London, 1914. Calvero (Charles Chaplin) is a washed-up alcoholic music-hall star, living in a boarding house. One day, he saves a fellow resident, a young ballerina called Terry (Claire Bloom) from suicide and as he nurses her back to health he sees a way of reviving his career...
Charles Chaplin had turned sixty when Limelight was in preparation, and it was at a difficult time in his life. Monsieur Verdoux had met with a hostile reception in 1947. This had been partly coloured by events in his personal life. Chaplin and his third wife, Paulette Goddard, had divorced in 1942 and an affair with actress Joan Barry had resulted in a paternity suit raised against him. Meanwhile, Chaplin had married for the fourth time. His new wife was Oona O'Neill, the daughter of Eugene O'Neill, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Pulitzer Prize and one of the great American playwrights of the twentieth century. Oona was eighteen, thirty-five years younger than Chaplin, and this age gap provoked adverse comment. It also caused a breach with her father, who disowned her and they never saw each other again. (Eugene O'Neill, who was only six months older than Chaplin, died in 1953.) However, this marriage was by far Chaplin's longest-lasting: he and Oona remained together until his death in 1977 and she bore him eight of his eleven children. The best-known of these is the oldest, Geraldine Chaplin, who has had a distinguished acting career of her own which continues to this day. (She played her own grandmother in Richard Attenborough's 1992 biopic of Chaplin.)
Meanwhile, Chaplin had lived, worked and made his fortune in the United States, but had never become an American citizen. This had caused resentment in certain circles and his well-known liberal and humanist politics led to him being investigated as a Communist. This resulted in his re-entry visa being revoked when he left for London for the premiere of Limelight, banning him from the United States, so he and Oona and their growing family settled in Switzerland. He only returned to the USA once, in 1972 to receive an honorary Oscar, a clear attempt at reconciliation by Hollywood.
Many artists in later life feel no longer able to comment on the contemporary world and Chaplin was likely no different. Given the troubled circumstances, it's understandable that Limelight saw him retreat into the past, recreating the London he knew just before the first World War, and the music halls in which he had first made his name. Unusually he first wrote the story as a novel, complete at some 100,000 words, which he called Footlights, at one point the film's working title. This novel was never published and may not have been intended to be so, but Chaplin then wrote the screenplay. Given the protracted production times of his earlier films, Limelight progressed smoothly, with principal photography lasting two months, from November 1951 to November 1952. As well as writing, producing, directing, composing the music score and playing the leading role, Chaplin also choreographed the ballet scene with its principal dancers, André Eglevsky (in the role of Harlequin) and Melissa Hayden (as Columbine, doubling for non-dancer Claire Bloom). The London streets were an elaborate set in Paramount's studios in Hollywood, augmented by some rather obvious rear-projection in some scenes.
Chaplin did think that this might be his last film. That proved not to be the case, but Limelight has a valedictory air to it. It's warm and nostalgic to a fault and, as Chaplin's longest film, somewhat indulgent – especially in giving himself several on-stage routines - but that's an indulgence he had earned. If he drew upon his past, he also draws on his own family. His younger half-brother, Wheeler Dryden (father of the late Jefferson Airplane drummer Spencer Dryden, while we're tracking celebrity relatives), plays two roles, as Terry's doctor for which he is credited and as a clown, for which he is not. Chaplin's son Sydney by Lita Grey plays the major role of Neville, the young soldier who is Calvero's rival for Terry's affections. Chaplin's other son by Grey, Charles Junior, appears uncredited as a policeman in the pantomime scene, and daughter Geraldine makes her screen debut at the age of seven, also uncredited, as one of the three children near the start of the film witnessing a drunken Calvero trying to get into the boarding house where he lives. The other two children are her younger siblings Michael (who went on to play a major role in Chaplin's next film A King in New York) and Josephine (who also went on to an acting career). Oona also appears, doubling for Claire Bloom in a couple of shots when Bloom was unavailable.
If Chaplin pays tribute to the music hall of his youth, he also pays tribute to the silent comedy he made his name in. Snub Pollard was a silent comedian who, come the talkie era, had subsisted on bit parts and small roles, mostly uncredited. In his final credited cinema role, he is one of the three street musicians who recur during the film. But more significant is the only appearance with Chaplin of his major rival for the title of the greatest silent comedian (and Chaplin certainly said that he was) Buster Keaton. Keaton had been down on his luck while Chaplin's success had largely continued into the sounde era. While this is quite a talky picture, it has scenes that remind us that Chaplin had made his reputation in mime, and his setpiece with Keaton, late in the film, involving a piano and a violin, is one of those – no dialogue, but a creative use of sound effects as seen and heard in Chaplin's two talkie-era silents. Also in the film, uncredited, is Edna Purviance, Chaplin's lover and frequent leading lady in the teens and early twenties, in her final screen appearance. Another long-standing association of Chaplin's came to an end with Limelight, that with Roland (Rollie) Totheroh, who had been Chaplin's cinematographer since Work in 1915. He's credited here as "photographic consultant" and the credited DP is Karl Struss, who had been brought in (with both men credited) on The Great Dictator. Totheroh had been Chaplin's longest-serving professional partner after his older brother Sydney, who served as his business manager. Totheroh's reputation as a cinematographer is no doubt affected by the fact that he worked all but exclusively with one director. This was his last screen credit. A year and a half younger than Chaplin, he died in 1967.
