Sometimes a serious comedy comes along written and directed by a serious director, in this case, Charlie Chaplin. The movie, “Limelight,” came out 1952. Limelight is not really a comedy but a movie about comedy. It’s a sound picture that has the boarding house feel of a low-down silent film, and the backstage plot of a film such as John Ford’s silent sensation “Uptream,” the 1927 film that follows the dreams of theater people.
Chaplin stars as Calvero, a vaudeville veteran comedian reduced to drunkenness and hard times in 1914. As the film opens, he stumbles across the screen and enters his boarding house. Immediately, he smells gas because a young ballet dancer named Thereza (Terry) lies unconscious in her room while attempting suicide. He bangs down the door and saves her, and the two then begin a gentle and platonic relationship that evolves as they search for emotional balance, artistic expression and fame.
While one could easily compare Limelight to “A Star is Born,” the 1937 film starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March that involved the woman’s rise to fame and the man’s descent into oblivion, both Calvero and Chaplin start out on equal footing. He fights the pain of alcoholism and faded glory, while she’s so emotionally spent that she literally can’t walk. The wonderful Claire Bloom, in her first starring role, plays a passionate Thereza, bringing a loyalty to the relationship that Calvero continuously discourages, especially when she becomes a star at the Empire Ballet Theater in London.
The film features lots of close-ups of Charlie Chaplin, both in his vaudeville persona in makeup and in his day-to-day life as Calvero. Chaplin’s performance makeup, with exaggerated eyebrows and makeup, suggests “The Little Tramp.” However, he does not imitate his famous tramp character completely. In fact, he acts and resembles Groucho Marx more than Charlie Chaplin. But perhaps, the original English music hall variety of the Chaplin character, before he came to Hollywood, looked and acted more like Calvero.
The movie, though it might be a bit too long, works because Claire Bloom does such a good job playing off of Chaplin. Typically, Chaplin sought a particular emotional feeling for his films. In an interview years after the film came out, Bloom said Chaplin tricked her into giving him the performance he wanted. For one emotional scene, Chaplin asked her to do a cold reading without any emotion. When she did as he asked, Chaplin screamed, “That’s terrible, there’s no emotion there!” Chaplin then shot the scene, and the embarrassed and hurt Bloom performed it with the right blend of emotion.