an inquiry into political and moral charges against him. Although there was no clear evidence against Chaplin, the government was concerned with his possible ties to the Communist party and also investigated his involvement in former paramour Joan Barry's abortion. The Justice Department initiated a probe against the director, headed by Attorney General James P. McGranery, who, according to a January 1953 Los Angeles Examiner article, labeled Chaplin "an unsavory character...indicating a leering, sneering attitude toward the country whose gracious hospitality enriched him." Chaplin stated in his autobiography that although he was not a Communist, he was not opposed to their beliefs, and condemned the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
As the controversy raged, distributor United Artists continued its release plan to open the film in New York in October 1952. The American Legion's national committee called for all distributors to withhold the picture until the Department of Justice made its ruling, and in an October 1952 Los Angeles Times item, criticized Chaplin's "contemptuous attitude toward American patriotism," as well as his "views of personal morality." Although the New York opening and other East Coast screenings went as planned, various veterans' groups joined forces with the Legion and threatened to picket the film's California opening, and RKO board chairman Howard Hughes urged RKO theaters not to book the film, prompting distributor Fox West Coast to cancel the scheduled December showings in Los Angeles. The chain stated in an October 1952 Los Angeles Times article that they did not want to be a "guinea pig" in testing public reaction to the film's showing. Soon, the rest of the country also bowed to public pressure and banned the picture. Limelight was Chaplin's last American film. He moved to Vevey, Switzerland and vowed never to return to the United States.
Because Limelight did not receive a Los Angeles screening during 1952, it was not eligible for that year's Academy Awards. The film went on to win several international awards, including the Italian Film Critics Association Silver Ribbon award for best foreign film. It received its first California screening in October 1955, when it opened in San Francisco for one week. Then, on December 13, 1972, Limelight had its Los Angeles premiere, released by Columbia Pictures, and won the 1972 Oscar for Best Original Dramatic Score (Chaplin, Ray Rasch and Larry Russell). Breaking his promise never to set foot on American soil again, Chaplin returned in 1972 for a special lifetime achievement Academy Award. He died in Switzerland in 1977, after being knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.
Limelight marked the motion picture debuts of Sydney Chaplin and Charles Chaplin, Jr., Chaplin's sons by his second wife, actress Lita Grey. Other family members in the cast included Chaplin's young children by his wife Oona O'Neil, Josephine, Geraldine and Michael; and his half-brother, Wheeler Dryden. A January 1952 Hollywood Reporter news item includes Trevor Ward, Doris Lloyd and Richard Dean in the cast, but their appearance in the final picture has not been confirmed. The film marked the first time that Chaplin and Buster Keaton worked together.