Today is my English birthday. My Hebrew birthday was the fifth day of Chanukah, 16–17 December. I’m older than I’d prefer to admit to, but still young enough to have a baby.
Released 16 October 1952, Limelight was Chaplin’s penultimate starring role, and is a beautiful summing-up of his life and career. While I’m glad he made A King in New York (1957), Limelight would’ve been a great swan song.
In summer 1914 London, has-been clown Calvero drunkenly struggles to open his building’s front door, while three kids (Chaplin’s real-life kids Geraldine, Josephine, and Michael) talk to him.
Inside, Calvero smells gas. He breaks down a door and finds a young woman (Claire Bloom) passed out, the stove open, a bottle in her hand. He sets her on the stairs and runs for a doctor (Chaplin’s halfbrother Wheeler Dryden), though doesn’t remember to turn off the gas.
Calvero and the doctor carry her upstairs to his room, where she regains consciousness. The doctor gives Calvero instructions on how to nurse her back to health. If she goes to hospital, she’ll be arrested for attempting suicide.
Calvero’s busybody landlady, Mrs. Alsop, sees the broken-down door, and decides not to let this woman back. She’s convinced this is a woman of ill repute. Mrs. Alsop is even more outraged when she discovers her in Calvero’s room.
Calvero says it’ll cause a scandal if word gets out she allows unmarried opposite-sex roommates, and rented to an attempted suicide. And for all anyone knows, they might be married.
Calvero then goes onstage, in very animated form. It ends in every performer’s worse nightmare, as he gazes out into an empty audience. It was all a dream.
That evening, Calvero and his guest finally get acquainted. The young lady introduces herself as Thereza Ambrose, called Terry. She’s a ballerina who’s all alone in the world, and deep in depression since having rheumatic fever. Calvero assures her she only has to pretend to be his wife in name, and that he’ll take good care of her as a platonic friend.
Calvero has another dream of performing onstage, this time with Terry. It ends in applause instead of an empty audience.
In the morning, Terry says she tried to get up, but collapsed. She’s convinced she’s paralyzed, and doesn’t want to bother with a doctor, for fear of wasting his time. Terry remains deep in depression, and doesn’t think she has any future.
Calvero says he was given up for dead six months ago, but now has a new outlook. He tries desperately to convince Terry life is worth living, and that someone her age should have more hope and desire for survival than someone his age.
He admits he lost contact with his audience as he got older, and thus became less funny. He turned to drink, had a heart attack, and almost died.
Calvero’s mood lifts when he gets a telegram from his agent. When they meet, the agent promises a week by the Middlesex Music Hall. If Calvero’s name is poison to the audience, he’ll use another one.
When Calvero comes home, he bumps into the doctor, who says he couldn’t find anything wrong with Terry. He believes her paralysis is all in her head. She either invented it or convinced herself she has it for some deep-seated psychological reason.
Trying to get to the bottom of things, Calvero talks to Terry about her past.
Terry says she was in love with a customer at her music shop, Mr. Neville (Chaplin’s son Sydney). She often gave him extra change and music sheets, and came to listen to his music.
Neville fell on hard times, and Terry got fired for giving him extra change.
Calvero urges Terry to find him and admit her feelings, spinning a beautiful, romantic story about their reunion, but that still isn’t enough. No matter what he says, she’s convinced her life is hopeless and that she’ll never dance again.
Calvero says life is just as inevitable as Death, if only she has courage and the will to use it.
Calvero says since he’s begun preaching and moralizing to her, he’s begun to believe it himself. His mood is on the upswing.
Calvero’s comeback performance isn’t a success. The only person who doesn’t walk out early is someone who’s sleeping. His contract is terminated.
This time, Terry is the optimistic one trying to cheer him up. While she lectures him, she realizes in jubilation she’s walking.
Six months later, Terry is dancing by the Empire Theatre, and uses her influence to get Calvero a position as a ballet clown. By this point, Mrs. Alsop’s attitude has completely turned around, and Calvero has gone back to drinking.
Neville plays the music by Terry’s audition for prima ballerina. Afterwards, Calvero says she’s a true artist, and Terry confesses her love. She asks him to marry her.
When Terry and Neville become friends, Calvero leaves, feeling they’re a much better match. He starts performing on the streets, while Terry goes from strength to strength in the ballet.
Terry tracks Calvero down and begs him to return to the stage. With his former partner (Buster Keaton), he gives a triumphant performance with a bittersweet, poignant ending.
I highly recommend this beautiful, personal film. The mature roles in his sound films wouldn’t have worked with the Tramp, but were perfect for who he grew into as an elder actor.