Chaplin had often cast young actresses as his leading ladies, in what are in many cases ingenue roles. Other than Paulette Goddard, none of them had made much impact in films for other directors. However, this time he cast a classically trained English actress, Claire Bloom. No doubt mindful of his recent paternity suit and the fact that he was now quite happily married, he insisted on Bloom being chaperoned by her mother when she met him to audition for the role. That said, the fact that what begins as a platonic friendship between Calvero and Terry has blossomed into love by film end may make some uneasy, not least that earlier on they have to pretend to be married for respectability's sake. (Comparisons with a later distinguished writer/actor/director, Woody Allen, are unavoidable here – not just for the fact that he also often cast himself opposite women much younger than him and also for the fact that Allen's most recent and longest-lasting marriage is also with a woman considerably junior to him.) However, Bloom gives the role plenty of shading and emotional nuance: one of the best actresses Chaplin ever hired, in one of the best female roles he wrote.
Limelight premiered in London on 16 October 1952, an appropriate city given the subject matter. It was that year's Royal Command Performance, with Princess Margaret in attendance. The film premiered in New York a week later, but the scandals attached to Chaplin's name limited its US release to a few cities on the East Coast. It did not play in Los Angeles at the time, which rendered it ineligible for that year's Academy Awards. In Britain, Claire Bloom won a BAFTA Award as Most Promising Newcomer to Film and Limelight was nominated for Best Picture, losing to The Sound Barrier. The film was successful in Europe and the main musical theme had words added to become a popular song, "Eternally". The film did not play in Los Angeles until 1972 and it went on to win that year's Oscar for Best Original Dramatic Score, twenty years after the film's first release, for Chaplin and his co-arrangers Ray Rasch and (uncredited) Larry Russell. The anomaly of a twenty-year-old film winning an Oscar led to the eligibility rules being changed: while a film still had to play commercially for at least seven days in Los Angeles to be eligible, the new rules excluded films which had played elsewhere more than two years previously. That was the only competitive Oscar that Chaplin won, and was a posthumous award for the other two men.
Limelight is released by Curzon Artificial Eye on both Blu-ray and DVD; the former was supplied for review. The transfer begins with the film's original U certificate from the BBFC, a rating it maintains.
Limelight was first released on DVD in the UK in 2003 as part of one of two box sets released by Warner Home Video, with transfer and extras licensed then as now from MK2. This time, the extras have been brought forward almost in their entirety. We are just missing 59 minutes of Chaplin's full original score for the film and a poster gallery.
Filmed in black and white and in Academy Ratio, Limelight is transferred to Blu-ray in the ratio of 1.33:1. Contrast and greyscale look fine, but the transfer is somewhat overbright, especially when compared to the DVD, which is the source of the first screengrab below.
The soundtrack is LPCM 2.0 Mono. That's the one you should listen to, but also on the disc is one in DTS-HD MA 5.1, which is mixed louder and has quite a harsh ambience, the surrounds being used for music and the subwoofer filling in the bass end. This is a film which was released in mono and always intended to be heard that way. If you really must listen to this film in 5.1, you have that option, but I couldn't stand listening to it for more than a minute or so at a time. More regrettable is the lack of hard-of-hearing subtitles, (The 2003 DVD had them, plus subtitles in other languages, not to mention Italian and French dubbed soundtracks.)
The extras begin, as usual with an introduction by film critic and Chaplin biographer David Robinson (5:42) and the latest in the Chaplin Today featurettes (26:53). The latter should be watched after the film, as it contains plot spoilers. It's the usual solid runthrough of the film from inception to release, taking in Chaplin's personal and political difficulties of the time. Sydney Chaplin and Claire Bloom are interviewed, and this time the guest director is Bernardo Bertolucci, speaking in Italian with an English voiceover.
Included in the featurette is a discussion of the original novel Footlights. Also on the disc are two extracts from the novel (2:25), with Chaplin reading on the audio with the video being pages from the manuscript, typewritten with handwritten amendments.
After the film had been released, Chaplin re-edited it to remove a scene where Calvero meets a former colleague, Claudius the Armless Wonder. The character was played by Stapleton Kent, whose name remains in the credits, and this is presented as a deleted scene (4:25). While Chaplin was frequently prone to later thoughts – many of the films in this series of discs are presented in his later versions, not the original ones – you can see why this was cut, given that the film is long enough already, but it's good to have it preserved.
Calvero's flea-circus routine is something Chaplin had been trying to incorporate in his films for some time, trying unsuccessfully to do so in both The Circus and The Great Dictator. The scene had its roots in a mysterious film from 1918 called The Professor. This was to be a two-reeler and there is some evidence that the film was completed. However, other evidence suggests that it was abandoned unfinished and this small fragment (6:25, presented mute) is all that exists of it.
Oona Chaplin was a keen home moviemaker, and also on this disc is her footage (16:15), in colour, presented not mute this time but with a projector whirr on the soundtrack. These show Chaplin, Oona, Geraldine, Michael and Josephine at home in Hollywood at the time of Limelight's making. There are also shots of Chaplin revisiting places in London he had known as a child and young man.
Finally, there are two trailers (4:25). The first is an American trailer, the second an Italian one for Luci della Ribalta, with an Italian voiceover subtitled into English. Also on the disc is the same compilation of extracts from the films in the Chaplin Collection (10:44) which has appeared on all Curzon Artificial Eye's Chaplin releases.