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Ring a Ding Ding

Limelight (1953)

     Charlie Chaplin‘s was nearing the end of his career when in 1953 he made a drama that could almost be considered semi-autobiographical in nature had the actor’s box office prowess not remained so strong. Limelight is about an aging stage comedian who in 1914 London finds the tramp act and others from his career-long routine no longer hold the same draw with the current audience demographic.

      Calvero remains a name known by all of London as a great comedian, but when the man actually can find a booking, he seems no better than an unknown. His life takes a signficant change, however, when he discovers upon drunken return to his boarding house that the woman in the first-floor flat has gassed herself in a suicide attempt.

      Against the landlady’s objections, Calvero (Chaplin) cares for this young Thereza (Claire Bloom) and takes her into his home once the landlady has rented away her own room. Thereza was a ballerina who after becoming ill lost the strength needed to perform. Her suicide attempt has also left her with leg paralysis that the doctor diagnoses as purely psychological. Thereza continues to look down upon her life circumstances until Calvero returns home from a new booking that went so poorly it was cancelled after one night. She demands her newfound friend fight for his livelihood and in doing so finds she can stand on her own recognizance.

      With no future bookings laying in Calvero’s future, Thereza takes up the breadwinning by gaining a chorus dancing job. She soon becomes the lead dancer in a ballet at the Empire Theater and arranges for Calvero to play one of the clowns that appears in the show. The composer of the ballet happens to be a young man whom Thereza was in love with years prior when he was a poor, struggling artist and she a shop girl at a music store.      This Neville, played by Chaplin’s son Sydney Chaplin, is instantly captivated by the woman from the past, but Thereza is aloof because she has decided she is in love with Calvero and, despite their age difference, has asked him to marry her. Calvero is resistant and quickly realizes that Neville would be a better match for the young woman.

      SPOILER Calvero is not going over well in his clown role, but the show’s producer opts to host a benefit for the aging star, which draws “kings, queens and jacks” to the sold-out variety show. The comedian is a hit in putting on his old acts for the audience that remembers him well. For an encore, he brings on a fellow performer, played by Buster Keaton, for a “musical” number done without any dialogue. In the final moments of the performance, however, Calvero thinks he injures his back only to learn it is a heart attack likely to prove fatal. As he watches Thereza perform, the man passes away. END SPOILER

      Limelight is a great take on the “aging star” scenario because is balances the limelight needs of both an older performer and a young one who thinks her career is also over. The film has another element to it also, that of the unconventional relationship between the young woman and the man too awkwardly older than she to be considered a legitimate love interest. Chaplin plays the part well so as to eliminate any romanticism between the characters, even when Calvero is referring to Thereza as his wife for appearances sake. When Thereza becomes a big star, the natural assumption is she would find an apartment of her own, yet the couple continue their uncommon home life.

      Bloom is terrific as Thereza, a role Chaplin picked her for that would start her down a long career of film and TV roles on top of the theater work in which she was already engaged. Her emotional scenes, of which there are several, can lean to the hysterical side, which becomes obnoxious, but she is otherwise the most beautiful thing to hit the silver screen.

      Limelight was the only movie in which silent cinema greats Chaplin and Keaton appeared together. Keaton appears only for the ending scenes and shows little of the acrobat entertainer but all of the stoneface we knew from his early work. Although Chaplin had made a hugely successful career for himself by remaining independent and writing and producing films like this, Keaton had signed on with MGM and lost his celebrity ranking when talking pictures came along.

      The flick was the last one Chaplin would make in the U.S. because its distribution was bungled by an investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee into Chaplin’s possible communist sympathies. Many theaters bowed to pressure not to release the film on schedule, and because it did not open in Los Angeles in 1953, it was not eligible for the Academy Awards. It would later win an award for the score, written in part by Chaplin, in 1957 when the movie finally showed in the California city. Limelight nevertheless took many international awards. 

Source: TCM, TCM.com

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