Limelight (1952)

Review #1,054

Director:  Charles Chaplin
Cast:  Charles ChaplinClaire Bloom, Buster Keaton
Plot:  A fading comedian and a suicidally despondent ballet dancer must look to each other to find meaning and hope in their lives.

Genre:  Drama / Music
Awards:  Won 1 Oscar - Best Original Score.
Runtime:  137min
Rating:  PG

“Time is the best author.  It always writes the perfect ending.”

This has been said to be the last great Chaplin picture, and the one that got him his only competitive Oscar.  Perhaps because it was re-released in the 1972, and the Academy saw fit to award Chaplin's score for the film after Nino Rota's beautiful music for The Godfather was alleged to not contain purely original compositions and was revoked as a nominee. 

Limelight sets itself up as a potentially last true triumph of Chaplin's career, and the impression is that it has been regarded as such over the years by critics and fans.  But as far as I am concerned, this is a rather weak effort with few moments of brilliance we have come to expect from the master.

That being said, those few moments do light up the film, particularly the final act in which Chaplin's character performs a comical music satire with Buster Keaton's to hilarious results.  Some of the dance choreographies on show also lend themselves to visual attraction, its alluring nature can be at times bewitching. 

You see, Limelight is a story of an old clown (Chaplin) who can't find work, and a young ballet dancer (Claire Bloom) who is inspired to continue with her art after the former saves her from attempted suicide.  From the set-up, it is clear that this is an intended dramatic effort rather than one that centers on drama that emerges from Chaplin's famous brand of comedy that so captured the hearts of millions with masterpieces such as The Circus (1928) and City Lights (1931).

The performances of the duo tend towards the theatrical, and coupled with a script that leaves little room for subtlety, a direct sort of (dis)engagement is felt.  The dialogue feels staged and way too blunt in hammering the film's message – that life is worth living for. 

It aims to inspire audiences to think the same, but leaves us (or maybe it's just me) uninspired.  At more than two hours, Limelight doesn't quite make use of its length to develop its lead characters fully. 

Chaplin seems more concerned with himself than his character.  You may argue that his clown character is a proxy for his real plight as an artiste who has aged and is un(der)appreciated by a new generation of voices.  That is a valid point. 

But as the film progresses, I can't help but feel that Chaplin is self-aggrandizing himself, and not for the better.  Limelight has aged quite badly, but if it is any consolation, the picture overcomes its slow and tepid first half into a second hour that is more palatable.

Verdict:  There’s little room for subtlety in this self-aggrandizing dramatic effort by Chaplin that struggles to engage.

GRADE: C+ (6.5/10 or 3 stars)

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