Charles Chaplin’s Limelight (1952) marks the filmmaker’s last association with America. It was when he was returning from the film’s London premiere that he found he would not be allowed to re-enter the United States unless he agreed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee and answer questions about his politics. Chaplin merely stayed on the boat and returned to England—a choice that got him vilified in the press in those dark McCarthy days. He wouldn’t be back for 20 years. The film he made just prior to this, on the other hand, couldn’t be less political—or more innocent or more unabashedly sentimental. Of all Chaplin’s talkies, Limelight is easily the most accessible and the least likely to frighten the horses with political ideas.
The film tells the story of Calvero (Chaplin), a fading music-hall star who falls in love with a suicidal young dancer, Terry (Claire Bloom). Calvero helps Terry out of her depression and cures her of her psychosomatic paralysis, only to realize in the end that “youth belongs to youth.” Apart from that, it’s a document of Chaplin’s realization of his own aging and the passing of the world that once honored him beyond all other artists. It is not, however, a particularly gloomy movie. Parts of it are very funny, even if the overall tone is serious. Thematically and stylistically, it’s deliberately old-fashioned—like its star and the character he plays—but it’s never bitter. It’s also the typical Chaplin mix of extravagance and parsimony. Chaplin would shoot endless takes, using up film stock and studio time (well, it was his studio) to work out a scene, but he’d cut corners in other areas. Just look at the scene where Norman Lloyd explains the ballet—standing a couple feet in front of an obvious photographic blowup of an empty theater. But Chaplin was artistically right—such shortcomings don’t matter. The emotional honesty of the film is what made it a masterpiece.