Film & TV

Popcorn and Inspiration: 1952’s ‘Limelight’: Charlie Chaplin’s Incandescent Humanity Shines Through

Chaplin’s last American film, a love letter to his art and his audience
BY Rudolph Lambert Fernandez TIMEAugust 11, 2022 PRINT

UR | 2h 17min | Drama, Comedy | 1952

In “City Lights” (1931), Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp dotes on a blind flower girl. Circumstances separate them just as he secures money for an operation that restores her sight. Finally, they’re happily reunited as she recognizes her benefactor who, until then, was “invisible” to her.

Two decades later, Chaplin improvises on this theme in his classic “Limelight” (1952). Here, an over-the-hill stage-comic Calvero (Chaplin), “opens the eyes” of a suicidal stage-dancer, Terry (a radiant Claire Bloom), and she rediscovers her rhythm on stage and in life.

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“Limelight” was a serious and autobiographical film for Chaplin. His character, Calvero, is an ex–music hall star (described in this image as a “Tramp Comedian”) forced to deal with his loss of popularity. (United Artists)

Chaplin rescues his heroine from a different sort of blindness—self-deceit and a blindness of soul. When he realizes that it’s fatalism (not rheumatic fever) that paralyzes her, he inspires her to walk and then dance again.

Chaplin’s Lifelong Love Affair 

At the level of plot and storyline it’s tempting to see Chaplin’s heroine superficially, as an expression of his allegedly narcissistic romanticism: to desire and be desired by pretty young things, on and off screen. But to Chaplin, “she” is an artistic expression of his lifelong love affair with his art and his audience.

Chaplin couldn’t help himself. He was so in love with the sounds, smells, sights, and sensations of showbiz that it was always going to mean “life” to him, and nothing less would satisfy.

Chaplin’s film overflows with such pathos that audiences, used to his farcical films, would take years to embrace what’s arguably his most profound testament.

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Poster for the original, limited American theatrical release of Charlie Chaplin’s 1952 film “Limelight.” United Artists. (Public Domain)

In one scene, Calvero dreams he’s performing his funniest acts before a roaring crowd, only to find that the applause is only in his ears; the seats are bare, the theater quite empty. The camera tears itself from his startled stare on stage to his forlorn face in bed.

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Claire Bloom and Charlie Chaplin in “Limelight.” (United Artists)

In another scene, devastated by an audience walking out, he’s sitting in his dressing room, wiping make-up off, gazing into a mirror in horror at his desolation. As you watch that close-up of Chaplin’s enviably expressive eyes, you share his horror.

Like Calvero, Chaplin’s fame was ebbing and, like Calvero, he fancied an imminent resurrection. He seems in a hurry to say and do everything, at once. Happily for us, every line brims with his wit and insight.

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Charlie Chaplin and Claire Bloom in “Limelight.” United Artists. (Public Domain)

When Terry wonders why he keeps returning to the stage when he’d once told her that he loathed the theater, Calvero agrees that he does hate the theater, but he also hates the sight of blood and can’t help returning to the theater for it’s in his veins.

Chaplin seems to ask: Does an artist’s self-worth come from “within,” from confidence in his or her skill, or from “without,” say, from the way fans and critics receive his performances?

And he seems to answer that art is unique, by its very nature demanding a submission, a vulnerability that few other professions do. For, unlike the doctor or engineer or scientist (whose formula or machine or law either works or doesn’t, everywhere, every time, with almost everyone), the comic approaches his art with trepidation. He must stand expectantly each night before a new audience, to determine if his joke still tickles or falls flat.

Chaplin, who produced, directed, acted, and wrote novellas, screenplays, and music scores, must have felt the anxiety of the performer acutely. Ordinarily, such investment of the soul in art leaves little time or energy for anything or anyone else. Chaplin gently resisted that one-dimensional approach in his films, arguing that artists and audiences both matter, as servants and saviors of art.

Chaplin’s Humanity 

“Limelight” tells us that our ability to live full lives hinges on our habits of thinking. The doctor treating Terry tells her that her paralysis is a self-imposed deceit; only she can help herself get back to health and fulfilment on the dance stage.

Yet, we’re not always able to help ourselves. We need each other. In fact, helping and being helped shows our humanity. Calvero leaps out of his drunken stupor to save Terry; he wills himself sober so that he can nurture her back to health, and himself back to life. In turn, she prods him from the despair of rejection to the hope of acceptance.

For decades, Chaplin’s character, the Tramp, helped others to rise above the dehumanizing forces of nationalism, fascism, elitism, poverty, war, and destitution.

Now, as Calvero, he helps on a more personal level. When Terry is wallowing in self-pity, Calvero goads her to fight, not against herself, but for happiness because “the fight for happiness is beautiful.”

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Charlie Chaplin and Claire Bloom in “Limelight.” (United Artists)

Passing on the Torch

“Limelight” made Claire Bloom famous in Hollywood, until then a 19-year-old known only in London’s narrow theater circles. In interviews, she has described what a privilege it was to be chosen by him, out of relative obscurity, “I was nobody … to be Chaplin’s leading lady.”

True to form, Chaplin sees in Bloom a beauty and grace that others were blind to. And his caring attention transformed her life as an actress. Fittingly, her first memoir was titled “Limelight and After: The Education of an Actress.”

Sensing that it might be his final American film, Chaplin poured every part of himself into “Limelight.” He composed its haunting soundtrack. He cast as many as six of his family.

He conjured a pivotal scene with the legendary Buster Keaton. Like Chaplin himself, Keaton moved reluctantly out of the old era of Hollywood, and not quite excitedly into the new. Their collective anguish literally bleeds off the screen, as the two greats share scenes in that memorable 20-min final act.

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Buster Keaton (L) and Charlie Chaplin in “Limelight.” (United Artists)

Director: Charlie Chaplin
Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Claire Bloom
Not Rated
Running Time: 2 hours, 17 minutes
Release Date: Oct. 23, 1952
Rated: 5 stars out of 5

Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer who writes on pop culture. He may be reached at Twitter: @RudolphFernandz
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