Actors: Charlie Chaplin, Claire Bloom, Buster Keaton
Director: Charles Chaplin
Format: Multiple Formats, Blu-ray, Full Screen, NTSC, Subtitled
Number of discs: 1
Rated: NR (Not Rated)
Studio: Criterion Collection (Direct)
Release Date: May 19, 2015
Run Time: 137 minutes
My little sisters knew who Charlie Chaplin was at 8. I made sure of it. I force every one of my classes to sit through at least one scene from his films every semester that I work as a film professor. I have reviewed each of the previous Chaplin releases on Criterion (The GoldRush, Modern Times, City Lights, The Great Dictator and MonsieurVerdoux) with increased admiration and endless gushing. At the same time, I am aware that there are still many who are unfamiliar with the breadth of his work, in particular the significance of Limelight. The only comparison that I can think to make is to Birdman. Both films are about aging actors taking their last chance at lasting fame in the arena of theater, and both starred actors who seemed to be playing characters who increase in significance the more familiar you are with their previous filmography. Michael Keaton’s prior performance as Batman adds a layer of relevance to his performance in Birdman, as does Chaplin’s iconic role as The Tramp to his performance in Limelight.
Chaplin stars as Calvero, an aged vaudeville star who has gone from beloved performer to pitiful drunk in his twilight. Nobody seems to care about his performances any longer, but he simply buries his self pity into heavy drinking, until a chance encounter with his downstairs neighbor, Theresa (Claire Bloom). When Calvero returns home to a building smelling of gas, he breaks into Theresa’s apartment and finds the young woman unconscious in a suicide attempt. After saving her life, Calvero dedicates his time to helping Theresa overcome her problems and achieve her dreams of becoming a prima ballerina.
Though this relationship leads to Theresa falling in love with Calvero, he continually keeps his own affections for her unrequited, insisting that she find a young man to spend her life with. Sacrifice is a key deed for Chaplin’s characters to show their love, and only the Tramp’s actions in City Lights surpasses the sacrifices that Calvero makes for Theresa in Limelight. Though it is clear that his time in the spotlight is coming to a close, Calvero sees hope and finds joy in the success and happiness of Theresa. This is true love, and when Theresa finally reaches her goal with magnificent success, we want to hug Calvero along with her.
The other half of the film involves another relationship; the one Calvero has with show business. Despite the fact that he loves to perform as much as he ever did, the old routines are no longer serving him well. The obvious problem is that Calvero is a bit past his prime, and though he still dreams of performing, is rarely given a captive audience. We never get the sense that the former vaudeville star longs for wealth; he simply misses the laughter and applause. Watching this film became somewhat emotional for me, even more so than Chaplin films typically do. My grandfather passed away last year, and he was a performer his entire adult life, complete with his own tramp clown persona for vaudevillian routines. Towards the end he lost his lust for life, refusing to eat and insisting that he was just tired. This didn’t begin until he no longer had the ability to perform, to create joy for those around him. The relevance of this is not lost on me, and it is at the heart of Limelight. This makes me want to hug Chaplin.
There is so much more to be said about Limelight, a film rich in historical significance, both in the real-life reception and parallels within the narrative. The film can be praised for the musical numbers, both song and dance. Buster Keaton’s extended cameo as an old vaudeville friend and co-worker is deserving of an entirely separate review, the sweetly plutonic post-suicide romance between Calvero and Theresa rivals the one in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960). Limelight is not a great film for any one thing, but for all of the many elements and layers that make it worth watching repeated times.
The Blu-ray release includes a new 4K digital restoration, with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. The special features include two short films from Chaplin, including an unfinished one which shows the beginning of his idea for performing fleas. Also included is a 2002 documentary about the film, archival audio recordings of Chaplin reading from his novella, trailers and outtakes, and new interviews with actors Claire Bloom and Norman Lloyd. There is also a new video essay by Chaplin biographer David Robinson, and a booklet insert that is fat with content. There is an essay by film critic Peter von Bagh and excerpts from an on-set piece by journalist Henry Gris, along with some great photographs.
Entertainment Value: 10/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 10/10
Historical Significance: 10/10